When we first started making indie films, there was a lot we didn’t know. We made mistakes that cost us time and money, learning lessons the hard way left and right. Here, we break down the seven biggest things we wish we’d known about indie filmmaking before we got started, so that you don’t have to relive our biggest mistakes. Here are our top seven tips for indie filmmakers.
Any skills you need, you can probably learn… for free
There’s going to be a time when you need an editor, or a colorist, or someone else with a specific skill set, and you’re not going to know anyone with that skill. Maybe you won’t have the money to pay for their services, and no one is able to do it for free. So what do you do? We’re here to tell you that you can learn this skill, you can learn to do it well, and you can do it all for free online.
There are tons of resources all over the world wide web that will teach you exactly what you need to know. Don’t shell out for costly classes; there is a whole cottage industry around making indie films that makes a lot of money off of creators, and you don’t need to pay into it. We’ve taken the scammy classes and gone to the so-so seminars, but we’re learned just as much–if not more–from youtube videos made by like-minded creators. Does this mean no class will ever be worth it, or you should never hire an experienced professional to, say, do your sound mixing? Definitely not. There will be times when you want or need to do that. You just need to be discerning and believe in yourself. Look up a few tutorials before you commit to anything. This is how Raven became an expert editor and learned how to operate a camera like the muscle-bound badass she is; she learned it all through free internet resources.
Don’t pay to play
This ties into what we were just saying; you need to be discerning about who and what you give your money to. This doesn’t just apply to classes, however; this also applies to things like mentorships and networking opportunities. Repeat after me: do not pay to network. I’m going to say it again, just to make sure we’re one hundred percent clear. DO NOT PAY TO NETWORK. There are other ways to meet cool, like-minded filmmakers in your community without paying a cent. Find those and take advantage of them; attend meet-ups and film festivals, but do not attend networking events with a cover charge. It’s just not a good use of your time or money.
Relatedly, there are a lot of cool people with careers you admire who are going to be willing to speak to you for free, just because they like helping other filmmakers. It’s not to say that all paid mentorships are a scam, but as a general rule, there are always people out there who are willing to speak with you out of the goodness of their hearts, not because they’re trying to make money off of them. Find those people and treasure them.
Work with the right people
This isn’t just a tip for indie filmmakers; this is a tip for life. If someone thinks they’re better than you, there is no amount of money, time, or creativity that’s going to convince them otherwise. That’s why it’s always better to work with people who are excited about your project, rather than the person with the longest resume or most impressive reel. We learned this time and time again as we tried to find collaborators at the beginning of our careers. We still run into this problem now that we have more resources, too; it’s not a problem that’s gone away. Some people just think they’re better than others–maybe because they have more money or more experience–and those people are never, ever, ever going to be good to work with. In fact, be very discerning about the people you work with in general.
They’re unkind? Don’t work with them.
They don’t take you seriously? Don’t work with them.
The two of you simply don’t vibe? Don’t work with them!
Life is short and your time is precious. Only work with people who are excited to be working with you. The truth is, you’re going to get a better product from a tight-knit group of passionate, hard-working people than you are from a group of people who don’t care for each other or, worse, don’t care about the project, regardless of how impressive their resume is. Good filmmaking happens when everyone on set feels safe and is having a good time. Prioritize that at every step of the process and you’ll see the results.
We know, your film is your baby. We love our projects, too, and we have a strong vision for them. But it’s so, so important to compartmentalize and be objective about your product. When you’re reviewing the script or when you’re in the editing room, put on your producer hat and really be thoughtful about if your original vision is serving you. This is another place where being surrounded by good people will be helpful; your team will be able to give you notes, and you should be able to take them seriously. This doesn’t mean you need to acquiesce to every single note you are given, but you should, at the very least, have the capacity to listen in an unbiased way.
Measure twice, cut once
Take it from us. If you skimp at the preproduction phase, your final product will suffer. There’s a certain urgency that comes with indie filmmaking; we know we’re guilty of romanticizing the idea of the off-the-cuff, guerilla-style shoot where everything is rushed. We are here to tell you, this is not the right way. You should take your sweet time to make sure everything is prepared before you ever break out the camera. Take the extra time to do yet another draft of the script. Take the extra time to make sure you have all of the props you need. This way, you can rest easy knowing things are taken care of, and when you’re on set you can focus on what actually matters: filming your movie. There might be a time when you have to push back a shoot because things on the preproduction end weren’t quite right yet. We’ve been there, and it can be kind of heartbreaking. That being said, you’re always going to get a better product when you take your sweet time and make sure everything is kosher instead of diving right in.
Your movie can probably be shorter
This is perhaps our most controversial tip for indie filmmakers. At every stage of production, you can–and should–make your movie shorter. No disrespect to The Irishman, but pretty much all projects can only stand to improve when you cut them down. When you’re writing your script, be really intentional about every aspect; kill your darlings and cut that unnecessary dialogue. Trust us, it’ll be better for it. On set, take out the pauses. Make your actors go faster. When you’re editing, cut it as short as you possibly can. Raven likes to play a game where she makes a cut that’s as short as she can get it, and then she challenges herself to take off another thirty seconds. Then another. According to her, she’s only liked the longer version better a grand total of twice. We know it’s not fun to hear, because we’re all artists here, and artists like to indulge themselves, but you can do it. Make. It. Shorter.
Make every project a passion project
This might be our most important tip for indie filmmakers. Filmmaking is an art, but it’s also a business. We know you’re doing this because you love it, but it wouldn’t hurt to make a little money back too, right? We’re totally with you there, but we have to caution you: do not, under any circumstances, go chasing trends to try and make money. For one thing, trends come and go, and movies take about a billion years to make. By the time you’ve written a script, taken your time in preproduction (a la tip number four), filmed the entire thing, and taken it through post-production, the trends are going to be different. This brings us to another side of the same coin. You need to be working on a product that you’re not going to be sick of even after you’ve worked on it for months and seen it a hundred times. Even a micro-short is going to start feeling really long if you aren’t totally in love with it. Of course, there are gigs you’re going to take just for the money, but make sure when you’re making your film, it’s a passion project. That will make the long days and nights on set and in the editing room feel worth it. What’s really magical is when you can assemble a team where it’s a passion project for everyone on set; it’s hard to get that balance right, but when you do you end up with projects like Biters and Bleeders where everyone from the writer to the PA is excited to be working on your film.
Filmmakers, what do you wish you’d known about filmmaking before you got started? We’d love to hear your tips for indie filmmakers!