How To Make A Crappy Indie Movie

June 24, 2017
The story of how I made my first feature film, Mui Karaoke

I’ve read that it takes the average Australian movie 7 years to complete. I’ve seen some of these movies and they were definitely not worth the 7 years. But could I do any better? Probably not; I’d never made a feature length film in my life. So instead of investing around 7 years, it seemed most efficient to get my first crappy film over and done with as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to invest too much time or money into what would likely turn out to be a sub par film. The added pressure to succeed that comes with a large investment wouldn’t have been a productive influence for a beginner like myself. I think that it’s important to allow yourself to do things badly, especially when you are just learning. I must admit though that I did fantasise and hope that it would turn out to be a success. I fueled this fantasy by researching the success stories of the likes of Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, and Richard Linklater. This hope might seem juvenile and naive but I think it was crucial in giving me the motivation I needed to see the project through ‘til the end.

I remembered I watched a film called Rope (1948) by Alfred Hitchcock, which is a feature length film that is notable for the way it was shot; it is a series of ten or so minute long long-takes, all set in one location, stitched together in editing to make it look like one continuous take (much like Birdman (2014)). Now, that was a cheap and time efficient way to make a movie, I thought. All I had to do was gather a bunch of actors, make them memorise the script, and shoot their performances and stitch the shots together. I could use my sister’s Korean restaurant and karaoke business as the sole location. I also had a crappy DSLR I could use (Canon 500d). I felt confident I could film a movie in this way in only a couple of days.

I wrote the script, based around the single location and the shooting style, in three weeks. I’ve always thought that the script was the most important part of a film, so I’ve written many feature length scripts before. This part of the process I was familiar and comfortable with. The real test lied beyond me.

I slowly began to shine a light onto the dark abyss in front of me by meticulously planning out the shooting schedule – organising it in a way so that the script could be shot in two days. I then drew out each shot, planning out how the camera would move around the room for each line of dialogue. I found that this step of planning and organisation to be one of the most important. It organised the incoming chaos of being responsible for the daunting task of delivering a movie into a digestible day-by-day step-by-step process. Whenever I thought about what I had to complete within the next two weeks I found myself panicking a little. Whenever I focused on what I had to do that day I was relaxed and motivated.

The casting was mostly done through a casting website called StarNow. All the actors worked for no pay (or deferred payment A.K.A. no payment). This meant that all the actors were super passionate and willing to donate their time towards my project for some unknown reasons, which I was forever grateful for. I was so grateful that I became careful not to offend or discomfort any of the actors too much. This turned out to be bad directing. For example, I was reluctant to shoot too many takes, even when an actor stuffed up their lines, in fear of embarrassing, offending, or frustrating the generous actor who was “here doing me a favour”. In reality that was just an excuse to avoid conflict. I actually owed it to everyone there to make the best movie possible, no matter whose feelings get hurt. I owed it to the actors to make them look good on the screen.

Like I said before, I always thought the script was the most important part of a movie, but now I think that the casting/actors might be equally important, if not more so. I’m not quite sure. But I am sure that no matter the quality of the script, direction, or cinematography, at the end of the day it’s up to the actor to bring the story to life. This is why you should never settle when casting. You should obviously look to only cast talented actors, but I found that harder to do than I had originally thought. The actors come into auditions trying to trick you, well at least some do. I think that the talented actors let you on in a secret of theirs – they take off their social mask and give you a glimpse at what’s underneath. That is difficult to do, so many actors tend to put an “actor’s mask” on top of their social mask. For example, we had one auditioning actor who wanted to change the originally playful character to be more serious and melancholy. We later found out that all his previous characters were the same type of serious and melancholy character. It must’ve been a persona he was comfortable with playing because he had prepared for it. But someone overly prepared to the point of becoming rigid is unwanted because you can never prepare for what the other characters in the scene will do. The actors need to be in the moment, not in their preparation. I was easily impressed at first by actors memorising long monologues or performances with intense emotions and tears. However, these can be prepared as well and might be irrelevant to a particular scene that I’m shooting. I found that a good way to spot a talented actor was to ask them to do the opposite of what they had prepared. It showed me if they were relying solely on their preparation or on their craft. Another thing to look out for is if the actor’s performance changes each time they repeat it. If it’s the same every time they’re probably too rigid.

Casting was a lot more difficult than I had imagined. All these hard lessons I learned during this first movie of mine were insufficient. I made the same mistakes in my second movie (L Is For (2017)). I had to recast one of the cast members in that film after I had completed the shoot and a rough edit of the film. This meant going through the casting process once more and gathering most of the cast together again for another nine days of shooting. This all could have been avoided if I hadn’t settled during the casting process. I’m reminded of Quentin Tarantino who was about to give up on filming Inglourious Basterds (2009) because he couldn’t find the perfect actor for Hans Landa, until, of course, he met Christoph Waltz. I probably didn’t have the financial freedom or artistic integrity to go as far as Tarantino, but I think the point I’m trying to make is that the cast is important – so don’t settle!

Once we had the cast in place we set our one week for rehearsals. We rehearsed in the order we were going to shoot, which was in the order of the script. It was important to shoot in the order of the script to make the transitions from one long take to the next as smooth as possible. The rehearsals were probably the most enjoyable and carefree part of the process. It was a time for all of us to experiment and explore in a relaxed environment while getting to know each other – it was sort of like going back to school. It was also during this time that I learned about the different types of actors. Some actors value how they appear or look in front of the camera above all else, others value becoming successful by achieving fame or wealth, and others value the study and mastering of the craft. The actors who study and try to master the craft of acting are the ones I found most interesting to talk to. They have the most to offer you in terms of wisdom. One such actor on my film was Rik Stowman. He’s one of those flexible and dynamic in range actors who give genuine performances; genuine to the story, the character, and the moment. Establishing a good relationship with him was of great help to me because he gave great advice and guidance. For example, when I confided in him that I was careful not to ask too much of the actors because I felt that they were doing me a favour, he told me that was the wrong way to think. He advised that I think of it as us doing each other a favour; in return for the actors acting for my project, I’m providing the actors with a project that they feel connected to that they can perform in. He explained that it’s rare for actors to find a project that they can connect with and perform in, and that when they do they are very grateful as well. This gave me the confidence to move forward. Rik is now the Australian representative instructor for the PEM (Perdekamp Emotional Method) school of acting, which is a cool new acting technique that focuses on accessing emotions directly through the biology of the human body, instead of through the human psyche which is how the other acting techniques operate. I actually highly recommend PEM to all the actors reading this. I’ve gone through the foundational lessons of PEM with Rik and it was insightful and effective.

I’ve heard many people say that whatever can go wrong during a shoot, will go wrong. Turns out that it’s true. To keep this already too-long article from becoming even more superfluous I’ll limit myself to one such example. Like I mentioned before, it was very important that we shot in the order of the script. That was the way it was scheduled, planned, and rehearsed. However on the first day of shooting, one member of the cast who was in one of the earlier scenes slept in and was four hours late. This meant that I had to rearrange the shooting schedule and be mindful of how each long-take would transition to the next even while shooting out of order. I felt relieved to have planned all the shots and schedules so carefully beforehand because all I had to do in that moment was tweak what I had already had, instead of coming up with a new schedule on the spot. It made me think that the best way to work on a set is similar to the best way to live your life. Be always prepared and organised yet ready to react to change. Have a plan but update it as need be. Have one foot in order and one foot in chaos at all times. Anyway, when the late cast member finally did arrive I decided it was best to be chill and pretend the tardiness was a non-issue. I thought that would be the best thing to do for the cast member’s performance. I was wrong. The late cast member was flustered and it impaired the performance anyway. That cast member couldn’t help but feel bad, obviously. Pretending it didn’t happen wasn’t effective – the elephant was still in the room. What I should’ve done in hindsight is address the elephant by asking the cast member politely to apologise to the rest of the cast and crew and earn their forgiveness. That way we could all look at the elephant and ask it to leave the room. An assortment of such hiccups and unexpected hurdles caused the two day shoot to extend into a three day shoot. All the cast members were gracious enough to accommodate. It’s difficult to get people on board or to trust your project in the beginning, but once they are connected with it and the momentum gets rolling, they’ll help you in any way possible to get it through to the finish line in a satisfactory manner.

The whole post production (editing, sound editing, etc.) was done on my own again to save money. This was the longest and loneliest part of the process. It took about 2 months. Doing the whole post production was great though because knowing how to edit the audio and visuals taught me how to best capture the audio and visuals, in terms of method, techniques, and materials. Which helps in hiring the right crew and knowing roughly what equipment is needed and how to use it. Which also helps me when planning the shots during pre-production. Knowing how to finish something advises how to start it.

I very likely will never earn a single dollar from my films, but the fact that I can make a movie from beginning to end no matter how much money I have, where I am, or who I know, is very assuring for some reason. As if I won’t have to suffer the frustration and turmoil of “the world conspiring to stop me from expressing myself”. If I have anyone to blame for that frustration now, it’s only me.

The final movie turned out pretty crappy as to be expected, but not as crappy as some might have thought. I definitely didn’t become the next Kevin Smith but I am proud of the final outcome. The biggest mistake during this process was the decision to shoot the film in 3 days. Act in haste, regret at leisure as they say. I found that you need to take the time and care to get the performance, shot, and coverage needed. Coverage is especially important for beginners like myself. It gives you the luxury to have greater control of the rhythm, timing, performance, and story in the editing room. It’s a luxury that beginners can’t afford to give up. Also, the one-take style isn’t effective narratively. I found out afterwards that Hitchcock had said that it was a mistake to film Rope in that one-take style because he had lost the power of editing. I would suggest to only use the one-take style if it is absolutely crucial to the narrative.

In the end, all of its downfalls and faults come down to my bad decisions and lack of experience/skill. All the actors worked really hard and did their jobs fantastically. All I expected and hoped for at the start was for everyone to memorise their lines, but they all went above and beyond. I hope to work with some of the actors again in the future if they’ll allow me.

The film got accepted into Melbourne Underground Film Festival 2016. Only half the cast plus one random guest were in attendance at the premiere; even I wasn’t there because I was in Korea working on a freelance job as a translator. I think that just goes to show you the importance of marketing. It doesn’t matter if you succeeded in creating something or not. If you want people to give your product a try – the marketing matters most. This will seem obvious to others but it was something that I hadn’t even thought about while making the movie.

I’ve now put the full film up on my YouTube channel for free to keep myself humble and grateful. Also, to show off to the world what we accomplished. I think that not being ashamed of your stumbles and missteps will ultimately help you to improve at a faster rate.

Using all the lessons I learned from this process of making my first movie, I immediately began working on another no-budget feature film. This time for even cheaper. I used the same location, same equipment, fewer actors, Rik Stowman as the lead, and a two-man crew (including myself). But instead of 3 days we shot for 3 weeks. I’ve just completed this film which is called L Is For and have submitted it to film festivals. Hopefully this one will be less crappy.

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