Indie filmmaking is equal parts passion and perseverance. If you’re seriously considering the commitment of making a film, you’re going to need some guidance. Successful indie filmmakers all have a few things in common that can teach you how to make the next underground hit. If you’re looking to improve your project or filmmaking game, abide by these Ten Commandments of indie filmmaking.
1. Your crew is your family
“Film is, to me, just unimportant. But people are very important.”
– John Cassavetes
Your crew matters. If you’re going to be at the helm of your own indie film, you’ll need to know exactly what each member of your crew is responsible for or hire people you can lean on. Take the time to know what each member your crew does and how their role can elevate your production. When you’re working under pressure with high stakes and a low budget, your crew’s persistence and teamwork will determine the quality of your final product.
2. Don’t let bureaucracy hold you back
Making an indie film takes extreme organization. There will be a lot of moving parts vying for your attention and indie filmmakers need to keep their priorities straight. Indie filmmakers succeed because they not only keep their focus on the film but they’re willing to jump through all of the necessary hoops. By keeping mundane paperwork, preparations, and permits up-to-date, your film stays on budget and on point.
No one likes the monotony or tedium of bookkeeping, but bookkeeping can make or break your film. You may want to bring on an assistant to help keep it all straight if you can swing it.
3. Budget like a fiend
The most functional way to keep your team satisfied and your film on track is by having a budget and sticking to it as best as you can. Know where your money is going and pay your crew on time. A little foresight will go a long when planning your budget but in general, be thrifty yet prepared to go over budget.
For reference on how to budget an indie film, check out film educator Stephen Follows detailed breakdown of the costs for Marcus Markou’s film Papadopoulos and Sons.
4. Use social media to promote
Whether you’re in pre- or post-production, be ready to promote your project like it’s your job — because it is. To keep the masses interested, post frequently (but not obnoxiously) on all of your social media platforms. If you’re in pre-production, show behind the scenes footage, your actors getting makeup applied, your cameramen snacking, whatever gets a response and builds interest in your film.
5. Use apps to your advantage
When Tangerine, a breakout film from Sundance in 2015, shattered the notion that great films are only produced with expensive equipment, the industry took notice. Now, in 2018 there are even more amazing ways to use apps to make your film stand out.
Savvy indie filmmakers know how to use all forms of technology available to them. Apps open the playing field and make what was once reserved to high-budget productions open to everyone. Whether it’s bringing the green screen on your phone or managing your budget, apps are an indie filmmaker’s new best friend.
6. Cast like a professional
“Casting is 65 percent of directing.”
– John Frankenheimer
Casting your friends or family in your film simply to fill a role doesn’t help your film. In fact, it’s selling your film short. There are talented local actors in every market who can add depth to a script and take it new directions. Don’t upend your budget by splurging on expensive actors but leave room for talent who have the potential to elevate your script.
7. Don’t fix it ALL in post
Every film is going to a have a problem you’ll need to ‘fix in post.’ But don’t build that crutch into your workflow. If you are coming across insincere acting, indecent angles, or sub-par lighting, address the issue on set. Do your editor a favor and don’t risk post-production edits that you either you can’t afford to fix or will force you to make heavy cuts.
8. Watch more films
One of award-winning filmmaker and film educator Roy Zafrani’s five rules for making insightful and meaningful indie films is to watch more indie films. Whether it’s short films, documentaries, or mainstream Marvel movies, watch everything and borrow. Explore your feelings about various forms of film and develop insights into your own film and process.
9. Don’t lose sight of your love for filmmaking
“It’s difficult to really like a film that you didn’t like making.”
― Tuesday Weld
If you’re not happy about an aspect of your filmmaking process, change it and move on. What you put into your production is what you’ll get out of it. Another one of Roy Zafrani’s five rules to impressive filmmaking is to stay positive on set. If you need to take breaks to recenter, meditate, or straight up reschedule, do it.
10. Fight like hell for your film
In his own 10 commandments of indie filmmaking, Darren Aronofsky says that “Persistence is 9/10 of the game.” When Aronofsky learned his budget was cut for The Fountain, he regrouped himself from a solid cry and then rewrote the script to fit the new budget. Point being, challenges will always find you and your work, your responsibility is to persevere. Whether you’re having a difficult time finding a worthy location or getting lines to work the way you want them to, you can’t let the pressure overwhelm you. Tell your story.
Indie filmmaking can be an incredible, insatiable, and enlightening experience. The process demands so much from indie filmmakers but delivers just as much in return. If you stick to these 10 commandments of indie filmmaking, you won’t stray from your vision. All you need to do now is get started!