I know all I need to about independent cinema. I spent two years working on film sets. I’ve been a part of countless indies and I’ve produced a few short films. There is nothing else that I need to discover. Except that I really don’t know anything.
After years of working on other people’s sets and writing scripts that lived inside my computer, I finally decided to take the plunge this summer and bring one of my own visions to life. I’d been working on the script for over two months (a significant amount of time considering it’s a 10 page script). I’d pored over every line, every expression and every character detail. I had watched countless shorts online and discussed the characters with actor friends that I trust. All the responses were beyond favorable and I was off to a fantastic start. Only, pre-production is the longest part of the filmmaking process and obstacles come from nowhere like the turtle shells in Super Mario Brothers.
While working on previous projects, I’d experienced many of the individual steps necessary to great a film started: compiling a budget, hiring a crew, filing paperwork with proper city and entertainment organizations, planning craft services (food/drink for crew), organizing transportation, creating call sheets and storyboards, location scouting, etc. On their own, these are moderately tedious, but relatively painless processes. Altogether, they join forces like some uber monster from a Saturday morning cartoon. It felt daunting months before I even yelled “Action!”
However, the aspects of the process that I imagined giving me the most trouble turned out to be relatively easy. Since I was paying for everything out of pocket, I didn’t have much money in my budget to allocate for crew. Knowing that most people I’d ask to work with me make a living off their projects, I expected to spend weeks trying to find a DP (director of photography), sound man, editor and make-up artist who would be willing to work for little or no pay. Turns out, New York was a major help in my search. With so many people in love with film and eager to make a dent in the film industry, there are talented collaborators all over the city looking to work on good projects and improve their reels and resumes. Within a week, I was off and running with an eight person crew. Then New York became a factor again. This time, not in a positive way.
As I mentioned earlier, independent film is all about control, which is why, without huge budgets at their disposal, many emerging filmmakers will build a script around locations they have access to, like apartments or city parks. It limits the overall scope of the film, but provides a rare boost of confidence that comes from assurance. This isn’t a fact that was new to me. I’ve always planned on abiding by this. However, a few months ago a story idea came to me that I had to get on paper. As many people will tell you, when an idea begins to take over your consciousness, you can’t turn your back on it.
The only problem is that this particular script required me to find a retail location that had a waiting room and separate dressing rooms. Not a tall order to find a retail location in New York, but finding one that is large enough to have separate waiting and dressing rooms and will allow filming after hours is another story. I spent days walking around SoHo and Park Slope, trying to find the locations that best fit the vision, or even locations that would work if I made some minor story edits. Most of the boutique stores were too small to accommodate waiting rooms and a lot of the larger, chain stores were open so late on weekends (9 p.m.) that it only left a nine-hour, overnight stretch that the store was closed. Great for shopping, not ideal for filming a movie.
Still, at the end of exhaustive location scouting, completed around my work schedule, I had a list of eight to 12 places that might be a good fit for my vision. Getting the right people on the phone was harder than I could have ever imagined. Without a studio to back me, phone calls and e-mails to the chain stores went unanswered and responses were strung out over weeks. The boutique stores were happy to help support local artists, but were in precarious enough financial situations that they charged an inordinate amount of money for use of the space or wouldn’t allow more than eight to 10 people in their store. They loved talking about film, but when money came into the equation, they suddenly became a lot less friendly and supportive. I kept negotiating and was left in a state of constant searching.
I’m still waiting for the final “OK” from two locations that I’ve been negotiating with for weeks. I’ve offered them publicity for the store, agreed to include some rewards on my fundraising campaign that will bring them business and expressed my willingness to not only pay the employee that will stay with us, but feed them as well. Yet, I still can’t get a commitment.
This is a perfect example of what independent filmmaking has become for me. The project is a never-ending checklist of things that I need to organize and get under control for just long enough so that I can get images on camera. The location will only be available to me for a short period of time, my crew and actors will have other work opportunities and my audience will move onto other movies that pique their interest. I need to get everything in my grasp and hold tight for a long enough period of time that the story can be told. I’m so close, but I’m truly learning as I go.