Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Making Indie Films


We were casting for our new film, Next Victim Please. Catchy title, ain’t it? You have no idea how ironic. Anyway, there’s this thing going around in the industry where any actor in an acting class or acting school or getting advice online, you name it; they tell actors to never audition in someone’s private home or apartment, because you never know what kind of twisted freak might be there luring pretty young actors into their lair.

Now, the logic of this escapes me. A sex maniac could just as easily rent out a small office space for a day in some sequestered hole in some old Hollywood high rise where you could get lost and never be found until the stink got bad enough for the cleaning lady to pitch a bitch fit. But, a family man like me, with wife and kids, living in an upscale neighborhood, and holding auditions on a bright sunny Saturday afternoon, in my ground floor townhouse apartment with lots of nosey neighbors checking out the hot female actors coming in; I would be considered a threat to these ladies’ safety.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no goody two-shoes with impeccable morals. I find pretty young women actors just as attractive as the next casting director or studio producer working out of Warner, Universal, or that dingy old Hollywood high rise.

Why this nebulous and un-authored, unaccounted for rule about private residences exists, is beside the point. The fact remains I had about four hundred people respond to my casting call. I selected about 50 to audition. Half of them didn’t respond. Half of those remaining called to cancel, and most of those people, who didn’t have a husband in a car wreck, a bad cold, or some other fatal emergency, didn’t want to audition in a private residence. I guess that excuse has now dethroned the time tested ‘dog ate my homework’ Regardless, I really don’t care why or if someone wants to cancel.

Of course, they waited until the day of the audition, 30 minutes before their scheduled times to call and tell me this. I guess I missed where I was pissing in their Wheaties.

I really should try to keep track of these industry standards. Let’s review.

  1. Never go to auditions in private residences, but dark, dank, tucked away cubby hole rented out offices in old Hollywood high rise buildings are OK..
  2. It’s alright to submit to auditions, though, without regard for where they take place, just to get your name in there.
  3. If you cancel, be sure to give a real good excuse, like
    1. family emergency,
    2. have a cold, or
    3. If you’re really feeling sadistic, tell them you’d rather not audition in a private residence, since they could be some kind of sick pervert.
  4. Never cancel sooner than 30 minutes before you’re expected to show up.
  5. Keep bitching to your friends about how hard it is to break into the industry.

Back at the pervert’s apartment, I end up with about 25 people who actually show up to audition. But, why am I complaining? These 25 were pretty damned good. I had done this before and at that time (it must have been before terrorism was a popular government propaganda subject and before paranoia had become an epidemic) I had a much bigger turnout, about 150 people. But, of those only 5 or 6 were worth considering. The rest either didn’t fit the roles or just sucked. But, these 25 were about as good as those 5 or 6. Ironically, my whole process had improved to net me a selection of 5 times as many good people to choose from, while having to sit through one-fifth as many auditions. Well, maybe government propaganda to proliferate paranoia was pretty cool (say that fast 3 times). But, you can’t really give them the credit. It could just as well have been a full moon, if you know how flighty union actors are.

Now, I was not doing this alone. I had my wife, my co-producer-co-director-screenwriter Nancy and her husband helping me out. We were doing this. But, it did get boring as one actor after another called to say they thought the audition was downtown and since it was at an apartment they didn’t feel comfortable coming. Hey, they could just as well of said they were on a drunk binge the night before. What do I care why they couldn’t come?

We’re sitting around waiting for the next cancellation and we start talking about expanding the script to a feature, where we can get a sound stage; stuff like that. Nancy is actually quite happy, because of the first five people who did show, she was already willing to cast the 3 leads we needed. So, she takes a headshot of a male actor and holds it next to a female actor, and starts play acting the dialog, like cut out dolls. Ok, she’s lost it. Of course, as soon as we’ve found something constructive to do, some damned actor has to actually show up for an audition.

Alright, you can’t really judge actors in an audition. They’re always nervous, or on the other end of the spectrum, they’re so up on their game that they’ll never be as good when it’s time to shoot the film. Then again, they might be really uptight about auditioning in front of a serial killer. But, if an actor can’t risk being raped or murdered for their craft, they can’t be too serious anyway.

Two more actors audition and leave and we sit back and start discussing how one sucked and we’re laughing and joking around. What we forgot was that my wife had opened the window and those two actors could hear everything we were saying. Oh well, I always did feel that casting people should give honest feedback to actors. I’ve been to many auditions myself and at pretty much every one of them you get, “that was great”, or “we’ll definitely be in touch”. Yea right. How would they know that before seeing the next 50 actors on the list for the role I was going for?

Then there was the actor who shows up and doesn’t want to shake hands because she has poison oak. The other actor playing next to her wasn’t too relaxed either when she leaned on her in the scene.

Now, we’ve been auditioning women all day for two female roles. All the guys cancelled or didn’t show for the one male role. What’s up with that? Well, finally one guy shows. He doesn’t even have lines. All he has to do is drop a box full of stuff and act annoyed. Well this particular guy was great. So he leaves and Nancy decides she’s really leaning toward him for the part. Some actors just nail it.

The phone rings. My 10 year old, Chris, answers it upstairs, “Hello.”

“Oh, hi. I’m calling about an audition? Is this the right place?”

He yells down to us, ‘Dad! Someone calling for an audition!”

I pick up the line, “Hello”

“Hi, my name is Molly Ringwood and I was scheduled for an audition at 1:30? Can you tell me if this is an office or residence, because MapQuest says it’s an apartment.”

“I didn’t know MapQuest had that information.”

“It’s just that, if it’s a residence I really can’t come. I don't attend auditions at residences because I am alone out here and no one would know if I went missing. I apologize for the late notice.”

“OK. One less body to burry in the cellar I guess. At least now you have less competition out there. I often wonder why apartments with nosey neighbors in upscale neighborhoods are more dangerous than a tucked away backroom rented out hole in an old Hollywood high rise. I guess you're a victim of mass paranoia. Anyway, I jest. I understand. Well, not completely. “

I continue, “However, we will have callbacks probably in April at a downtown location. We just have to find the right tucked away backroom office. So, you're welcome to visit us again at that time, at your own risk of course.”

She forces a slight laugh, “Well, ok then. Good luck with your project.”


I walk over to Nancy and tell her, “Scratch off Molly for the 1:30.”

“I already scratched her at 2 o’clock, 15 minutes ago. What was her excuse?”

I give her a blank stare.

She goes back to trying out some new dialog with the headshot paper dolls.

As Clint Eastwood would say, ‘Enough of that horseshit.”

The Form versus Function Debate

I often get into discussions, mostly on the Internet message boards, about what a screenwriter’s motivation is, or should be. Ultimately this boils down to two opposing camps of reasoning. One says the writer is an artist, must strive for great quality, must move the audience, must make a profound mark with their work. The other camp says fuck all that artsy bullshit; the writer is a business person who must watch the market trends, foresee them, target specific genres, target specific production companies, give them what they want and what will sell.

I’m always on the artsy side. But, if you must look at it from a business perspective then look at the whole picture.

There are at least around 40,000 screenplays submitted to Hollywood production companies every year. Hollywood actually produces about 400 films a year. That means they shelve or trash 39,600 screenplays submitted to them every year. In this business model your chances of having your screenplay sold are 1 in 400. That’s a 0.25% chance. Not 25 percent, zero point two five percent; one quarter of one percent. Well at least they’re better odds than the lottery.

You can always improve your chances by targeting a production company with a story in the genre and style they like to produce; but, then so can your competitors. Where will all this lead?

Even if you make a sale in a targeted market, what does that get you? Let’s list some targeted markets:

  1. Horrors. No. Cheap horrors.
  2. Romantic Comedies
  3. Spy Thrillers
  4. Kids film, Disney stuff
  5. Animations
  6. Buddy films
  7. Girl buddy films
  8. Girl buddy films with roles for 18 to 30 year olds
  9. Dark girl buddy films with roles for 18 to 30 year olds
  10. Dark girl buddy films with roles for 18 to 30 year olds incorporating horseback riding.

OK. The list can go on and on. There are as many categories of what production companies are looking for as there are production companies. Not only that, but these companies keep changing what they want all the time and a writer never knows until they advertise for it. When they do advertise, do you think they’ll wait for a few months to see if some writers come up with what they want? Fuck no. These are arrogant Hollywood producer pricks. Well, some of them are very nice (just in case I need to sell one of them someday). But, they want their script now, the day they post for them. That means you have to have your dark girl buddy script with roles for 18 to 30 year olds incorporating horseback riding ready to go at any moment. That’s the reality of the business of selling screenplays, at least as far as I know, not ever having sold one yet.

Now, there are other approaches to selling or getting a screenplay produced, thank God.

I am a produced screenwriter. I didn’t sell my work to anyone. I didn’t target any market or production company. I did have a stable of scripts on my shelf gathering dust that were ready to go when the call came in for that dark girl buddy thing. But, I never sold any of those. So, what is this other approach, from the artist camp?

Actually there are numerous approaches here. In summation, it’s whatever works. It depends on your talent and resources. What I did was produce and direct my own screenplay. It’s just a short submitted to festivals and has yet to be seen anywhere except to friends and festival screeners. But, that’s equally true about scripts produced in the business camp. Only 0.25% of Hollywood scripts get produced, remember? There’s no telling how many indie scripts get produced. But, I’d bet the ratio is much higher. People in the indie world tend to write and direct their own work. So, they see it through production. Well, not always. A lot of them fizzle out due to the filmmakers realizing they don’t have the stamina, talent or resources to see a production through, not only shooting but editing and distribution (to festivals anyway) as well.

But, you have better chances of writing the story you want to write and getting it produced in the indie market. Why? Aside from the obvious as explained so far, you’d be writing on your own terms as an artist, not as a prospective studio newbie. Writing on your own terms means writing what you know you’re good at and want to write about. It means disregard for tempering the story for ratings or genre or what ever some studio producer is looking for. If you can come up with a good compelling story all you need next is to produce it or find an indie producer to do it.

Well you might be thinking that’s just as intimidating as going the business route. Well, maybe. But, look at the risk reward ratio. As a business person you do that, right? In the ‘please the production company’ camp, your reward is possibly an option. That means they buy your script cheap for a year or two and shelve it while they see if they can get a production together. There’s a great likelihood if you get that far with them, they’ll want some rewrites, maybe for free. They’ll also want some other writers to fuck it over good.

Since, it’s very likely you’re dealing with a cheapo fly by night outfit; you’re not looking at making big bucks here. Well, maybe your reward there is a film deal. They produce your script. It actually happens sometimes (1 out of 400 annually). Then what? You have your cheapo horror or girl buddy thing on Blockbuster’s shelves. Well, maybe just the video guy’s store down on the corner. What’s that got you? I guess you’re listed in IMDB now. Nothing too profound, but a listing at least. Of course, getting your indie into a festival puts you there too.

But, statistics lie. You knew that, right. 1 out of 400 isn’t your odds, because of those 300 to 400 produced only about 5 or 10 are from newbie spec unproduced writers. But it gets worse. There are 45,000 to 65,000 screenplays written every year and each one is up for a shot. So, your one screenplay has to compete with all of those. The odds aren’t too good. But, a lot of those are crap. If you know how to stand out from the rest, you could maybe get a 1 in 100 shot. Not bad. But compare that with producing your own film, which is a sure thing, provided you see it through. But that’s another story.

Compelling and Original Work

Even if you make your film, before you start you need a compelling story or script. In the festivals, again, you’re competing with thousands of other entrants. So, you have to prove your stuff is way above the rest.

What is compelling and original work? Compelling means keeping their interest. The script is a page turner. The film is something you can’t take your eyes off of. Without being compelling the audience gets bored.

Original means it hasn’t been done before. Well that’s almost impossible. But, at least there should be something basic in the story or structure that is original. Without being original the audience is disappointed.

Business people have the logic that the tried and successful things that worked in the past markets can work again. To them changing up a few elements and reworking the story is a good safe investment. So, we have the many sequels and trilogies and mini-series. But, if you’ve ever seen sequels you’ll know that they are almost always a disappointment from the first work. That’s because in the first work the story was told and ended. The sequel continues this already ended story, so we already know where it’s going and there’s little chance of anything surprising, compelling, or original.

I suppose there are exceptions like the Star Wars episodes or the Harry Potter series. But, these works were originally written as series by the writers. They weren’t contrived by studio executives and producers looking to make a new investment. They are stories that span the series; not clones of the first episode.

Some will tell you that statistics show that family oriented films make the most money and have the largest market. That’s true. But, so what? If that’s not your market and what you’re best at writing then it’s a mistake to write for it. Remember 399 out of 400 writers fail to sell their script. A lot of them play the odds of the markets too. Even at 1 to 100 what are your chances, unless you’re way above the rest?

All these things, markets, genre, producer expectations, business logic; these are all very secondary to a true work of art. They are limitations that hinder free creativity. They squelch creativity. Some will say the movie business is a business, not art.

Hey, it’s a business of selling art. So, the art must first exist before it can be sold. After you create the art, use all the business and marketing you want. But using the business logic to restrict and impose upon artists is a moral crime; it’s the cart before the horse, bass ackwards.

I like to look at filmmaking as an art first. This is how is see it from an artist’s view.

The hard core facts about making movies are that limitations are not imposed by producers or some nebulous Hollywood mindset. They are imposed only by the choice of tools used by the filmmaker. You may argue. Producers pay the bills, so you have to please them. Bullshit. If you can come up with something original and compelling, producers will flock to your door regardless of structure. It's a compelling and original script that sells, not whether it meets conventional structure. Of course, after they buy it, they’ll likely want to change it, rewrite it, bring in a veteran writer, and if you’re not careful about retaining credit or rights in your contract, you’re left with very little. But, at that point, yea, you have to please the producer. I just have a problem trying to please some yet to be seen producer before you ever even get a nibble. Get the nibble first, then sellout. That’s not really selling out. That’s just compromising.

The business minded, non-artist, writers are hell bent on writing in the confines of conventional structure, because they feel conformity and convention is the only way to fit into the business model. For them, they have self-imposed this array of restrictions some call rules, which in fact only exist in their heads. They may even become expert at it and come up with some original work. But, their originality is severely limited. If only they would let go of the self imposed restrictions they could reach greater heights. We can never know what heights can be reached because these conventions and restrictions have been so ubiquitous that there are very few who have gone beyond them.

Of those that have, their work is so different that the conventional Neanderthal-like minds have to label and categorize them into some safe far away place, perhaps called experimental, abstract, or expressionist. Then these works are judged by the public before ever being seen. Some of this is justified because a lot of these works are crazy, a lot suck. But, because people are so averted to letting loose of the conventional structures they never expand into these areas and the full potential there is never realized. It may never yet have been realized because real writers are afraid to try it.

David Lynch, director of Mulholland Dr., Blue Velvet, Dune, Eraserhead, and recently, Inland Empire, is one exception who has done it. He has realized a potential beyond convention successfully. He created film as art, even abstract art. But, he is one where there could be hundreds. He started as an abstract artist out of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts. He won an AFI grant to do his first film that launched his Hollywood career. He never worried about conventions or business as far as I know. Though, I’m sure after he had made his mark and already was a Hollywood player, he did take it into consideration. After all, as strange and unconventional as Mulholland Dr. and his other features are, they’re way more conventional than the stuff that won him a grant from AFI.

There are others, more conventional, but who also break lots of conventions successfully. Francis Ford Coppola did it with The Godfather, and Apocalypse Now; Sofia Coppola with Lost in Translation, Bertolucci with The Conformist, and recently The Dreamers. There are others like Richard Linklatter with Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, two films with two characters who do pretty much nothing through the whole film but have a conversation, and yet it is very compelling. These films relied more on visuals, characters, and cinematic elements than they did on story or structure, especially conventional structure.

Well I think so, anyway.

Classical Music Paradigm

Consider classic music as an art. Consider that movies are also an art, like classical music. It’s hard to argue against this. Both are art and businesses at the same time. But again, the art must be created before it can be sold.

Why has classical music survived over the centuries? What is it about music that makes it work so well? There’s nothing that has the same effect as music does. Well, maybe art like painting or sculpture. But, filling the sense of hearing with music is unparalleled in painting and sculpture. Music gets your full attention. You can stop everything, close your eyes and listen to music. It can move you, inspire, sooth you, make you cry, make you happy, make you dance. But, music can also be listened to while doing other things and it magically makes doing those things a lot more fun.

Now, film too has this potential. Movies make people cry, make them happy, inspire them, and scare them. Film has even more potential because it already incorporates music. It takes advantage of the power of music and adds image. Although, music in film has to be more low key and in the background to not detract from the image or story.

Film is severely limited due to the expense involved. You can’t sit down at the piano and create a film. You need at least a camera, but also sound equipment, lights, experts to run them, actors, and editors. So, it becomes an investment which means a business venture which means business people will want to minimize their risk. So, they impose upon filmmakers to create, using some conventional business wisdom. That is wrong. Film can never reach the heights that music has under this system.

A lot of indie filmmakers know this and do experiment with structure to try creative things. With new technologies they can approach the music model of sitting at the piano. They can get a good camera with sound and do it all with almost studio quality.

Indie filmmakers can even get professional actors and professional writers to help them out for free or way below the standard rates, with some contractual stipulations. The unions even have contracts for this purpose, so long as they are nonprofit and very low budget, like you’ll see in film festivals.

So, indie films are the real future and present in the art of making movies. Indie filmmakers can experiment. They can create some classics.

It’s true there are already some classic films in existence made through the business model. But they are few among the very many. Today the music business proliferates with many successful works in many categories. But, filmmakers haven’t reached this height yet.

Think about the music charts. There are hit charts, country charts, and other genres. A hit chart has 50 to 100 hits songs that will have a good cycle of a few months, even a year. Films have the top ten at the week’s box office. A few weeks in and these films disappear to the DVD shelves. The film business could have the 100 hit list. But, they first have to make films that don’t suck. They have to make hits. They have to allow artists to create before the business people move in to market the work. Somehow, movie business people can’t or won’t see this fact.

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