How to Make an Indie Film

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Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

Sometimes rules are not meant to be broken. You’ve heard people mention how easy it is to shoot movies these days—there have even been some Oscar-nominated films shot on iPhones—but there are certain steps you must adhere to in order to execute a successful indie. This guide will help you keep in mind what to look out for when you’re making your film.

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What qualifies as an indie film?

A film can be considered “independent” for many reasons. Generally speaking, there is no major film studio attached, and no executive producers telling you what you can or cannot shoot. Usually, your budget is anywhere from modest ($100,000 to $20 million) to shoestring ($10), and the story has space to challenge the systematic Hollywood movie formula. As a filmmaker, you don’t have to serve anything or anyone but the story you’d like to tell. It’s a great way to showcase your talent, and you can use it as a calling card as your career advances.

How do I secure funding?

Grants are a good place to begin looking for funding. No Film School compiles a seasonal list of grants available to filmmakers; check back to see what’s new. You’ll also want to consider the following:

1. Find a financial producer.
“I remember coming up to [producer Celine Rattray] at a cocktail party long before I’d even had an idea,” “Novitiate” director Maggie Betts tells Backstage. “She gave me three pieces of advice, which ended up being the foundation of [‘Novitiate’]. One was to make it about a completely novel world that people had not seen before. Two was to try and keep the locations super-contained because a lot of directors get overwhelmed with company moves. The tighter your location situation, the better. And then the last was to write an insanely good part for an actress over 45, preferably over 50, because sadly, that group of women does not get the level of material that other women get.”

Rattray’s advice is great for anyone looking to tick an indie producer’s boxes: an original idea that doesn’t feel like a sprawling (read: expensive) epic.

Do your homework. Find out who produces the types of films you’d like to make, as well as who their competitors are. Even if the production company is unlikely to take on a first-time filmmaker, it’ll give you a goal to work toward.

Regardless of who you find to finance your film, if you’re going to ask a professional for support, you need an investment package to present to them: A PDF document outlining your film idea, consisting of a two-sentence pitch, a short synopsis, and detailed treatment of your story. You need a budget, too, outlining where every dollar will go. This doesn’t need to be 100 percent accurate, but as ballpark as possible. You should also break down your characters, locations, and crew. All this gives the investor the look and feel of the project. Keep it short and sweet.

2. Save some personal money.
If you really want this then you’ll stay home a few weekends in order to raise some funds for your first indie film. Recognize this for the commitment it is, because chances are you will be working on this film for the next year, at least.

3. Call on friends and family.
Ask your family for some cash to start your project instead of gifts for special occasions (no more birthday presents for now). Assuming this is your first legitimate film project, you probably won’t have past work to show how talented you are—so finding cold investors might be hard.

4. Crowdfund.
Beware that this route might end up creating more work for you in the end. Consider this option once you finish your film and need to raise money to submit to festivals, which will cost you a pretty penny if you’re trying to hit first-tier internationals, not to mention national or regional festivals.

If you do decide to crowdfund, make sure to keep your incentives for
donating exciting. Examples include access to a personal production journal or Skype meetings where you let funders pick your brain about filmmaking. Make a cool poster that you can send and autograph once the film is completed.

Remember to give regular updates on your project; no one likes an unresponsive artist. Think of it this way: Technically, these people are paying you (and so we walk the line of what it means to be truly “independent”).

Once all’s said and done, don’t forget to shout out your backers and thank them for supporting you on all your social media channels.

As an indie filmmaker, I’ve used Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Personally, I prefer Kickstarter. It provides a bigger network and more deeply engaged community. Seed&Spark is great, too: The platform is more specific to the film and indie film community, meaning you can trade goods and services, like equipment and line producer work, instead of just fronting cash.

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Where do I start?

SCRIPT
There is no film without a great script. To get your hands on one, you have two options: You’ll either have to write your own script and get it in front of close friends and industry people (if you know any) for opinions, or you’ll have to find one.

If you write it, don’t be worried about letting too many people see it for fear of them stealing your idea. You want as many opinions about your work as you can get to put it all in perspective. When you’re near completion and feel confident about where the script is, be sure to organize a reading to hear it out loud. You’d be surprised by what works on paper and what doesn’t when put on its feet.

To figure out what makes a great script, try reading screenplays of your favorite movies and studying them. IMSDb is a great resource and includes screenplays ranging from Oscar winners (“The Revenant”) to the classics (“Sunset Boulevard”).

Script Magazine is a good resource for learning the basics of script writing. Once you feel confident enough to put the figurative pen to paper, sign up to Celtx, a great tool for writing in proper screenplay format, for a free subscription.

If you’re looking for a good script instead, try sourcing writers from websites like The Black List or InkTip. Keep in mind, though, that as a filmmaker, you may need to buy the script or at least be able to provide proof of a decent budget to make that story come to life.

Source from your close networks, too. We all have a friend with an amazing story or know someone with the writing chops to help you tell a screen-worthy tale. Finally, don’t forget to tap into college students and creative writing MFA programs for hidden gems.

When looking for the sort of film that would suit a first-time indie filmmaker, remember to keep locations, characters, and effects to a minimum. Special locations require money (or, at the very least, a knowledge of guerrilla filmmaking techniques). More actors means more expenses, and fancy camera movements that require a jib or a Steadicam could take a decent chunk out of your budget. Keep things simple. You can’t imagine how many indie films with fancy camera work but dull stories that exist.

When analyzing the scenes you want to shoot, think of the camera as a conductor for emotion. What view of your subject evokes the feeling you want? Does that feeling grow when you move the camera, or is it more powerful to be still? You have to ask yourself all these questions for every second of your story.

Above all else, the story needs to be captivating and interesting. Ask yourself, what makes this story different, why does this need to be made now? Can you live with this story for one to two years?

Checking out some great films that take place in one location could spark your imagination. “12 Angry Men,” “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” and “Green Room” are good examples of what one can do with four walls, a bit of creativity, and a desire to show rather than tell.

BUDGET
Once you’ve got the story you want to tell, it’s time to figure out what it’s going to take to do it well. Be prepared to map out where every dollar will go. This will help you figure out what camera equipment and lenses you can and can’t afford, what you’ll need to make necessary camera movements, and which lights you’ll need to add depth to your shots. You’ll also need to consider how much money to put aside for actors’ contracts, like SAG-AFTRA’s Low Budget Agreement, how much you need for insurance for your production, plus postproduction. Don’t forget you’ll have to edit, color, and sound mix the final cut.

Unless this is your own camera, your actors are close (nonunion) friends, and you’re stealing all your shots, be prepared to get insurance. Not only will it help you should anything go wrong, it also has the potential to give you access to locations; people feel better when they’re sure they won’t he held liable for any mistake.

Murphy’s law states that something will go wrong at some point in time, so be prepared. Have an emergency stash of contingency money for unforeseen expenses. I’ve had producers throw someone $40 to let us shoot on their property. (I’ve also had producers look the other way when we had to steal a shot.)

Be sure to save money for festival costs, too. What’s the point of making a film no one’s going to see?

When it comes to treating your cast and crew right, be sure to have decent food on set—that’s not pizza. Also, consider paying for their transportation. Keep in mind that some people have regular jobs and other priorities, so always ask for availability before locking anyone in. Especially since you’re probably pulling a lot of favors right now, treat everyone with extra respect. Directing is about being a good leader and maintaining good energy on production, and that’s never more true than on an indie film set.

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If you don’t have a good producer helping you with all this, keeping organized is that much more important.

Once you’ve tallied up the costs, provide a breakdown both for yourself and any investors you’ve picked up along the way to get a clear picture of the financial commitment that needs to be made for this to work.

CLASSES
Most of the inspiration you need is already on film, so start watching how the masters tell their stories and begin to formulate your own voice.

What do I need to consider financially?

EQUIPMENT
Since technology has pretty much democratized filmmaking, there’s no reason why your films shouldn’t look good. Many prosumer cameras and DSLRs can produce images of a high enough caliber to look cinematic. With the right planning and a good cinematographer, you could easily shoot a feature film on an iPhone. As long as your indie film looks and feels like a “real movie,” you’ll be taken seriously. It’s also the minimum criteria for the project to be commercially viable.

If you can afford a Red or an Alexa camera, then do it! But don’t be discouraged by taking the Sony FS7 or Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro as second choices; even the Sony A7S II is a magical DSLR that’s very cheap but creates cinematic images—and it shoots in low light! Depending on how low-budget your indie is, you might not have lights and may want to consider shooting outside. If you need night scenes, a camera like the A7S II shoots in extremely low light.

CREW
If you’re looking to build a skeleton crew of essentials, you need a director, a DP (director of photography), first AC (assistant camera), a producer, and sound recordist. These are the behind-the-scenes people who may wear multiple hats on an indie film production. If you have a larger budget—or you’re just that charismatic—you can bump your crew up by two production assistants, a first AD (assistant director), a grip, a makeup artist, an art director, and a script supervisor. Assigning one experienced person to each of these roles will only enhance the value of your production. Filmmaking is a collaborative process that cannot be done alone. Keep in mind that you will need references for your crew, so start getting mood boards together.

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If you can’t hire these crew members, analyze the scenes in your film and think about what the compositions will look like, what the texture of the room will be, and where the light is coming from. These little details will go a long way to figuring out who is absolutely necessary for your crew.

LOCATIONS
When you were graduating high school and looking at colleges, you went to visit the campus, right? Then you know the importance of seeing a place before investing yourself. The same goes for location scouting. If you can afford a fancy locations manager, or you’re lucky and your friend does it for a living, then use them! They’ve probably seen hundreds of different locations for various types of scenes, and can give you tips on where to get something special. If not, hop on public transportation—or get into your car—and go for an adventure. Look around for where your scenes could take place. Take pictures so you can reference them later and make a more informed choice. The worst thing is getting to set on a location you’ve never seen and being on the clock to learn on the fly. Success in directing comes from complex preplanning, then simple execution.
If you find a suitable location, such as a deli or a shoe store, try going in and talking to the business owner. If he or she is not available, it’ll likely be harder to get permission to film on the premises, but do the right thing and ask first. People can be accommodating. If they’re not willing to do it for free, see what you can offer out of your contingency budget. If you’re renting a place, talk to the coordinator in charge and plan in advance. Always do your research beforehand. Not only will it settle your mind, it’ll make everything on the day go much smoother and show your cast and crew they’re in good hands.

POSTPRODUCTION
After all that lead-up, you shoot film and get great shots for an awesome story—but it will still cost money to complete. Do everything in your power to pay for a picture editor and a sound editor/mixer. Don’t do it yourself, especially if you don’t have experience. The picture will suffer. Even if you can’t pay much, some editors are willing to negotiate for a good project and a passionate director.

Once the final product is locked, you will have to consider your festival route. Maybe your leftover budget allows you to hire a publicist (with programmer connections) to carve a path for your film. Since they do this for a living, they might know the tastes of programmers and have access to their ear.

If you do land your film at a festival, and your budget allows, you might be able to fly out your actors to that festival. Best-case scenario, you land a distributor and need to create assets like trailers, posters, still images from set, closed captions, subtitles, various formats of your film, a 5.1 sound mix, audio stems, and music licenses.
Throughout this whole process, never discount the power of social media. Pull sound bites from your film to promote it. The work may never end if you land a deal, but that’s a good problem to have!

How do I find my cast?

While in preproduction, your characters should always be on your mind. If the budget allows for a casting director, it’s worth hiring one. They do this for a living and are in constant contact with talent you may not have been able to find yourself or even have considered for a role.

If you’re looking to cast your own project, Backstage is a great resource for finding actors. You can set parameters around age, gender, ethnicity, and location for each character and watch the submissions roll in. You can also peruse the talent database, and sort through headshots and demo reels to see if someone stands out.

Speaking of someone standing out, you can also try the Andrea Arnold approach, director of “American Honey,” and ask a person who has caught your eye if they’re an actor. Arnold found her lead, Sasha Lane, on a beach in Florida. You could be as lucky!

You might also have a cousin or a friend who is the character you’re writing. If you do hire them, convey that you want them to be themselves, not a fictional character. Try talking to them normally but in the context of the scene. They may find themselves feeling more comfortable if they’re not trying to capital-A “Act.”

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If you find yourself working with SAG-AFTRA talent then you will need to make an account with the union and sign its Ultra Low Budget Agreement. This grants you the ability to hire professional actors for $100 a day, a bargain that will elevate your production. Even if you plan to do an ultra low-budget or microbudget film, if you use union actors, your production company will need to become a SAG-AFTRA signatory. Be sure to leave at least three weeks to work on union paperwork and processing. Don’t expect them to work for you last minute!

Ultimately, finding the right actors for your project can be a matter of thinking outside the box when it comes to potential resources. You want actors who are curious and able to ask smart questions about your inspiration and vision, release plans, budget, crew size, accommodations, and pay. “This may sound intrusive, but these are all pretty simple questions,” as Backstage Expert David Patrick Green points out. “And if someone can’t answer them, [actors may] find [themselves] in many versions of limbo—either one at a time or all at once.”

So reach out to drama programs and acting schools, use social media to message actors—use it all—and be prepared to answer questions up front.

How do I find my crew?

Word of mouth is a powerful thing in the film world. Know whom you definitely need in your crew, who would be nice to have (budget permitting), and whom you can do without.

If you’re plugged into a film network, just start asking your friends. Have a description of the rate (if any), the hours, location, and a synopsis of the project all ready to show when asked. If you’ve tapped out your network, or are still working on building one, Mandy, Crews Control, and ProductionHUB are all places to look for crew members.

“Great directors hire great crew,” says filmmaker Liz W. Garcia. “Great directors know that it isn’t their job to know everyone else’s job better than they do. Ask the experts. Ask your AD about the schedule. Ask your script supervisor what angle you haven’t gotten. Ask your producer if this scene is working the way it should. You are not an island.”

How do I prepare for shoot days?

Make a production bible. This should have the script marked with notes, all locations with relevant information, contact information for cast and crew, scene breakdowns, character notes with wardrobe references, camera notes, shot references, the shot list, and your storyboard. Lay out your production in an organized manner. This article from No Film School is a great resource for preshoot prep.

Storyboarding is essential, as it helps you visualize the movie and articulate camera movement to the cinematographer and to yourself. It will also help you do the blocking, or movement layout, of the scene, and help you plan your camera location, the lights you’ll need, and how your actors will move within the space. Going through a shot list is the next important step, as it will also help you discern what kind of equipment you will need to get each shot, and explore creative options around any expensive rigs or other rented equipment you may only have a limited time with.

Next up is a shooting schedule that will help you time your scene executions. You must go over this schedule with your DP. They’ll be able tell you how much time they will need to set up lights and rigs, as well as how long it will take to break down the equipment after; be sure to include this in your timing for the day. If time permits, set up a walk-through with your DP on set. When it comes to filming, a safe time allotment for an indie film is about two and a half hours per scene. That time will fly, so if schedules allow, take time beforehand to rehearse with your cast and work on the lines. You really get to sculpt the characters here.

If you’re smart, you will also have the sun’s schedule and weather predictions on hand for your shoot day. You don’t want to make the mistake of getting caught in a storm, especially if you’re working outdoors or are relying heavily on natural light.

Touch base with all your cast members, and make sure they know what wardrobe to bring if they are providing their own. Give everyone detailed instructions on how to get to set if you can’t provide shuttle cars. If you can, book a friend to do all the driving when needed. If you’re ordering food, make sure to place the order at least a day or two in advance. Not every restaurant can accommodate a large last-minute order, and the last thing you want to be focused on during shoot day is where to order from when you’ve got a cast member who’s gluten-free, another who has a severe nut allergy, and another who’s vegetarian. Be sure to ask for any food restrictions you should be aware of before placing the order.

Touch base with your sound recorder as well, and go over the scenes with them so they can figure out what sound gear is needed. Also be sure you’re able to explain what the sound is like at the location. The more information your sound person knows, the better they will be prepared to cover your back!

If you’re lucky enough to snag permits to shoot on a city street and have “No Parking” signs to post, place them on the street poles the night before. You can use this guide for getting permits.

This brings us to a holding area for your cast. Assuming you won’t be able to provide them with trailers, figure out where they can stay when they’re not needed on set. You’ll need a designated space, probably where the food or craft services is stationed, for your cast and crew to rest.

What should I expect on shoot days?

You’re leading this expedition! Get a good night’s rest, wake up nice and early, accept the butterflies in your stomach, and eat a good breakfast. Get to set early for any walk-throughs and last-minute changes and generally to make sure things are running smoothly. It’s always a good idea to be the first one on set to greet your crew and cast.

Start the shoot on time. If you don’t have an assistant director to help you keep time, then set several alarms on your phone. This will help you keep track of how long you’ve been shooting a scene. Remember that you’re on the clock!

Don’t be surprised when things don’t go as planned. You need to be able to think fast and to adapt; never panic. Keep the lunch hour to just that, and keep food and water at the ready. Sometimes you will run over time, but if you keep a good vibe on set, you might be able to get one or two hours of overtime. But don’t push it—read the room and get a gauge for everyone’s energy levels.

Ultimately, don’t take advantage of people who are working for you, especially if you have multiple shoot days with the same cast and crew. If you did the right amount of preproduction prep, all that’s left to do is execute the plan.

What should the final product look like?

The film needs to look as professional as possible. That’s why you budgeted and planned for postproduction. A dead giveaway for an amateur production is bad sound. Viewers can often forgive mediocre picture if the storyline is there, but sound that’s anything but crisp and clear will knock even the most cinematic footage down several pegs.

How do I approach postproduction?

If you are not an editor, and you still have money in your budget, don’t skimp on an editor, sound mixer, or colorist.

A good editor is able to identify all the pieces of the puzzle. Either the editor or the assistant editor will organize all the footage and sync the raw video to the audio channels. They will outline each scene on a sequence, laid out by take. Then they will go through each take and make selects of the best ones.

One option for organizing footage is to ask your editor to make a “to script” edit where they piece together the film according to the script.

Once you hit a certain number of hours in the editing room, you will start to get a feel for the beat of your film, notice any recurring motifs, or develop a transitional style that you like. You’ll be able to more clearly see the chemistry onscreen and start to swap out different takes in sequences. If you trust your editor, you don’t need to sit and rewatch all the footage with them. I personally like to sit with my editor through the take selections—it’s like watching dailies!

If you are an editor, then you’ll have done all this yourself and will be intimately familiar with each take and know what works best. This route isn’t an uncommon one, but as a filmmaker, you have to understand the benefits of getting a seasoned editor to look at your first draft. It’s a fresh pair of eyes on a story that you’ve likely been sitting with for months, if not years. Remember that film is meant to be collaborative, so consider bringing another creative mind to the table to fine-tune your sequence.

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A sound mixer and designer will ensure your film sounds like a film should. They will level out volume on all the cuts and make sure there is consistency in the edit. Working with them is also your chance to start designing any sound effects you may need. Perhaps you want to emphasize a certain sound, or create a motif with a sound. A good sound mixer will help you discover this. When you lay your picture over music, your sound person will also make sure it’s properly mixed and leveled. Pro tip: Get a 5.1 sound mix of your film to take to film festivals with theater screenings.

Finally, a colorist will color your film. It may sound easy, but if you shoot on a nice prosumer camera, and everything is well-lit, there is a lot of information your colorist can manipulate to bring out colors, match others, and create moods with certain styles. Check out the video below to see just how much value a colorist can add to your images.

Consider providing your colorist with a list of reference shots from other movies that you like. Make sure they are consistent and add to your story. The worst is when a film is styled for no reason; it looks like you’re trying to cover up other inadequacies.

Don’t forget to reach out to animators and visual effects artists if your film calls for either of these things. Their expertise can save you in the 11th hour. For example, I used a camera rig attached to a car for a recent shoot, and had to get a visual effects artist to paint out the straps that were tied inside the car. Don’t expect anyone to do this for free; make sure you’ve set aside at least $500 for this.

How do I find distribution?

Think about two other films that your film is like. This should be part of your pitch because it quickly provides reference points for someone who’s unfamiliar with your synopsis or your work. Then you want to construct a one- to two-sentence log line that describes your story in more detail. Check out FilmDaily.tv’s collection of log lines from some classics for ideas on how to write yours.

Film festivals are good places to find distribution because other distributors and programmers attend festivals. I’ve found all my distribution at festival networking parties. For this reason, you need to have a short 60- to 90-second trailer of your film and a one-sheet with your log line, synopsis, and any other relevant information, including visual aids. It’s wise to create a “lookbook” that represents what your film is about. Have this handy on your smartphone or tablet, and show people when you talk about your film! Everyone does this at all the major festivals. It’s not easy to get distribution or convince someone your film is marketable. But don’t be afraid of the search. Everyone needs content, and you might get lucky!

Making movies is not an easy endeavor, so build a solid, trustworthy team and lead them to victory. Best friends are made in the trenches on set as you spend your days creating art together.

Making films is fun—that’s why we all fell in love with cinema in the first place, so never lose touch with that initial drive for wanting to contribute to this medium.

Take your preproduction seriously and be organized. It’ll only help you on the day. Lastly, be grateful to all your cast and crew for trusting you with their time, resources, and careers.

*This post was originally published on June 18, 2018. It has since been updated.

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