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FILMMAKER: Matt Batten
STORY: 10 Things I Learned Producing My First Indie Short Film
For years I had jotted down ideas for films and stories, even started writing several, always with the dream of making a short film to run through the circuit of short film festivals.
I’d been a creative in advertising for over a decade, during which I’d written dozens of TV commercials and enjoyed the excitement of seeing them produced, practically sitting on the shoulders of the director and DoP (not annoyingly, I promise). I’d had the pleasure of working closely with many talented crews, directors, and producers as my 30-second ‘mini films’ were brought to life – the best training course in the world of film ever.
But I had always been ‘too busy’ to get one of my personal projects actually made.
So when I finally found myself with a few months of spare time, I took the plunge. I re-trained my ability for writing TV commercials into writing screenplays – a very different format and methodology.
I studied and practiced and wrote.
But still I wasn’t producing.
I was actually paralyzed by the daunting prospect of how to go about producing. Where do you start? I had plenty of screenplays under my belt, but most had locations I couldn’t find (a giant walk-in bank safe), complex shots I couldn’t pull off (a man plummeting 30 floors), complicated set-ups (a film set within a film set), a car chase (enough said), important dialogue (is there a sound recordist out there?), CG animation (calling all 3D animators), or a sizable cast.
Then I had an idea that seemed simple: one guy, a forest, a deer, a gun, and no dialogue. I was worried about finding good talent and how to source the weaponry. Out of sheer curiosity, I posted an ad online seeking actors, was suddenly inundated with responses, and it kind of snowballed from there.
Just three weeks later, I had a short film in the can. HUNT. You can view it here:
Here are the 10 things I learned producing my first indie short film:
1. Great talent is easy to find
There is a wealth of amazing talent out there who will jump at the chance of being in a film that has a good script. Just as you are an aspiring writer and/or director, there are aspiring actors keen to volunteer their time and effort to get experience and exposure on a production.
Not all are inexperienced. I had the fortune of attracting several actors who’d been properly trained and even starred in feature films. All were sourced via StarNow.com, and I gave the role to Byron J Brochmann whose IMDb credits include X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Inbetweeners 2, and Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken.
2. Dressing up is child’s play
Costumes help visually establish a character, so make sure you get them right.
For most indie film-makers, the costumes will be put together from your own wardrobe and those of your volunteer actors. But not everyone has a flak jacket or an Edwardian ball gown at home.
There are plenty of costume hire businesses, but those that mostly cater to fancy dress parties may be more expensive than you can afford. The costume hire departments of theaters will have a bigger selection, better quality and cheaper price.
For Londoners again, I recommend the National Theatre Hire Department. Their costume range is enormous and covers every era and genre known to man, as well as a fantastic warehouse filled with props and militaria. Just make sure you return all items in the same condition as when they were given to you.
3. Have guns, will shoot
While the sourcing of weapons wasn’t easy, it wasn’t that difficult either. It helps if you provide lots of lead time for the armories to have what you want in stock, especially if you have a very limited budget.
Prop armorers have thousands of pieces – from plastic and rubber replicas to actual firing weapons – and the chances are that what you're after will already be assigned to another production for the next 4 weeks. So allow lots of time to get what you want, talk to several suppliers, and be flexible.
Any weapon that fires (airshots that have replaced old-school squibs) require a professional armorer on set, whose hourly rate will chew up your miniscule budget.
But very realistic plastic and alloy replicas, as well as genuine rifles that have been deactivated (and registered as such) can be inexpensive and just as effective. You’ll still need to sign them out with photo ID, a proper business number, and a hefty refundable deposit, but there’s nothing to stop you getting decent-looking firearms into the hands of your gunmen. Just make sure you properly notify the appropriate authorities, which brings me to my next point…
4. Notify the authorities
If you have any prop weaponry on set, you will need to notify the authorities (the Met Police in London), especially if you will be in a location where a member of the public has even the slightest chance of seeing you.
Otherwise you risk a passer-by or nosy neighbor calling the fuzz and your whole production being interrupted by flashing blue lights and a lot of trouble. In my case, London’s Met Police Film Unit was amazingly helpful and friendly.
They simply required details of my film company (no, you cannot just say you’re a student film maker), needed to see the script, and get details on the production and location. I received my authorized permit number within an hour.
As for locations, you will almost always need permission from someone to film somewhere, anywhere.
If you’re filming inside your own house or out in the middle of scrubland where no-one will see you, you’re probably fine. But that abandoned warehouse, that shop front, the train station, the school oval on a weekend, out in your own street – all these locations belong to someone. And more importantly (for that someone), they carry some type of indemnity.
So make sure you find out who owns or manages the property on which you wish to film and get their permission. Some will say no, some will be amenable to your project, and others will have a dedicated department for authorizing usage. Again, this can sometimes require one week notice or more, so plan ahead.
And, the chances are high that they won’t give you approval until you provide them with your insurance policy number, which leads us to…
Film school students will be covered by their school’s insurance policy. As for the rest of us, we need to pay our own way.
Insurance is not only necessary to get approval to shoot on locations, it’s a damn good idea. As the producer (producer/writer/director/coffee-maker for most indie first-timers), you have a duty of care for everyone involved in making your film.
You are responsible for the safety of your cast and crew, as well as protecting the location from damage. It would be a nightmare if that young guy helping with the lighting stands tripped over a power cord, broke his leg and set fire to the set.
Specialty film insurance companies can be found online. While it may seem expensive to shill out a couple of hundred bucks for insurance for a single day of filming, your policy will be a year long and cover all your projects in that time so the actual cost is spread across each of your films’ budgets.
Besides, it’s a lot cheaper than medical bills or rebuilding that 18th century barn.
6. Gear up
You'll have more gear than you imagined. I pride myself on being a streamliner – when travelling, or even just tripping about town, I always pack the minimum. But when you lay out the bare minimum for your production it will fill your loungeroom floor.
There's not just your camera gear, but the props, costumes, lighting stands, rolls of gaffer tape, tarpaulins (to keep the rain off), first aid kit, food and water for everyone on set, toilet paper (does an actor shit in the woods? So long as there’s toilet paper, he does) and so on.
Invest in a big backpack for your remote outdoor shoots, and lightweight portable extras like jibs and dollies, although the latter will still require transportation or several crew members with sturdy backs.
7. The little things add up
Whatever your budget is, double it.
And any short film that is promoted as being done “on a budget of $0” is lying. Did they not eat lunch or get their cast and crew a measly cup of coffee? What about fuel for the car, tickets for the train or bus, the aforementioned toilet paper?
Like me, most first-time indie film-makers will estimate the obvious things during pre-production: costumes, weapons, sound. But there are so many little things that slowly chew through your budget until you’ve spent quite a bit more than expected.
These include the cost of printing copies of your script and storyboard; stocking up the first aid kit; a couple of hi-vis vests (because the Met Police insisted on it); spare rolls of tape; a stash of muesli bars and chocolate; the small props that add detail to your shots; hot chocolate for everyone because it’s 4º colder than the weather man said it would be; travel to and from the set/location multiple times for the recce, the shoot, and the pick-ups.
Give your wallet some room to breath because there will always be the little things.
8. Don't skimp on the extras
While this may contradict the previous point about costs, you can never have too many batteries or memory cards.
There’s nothing more annoying, or amateur, as running out of power or memory halfway through your shoot. And you’ll go through more batteries than you estimated because you’ll barely turn your camera off, constantly reviewing shots between filming takes.
And it’s not just power for your camera if you’re shooting out in a forest or field. You’ll need battery packs or a box of AAs to keep your portable LED lighting alive.
Invest in spare camera batteries, decent rechargeable solutions for your lighting, and several fast memory cards with large capacity.
9. Producing isn’t writing or directing
You may have written a great script and be capable of capturing it in the lens just the way you want, but to get your film produced you need to be a producer (if you don’t have one).
And being a producer is tough.
There's so much to organize. You’ll need help with this, so enlist a friend and share the tasks. It helps if you approach this (and everything above) like a professional: have pre-production meetings, keep notes, make a checklist.
For all the TV commercials I’d been involved in, I always saw the amount of work the producers had to do. But it wasn’t until I actually had to be a producer that I truly appreciated just how difficult it can be.
And how much I never want to be a producer.
10. Be a producer
See what I did there?
As much as producing is hard, it’s also incredibly rewarding. You’re actually film-making. And even if you’re not actually taking the role of Producer (with a capital P), don’t let your ideas sit in a bottom drawer.
All the reasons (excuses) that prevent you from making your first indie film are the same ones that prevent you from making your second indie film.
Just get over it, get on with it, and you’ll see how ridiculous those reasons (excuses) were.
Your films won’t make themselves. Write, direct, produce, make.
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