The Long, Winding Road to Making Films You’re Truly Proud Of

The Long, Winding Road to Making Films You’re Truly Proud Of

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FILMMAKER: Karl Stelter
STORY: It Took 9 Years to Make a Short Film I’m Proud Of (Part 1 of 4)

Like many filmmaker origin stories, mine begins with delusions of grandeur.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, my goal was to make a feature film within one year of moving. And at 23 with a bachelors in economics from a midwest college, I knew nothing about film, and had no connections in the industry.

But I was determined. I even came up with the (very tacky) slogan for myself before moving, “Dream big, otherwise you’re just sleeping."

Don’t judge. I was 23.

It’s now been 9 years, and I’ve only just released my first short film, “The Long Goodbye.”

And despite the amount of time it took to get here, I’m incredibly proud of it.

Now, by my original standards of making a feature in my first year, this is depressingly off the mark. 

So far off, that if you’d told me 9 years ago that this is where I’d be, I don’t know that I’d have the patience for it.

I’d probably wouldn’t believe you. Or I’d quit.

But I certainly wouldn’t have been able to grasp the enormity of the goal we call ‘being a filmmaker’.

However, my hope is by sharing my story with you - you’ll see your own path to filmmaking for the only thing I believe it can be: a journey. An adrenaline pumping, soul-crushing, illuminating journey that becomes an indivisible part of who you are.

Over the next 4 entries, I’m going to pour my heart and soul into sharing my exact journey to:

  • Become a filmmaker from scratch and somehow make a goddamn living in LA

  • Crowdfund $11,000 for my short film

  • Produce & direct a film with a cast + crew of 15 folks on location over 3.5 days

  • Bypass the festival route and sell over 100 tickets to the premiere of a standalone short film in Los Angeles, and another 100 tickets in Chicago.

So let's start at the beginning…

Becoming a Filmmaker from Scratch…at 23

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Straight out of college I started working full time at an office job, and over the next 1.5 years I’d saved up about $25,000 by living with my parents while simultaneously recovering from a shitty college experience that left me in a deep depression.

And somewhere in there I put together that it was possible to both make a living in film, and make a huge, positive impact in people’s lives. Specifically my own.

So after 6 months of ‘testing,' where I’d come home from work and research anything and everything to do with filmmaking until I fell asleep, I confirmed to myself this wasn’t a ‘boredom’ or ‘flight of fancy’.

It was something that rekindled my imagination for the first time in years. It gave me purpose. It gave me a shot at life I wanted to take.

Learning the Ropes: Film School or Self-Taught?

First - fuck school.

Instead I made up spreadsheets of how much I needed to live per month, including rent, phone bill, gas - I even looked up costs of groceries at local LA stores.

And I figured if I never went out, and spent SUPER frugally (some might say I was ANNOYINGLY frugal) - I could last 2 years, or about $1000 / month.

No day job. No waiting tables. Just all-in on 2 years of trial by fire.

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But here’s the real secret: I walked through the entire gameplan with my parents first, and I knew that my out if this all completely flopped, I was welcome to come home.

That love gave me freedom to take a risk I would never have otherwise done - and no words will ever express how much that means to me.

So I bought a Canon 7D, a basic lens kit, and got to work.

Getting the Moneys

Over the next two years, I stayed more or less true to the schedule - leveraging my 7D and lens kit, I filmed anything I could (for free), spending about $80 every two weeks in food, rarely going for drinks or dinner. 

Oh, and that idea that if you just do good work, your work will be recognized and compensated appropriately? Bullshit. Your work gets recognized because you have the business savvy to pitch it. Learn the business side. 

I also kind of missed the part where filmmaking is all about relationships (new filmmakers - don’t miss that part).

Eventually, I realized that feature film was getting further away, and that wonderful 2-year finance spreadsheet was getting closer to $0.

So my philosophy forcibly shifted.

Instead of giving myself one shot to hit a home-run on the narrative side, I’d learn to hit singles on brand work. Or photos. Or generally any damn thing that would pay me for using a camera so I could buy myself more time to develop as an artist, and figure out what the hell I wanted to say.

Because at this point, I was much more a cinematographer-in-training than a director. I was shooting all the time - but my people skills were abysmal. A remnant of my last year in college where I lived alone, stopped attending classes, stopped doing really anything, and nearly lost my mind.

(Kind of like Castaway where Tom Hanks forgets how to talk to people and shouts WILSONNNNNNN randomly.)

But we’ll come back to this.

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Eventually I found I was pretty damn good at filming weddings (and people paid), so I committed the next 3 years to building a wedding business where I learned how to shoot under pressure, handle clients, and pitch.

Oh, and that idea that if you just do good work, your work will be recognized and compensated appropriately?

Bullshit.

Your work gets recognized because you have the business savvy to pitch it.

Learn the business side. 

It will help you not only make a living, but pitch the creative projects that are the soul of your journey.

But What About Creative Work?

Exactly.

Around 2016 (now 6 years in LA) I had a revelation that went something like: “what the fuck am I doing?”

At this point I’d learned to scrape by on a combination of wedding films and the beginnings of direct-to-client corporate work. But the monotonous drumbeat of hitting singles had dulled my ability to swing for anything else.

So I made one more shift that changed everything.

With the assistance of coffee (did I mention I never drank coffee before?) I started getting up early to write

I did some basic research on screenwriting, got final draft, and hacked away for 90 minutes every morning with only one goal: write for 90 minutes.

And when that 90 minutes was up, I didn’t care if the cursor was still blinking at me on an empty page. I counted that as a success.

And for you folks who think getting up early is ridiculous, or don’t know how to do it, here’s the secret: do it for you.

Fuck everyone else. You get up for you, and the only thing you do at that time in the morning, is for you. 

Writing is the long game, and as a friend once shared, “it’s never a waste of time because that script you wrote 10 years ago? That’s ammunition that never goes away.”

And that writing eventually led me to The Long Goodbye.

Now before we get into the directing side of this story, there’s one other thing you should know about me.

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Remember when I said my people skills were abysmal? That’s no joke.

For a long time, I just didn’t know how to talk with people. So much so, that I’d literally create (and memorize) lists of conversational topics for different scenarios on sticky notes and carry them with me. 

Ouch.

Soooo… how on earth did I come to directing? Why would I choose something inherently social, where collaboration an communication are the most important piece of the process?

Because if I chose directing, I’d have no choice but to learn how to communicate with people again. It was a weakness in myself I didn’t like—part of me I’d lost in college that I wanted back. 

But more than that, directing forced me to find hope, and challenged me to find a way to share that.

More about that in the next article.


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