Writing and Directing Your First Feature: From Your Story to “Epic Fail”

Last fall, when the initial burst of energy to write the script for this movie came about (and I still had a job), I subscribed to both Script and Creative Screenwriting. The March/April 2011 issue came along in the mail. This particular issue had some articles that offered advice for new writer/directors, and I was interested in seeing how their advice lined up with the stuff that I’ve learned the past few years.

One article that really caught my eye was “Writing and Directing Your First Feature: From Your Story to ‘Film By'”, penned by USC Grad Student Robert Piluso. The article is focused on the hardware and software associated with filmmaking and its uses. Of course, there’s a discussion of Final Draft (Script is owned by Final Draft), Gorilla, Movie Magic Scheduling, and Final Cut Pro. I don’t think I would’ve had as much of a problem, had Piluso kept to his main focus–software and hardware–rather than veering off into festival submission and exhibition, which is article unto itself. Piluso could’ve heeded his own advice and used his two interviewees as a jumping off point for his own research rather than designating them as authorities.

That’s not to say that Piluso doesn’t get a few things right. He manages to avoid making his article into a collection of press releases and soundbites, as Script‘s articles tend to be. He does recognize that with a smaller budget, your film will need to be more personal in nature in order to work. Having a tight script doesn’t hurt. Finally, he stays away from making hackneyed references to El Mariachi and Clerks, two broadly known microbudget classics that have no bearing on today’s indie film landscape.

As someone with a few bad specs in my past, I know that spec writers are used to taking dogmatic advice from people who have worked mainly on the periphery of screenwriting (The late Blake Snyder and J. Michael Straczynski are exceptions to this rule), and are used to tailoring scripts for a market that’s becoming increasingly narrower in taste. In turn, these gurus have very rigid ideas as to what makes a good story. The festival circuit, with its more diverse aesthetic, is more interested in personal vision than a product aimed at a demographic. As I recall overhearing filmmaker Benny Safdie saying outside of a screening at this year’s BAM Cinemafest, “These films aren’t for everybody, but they’re for anybody.”

I’ve uploaded a PDF of Piluso’s original article for you to read and judge for yourself. The article is copyright its respective owners.

What’s most disheartening and irritating about Piluso’s article–and what prompted me to write this response–is that, in the last several years, there have been at least a couple dozen filmmakers who have successfully put microbudget films out on the festival circuit. I know many of these directors. Most of them are enthusiastic about sharing their experiences, yet Piluso didn’t bother to interview a single one. Instead, Piluso chose USC grad student Jordan Ledy without explaining what qualifies him to expound on the subject. (Sorry, being a graduate student at what is arguably the most competitive film school in the country doesn’t count.) As a director, Ledy has shot music videos and a few short documentaries, and has worked on a few other films as crew, but no feature credits of his own.

I realize that freelance writers, especially those working at niche magazines like Script are paid a pittance these days and are under tight deadlines. The directors and that I’ll be referencing throughout this post may not make movies with the broadest appeal, but they do have something Ledy does not: experience.

“If you’re going to spend hundreds (probably thousands) of hours over the year to create a feature-length film, you’re going to want that film to be seen by people, right? “You probably don’t want to just toss the thing up on YouTube or on the Internet,” counsels Ledy. If it’s a feature, then you’re going to want to sell it, and in order to sell it, you need people to see it, and if you want people to see it, it’s got to play the festivals.”

My response to the first quote comes from “Programmers Talk Back”, an article that ran in the Winter 2011 issue of Filmmaker magazine. In this article, Tiny Furniture producer Alicia Van Couvering interviewed Caroline Libresco, Senior Programmer of the Sundance Film Festival:

GET REAL–THE ONLY AUDIENCE FESTIVALS CARE ABOUT IS PRESS AND INDUSTRY

“Press and industry are part of the constituency that we serve,” says Libresco, “but we don’t program for buyers. If we did, we’d define ourselves as a market, like AFM. We just try to reflect the true range of films submitted to us.”

From personal experience, I don’t think the first time filmmaker should be focused on trying to sell their film as an endgame, unless you’re making it for a lot of money. The first time filmmaker is under enough pressure just trying to get a movie in the can, and aiming for a distribution deal only adds to the stress. Unless you’re spending a lot of money, I would be more worried about trying to make a good film.

I learned this the hard way. When I made Are You From Bingo?, an eventual interviewee suggested I read Dov Simens’ From Reel to Deal. At the time, I thought the book was a Godsend, the equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket. I took his advice and sent the movie to larger festivals, which my film was clearly not geared for. Why? Because Simens had advised that the large festivals are the ones that will snap up your film for distribution. Even having your film play a large festival is not guarantee for distribution, but more about that later. This project has taken a lot longer than I thought it would, but hopefully, I’ll have the payoff I’m looking for.

“Moreover, Ledy points out a rare screenwriting secret: ‘Over 100 scene headings is absolutely ridiculous. You want your scene headings to be under 100.’ For example, as writer-director, you want to avoid too much entering and exiting of buildings as scenes unto themselves–basically avoid any scene that does not actively move the story forward and have a dynamic, indispensible reason to be filmed. So cut the dead air on the page before wasting time shooting footage that would only (or should only) hit the cutting room floor.”

At face value, Ledy may be offering valid advice here, but a lack of experience undermines his credibility and the weight of the statement. From my observation, festival programmers aren’t necessarily looking for practicality. As the editor of Filmmaker magazine, Scott Macaulay sees a lot of microbudget films each year and writes about them. Back in May, he shared his thoughts and insights on these films. One passage explicates Macaulay’s thoughts on what makes these films truly unique. What he says runs completely contradictory to Ledy and Piluso’s advice:

The least successful no-budget films have always been the ones made in the image of studio-budgeted models. These are the ones that embrace mainstream sensibilities without having the production budgets, star casts, re-shoot monies, music license fees, and marketing spends to make audiences accept them as mainstream. As Mike Ryan noted recently at Hammer to Nail, they are too indebted to Naturalism, and less willing to take the type of aesthetic risks that characterize not only the avant-garde but the pulp energy of the great old B-moviemakers. These indie films wind up neither fish nor fowl, not connecting with — or reaching — audiences while also not exciting the critics who expect in lieu of production value a different and original sensibility.

When I look back at some of my favorite micro-budget films of recent years, it’s always the bold experiments, digressive moments, or flights of fancies within them that I remember. When I watch these moments, I know the filmmakers haven’t let the opportunity afforded by their tiny budgets go to waste. For example, I love how in the middle of Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy the camera glides away from the characters into a real-life neighborhood activist meeting on housing policy and sits there for several minutes, allowing the film to become at that moment a documentary about its very themes. Or when Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland takes a hilarious left turn, jettisoning all ideas of tidy structure by following a peripheral character who surprisingly reveals himself to be as disturbed as its nutso protagonist. I’m always knocked out by the dream sequences in the Safdie Brothers’ films (to say nothing about their poignantly shocking take on parenting). I was tremendously moved by Brent Green’s spoken narration to his stop-motion feature, Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then, when I saw it at The Kitchen. Knowing that Green had replicated the journey of his film’s protagonist by building a version of his house on his own property made it all the more crazily beautiful. I loved watching the recent Slamdance winner Without, which had all the elements of a “woman alone” babysitter thriller until director Mark Jackson reaches for an anti-genre ending that’s both heartbreaking and surprisingly tender. It’s been a couple of months since I saw Sophia Takal’s Green, but the way in which it told a story about female sexual jealousy through lush visuals and a psychologically attuned sound design rather than genre tropes stayed with me.

It should be noted that Barry Jenkins, Ronnie Bronstein, and Sophia Takal were first time directors. I’m sure they all know “the rules”, but they learned how to break them not from initially working in a traditional way, but seeing other films that break the mold.

Then Piluso moves into the hardware. One crucial omission Piluso makes with the essential hardware is the all-important external hard drive. Raw footage takes up a lot of space, and without an external hard drive, you will not be able to cut a movie. Luckily, external hard drives are the most obtainable of hardware, and you can purchase them at office supply and computer stores. Just make sure the one you’re buying is compatible with your computer.

With hardware, Piluso discusses movie camera. The home movie camera you can buy at an electronics store is not suitable for making a feature film (as I found out with my movie), and talks about the options with professional video cameras.

“You’ve got two ways to go: the HF S Vixia series by Canon or the R series by Sony. Whether Canon or Sony, these cameras are small, light, shoot in high quality, high-definition, with built-in hard drives and/or memory cards.”

Piluso solicits the expertise of Alyssa Pfaff, a “multi-department ‘floating’ specialist” with 13 years experience at Samy’s Camera in Pasadena, California. Ms. Pfaff may very well know her stuff, but this would be like me quoting someone from The Apple Store at Eastview Mall in an article on Final Cut Pro. There’s no mention of DSLR’s, which tend to be the camera of choice for many cinematographers out on the festival circuit. For those of you who don’t know what DSLR’s are, they’re high-end still cameras that capture video as well as photo. They give a movies a 35mm look at a fraction of the 35mm cost. Tiny Furniture, The Dish & The Spoon, and The Catechism Cataclysm were shot on Canon 7D; Green was shot on a Canon 5D. The Dish & The Spoon cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard explained in the Spring 2011 issue of Filmmaker why he shot on a Canon 7D:

“‘Because the sensor size of the of the DSLR approximates the size of 35mm film, you end up in the same kind of visual world as if you were shooting film,’ he explains, ‘but working at budgets that a few years ago would have had you shooting on a HVX200 or an EX1, which have an entirely different feel to them.'”

Consider this: a few years ago, the Panasonic HVX200 was considered the camera of high-end filmmakers, and it retailed at $6,000. The Canon 7D and 5D retail at less that $2,000, including lenses. From cameras, Piluso moved onto discussing other equipment, like mics and lighting, and shooting locations. Toward the end, though, he goes into discussing submitting your finished film to festivals, and returns to Ledy for advice:

“Additionally, when your film gets accepted to a festival, Ledy highly recommends investing in a color correction before bringing it to that exhibition, which can run from $1,500 to $2,000 for a legitimate session. It’s sort of the equivalent to taking a long, hot shower before an important date.”

You could do that. Or you could use Apple Color, which is included with Final Cut Pro. Medicine for Melancholy was color corrected with Apple Color, and the results were terrific:

If you want to splurge on Color Correction Software, I’ve heard good things about Red Giant’s Magic Bullet Suite. It was developed by the legendary Special Effects company The Orphanage. At $800, it’s still half the price that Piluso is quoting from Ledy. That’s not to say you won’t need that $1,500-$2,000, though. You can use that money for travel expenses, especially for larger festivals like Sundance, SXSW, and Tribeca, who don’t pay to bring their filmmakers to the festival. You’ll also need it for the eventual blowup to HD, which brings us to the last quote.

“The single-largest and most reputable means of finding festivals to which to submit your finished film is Withoutabox.com, a free-to-use site through which you can find essentially every single film festival worth its grit, both local and international.

To send to these, and show your film at these, you’ll want to have a Blu-ray DVD of your film made. ‘Find a friend with a Blu-ray burner,’ counsels Ledy. Not only Blu-ray show all your hard work in the best light possible, but this is the standard expectation for modern festival exhibition. Don’t make it difficult for the festival organizer, festival projectionist, nor for yourself. Go easy, go Blu-Ray.”

So I’m going to break my own little rule with “qualified” filmmakers when I cite a good friend of mine, Daniel Laabs, who has never directed a feature of his own. But his short, “8“, has played several festivals this year, starting with SXSW. His response to this quote? “Blu-ray is definitely not essential.” Personally, I’ve never had a problem submitting plain DVD-Rs to festivals. What’s more important is that they can play your DVD.

As I mentioned earlier, though, just because your film makes its way into a festival doesn’t mean it’s an automatic “in” for distribution. If you’re lucky, and your film has the right appeal, it might get picked up by a small distributor like IFC or Magnolia, but otherwise, expect to be responsible for the film’s distribution. YouTube has a partners program where you can post the movie online and recieve a little bit of money. If you need a better understanding of the contemporary distribution landscape, Think Outside The Box Office is the book you need to read. Author Jon Reiss talks about the various options you have with distributing your film, and can help you decide what’s right plan for distributing your film.

I’m not guaranteeing that you’ll have a festival favorite by following my advice, but I hope that my response to this article provides you with a realistic idea of how the festival circuit works. Since I’m primarily responding to an article, there’s a lot of ground I haven’t covered, and there’s a lot I have yet to learn. If you’re serious about making your own movie, but don’t have the funds to attend a festival like SXSW, Filmmaker magazine is highly recommended. Filmmaker publishes articles on current trends in Independent Film, interviews with established filmmakers and up-and-comers alike, as well as thorough articles on gadgets and software. There hasn’t been an issue I haven’t read cover to cover.

By the way, both my subscriptions to Creative Screenwriting and Script are up for renewal. Since I’m on unemployment, I have to be more cautious about my money. I’m considering renewing my subscription to Creative Screenwriting, but I won’t be renewing Script.

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2 Responses to “Writing and Directing Your First Feature: From Your Story to “Epic Fail””

  1. I Never Asked For Your Crutch, Now Don’t Ask For Mine « Questions? Comments? Concerns??? Says:

    […] I have with my friend taking these kids’ advice seriously is the same problem I had with Robert Piluso casting a USC Grad Student as an expert on Independent Film: they may have incredible talent and a ton of confidence, but without […]

  2. Shooting and Editing The Non-Scripted Feature @ SXSW, 3/12/12 Says:

    […] aesthetic advantages. Some of this advice can be very misleading. Last fall on my production blog, I posted a response to an article published in the March/April 2011 issue of Script magazine that comes off as as glib […]

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