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5 Easy Tips for the Indie Filmmaker

Maria Frostic - Main Iceberg LagoonMaking great movies isn’t a walk in the park.

For small filmmakers, it’s about more than just budget concerns–Kickstarter has, in some ways, solved that problem–so what else affects the production of a movie? From casting to building a team, the small details are what reap big rewards down the road, So keep this checklist in mind next time you’re planning a project, and you’ll be more successful!

1. Make your ambition work for you, not against you.

When it comes to low-budget movies, they don’t have the money, they don’t have the A-listers, and, most of all, they don’t have the equipment — so how can they compete?

Aesthetics that require a Steadicam or setting up a track for a dolly shot can take a lot of time out of your tight schedule. Save the 10-minute sweeping vistas for Joe Wright and pick a style of filming that complements your final goal and is also doable on your budget and with the team you have. There are great indie films and shorts available on YouTube and Vimeo like “Writer’s Block” and “A Film About Walking in Slow Motion” to learn from. Watch some festival-winning films or shorts at your budget level to get an idea of ways to work on a shoestring.

2. Casting makes a difference.

There are plenty of great films out there that have no-name actors in them; in fact, almost all big actors started in small films. What does this mean for a low-budget film? You can get by without big names. What you can’t afford is to have not-great talent.

Put in the time early to locate and audition promising talent. Getting a casting director can actually be one of the more affordable options, because having a well-cast movie does wonders for production value. Don’t be afraid to alter script or story elements to take advantage of the unique talents of your cast. And always give the edge to an actor who is hungry. If you’ve assembled a cast of actors dying to be discovered, you’ve got a great recipe for success.

3. A good script will win you the big points.

Those blockbusters that make a ton of money in the summer (I’m talking to you, Thor) are not about the script; they’re about the special effects and the big stars. For a movie that doesn’t have those two, it can seem a little daunting–until it’s not.

A great script (and great, unknown screenwriting talent) can put a film on the next level and make a viewer forget the shortcomings that a small-budget film can have thanks to an enthralling story.

4. Always shoot a safety take.

“One more for safety” can be a joke on movie sets, but in many instances that extra take can save a film when the video hits the cutting room. After long days of shooting (and low-budget independent films always have long days of shooting), everything is going to start looking good. But the cost is always more to go back to a location and fly the actors back months later. Better to spend a few more minutes while you have everything assembled. Play it safe!

Pro-tip: Also shoot during the day whenever possible. Great lighting can get expensive at night, and shooting in empty locations in the after hours can as well. So shoot in the day, and shoot when places are open for regular business. Sure, you might get crazy ladies in the background of your shots at the grocery store, but at least it’s authentic.

5. Make sure your team is in it for the long haul.

Small films can have the money curse; no matter how much heart is poured into them, everything can come to halt at the last drop of a penny. Prepare your team from the beginning for potential setbacks because every film has them. Inexperienced crews are less likely to expect setbacks and the ones who are most likely to encounter them. Make sure to psyche them up, and also be sure to have “rain cover” — a plan B for when a location falls through or an actor comes down with food poisoning.

If you’re concerned with how your filmmaking crew will pay the bills while you’re working on your project—and you’re aware that paying the rent is a big deal for everyone—you can build in adjustment room in your shoot schedule to compensate, and it won’t totally derail your timeline.

Movies are more than just a way to express an idea; they express how we see the world. Keep these tips close to heart, and remember that in the end, good movies can get good financial backing and go from nothing to something in a split second. Just look at Napoleon Dynamite.

Cassie Phillips is a culture junkie and entertainment nerd, working behind the scenes on film sets and covering them for local internet and news outlets. She hopes these tips on what indie filmmakers should consider before starting their next project will help more small films get financed, get made, and get famous.

Image credit: Maria Frostic – Main Iceberg Lagoon" (CC BY 2.0) by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Movie Review: Begin Again (Society of Composers talkback screening)

Begin Again posterSpecial review from filmmaker & musician Ukelilli. Enjoy. -jo

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Last Friday, my husband and I were lucky enough to get into a Society of Composers and Lyricists (SCL) screening of Begin Again, a film from this summer directed by Joe Carney, the director behind Once. (As you will recall, Once was the sleeper hit musical from 2006 that introduced the world to The Frames’ Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. It was then workshopped into a play and became a multiple Tony Award winner in 2012.)

Any-hoo, I had a lot of interest in seeing Begin Again. A) I love Mark Ruffalo and typically like Keira Knightley. B) I also happen to be a fan of British comedian James Corden and Yasiin Bey a.k.a. Mos Def, who portrayed two of the supporting characters. And C) I liked Once a lot, plus I can rarely resist a musical of any kind. So yeah, totally the target audience.

The movie was very sweet! There were some great quirky moments — for example Ruffalo’s ‘Dan’ orchestrating Knightley’s character’s song in his mind — and some beautifully-edited scenes (the opening sequence, the creation of the songs for ‘Gretta’s’ new album, the “what’s in your iTunes” montage when Ruffalo and Knightley are wandering around the city listening to Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life” a.k.a. one of my most favoritest songs ever). And, on top of that, it really made me miss New York!

Not to spoil the ending, but Begin Again had a very different ‘happy ending’ than a typical Hollywood film. I liked it: it works and it left me feeling good. I wonder if they could’ve done without the tag during the credits, or perhaps they could have worked it in differently. I don’t know — hopefully you’ve all seen it or will, so let’s jump to the composer Q&A.

Continue reading

Movie Review: Not Another Happy Ending

Movie review from Lillian, our favorite resident Whovian (fan of the Dr. Who TV show). Enjoy… – JO

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not-another-happy-ending_heroLast night, I was very excited to curl up to Not Another Happy Ending. It’s a Scottish (yes!) rom-com (score!) staring Karen Gillan, who played Amy Pond for 2.5 seasons on Doctor Who (even more bonus points). Seriously, it’s as if the movie had been crafted by my brainthoughts.

Here’s a quick plot summary: Young/possibly first time novelist, Jane Lockhart (Karen Gillan — who lives in an unrealistically fabulous apartment in Glasgow) is going through rejection letter after rejection letter trying to get her book published. With little/no explanation as to why, she goes to visit one publisher, Tom Duval (Stanley Weber) who picks her up and publishes it. It becomes a roaring success, but unfortunately, this and other things in her life (the most successful screenwriter in Glasgow moves in with her), make her too happy to follow up her success — apparently, she’s too happy to write. Publisher, Duval, however, is desperate for another best seller, and so decides to make her life miserable so she can angst up and write already. Mix-ups and “comedy” ensue. Along the way, Duval and Jane are falling in hate-love with each other.

Sadly, I could basically see this film coming from the opening credits. Definitely from 15 minutes in, when I realized that so far the movie had pretty much been comprised of two montages packed-to-the-brim with clichés.

How it could have been improved? Step one: be more creative with costume design than just, “Dress her like Annie Hall so everyone will know she’s quirky.” Step two: change her occupation. For the love of god, writers, why do you make your protagonist a WRITER? Instantly less interesting. Third possibility: add more of the cast of Dr. Who, maybe? Come on, David Tenant’s Scottish? So’s Peter Capaldi, come to that. I’m sure there are loads of other people who have played British on Dr. Who, but are actually Scottish…

And I suppose that’s what they call digressing. Where was I? Oh yes, step four: rewrites. It felt like an early draft of any romantic comedy you see coming out of Hollywood. I really would have liked to see something more surprising and different. I feel like if they had kept working on this premise, they could have found some new angles.

Things I liked: the soundtrack was fun! Lots of good Scottish music. I liked that Henry Ian Cusick was in it, although his character (a screenwriter, argh!!!) was one of the most poorly-written characters, possibly in film history. But he’s not done much since Lost, so it was nice to see his face.

I will go on in more nit-picky detail, full of spoilers, but suffice it to say, Karen Gillan had better put some effort into her next film choices if she wants to keep us loyal Whovians who love rom-coms around! I’m thinking her role in Guardians of the Galaxy might please the fanbase a bit more. ;)

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD… Continue reading

Movie Review: After Earth

After Earth joins Oblivion — with This is the End and World War Z soon to join — in this summer’s apocalyptic film club. It’s directed by the iconic M. Night Shyamalan and stars Will Smith and his son Jaden. M. Night Shyamalan is known for creating suspenseful plots in mysterious worlds, so he seems like a perfect fit for After Earth, but does his first film in three years live up to its promise?

After Earth follows a father and son, played by Will and Jaden Smith, after they have crashed on an Earth that was evacuated by the human race over 1000 years ago. The young and inexperienced son must leave his injured father behind as he searches for help and a way off of the planet, trying to avoid being eaten by animals that have evolved to kill humans.

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Be the Camera: Why Equipment Matters

I have often said that filmmaking is NOT about the equipment. Filmmaking instructor Claude Kerven disagrees… –JO

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Filmmakers who succeed are part artist, part techno-geeks. The two skills are essential and inseparable.

When interviewed by the press, an auteur will wax rhapsodically about the art of making movies. It is about direction, and script, and the relationship actors have with each other, with the producer and with audiences. The good-to-great film is about a certain something that few can grasp, and which certainly no one can put their hands on.

But those filmmakers are lying. Continue reading

Movie Review: The Weird World of Blowfly

I’m nursing a terrible hangover. Dazed, I walk out into my living room to find my buddy Vietnamese Fred half-naked, passed out on my cream porno couch, hands covering his face as if subconsciously regretting actions from the crude and dark night previous.

“Do you still want to smoke pot and go to the zoo?” he asks me, eyes bloodshot and glazed-over as he comes to.

“I have something else in mind, bro.”

Avoiding having to move at all for the next few hours, I put on my screener of the documentary The Weird World of Blowfly. Is the coffee brewing? Check. Oh hey now, the lettering is funky. Clearly taken from the Super Fly movie, which if you haven’t seen, see. Ron O’Neal plays Priest, a cocaine dealer trying to get out of the game in the early ’70s. With the music by Curtis Mayfield, who could ask for anything better?

“Is this [Documentary] real or a fake?” Fred asks.

“Fake.”

I’ll have to write something on the film and I want to see his response after giving him a false idea of what we’re seeing.

What continued to conspire over the course of 89 minutes instilled such a terrible fear of growing old that all of my heartwarming experiences at the elderly folks home now amount to very little.

The Weird World of Blowfly is the tale of Clarence Reid, a funk/soul R&B producer whose alter ego is the one-and-only scatological gonzo superhero rapper Blowfly. We follow Blowfly and his band as he tours into his late 70’s. His hardships include five-minute-long sequences involving him eating McDonalds, awkward live performances, a conversation with his mother about god, and produced-feeling altercations between band members. No real conflict is built up, no bomb is dropped in the second act, and we gain little concrete insight into his past to associate our feelings to.

The film ends, and I’m not that glad that Blowfly and his Manager/Drummer Greg Bell decide to be friends. It is never easy to tear apart a film. All films take a considerable amount of work, sweat, and tears. This film was about as inactive as Blowfly’s bowel movements.

“Wait, so was that fake or not?”

“Dunno, Fred, let’s go ask the kangaroos.”

–Jeff P

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The Weird World of Blowfly opens in Los Angeles Sept 23rd at the Sunset 5. You can check out the trailer and other promotional materials on the website for the film.

Jeff P. is a filmmaker and a writer for the website TastesFunny.net.

Images courtesy Special Theory Films, LLC

Website Review: FilmSkills.com

Guest review from filmmaker and web media specialist Micah Baskir. Enjoy. – JO

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Film School in One Easy-to-Swallow Tablet
by Micah Baskir

Filmskills.com, the comprehensive and “visual way to learn filmmaking,” provides a host of features for the novice filmmaker. The website contains everything one might need to go from dreaming about their first feature film to finishing one. It walks the aspiring director through every aspect of production using modules, or “classic instructional videos,” and touches on many topics first time directors may not expect to face.

From the moment you arrive at the site, it welcomes you with a clean opening page and straightforward explanation of all that the web-based film school has to offer. There are nearly a hundred modules (and according to the sidebar, new modules every month) covering every detail of filmmaking from “Developing the Idea” to “Color Timing.” Below the videos are a series of support tabs, resources, and user features for taking the topic to the next level. Because of the breadth of information, the content can range from elementary to incredibly useful to downright intimidating depending on the user’s experience level.

Each video module presents a 20-25 minute breakdown of the topic at hand. The presenters are clearly interested in discussing their topic, which goes a long way in keeping a user focused. With that said, however, the videos sometimes play a bit static and unfocused. A writing topic, for example, features a nearly five minute discussion on the merits of the “three act structure,” which is hardly of much value to someone not yet versed in the details of the process and even less interesting to someone who is. That being said, one can always skip ahead or just refer to the diagrams below.

In creating a one-size-fits-all filmmaking course, subjective elements of the process will likely frustrate the viewer rather than inspire. Approaches such as – Step 1: Write the title, Step 2: Develop the theme, Step 3: Write your logline – could frustrate a subscriber who discovers a different method of crafting their work. However, when it comes to understanding the nitty-gritty details of filmmaking like the merits of a C-stand or the filmmaker’s toolbox, the site is an indispensable resource.

FilmSkills.com hopes to position itself as a full-scale online film school and they are making large strides in that direction. However, any film school worth its salt provides more than just information but presents provocative ways to develop their student’s craft. The site does not yet offer exercises along those lines, but creative projects would be an easy feature to add and would go a long way in bridging the gap between understanding a process and accomplishing one. [UPDATE: Exercises are available to instructors. See note below.]

No question, FilmSkills is an ambitious venture that offers a wide range of introductory material for the aspiring filmmaker. Site creator Jason Tomaric has clearly channeled his experiences producing low-budget features into a valuable resource for first-timers embarking on the epic task of filmmaking. The site offers a variety of price options for the student, individual, or for film schools interested in applying the modules to their own curriculum. The individual course options start at $12.99 a month, but the value of the site lies in its breadth more than its depth. I recommend only choosing the course option as a supplementary resource to another program or course. Not to mention, people facing the realities of a filmset will hardly be able to predict which modules will be most handy when that unexpected challenge rears its ugly head. In those moments, having access to all of FilmSkills varied resources will be critical.

The long-term success of the site, and what will distinguish it from the myriad of how-to books available (including Mr. Tomaric’s own book), will rely on how it fosters the creative enthusiasm of the subscribers as they become more talented and experienced. Providing increasingly-detailed modules as well as cultivating a thriving interactive community will become crucial in the months and years to come. Otherwise, the vast potential of this site will resemble just another filmmaking textbook — and at $39.99 a month (or $399 a year), that’s a pricey textbook.

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Micah Baskir co-wrote and co-directed the YouTube-featured web series The RPS Show and his 2007 short film “Cracks” won numerous awards at film festivals all over the world. He is currently involved in a startup called Therapick, a website that helps match therapists with patients. Follow his jeddyrice Flickr account in the coming days for some spectacular photos from his recent travels in Turkey.

UPDATE: FilmSkills.com site editor Elinor Actipis writes: “FilmSkills actually offers a ton of projects, exercises, quizzes, and curriculum guides. Only users who are qualified professors can see them, but we’re considering making the projects available to all soon. Here is more info on FilmSkills from an instructor’s POV: www.filmskills.com/faculty.”

Full disclosure: The editor of Making the Movie, John Ott, has guest-posted on sister site to FilmSkills.com, MasteringFilm.com, and it is through this relationship that the above review was arranged. Having a third-party (Micah Baskir) review the site is one of the steps that was taken to ensure fairness.

Talking Casino Jack with Kevin Spacey

We sent our intrepid correspondent Jeff P. to meet with Kevin Spacey to talk about the new film he stars in, Casino Jack. Jeff said Spacey was one of the most charming, engaging people he had ever met. What follows are some excerpts from their conversation, including a great story about how Spacey and director George Hickenlooper, who tragically passed away shortly after completing the film, were able to change the audience’s whole experience of the film with one simple edit. Enjoy. -JO

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Kevin Spacey gives a pro performance as Jack Abramhoff, the real-life disgraced Washington lobbyist, in George Hickenlooper’s final film Casino Jack. Perhaps the most daunting of tasks was creating sympathy for the man, who in 2008 was convicted of defrauding Indian casinos of over 10 million dollars and countless acts of political bribery.

Spacey captures many of Abramhoff’s larger-than-life qualities: his affinity for celebrity impersonations (link to Spacey doing Abramoff doing Pacino in The Godfather), his devout Judaic beliefs, and his philanthropic intentions.

In the interview, Spacey had this to say about his process of creating the character:

Continue reading

Will the New ArcLight Movie Theater Flush the Competition?

Movie lovers who live in Los Angeles like to brag about ArcLight Cinemas, a high-end movie house which has expanded into a local chain in the last few years. ArcLight’s claim to fame is that, for the price of a ~ $15 ticket, you get reserved seating in a theater designed not to have a bad seat, one where the highest standards of picture projection and sound are maintained, better concession stand food — and you don’t have to watch anything but trailers before the film.

Erstwhile contributor, Jeff P, was on hand for a tour of the newest ArcLight complex, ArcLight Beach Cities in El Segundo, CA, and sent in this rather unconventional report… -JO

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As I enter the lavatory of Arclight Beach Cities Cinema, I’m not impressed right away. How can such a newly-renovated theater have such a simple bathroom? I close my eyes, allow the fluorescent glow to tickle my skin, breathe in then out, and begin my inspection.

It’s clean. Not even a urinal cake in sight. The toilets look like they are made up of giant clam pearls gene-spliced with smooth brie. Hot damn, this would have been a great throne for the king to pass on!

Attached to the crapper is a green handle with two settings, one for fluid waste and one for solid. Clearly, this is an establishment that adheres to this decade’s environmental trends. This allows the business to save costs on the water bill and show people that they care about the environment at the same time. A noteworthy strategy, Arclight.

At the sink, I caress the marble counter top. Cool, yet strangely refreshing. On the right lies a rebellious yet charming bamboo plant. Again I must give credit to the Arclight Beach Cities. Plants indoors have been known (especially in office environments) to boost people’s moods and create an overall positive energy.

The bathroom’s quirks are subtle. It won’t blow you away at first, but it is one to return to.

As for the theater, it’s what you would expect it to be. If you want to pay extra to sit in a huge theater on comfortable seats and see some rapper-turned-action-star rip someone’s spine out in 3D accompanied by a THX-supportive sound system, then you’ve found the right place. As an LA native, the Arclight has always been one of my favorite movie-going experiences, and the El Segundo Beach Cities Theater looks like it lives up to the ArcLight’s established traditions.

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ArcLight is actually part of a larger exhibitor called Pacific Theaters and was created after a three-year study which identified untapped value in, I suppose, having a nice theater. The El Segundo location must mean research indicates that’s where audiences are willing to fork over more cash for a wider selection of films and a premium movie-going experience. (Tickets at the new theater are $13.75 at peak times, and $11.75 on non-Friday weekdays and matinees, about two dollars less than their flagship location.

It may seem counter-intuitive to open a luxury theater in this economy, but I guess Pacific Theaters’ management agrees with me that the lack of variation in movie ticket prices is actually leaving a lot of money on the table. Also, it is my anecdotal observation that adults are willing to pay a little bit more to not have to attend the same movie theater as teens, which make up the largest — and therefore, best-served — segment of the movie-going public. ArcLight Beach Cities is open right now provisionally, with the grand opening scheduled for Nov. 5.

What do you think? Is the ArcLight making a smart play in expanding? Have you worked at ArcLight? I’d love to know if rumors of recent staff cut backs and ties to the Church of Scientology are true. Leave a comment.

Photos by Jeff P.

Movie Review: Ghetto Physics


Today the movie to review is Will Arntz’ and E. Raymond Brown’s Ghetto Physics: Will the Real Pimps and Ho’s Please Stand Up!

Ghetto Physics is about the affiliation between the pimp and the ho and how that relationship can be extrapolated into politics, the economy, and even one’s everyday encounters. While the overall message of the film is positive — in order to make the world a better place one must change oneself from within first — the presentation is stretched too thin. The film is comprised of faux interviews of Brown intertwined with a classroom scenario in which the viewer gets lectured at. The interviewees and students in the classroom are used to asked loaded questions so that Brown can expound upon what he wants. To say the least, strictly from a filmmaking approach, it is a fickle way to get a message across.

What was special about Will Arntz’s last film, What the Bleep Do We Know?, was that it presented new and interesting ideas on the universe and the world we live in with great visual metaphors. Ghetto Physics just seems to be one man’s lecture on how you should live your life. Considering I was a fan of What the Bleep, Ghetto Physics was a let-down: a fine idea, however a not-so-good follow-through. On a positive note, there are a slew of notable thinkers, movers, and shakers from Princeton’s Dr. Cornell West all the way to rap icons Too Short and KRS-ONE. Unfortunately, while hearing what they have to say about the pimp game is interesting, I will not stand up.

–Jeff P

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Ghetto Physics is having select screenings around the US right now. You can check out the trailer and other promotional materials on the website for the film.

Jeff P is a movie-lover and a writer for the website TastesFunny.net.

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