Being someone who finished a film, I get a lot of nice e-mails and discussions going with people who are working hard on films and want advice from me. Naturally I do my best to give them whatever I’ve learned along the way on both the previous and current productions, so that I can help them finish their films.
Unfortunately, there is occasionally a miscommunication. My advice and ideas about finishing your film are just that… geared towards helping you finish your production. It has turned out, however, that in some cases people are seeking advice on how not to finish their films. They’re hearing me talk in all these big sweeping manners about things they’d never do because it might actually cause them to get their work down and out the door. In doing this, I might have gained a reputation along some people as someone who isn’t flexible, who can’t see the trees for the forest. What about never actually completing your work? Huh?
So to help these folks, who also might be too shy to ask me how to kill their little seedling in the bud, I offer the following 5 pieces of advice. Get stopping, guys!
- Realize in your heart of hearts that your film isn’t real unless it’s on a large screen.
This is killer advice to shoot your pony right out of the gate. See, there’s this fantastic virus of an idea by filmmakers that only if their work is projected on a screen larger than 55 inches can what they’ve created be considered “real”. That candy-colored rainbow, that demand that they be shown in “movie houses”, “art houses”, and “cinemas” is something that a lot of directors will glady debase every single last aspect of their work for. They’ll change the title, hack up the timeline, remove characters, add sex scenes, and do everything they can for that chance to get it on a screen. A lot of this begging goes on at “Film Festivals”, where you run around like a bright-lights-dazed teenage whore offering yourself to anyone who promises you that they can get you into a a theatre. Oh, the things you do, the promises you’ll agree to, the places your puckered lips will go. The best part, of course, is that it doesn’t always work. You might go through all that and nothing will come of it! Bang! Instant death, because now your project is “old” and “out of date” and you’ll have no chance of convincing anyone it can go on the magic big screen the next time around. And since you’re convinced that’s the only way your film could ever be shown, you’ll shoot it in the head and go onto the next long project. Joyous Stoppings unto you!
I have nothing to do with these guys, but you can see the creator of the Blair Witch Project go crazy drool over himself because his film didn’t go on the big white screen but only got onto DVD. He was paid to make the film, given basically free reign over editing, got to shoot it the way he wanted to, and they’re even distributing it for him! But he failed, in his eyes, and is heartbroken at how things came out. What a fantastic attitude! Take inspiration from this approach to things, and you to can be well on your way to not being well on your way.
- Treat your first film like your fifth film.
A filmmaker embarking on his fifth project has been through a lot. He’s seen things that would make a war surgeon cry. His production team is like a well-oiled machine, knowing what he wants often before he does. He’s seen how the differences can happen from what’s on the page and what’s realistic at 2 in the morning shooting in that abandoned subway station after a full day doing the library scene. He knows how pacing is going to end up in the editing room, and shoots for that. And when things go all gaflooky, he knows what tricks he can do in the editing room to help a disaster become a triumph.
To ensure your project slows down, act like you’re capable of all this already because you watched a lot of films, and you know your own script by heart. Assume that if everything then doesn’t go as well the first time through, you did it “wrong”. Don’t compromise; wait weeks to get the next perfect shooting time down with all your actors and people so that they get bored or change hairstyles or otherwise yank out of the project. This is the genius of this advice: by aiming for this idealized perfection in your head, you turn a passable production into a completely mediocre one. And since a mediocre one can get even worse, eventually you’ll give it up entirely. Voila! Instant stoppage!
- For that matter, treat your first film like your only film.
Even better than rushing headlong into your project with this impossible vision in your head is to act like every single thing’s the end of the world. The idea that maybe you’d use this current work as a learning experience, not try to maximize its revenue-generating potential, and avoid compromising everything because you hope it’ll go on the magic screen and into those festivals… that’s the good stuff… uh, I mean the bad stuff. You don’t want that; you want to treat life like every single thing is an all-or-nothing, shoot-for-the-moon deal because all those burned bridges and idiot decisions you make will be that much more justifed, since there’s no chance you’re doing this again. And stop watching things like Evil Dead, where Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell shot the movie over three times before it became what we think of as the classic Evil Dead II. Be sure to forget how Spike Lee made nearly a half-dozen films before She’s Gotta Have It, including an aborted film that devastated him and which he bounced back from.
I should note I’m horrible example myself, having made 6 short films (Headrush, Incubus, Incubus (16mm) Mr. Lazer Guy, Conspiracy Rock, Blessed are the Filmmakers), aborted two others (The Pie, Mr. Lazer Guy Meets the Evil Person), and worked on a couple productions by others before I ever started BBS Documentary. Don’t make my mistake! Please think you’ll only ever do this once! Bet everything on red!
- Interact in any way with a record company of any size and shape.
This is a sure-fire way to slow things down to a crawl, and if you really want to, kill things entirely.
Don’t let it be said I don’t follow my own advice: I spent nearly a year talking with a record company, and by a record company I mean a miniscule record company, trying to get the chance to put a single song on the BBS Documentary DVD set. Originally I was going to have it be credit music, but then I decided it would be menu music, because they were taking time getting back to me and I had to keep editing. Now, to really get a feel for this, you have to realize that the artist of the song, who wrote and recorded it, was all for me having it in the documentary for basically nothing. He’d get a small royalty per disc, but that was a-OK with him and he was glad to see his song, which at this point was 5 years old, show up somewhere appropriate. (The song mentioned BBSes, you see.) Well, his record company wouldn’t have any of that. First they would take months and months to get back to me, and then, with prodding, proceed to give me fantastic terms like demanding thousands of dollars for the temporary rights to use the song, with them disappearing if the songs ended up anywhere but on the DVD. That is, I’d have to renegotiate if it went on TV or Film Festivals or anything else. And as a bonus, this was all cash to go to the record company; they weren’t even negotiating for the artist, and told me clearly I’d have to negotiate a second contract with the artist, who might have a completely different set of terms. Wow! This sounded so great, I wanted to stop hitting myself in the face with a toaster right then and there because I’d found an even cooler way to experience pain! Oh, and even better, I had to then renegotiate after I’d printed a certain number of my DVDs! That is, if I’d sold something like 20,000 copies, I’d get to go through the whole mess again.
Considering that the correspondence I was having with them was like shouting at a cemetery in terms of turnaround, I could imagine how long it would take for an actual finished contract to happen.
So if you want to slow things to shit, please, use all that licensed music owned by record companies (not the artist) and avoid working directly with unsigned or content-controlling artists, like I will in the future. Convince yourself that only Mariah Carey or your favorite “alternative” band can properly convey the scene you’re showing, or that a specific musical piece which is owned by a company larger than twelve Death Stars strapped together with rubber bands is the lynchpin of your credit sequence.
I’ve watched two associates waste a year each because they “had” to have music of a certain type. Please, if you need to stop your film, get on the phone with a company that just distributes works by other people. Your surviving relatives will thank me.
- Measure success by cash.
Woo boy! This last one gets tricky.
See, there’s nothing wrong with making money from your film. And in fact, that’s kind of a sign of success, no doubt about it. But to really kill your project and slow it down, you have to consider it the only way you could possibly consider your film a success. Forget increased visibility as someone who completes projects. Forget the contacts you make when people find out you made a film. Forget using it as a learning experience and then diving in again to get things even better the next time. No, see, if you want to ensure years of mired meaningless activity, wait out for the big bucks. And wait, and wait, and wait….
Everyone wants to get paid, for sure. But if you’re seeking that endless purgatory of Films Not Yet Out, you gotta really sit on it, killing buzz, ignoring potential smaller venues, mediums and opportunities, holding out until you can buy so many black helicopters that you crash them into each other for fun.
Sadly, I must report that one of my friends who was working so hard to ensure his film never really got out has failed and his film is now out. His name is Chuck Olsen, and he was so close to ensuring that his film was never going to get out; he spent years on it, kept redoing aspects of it over and over, insisted on having a show on a big screen, used music from record companies instead of tons of cool creative commons music, and then he has to go fuck it all up and release it for free on Google Video. Damnit, Chuck! Now everyone’s going to hear about you, you’re getting on all these weblogs, and you’re going to be inspired to work on another film sooner rather than later, treating Blogumentary as the excellent first film it is, only to achieve greater and greater things!
So take my advice, all of you who were looking to dive your project into the mud; follow these five steps and you’ll be able to follow a whole haystack of projects I won’t bother to list, that are in various degrees of completion and have been so for years, lost forever.
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