Development (also known, appropriately, as “development hell”) is a fuzzy, amorphous, painfully interminable period in which the film’s conception takes shape and the foundational elements are assembled. This description of the movie making process is written to be relevant to independent movie makers outside the Hollywood system, so traditional Hollywood-style development – which is currently mired in some considerable trouble – will not be dealt with here, because it is quite simply no longer a relevant, realistic or viable option for independent movie makers.
1.1 Story development / treatment / scriptment / plot points / structure
In this phase the movie’s story is developed. Every screenwriter has a personal way of developing a story, but anyone who takes the three-act structure seriously will determine the story’s structure as a matter of priority. That means deciding the boundaries between the three acts, as well as the inciting incident and midpoint of Act 2.
Having developed the basic structure of the story, for most screenwriters the next step usually involves writing a scene-by-scene outline of the whole movie. Many writers use an index card for each scene, because they are easy to arrange and re-arrange on a board.
1.2 Writing the screenplay
Only when the writer has a crystal-clear vision of the structure, plot points and scene outline can writing the screenplay truly begin. Many screenwriters make the mistake of diving straight into writing the actual script, which causes all sorts of problems, such as losing sight of the screenplay’s structure or running out of material after only 60 pages.
Proper screenplay formatting must be taken seriously, and although it is perfectly possible to write and format a screenplay with a word processor, dedicated screenwriting software like Final Draft will save you so much time and hassle that it is worth every penny. As James Cameron said, “You can’t win a race without a champion car . . . Final Draft is my Ferrari.”
1.3 Re-writing the screenplay
1.4 Financing the movie
This is by far the most frustrating and painfully tedious part of being an independent filmmaker, but movie making – even so-called “no-budget movie making” – costs money and somebody needs to pay those bills. Securing movie financing is so unpleasant, so utterly soul-destroying, that many movie makers simply blow their own money on making their project instead of waiting a few decades to secure the financing – and who can blame them?
A few words on the current situation in movie financing. I know an exceedingly talented independent movie maker who has two feature films under his belt. The second movie was very good and convincingly showcased his talent; it even secured independent film distribution and made a profit, which is almost unheard of these days! Despite the talent and financial success displayed by his second movie, he has been stuck in development hell on his third feature film for over half a decade now, with not a single penny raised, and the script is very marketable. I hate to think what it would be like if this movie did not have some commercial potential.
You begin pre-production when you know that you can definitely pay the movie’s bills, which means that the money is in the bank and ready to be spent. Anything else is a pipe dream.
After going through the ordeal of development hell, pre-production is veritable bliss: you start to select key crew members and the preparatory stage of the movie-making process begins in earnest. You start to feel less like a salesperson and more like a movie maker. Pre-production involves the following activities – again, they are not always executed in the same order, and they frequently overlap:
Casting is taken care of by Casting Directors, who are very good at finding actors who match the director’s specifications. Obviously the director makes the final choices, but the preliminary selection – which is the most time-consuming and tedious part – is done by casting directors, who are, frankly, worth every penny they charge. They know literally thousands of actors and can quickly find the right actor for a role. They also tend to follow the careers of actors, knowing that, a decade or more down the line, a currently unemployable actor will be hot property, having developed his skills and maturity. I heard this stuff straight from the horse’s mouth! I have had the pleasure of meeting many casting directors and I find them very pleasant and smart. Actors probably loathe them, but as a director I absolutely love them.
Finding appropriate locations can be a real pain. In Los Angeles finding locations is a nightmare if you need something like a spacious office and cannot afford $10,000 per day in location rent. Good deals can always be found, but it’s tough. In my experience the best way to get a good a good deal on fancy locations is to contact an honest film location agent and explain your situation. As always in independent movie making, if they like you they will help you, and if they don’t you are out of luck.
Depending on your budget, location scouts – just like casting directors – are worth every penny, if you can afford them. They do precisely what their name suggests: they go out with your specifications and find candidates for your locations (and in any case they have extensive libraries of locations they already know).
2.3 Shot list
This is simply a numbered list of shots, with a description of the framing and other details such as focal length, camera movement, things to bear in mind and other issues. Sometimes storyboards are included. It is a very personal document and every director has his/her own way of shot listing. Here is my own Shot List Template (free download).
2.4 Script breakdown
The script breakdown is the process in which every single item needed for the movie’s shoot is identified. This includes locations, props, effects – absolutely everything. You need a real movie producer to do this. Don’t learn this lesson the hard way!
2.5 Tech scout
The tech scout is very enjoyable. Having locked all locations and produced the shot list, the director, cinematographer, production designer, line producer and 1st AD go on the tech scout. On TV commercials the producer sometimes also attends. The purpose of the tech scout is for the director to visit each and every location with the heads of department and explain precisely what each shot will entail: where the camera will be, details of camera movement, what the actors will be doing, what the look of the scene must be, and so on. The 1st AD makes a careful note of anything the director says that has important implications for the shoot. A good 1st AD will also warn the director and other heads of department of any problems that may arise, such as background noise that may compromise good location sound recording. The tech scout is one reason for which when a film crew is setting up, it looks like the director is just sitting back and letting the crew get on with it: it is because they were already briefed in great detail during the tech scout well in advance.
2.6 Scheduling by the 1st AD
After the tech scout the 1st AD uses the director’s shot list to draw up a schedule for each day of the shoot. This is one of the main roles of 1st ADs, and a new director, no matter how brilliant, should always hire an experienced 1st AD and trust his/her schedule. A common practice is to schedule shots in the order of lighting or camera setups (whichever is the most time-consuming), not in chronological order, so don’t argue with your 1st AD if the schedule is not in chronological order: it almost never is. I love 1st ADs!
2.7 Production design
After the scout the production designer designs and oversees the production of set pieces, and arranges the procurement of anything that needs to be purchased: plants, furniture, etc. The costume designer does the same.
Gasp! After the stress of pre-production, the even more intense stress of production finally begins, but the stress of principal photography is a very positive stress: it is adrenaline, excitement, sheer creative bliss. Many directors openly hate shooting because they don’t enjoy the pressure. I absolutely love it.
3.1 Principal photography – setting up
Each day’s schedule begins with the call time, which is the time at which the crew must report to the location. The 1st AD immediately begins to oversee the crew, and the director need not be around at this stage, although you would be wise to be there and start thinking about the shots (see how to direct).
While the crew unloads the trucks and sets up, I like to walk the actors through the shot and determine what they do in relation to the camera. This is known as blocking the shot. I have my director’s viewfinder around my neck at all times and start refining and tweaking the shots I have in mind, sometimes radically changing them. Planning shots in advance and thinking about them a lot is great, but there is no substitute for experimenting with the viewfinder with the actors on their marks. This is when the shots really take shape.
3.3 Setting up shots
Having chosen the focal length, camera placement, the actor’s marks and other details such as camera movement, the director tells the cinematographer where to put the camera, which lens to use and the details of any camera movement. Different directors get involved with camerawork to different extents, but this is what I do.
3.4 Checking the take
After a take, the director reviews the take on the video monitor and decides what needs to be tweaked. The process is repeated until the director is satisfied. In my experience reviewing takes is a crucial part of achieving good results. You are essentially answering the questions “Is this what I had in mind?” and “How can we make it better?” I can assure you that in the pressure of production, reviewing takes with a cool head is more difficult than it sounds.
Reviewing takes in the editing room is the opposite: you have the time, mental clarity and perspective to notice every single little thing in a take that could have been done better — it’s excruciating, but very instructive, which is why I counsel all ambitious filmmakers to edit at least their first few projects themselves. The lessons you will learn are priceless — you won’t ever be able to pay someone to teach you them. You just have to get on with it and see for yourself.
Movie editing is a sublime art. I am adamant that the best movie makers have an impeccable understanding of movie editing. Every serious movie maker must read Grammar of the Film Languageand absorb its contents fully.
4.2 Sound mixing
Sound mixing involves adding any necessary sound effects, setting the level of each soundtrack and making the soundtrack as seamless as possible. I personally did this on my first movie and it was a lot of work, but well worth the effort.
The composition and production of the movie’s music is another aspect that I really enjoy. Talented composers are a joy to work with.
Do not be shy about directing the composer on the following aspects: when a music cue must start and stop; what instruments you want to hear; whether it should be happy or sad; its speed; and anything else you want. A movie composer once told me that their job is to finish the film, and he was absolutely right. Tell the composer what you want and a good composer will be delighted to make you happy. Listen to the demo tracks and suggest changes. It is just like directing actors or cinematographers.
4.4 Test screenings
When you have your first cut of the movie – including music – it is always a good idea to have a test screening with a small number of people you trust. There is nothing wrong with this. Even James Cameron has blind spots. On his movie “Titanic” there was a chase sequence that he thought was brilliant and that multiple test screening audiences absolutely hated. He openly admits that he would never have guessed it was a misjudged scene until the test audiences made it clear in their feedback.
5.0 Movie distribution
When the movie is complete, the independent movie maker – broke and exhausted, but proud – is ready to be creamed by sleazy independent film distributors. Don’t let this happen to you: read my guide to independent film distribution, paying particular attention to the warning I was given about never allowing a distributor to get a sneak preview of your movie.
The other sharks waiting expectantly for the naïve movie maker are the film festivals, which charge considerable fees to consider your film for admission into the festival and ultimately award prizes on the basis of their own arbitrary, self-indulgent agenda, tossing the hungry, wide-eyed filmmakers onto the street after their money made the festival possible. That said, film festivals are great fun if you can manage your own expectations, and they can open some doors for you and our film. They are certainly not as much of an unmitigated scam as film and video competitions. In the final analysis, film festivals are a necessary evil, and if you go in knowing what to expect, you can at least retain some dignity.
Thanks for reading. Having read through this post after writing it, it does not escape my notice that it might make independent movie making sound like some sort of insane self-inflicted torture. It can certainly feel like that sometimes, and I am a keen proponent of reality checks, but if you have been bitten by the movie-making bug, you have probably noticed that you have no choice and that you are in this for life, whether you like it or not. Welcome to the club.