Everything I Learned as a First-time Filmmaker

Production on my first film wrapped nearly 3 months ago, and it’s taken me this long to sit down and reflect and put into words how it all felt. Not a necessary ritual of course, but it’s how I process things. The swirl of emotion isn’t as raw all these weeks later, but strange things stand out about that day. Like the vibrant colors of the autumn leaves and the rain that waited until the exact moment we packed up to leave our final location. My husband stuffing my pockets with heat packs to then give to our freezing actors. Uttering the words “that’s a wrap,” something my crew had to prompt me to do because the rookie director forgot.

I’m writing this from my favorite cafe in Topanga Canyon. The last time I came here to write, I was knees deep in pre-production, sifting through dozens of emails from prospective assistant directors and lighting techs. I wish I could go back in time for one minute to assure myself that everything would work out better than we ever dreamed it would. But that’s all part of the journey, isn’t it? Venturing into the unknown and all of the anxiety and self-soothing by way of chardonnay that comes with it.

I didn’t go to film school. I studied business and have maneuvered my way around an endless list of corporations over the past two decades. I didn’t know the first thing about producing or directing, but I do know what hard works looks like. I know how to listen and collaborate with people and be completely open to failing. I know what it’s like to work long hours, manage large-scale projects and stay within budget. So I suppose my day job prepared me for the hustle that’s required in indie filmmaking. But I never could have prepared for what the experience would actually feel like. Film school or not, you kind of have to jump in and absorb all the learnings you can. Sink or swim, as they say.

Whether you’re a first-timer like me, or you’ve been at it for a while, here’s my list of personal anecdotes I hope are helpful to someone out there, just as all the hundreds of film blogs and articles I devoured were for me.

Do it yourself. To quote writer/director/producer Paul Haggis, “Please don’t ask me to read your script; what’s important is that YOU believe in it.” I wrote, produced, directed, self-funded and co-casted my film (on top of maintaining my day job) and while I’ve never worked so fucking hard in all my existence, I’m proud to say I made it happen. You don’t need to wait until someone else believes in your project. Get out there and get it done.

Invest in a talented crew. If you’re indie, your budget is undoubtedly tight. I feel you. But, as our brilliant cinematographer reinforced, the only way to successfully make your days is to invest in your team. If you have friends and family who work in film who are open to joining your crew, all the better! That was the case for me and I am forever grateful.

Leverage your personal network. Per above, I was fortunate to fill some of the spots on my crew with friends and family. But remember, not all roles require a background in film. My husband and dad were exceptional PAs/pedestrian traffic facilitators. My mom catered craft services. All of our background actors were friends and family. A friend designed our storyboards while another — who has a background in entertainment — helped me hold auditions and source our cast. More friends helped set up and tear down our set. It takes a god damn village, so don’t be afraid to ask for some help.

Ask questions and be vulnerable. Again, leaning on my personal network, I set up informational meetings with friends of friends who worked in film and production and made no secret of my lack of experience. Don’t be afraid to ask what may seem like basic questions. Be prepared and be mindful of people’s time. And say thank you!

Communicate your vision clearly. I can’t stress the value of over-preparing enough. Create your shot lists well in advance and get feedback from your DP and your editor. Speak simply and succinctly when rehearsing a scene. Provide crystal clear feedback to your actors and balance your feedback with praise, pointing out everything that worked. Film sets are no place for the longwinded, and thankfully, that is not a verbal ailment I suffer from.

Be open to feedback and pivoting. The one thing you can count on in filmmaking is last minute changes. Things will shift to accommodate timing or logistics or a million other constraints you may be facing. We shot in a tiny 16×20 storefront for 2 full days, so I know what I’m talking about. Be fluid and be open, as sometimes an unexpected pivot can lead to a better outcome.

Theater actors make great film actors. This life-changing advice came from a few different sources. One, writer/director Sean Baker, who suggested tapping in to the theater community to source your cast during a Film Independent panel discussion. A few months later, an actor and friend of a friend (thank you personal network!) suggested the same thing, specifically a theater program in Vancouver where I sourced three of our actors.

Most of all, be present. Those 14-hour days go by quickly so try and take a moment to really absorb what’s happening. I’ll quote one more director, Greta Gerwig, who I saw speak while we were in pre-production and these words permeated my subconscious throughout production.

“You only get to not know what you’re doing once. Don’t miss it, because it’s incredibly powerful.”

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