From a Vimeo clip to a narrative short: Working with other people (part 2)

This is part 2 of a series of posts about producing a micro budget film. It deals with the most important resource in filmmaking: people.

The challenge with making a film is working with other people. The costs of filmmaking are the costs of people, not technology or other resources. Hollywood spends the bulk of its production budgets on salaries, not celluloid or gear. This is why all the people out there saying that cheaper camera gear will make a significant impact on the ability to make films (in the traditional sense) are very, very wrong. No new film camera will come out that will “even the playing field” and make it almost as easy for John Doe to make a film as Hollywood. If something is going to “change the game” it is not going to be the gear. Period.

If you are filmmaker, at least if you want to direct or produce, and you think more about your relationship with camera brands than people, you are off track.  You are not a filmmaker, you are a camera gear consumer. It’s fine to be a camera gear consumer – to take enjoyment from buying something nice and enjoy it and talk about it with your peers. But understand that it is not bringing you closer to making narrative films. And also understand, that most of the internet discussion on boards and blogs, are dominated by camera gear consumers, not filmmakers (more on that on an earlier article of mine). If there is more talk about what to buy than how to use what you’ve bought, then that’s a hint.

Ok, so most probably you’ll need the participation of other people to make a narrative short. I now want to make simple categories of the kind of relationships you can have with people who might work on your film. With a film that has a real budget, this is totally different. But this article is about micro budget films (few thousand dollars budget). It’s important to understand that these are not categories of people – the same person can wear any of these hats on different occasions. It’s a description of how people approach your film and this defines the dynamics of working with them.

Someone who makes a living working in films, and you pay him/her the standard insdustry rate – whatever that might be where you’re shooting. If they didn’t deliver, they’d probably not be working in the industry, and you can fire them and probably get someone else instead. The obvious problem is that you probably can’t afford to hire people at industry rates (if you can, this article is not intended for you, really). Even if, on occasion, you can afford to hire someone like this, look out for a few things:
– That person will expect a certain standard in the way things are organized and done, from lunch to parking. In every country there are certain norms, formal or informal, that they might expect and that you might not be able to deliver on if the rest of the crew is not working on the same professional terms.
– Do you have the confidence to command someone with a lot more experience than you? If they are truly professional, they will only talk behind your back so that you can’t hear them, and they will not grin directly towards you when you are making mistakes.
– If you pay anything less than industry rates, but the person accepts the job just for the money, you might get someone with a “you get what you pay for” attitude, which is poison.

That’s only the negative, of course. The positive is that they’ll probably know what they are doing and be reliable, which is pretty much the only kind of people to make films with. But you can’t afford them, so moving on …

Someone who would not normally get a paid job in the position you are offering them, and takes the position to learn and prove himself. This is a good option because they’ll want to do a good job and be seen as professional, understanding that their success depends on these things. Of course, the problem is that they are still learning and are on on an unknown point of the learning curve.
Just watch out for the poser: This might be someone a bit damaged by the hierarchical barracks style atmosphere film sets sometimes have. They are looking for ways to inflate their own bruised ego in some way. This can be like an entry-level “assistant” who was yelled at for making a mistake and now, because he is the DoP of a small short, he is looking for ways to deal with his insecurity. They’ll use every chance they get to assert how industry-savvy they are – sometimes at someone else’s expense. They’ll also put unnecessary demands for equipment or other things just to appear more professional. Usually, what they like talking about during breaks is how someone fucked something up once, and that person is from a category they have an insecurity complex about (women, film school grads, actors, etc). Learn to spot it, and don’t follow them. And don’t allow them to make the other honest people helping you out feel bad.

This is the person who isn’t really looking to work the position that you asked them to be in, but decides to help you out, either because they need your help later on or because you were helping them out. The good thing about this type is that they’ll be understanding of the difficult position you are in – they’ve been there. They know why the food was cheap and the schedules long. However, they might not be so very specialized or enthusiastic about the role they are fulfilling, and it might be difficult to form long term collaborative relationship with them in that role, because essentially they want to be doing something else. The wannabe director who is helping with the props is going to turn sour by the 5th film you are making that he is just helping out on.

Of course, and invaluable resource to have. You can’t make micro-budget films without them providing cars, locations, contacts, etc. Simply impossible. What you need to look out for, however, are the false favors. They are not involved with filmmaking and might not understand, for instance, what a disaster it can be for your project if they take back promise of giving access to a location at the last minute. And those friends you asked to be extras might be tempted to go out the night before and arrive 4 hours late and totally ruin your schedule. They assume you’ll forgive them fucking you up because they are your friends; and you will, because they are your friends. But it’s just as destructive.

OK, this is a special category. It’s not someone who you solicit to work on the project, it’s someone who is part of the project. This is wonderful, because it means someone who is as passionate as you about it and who is willing to put as much time and energy as you are into it, right? Probably the single biggest problem of indy micro-budget films is that there is really only one driving motor behind it, usually the “director” who is really also working as a producer and probably 5 other hats as well because they make themselves ultimately responsible for everything. If you are working only with people who have limited time, and you need to do a lot of things that aren’t easy to achieve, it’s pretty much down to you. So if you can find someone who is ready to take on the responsibility of the film happening, not just help with specific roles or tasks – great. But bear in mind what this entails: Do you share the same vision? Do you both get the same thing out of this?

For example, the terrible heart breaking reality for people who accept someone’s request to “produce” a micro-budget film, and then put into it what it takes to make it happen, is that they get pretty much nothing in return. If someone is asking you to produce their micro-budget film, to really produce it and be responsible for making it happen, understand this:

– You will get no money. You’ll probably end up losing some even if you didn’t intend to.
– You will end up using and abusing a lot of people’s favours to save the project.
– At the end of a micro-budget film no one will ask: “Who produced this?”
– No official body, or industry identity, will give any merit to your credit on this.
– You will get a lot of experience, however.

If your film turns out to be good, the glory will go to the person credited as the director. This person will be able to use the film to demonstrate his or her ability, etc. It goes the other way as well: If the film didn’t turn out to be as good as people hoped, it’s the director who is in the hot seat. This is why the person who is credited as “director” often ends up being the real producer – that is: The person ultimately responsible for the production happening, because they have the highest stake, even though someone else has the “producer” title. If someone else is really producing it, it’s usually someone starting out, or the director’s girlfriend/boyfriend or something like that. Anyone who considers accepting to “produce” someone else’s micro-budget project should make sure they understand what is being asked. Why do we call it their project, for example? A lot of silly people out there want to be directors but don’t want to do the hard work, and think someone will magically appear and do all the boring bits for them but otherwise let them do whatever they feel like.

It’s really unfortunate that often it’s the same person directing and de-facto producing, because after doing the massively difficult job of producing a film, almost nobody has the time and energy to also direct it. Directing films is hard. You need to be with the actors, the script, the storyboard, the shotlist, the rest of the crew – you need to be making sure the vision gets to the screen. If you are making phone calls to the rental house and stressing about locations at the same time, you’ll need to be almost superhuman to achieve quality result. So it’s pretty much a loose-loose situation :)

A short note about ethics …

Check out this flowchart - that's one take on the constant dilemma of creative people when asked to work for free.

A lot of creative people starting out build up a certain frustration when they encounter how  they are often expected to work for free photographing, singing, painting or filming, while a dentist or a carpenter is usually not asked that in the same situation. Also, with the global recession, the practice of commercial companies of hiring “interns” who aren’t really there to learn but simply to perform unpaid labour has increased, and this happens a lot in the creative industries.

So maybe it is dubious of me to be suggesting any way of working together than the first one, of simply paying the standard rate. And certainly, I do not support the practice of getting someone to work for you for free on a for profit basis. If they are working for free so that you can earn more money then you are a rat. BUT …

I believe Art has a social value of it’s own. I also believe that not everything has to be within a profit system and that getting involved in something can be very rewarding even if you don’t get paid. Personally, I’ve spent a lot of energy and time on other people’s projects without pay, sometimes I’ve gotten something out of it in another way than money, other times not. What I do propose, however, is some guide about how to make this interaction pleasant and for everyone:

For the person asking for participation:
– Be upfront about what the deal is: If you are not offering money, or low money, say it in the first 3 sentences. Don’t waist people’s time or make it awkward later on.
– Do not show a lack of ambition or complain on a project where other people are putting in their time to help you. If you do so, you deserve to be shot. You are dissing everyone else’s contribution. It is up to you to motivate people to follow you.
– Customs and conventions wary, but generally food, snacks and expenses such as transportation are always included. The person working with you should not need to mention this. Simple sandwiches and a bottle of coke lying somewhere in a bag are not enough.

For the person participating:
– If you are in, you are in. Otherwise, do everyone a favor and just say no. If you’ll participate in the pro-bono job provided that you don’t get an offer of a paid job later on – everyone will understand your position – but you need to say that up front, not 3 days before a shoot.
– The person asking you to work for them for free is not paying you so they are not your boss.  But please keep in mind that they might have put a lot of effort into this project and will ultimately be judged by it, and their stake is high, so respect their position there. Try to respect their authority and not undermine it to others – even if you are greater or have more experience. Being the person who is leading is really hard.

 Next chapter: Locations

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