Ten years ago, I was a college senior with graduation on the horizon. With a few short 16mm films under my belt, I was ready to embark on my first feature – an adaptation of one of my shorts, the aptly-titled Masters of Cool (Yes, that was actually the title).
There was an urgency to my filmmaking mission. This was the make-it-or-break-it project. The pressures of the real world were nearly on top of me and, at 22, I was running out of time to live up to my own bloated expectations. I mean, Orson Welles was 23 when he made Citizen Kane, right? I had to get started if I was ever to attain ingenue status (that’s sarcasm, folks).
I cobbled together just enough funds to pay for the film stock (16mm), processing & telecine and food. The cast was made up of local actors, some of whom had even taken time off their day jobs to be in the film. And the crew… well, the crew consisted of my fiance, my college roommate and myself. Everyone was just working for credit, or because they were getting married to me – one or the other.
The film was a road trip movie and we had borrowed a old Suburban from a friend’s father – early 90s, diesel -- you get the picture. Everything was set. And so, the very week after I graduated from college – summer 2003 – we quietly began shooting.
But by the third day of shooting, the sad reality was sinking in. The film didn’t feel like it was coming together as I had hoped. It felt a little rushed, without style and just kinda… meh. But I was determined to see this thing through. You could call me a lot of things but not a quitter. Only an Act of God could halt this production.
And then, on the morning of the fourth day of shooting, I walked out to prep the Suburban only to find a nasty green puddle forming underneath. After a little inspection, I returned the vehicle to its owner only to receive the devastating news — through no fault of our own, the Suburban had cracked its engine block and would cost more to fix than the vehicle was worth. He’d have to scrap it.
<<Shakes fist at sky>> Oh, universe. Why dost thou mock me!?!
I briefly toyed with the idea of finding a replacement vehicle, but nothing suitable could be found and, with limited funds to reshoot and a cast that had a tight schedule (i.e., getting back to work), it appeared Masters of Cool was dead in the water. I kept the few cans of films that we had shot in the fridge for months. It was hard to let it go. I eventually trashed them without ever getting them processed. That was a summer of self-pity.
After a long, personal regroup which felt in some ways like starting completely over, I got a day job as a clerk making photocopies at a law firm and began work on a new short film. We shot weekends on and off for a year to finish it. And after that there was another short. And another short after that. In all, it took me five more short films to get back to a place where I was capable (or brave enough) to try to make a feature again. Over those seemingly long and uneventful years, something magical transpired — I grew as a filmmaker in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise — in style, in substance, in experience. I’ve come to be very grateful for that time to develop artistically (although you’d never have convinced me of that then). In some ways, I worry more about what would have happened had I finished that film. Seven years later, I found the script to Masters of Cool in the bottom of a drawer. I leafed through it. It was bad. Like Thank-God-I-didn’t-make-this bad.
Short vs. Feature
A conversation that tends to come up over and over with young filmmakers is when to dive into that first feature. I’m far from an expert myself but I don’t think you’re doing yourself any favors by rushing through a feature just to say you’ve made a feature.
I know the temptation is strong — grab a 7D and a few friends and knock it out in two weeks and then - then – you’ll be a real filmmaker, right? Well, most of us won’t make Tiny Furniture and get an HBO deal. Myself included. Yes, we’ve all been there and felt that pressure. But I still believe a great short will get you farther in the long run than a run-of-the-mill feature.
Twenty years ago, if you were a filmmaker with a feature film under your belt you experienced a pre-digital-age credibility factor. Bascially – instant clout. Babes followed.
Prior to the digital revolution, indie features were on film. They were expensive. And so, having a feature film under your belt at the time (usually) meant one of two things: (1.) that you had a rich uncle or, what was more often the case, (2.) that someone, somewhere, had enough confidence in you as a filmmaker to invest in your project, which acted as a sort of third-party confirmation of your abilities. Sure, there were the exceptions. Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez, for example, who pooled their own money to make their first films. But their films still entered the world with the credibility of features at that time.
Today, professional grade production equipment (or near-professional grade production equipment) is much more accessible and cheaper. Digital features pop up right and left. The kind of “instant” credibility factor for a feature filmmaker of 20 years ago is almost completely gone these days. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the films of that time were any better than what is being made now, but it did mean that fewer indie films were made and thus, less competition. Sundance had something ridiculous like 12,000 submissions this year which means, as someone pointed out, that you are more likely to be an aspiring attorney and be accepted to Harvard Law School than an aspiring filmmaker being accepted to the Sundance Film Festival. The no-name breakout darlings of Sundance 20 years ago were El Mariachi ($7,000 + post) and Clerks ($27,000). Nowadays, the no-name breakout darlings are Beasts of the Southern Wild ($1.8 million) and Fruitvale Station ($900,000) – its gotten a lot more expensive to be the little guy. The point I’m trying to get across is that the mere creation of a feature-length film (especially a first feature) doesn’t hold the weight it did for the last generation of young filmmakers. With so much more content out there – the bar is raised. So your film can’t just be – it has to be good. It has to be great!
Industry folks (i.e., producers, agents, film industry professionals) will sit through a mediocre short. They’ll give ya a pat on the back and a “nice work, kid. Keep at it.” I know I got quite a few. They won’t, however, sit through a mediocre feature (unless its your mom, and then she still might not). What limited resources might play well across a 10-15 minute short film, seems stretched and diluted across an hour and a half.
When the day comes to pitch your second feature to an investor, they’ll ask how much you recouped on your first feature. What?! Recouped? What are you talking about? That was just me and my friends. - Is not an acceptable answer, even if it is true. On the contrary, no investor will ask how much your short grossed, because it’s not expected. For right or wrong, we still have a perception of short films as “practice”. Any number of bad short films can be written off as “practice.” All that matters is your most recent short. But when you step into the feature-length arena, it’s like stepping into the major leagues. It follows you around. No one cares what A-Rod’s batting average was in the minor leagues, because it doesn’t matter anymore. It was “practice” for the bigs. And thus with shorts.
That said, there is a time and a place to just dive in head first into a low-budget feature. But it’s all a matter of timing.
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” ~ Teddy Roosevelt
I always come back to that quote. Although it can be applied to many things, I think its particularly applicable for the low-budget, indie filmmaker. To me, it has always meant: Work within what you’ve been given. Stay focused on your own work, however small it may seem. Don’t be distracted by what others are doing. Your work will be judged by a standard equal to what resources were available to you when you made it.
Filmmaking, as with any art form, takes years of practice, study, experience, mistakes, etc. to get better and grow. As much as society at-large focuses and idolizes the wunderkinds and the overnight sensations, they are still a very slim percentage of the success stories. Besides, we all know an overnight success is still ten years in the making. Put in the time. You owe it to yourself.