Sunday, February 26, 2017

Go Make a Movie

The late great Chantal Akerman

Everything is bad.

The inhumanity of money is killing the world. It is killing the rainforest, it is killing the Middle East, it is killing the breadbasket farmlands. And it is killing movies.

They are dying slowly and ignobly; choked to death by vast sums of capital and its inevitable progeny, the same venal dull comforting nothing that destroyed painting and sculpture. Studio filmmaking has become the inoffensive faux-expressionist paintings sold at Target, designed to fill space, not affect it; it has become those massive insipid sculptures in city squares paid for by public arts programs, that are seen by millions and inspire no strong feelings from anybody.

Okay, Moonlight was good. Manchester by the Sea was good. So why weren’t there 40 Moonlights last year, and 41 Manchesters? They will come from major studios — who are trapped in a gilded cage of superhero franchises — with the regularity and enthusiasm of pulling teeth. They have to come from you and I.

Personal art has to come from persons, not from committee meetings about careful franchise engineering and toy-line optimization. Something essential is bleeding out of the cinema, the way it bled out of paintings, and sculptures, and even the novel. We are constantly amazed that film after film gets whitewashed and dumbed down, but of course they do! Corporate inertia is the guiding principle behind corporate cinema, and there's no reason to expect films from Fox or Disney or whoever else to be any more progressive or heartfelt than a Walmart flashlight.

If movies are going to have any honesty, any humanity, they have to be created from the ground up, on the streets.

So why didn’t you make a movie last year?

Morris Engel, New York's first indie darling, shooting Lovers & Lollipops

It has never been cheaper, it has never been easier, and yet, somehow, it seems likes energized impassioned indie cinema has not been rarer since the early 1950s. Is it because we are all trying to make proper studio films? Well, vanishingly few of us will ever be able to buy-in to the stratified shrinking Hollywood system, so it's time to bypass it. We all have the means, we all have the method. It is up to frustrated filmmakers to find the discipline and confidence to make the best movies possible on micro-budgets.

Sarah Maldoror, the godmother of Angolan cinema

To begin with, don’t make a movie about a person just like you. Do not take “write what you know” as an excuse to shrink and insulate yourself. It is an invitation to learn, to grow. Find the most interesting person you’ve ever met — or even heard of —, learn about them, and write what you now know. Do not waste your time, or that of your audience, on anything autobiographical. It’s a bad beginning. If you are that interesting, somebody else will make a movie about you. 

Do not make a movie about movies. Do not make a movie about movies. Do not make a movie about movies. Your protagonist better not be a director, or a writer, or an actor, or GOD HELP YOU, not a pre-existing character. If you want to make a gritty version of a comic book or a cartoon you liked as a kid, please just stay home instead. Donate your camera gear to some kid living in poverty.

You can make your little tribute to movies when you’re 65. Make a movie about life.

Your script is going to be bad. That’s ok. See, most people write a draft or two and figure it’s good enough to shoot, but that’s like when you took shop class as a kid and you thought your stupid lopsided unsanded birdhouse looked great because you made it. Years later, you found that birdhouse again and saw that it was garbage. You’re an adult now, so you don’t need to wait for the postpartum afterglow to wear off to know that your script is bad and needs to be improved. Sand it down, polish it.

You need to look at your script with a harsh critical eye and not be afraid of how bad it is at first. The ideal mindset is confident that this is the story you want to tell but utterly ruthless about how well you are telling it. Take it apart second-for-second, look for those moments that make your stomach drop for just a second, and take them out. Find areas of connective tissue between scenes and strengthen them. Shop for solutions to script problems in other films, the newspaper, novels, life experiences, where ever. Get to the good stuff quicker. I don’t even have to read it or know what it’s about to tell you that: Get to the good stuff quicker.

Melvin Van Peebles, rated X by an all-white jury

You could get a Rebel or a Nikon D3300 for about 500 bucks, less if you buy used. You probably know a person who owns one already, and likely a bunch of other gear too. Give them the money instead and hire them to DP. Package deal. If they suck, put up an add on Craigslist or There are about five million guys on YouTube doing compare/contrasts of various prosumer cameras and they’re a fun enough watch, but don’t get lost in the rabbit hole. You can make a watchable movie with the worst camera on the market, I promise you. There is no wrong answer.

Your cell phone outfitted with a little adapter lens shoots well enough to film a feature length film able to be screened even on cinema screens. Just ask Sean Baker, he did it with his movie Tangerine, which is beautiful and still probably the best movie since it came out. For even the profoundly poor, if you are able to read this, there is no reason you couldn’t have made a Tangerine last year. And your voice is needed.

The books will tell you that you need a light kit — they’re right, you do need to carefully light your film for effect. A general rule is keep your subjects eyes lit, no matter what. You can darken their eyes for effect, but don’t turn it into a crutch. You’ll know in your heart if you are. A light kit no longer means you need a dozen heavy kliegs that need heavy-duty outlets. You are reading this on a light source. Computers, phones, headlights, televisions, street lights. You are surrounded by light kits. For my first film, The Calm, I lit most of the night scenes by burning onto a DVD a video of full screen colors. Red, yellow, green, blue, etc. emulating the “gels” of a proper kit. I played the DVD on a television, or a computer screen, and paused it at whichever color I wanted. For close ups, I laid the computer monitor in my actor’s lap.

A young Ruy Guerra, Brazil's answer to Werner Herzog

Focus on sound equipment, not camera and lighting gear. You can do just about anything with a mediocre camera, but nobody is going to watch your movie if you have bad sound. Find a professional — once again, you probably know some sullen DJ in your network, or once again, look to Craiglist. This should be one of your biggest expenses. Get a package deal of a pro with equipment, unless you’re confident enough that you don’t need any advice here. Expect to pay more for sound than for camera, up to twice as much. Keep your sound needs as simple and direct as possible. You can record sound harsh enough to burst an eardrum, you cannot record video ugly enough to burst an eyeball.

Take out dialogue where you can. If your line doesn’t tell us something new about the story or character, it should be a candidate for removal. The less people say, the easier your sound mix will be. If you can manage entire scenes without dialogue, you’ll find your shooting day so easy that it feels like a mini-vacation in the middle of your shoot.

Be good to your actors. Pop culture will tell you that directing is about alternately banging and yelling at your actors. It’s not true. Like anyone else, give them space to work. Take an acting class to understand what it’s like on the other side of the camera. It’s a fragile headspace. It’s far far easier to direct the camera than direct the actors, but don’t be a coward and retreat behind the lens to avoid the hard stuff. Do it properly. Listen to them, treat them with respect, and help them get what they need to work. Also, feed everybody. That goes a long way.


It’s time to edit now. You know somebody with Avid, Adobe Premiere, or even (god help you) Final Cut. If you do it yourself, fine, but you’re going to have to be extremely, psychotically self-critical.

Let’s get the stupid stuff out of the way first. You’re not going to be able to fill your soundtrack with songs, so put away your stupid Weezer mix and don’t count on that perfect song to spackle over the weaknesses in your script. You see why you had to stare at that script with a hard, unforgiving eye, and work those weaknesses out until they’re gone? If you did that well enough, all those great songs you heard in your head when you were writing will matter less. Your film will have grown past them.

Other than that, the editing process is quite a bit like the scripting process. You will have to watch your work over and over and over, analyzing those little things that don’t work. You might not even have a name for them, they could range from 20-minute chunks to a half-second where your mind wanders every time. There are a million books with a million rules about editing, and if you don’t know them, find somebody who does. There’s probably a 19-year-old kid around you with a cracked software suite who knows them all. When in doubt, minimize — don’t cut until you have a reason.

Now you have to get your film seen, and that sucks. I’m still working through that myself. But you’ll have to just navigate that river and push where you can push to get people to see what you’ve made. Once it’s recorded and put away, it’s not going anywhere. You did it.

Now make another.