Thursday, November 29, 2007

What I learned on my first short film

Questions! Seriously I love questions about all subjects. It's why I like teaching. If I don't know I can point you to someone who does.

Leif from Australia asked for advice on making short films.

So first a disclaimer: I've only made one and it's not finished with post yet so I can only talk about that one example. I know what it's like to be a girl not working in the Industry who didn't go to film school and doesn't know anything about cameras but still made what appears to be a really good 14-minute dark comedy I wrote with a writing partner.

In other words, I don't know anything but I'm going to pretend I do so you'll keep loving me.

The first thing I did was ask Christopher Stack for some advice. He knows what he's talking about. His most recent film, An Exercise in Vigilance, is currently making the festival rounds. He gave some good suggestions about what a director's job is on set. That was my biggest fear was that I would do everything wrong and everybody would role their eyes at me.

I'm pretty sure some other people gave me advice as well and I thank them for it.

I'd never been on a set before as a member of the crew. I wish I had. I asked a friend who was filming a short if he'd let me PA his no-budget shoot so I could get the feel for how a set works and he actually said no. I'm not really going to be doing him any favors any time soon.

Honestly I got lucky. The crew came to me because the script was good. I had a talented DP, Script Supervisor/AD and gaffer and I didn't even have to go find them. No matter what I learned that you must have an AD on set for your first film. I kept whispering to her to tell me what I was supposed to do. When I said "cut" or "action" at the wrong time she nudged me and quietly gave me the correction. She was fantastic.

For casting I used two friends for the boys. For one of the girl parts I used Breakdown Express. I wrote up a breakdown of the character and waited. Within one day I had over 100 women send me their resumes. I chose 12 to audition. Two showed up. Even though that part eventually went to Lead Actor's Girlfriend who blew me away during her audition, one of the two girls from BE really impressed me. So I called her in to audition for the other part I was still missing.

I have a tendency to decide things instantly based on my gut. She came, she read, she was hired. She was great.

So basically, I got lucky, but the only reason I got lucky was because I had a great script. And it may make me sound like a raging egomaniac to say that, but dammit, it's true.

But here's the stuff that really helped. Robert Rodriguez' Rebel Without a Crew inspired me the whole way. When things weren't quite going how I imagined them, I just remembered Rodriguez saying that sometimes when things go wrong that's when the best stuff happens. Also, The Guerilla Filmmaker's Guide was my constant reference throughout production. It's basically an encyclopedia of jobs on set. So when the DP mentioned his "gaffer" on the phone I ran to the book, looked up what the hell a gaffer is and didn't skip a beat in the conversation.

In other words, the book helped me not look as stupid.

I also got a lot out of Cinematic Storytelling. It helped me get creative in my ideas for shots.

All of those books are linked on my sidebar.

But the biggest piece of advice I can give is to make it cheap and simple. One of the reasons my film was so cheap - $1,000 for everything including set decoration, equipment and food - was because Partner and I wrote it to take place in one room with four people and no special effects. We used my apartment so I got to keep the set decoration. It was weird watching the raw footage in the room where it was shot and still looks exactly like it did then.

But shooting such a simple concept also allowed us to get away with not having storyboards or being really picky about the shooting script. And if we had needed an extra day of shooting we could have arranged it because I lived in the set. We didn't, though. We finished four hours early so I must be doing something right.

Really important: do not skimp on food. I used Boston Market the first day because they deliver and the food is awesome. You can order everything online. It pleased everybody, and when your crew is working for free and your actors are spending the entire day under hot lights on the hardwood floor and one of them is wearing a leather coat in the middle of September, good food goes a long way. The second day we had Subway. I also had apples, a cooler of various drinks, coffee and chips and salsa available all day.

So basically this is what I learned: feed everybody well, get as informed as you can about what you're expected to do and surround yourself with people who know way more than you do but respect your vision. And leave your ego out of it.

*I forgot to mention my PA, who was immensely helpful with continuity, lunch and the air conditioning unit. Love you, P!


  1. Thanks heaps Emily, and to Joshua Grover-David Patterson also for his comments on your other post.

    It's definitely given me some things to consider before I decide if I want to go through with it. I'll add the books you recommended to my must read list, though that list seems to grow faster then I can read 8)

  2. Anonymous1:59 PM

    Yes, I've also found Rebel Without a Crew inspiring and The Guerilla Filmmaker's Guide to be full of technical knowlege.

    Next on the reading list will be $30 Film School by Michael W. Dean.

  3. Way cool! I can't even imagine making a movie all by myself. I've had 4 plays produced and there's nothing like seeing your words live...and the audience react to them. Terrifying, but exhilirating. Too bad playwriting pays crap.

    So when's the next Emily feature coming out?


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