Michelle Koerssen (left), our 2nd AD converses with our fearless Production Manager, Dagny Thompson.
Photo by Sharon Mendonca
BY SHAWN WHITNEY
Excuse me if the post below is a little delirious. It’s late and I’ve been working on this as I sync sound to video in order to get clean files to our editor. My brain has gone numb, even using PluralEyes, a program that does the synching, mostly, automatically.
Making a feature film is an intense process for everyone involved for different reasons. You, as a producer, will have to juggle an enormous number of responsibilities to make sure that the organizational side of the shoot comes together to allow the art side to function. Hopefully you’ve also been involved in the art side – story editing the script during development and pre-production, discussing the shot list with the director, conversing with the department heads during the shoot to see how things are going, etc. Below are some of the things we learned as producers from shooting ABNY. The list is rather long but the thing is that it’s not even a full list. These are just the top 15 or so that came to mind as I sat down to write this.
1) Make sure you have a producer or production manager on set. If you are a producer-director you definitely don’t want to be worrying about location permits and whether there’s enough coffee for the crew when your DP wants to discuss your shot list and your actors are ready to block. You need someone reliable and organized. We had a fabulous production manager who couldn’t be on set every day but, in her place, we had an equally fabulous on-set coordinator who also made sure that everyone was fed with great lunches and snacks. We never worried about the behind the scenes details during the shoot. Those details can break you. A separate producer or production manager can also discipline you if you’re the director/producer – you are always tempted to spend “just a little bit more” for that gadget or light or gel or… The PM or producer must know when to say no firmly to the director.
2) If possible have both a 1st and 2nd AD – especially if you decide to work with union, pro talent. Then there is a lot of paperwork to fill out and keep track of. You want your 1st on top of getting the shoot as a whole moving and staying on schedule. You don’t want them getting talent to sign in and out or dealing with their requests, preparing call sheets for the next day, etc.
3) Make sure you have a sizeable amount of petty cash for the PM or on-set coordinator or yourself to deal with whatever needs might arise.
4) In a similar vein – assume that your budget is off on the low side by a significant amount and don’t freak out when it is. Particularly if this is your first feature film – and/or the first feature of whomever is doing your budget – they won’t know that you will have to spend $100 to buy ND filters for the matte box or $30 to buy black felt paper (roofing paper) to black out the windows when you are shooting day for night. Or how about extra bulbs for that awesome lighting kit you bought – there’s an extra $100. And you might even buy things that you don’t end up using – we paid $50 for QR Slate on the iPad thinking that it would be a very useful way to slate all our shots and add metadata to them. It didn’t work for us. That $50 is gone forever. Crew will get parking tickets – what do you say when they’ve driven in to work on your shoot for free at 6 am? (We got four parking tickets at $30 pop). What about insurance? You’re going to go over. Get used to the idea.
5) Speaking of insurance: Get insurance. I know, insurance companies are a parasitic scab on the ass of society. I agree completely. But if you borrowed someone’s 5D Mark III or your buddy’s car and you drive the car over the camera and then, panicking about the camera, drive the car into a pole – you don’t want to be without insurance. You will also need insurance if you want to go legit and shoot on city property with permits – in Toronto you need $2 million liability, which cost us, I believe, around $500. If you use union actors (at least in Canada) you will also need to get special insurance for them, in case of injury of disfigurement (I’m not sure about the disfigurement but I can imagine that was probably covered). That was another $100 or so.
6) While I’m on the depressing bureaucratic side of filmmaking, let’s talk paperwork. You can do everything guerilla style. Lots of people do. But know that you risk everything if you get busted by the police or a neighbor complains about that fight scene on the front lawn of your parents’ house that you keep on re-taking in order to get just the right uppercut. If you want to get permits for shooting it will mean dedicating one or two people to dealing with it. We had to go door-to-door on each street where we were shooting to get the signatures of the neighbours, agreeing that we could shoot on the street. We also had to leaflet every house on the street to let them know. We probably would have been ok with only getting one of the four permits we ultimately got (including having to re-leaflet after an exterior shoot day off of one street had to be re-scheduled due to high winds). But Dagny, our PM, felt that we should avoid the nightmare scenario where you get shut down halfway through a shoot – you have to pay all your actors and you have all that food that’s going to rot and all that borrowed equipment that you have to return at the end of the week. Can you say scenario from hell?
7) Speaking of paperwork: if you decide to go with union actors be prepared to add substantial expenses and paperwork. In Canada you will have to incorporate, join the CMPA (the producers’ association) and pay administrative fees to both the union and the CMPA ($400 to the CMPA who do exactly diddly squat for you and probably “administer” your contract with ACTRA by having their underpaid secretarial staff drag your contract from the e-mail folder into the TIP contract folder and then release the mouse button). Incorporation alone will cost you probably $1500-$2000 (we paid about $700 because Kathryn’s father is a lawyer and did the paperwork pro bono). You will also have to deal with the added hassle (and expense) at the end of the year of filing a tax return for your corporation and – don’t forget – you must keep all of your expenses and any income or investment in your corporation separate from your personal income and expenses. As far as the government is concerned, a corporation is a legal person and therefore you are now keeping books for that “person.” I sort of get ACTRA’s insistence that production companies that hire their members under the microbudget category must join the CMPA and set up a corporation. They want to deal with professionals who won’t stiff their members. But it’s a big deterrent to using professional actors and quite intrusive – and I say this as someone who is very pro-union.
8) Good food keeps your unpaid crew happy. No pizza and twinkies folks. That’s just wrong. These people are giving you their time for free or cheaply. Besides, high carb lunches will fill stomachs and then 45 minutes later, your crew will have a carb crash that will ruin your afternoon productivity. It’s more expensive to avoid high carb meals but it’s worth it if you want to get your days and avoid crabby, sleepy crew barking at each other or slipping off to nap.
9) Twelve days in a row was hellish. The reason we did it was because it’s easier to get people to donate two workweeks than it is to get them to donate three. Also, we didn’t want a cast and crew of 15-20 people in our house (the primary location) for three weeks, which would have been hard on not only Kathryn and I but also on our three-year old daughter. But, next time, I’d try to shoot for 15 days with two weekends in between so that people can rest up and not burn out. That will mean budgeting at least honorariums for the crew and adding locations so that we don’t overstay our welcome in any one place. That may mean a smaller crew. This is a goal, not a principle, and I reserve the right to ignore it depending on budget.
10) Crew size. Not too big and not too small. If you don’t have enough people you will constantly be scrambling and your director will be moving lights instead of coming up with blocking or working with actors. We had some of that, especially when we were shooting in the cramped third floor of our house in 35 degree Celsius weather. We kept everyone out of the heatbox that we didn’t need, in order to not pass out from heat exhaustion. But it also meant we had no gaffer and no PAs. There were also times that I think we could have been smaller and nimbler. But it’s a judgment call.
11) Get photos of the shoot. We had Sharon Mendonca show up on several of the 12 days of shooting and get pictures from behind the scenes of cast and crew. Besides the production diary blog posts, the photos were a key element in building interest in the film. In fact, the photos have attracted as many hits as the posts themselves, if not more. They will also be useful in our electronic press kit. I only wished we’d given Sharon some direction – there’s lots of awesome pics of the cast on set but perhaps not enough of the crew, which are also important. That’s not her fault: the cast in their wardrobe and doing their thing, is inherently more interesting than the directors standing around chatting with the DP or the 1st AD. Try to have a videographer as well. We had Carlos but we weren’t paying him and he was only able to show up twice to set.
12) Make sure your director always gets her day. ‘Nuff said.
13) Start publicity as soon as possible. This is tough, especially with a microbudget that barely has the cash to make the film. But chances are you won’t sell the film to some distributor and chances are only slightly better that you’ll get into a festival like TIFF or Sundance that will improve the possibility of your selling (though, even still, only a minority of films that make it into festivals actually get picked up). That means that building buzz and getting distribution to recoup investment is up to you. Hell, that’s part of what this blog is about. It’s why we have a Facebook page and a twitter account (much neglected the last two weeks). Building an audience is a job for more than one person and it doesn’t happen overnight. We’re finding that out. And I think almost everyday: to recoup the $20K that we invested in cash into ABNY, we will have to sell about 2,000 DVDs at a $10/DVD profit. The 206 likes we presently have on our Facebook page ain’t gonna cut it. On the bright side, we have 206 likes and the film hasn’t even gone into post-production yet. Ghosts With Shit Jobs – another Toronto lo-fi sci-fi film, which is doing quite well with a movie that they made for $5,000, has just under 800 Facebook fans. I think we need to get at least several thousand Facebook fans and a similar number of Twitter followers (we have 520 right now). There will be more to come on the question of marketing and distribution as we proceed.
14) More paperwork (blame it on capitalism – seriously). Make sure you don’t shoot anything with copyrighted labels on it unless you get clearance first. Make sure that your locations are cleared of all recognizable brands. We needed a lot of Apple stuff in ABNY just because it was the way it was written (I’m an Apple geek, what can I say?) and we had a contact through a contact. Apple gave us clearance to use their stuff onscreen (as long as there was no nudity and no criminal acts committed using their gear). They were pretty cool about it – many companies are not. It would suck to have to throw out all the shots from your climactic scene because somebody was drinking a can of Coke and someone else was eating a Snicker’s bar. Speaking of copyright – make sure that you get clearances for music: you need a master license and a synch license, if you’re using some already composed music. If you’re having the music scored specifically for the film you need a composer’s license (I think that’s what it’s called). You can find some on the Independent Film & Video Fund website or just google them. All these things – along with location agreements and releases, etc. are must-haves if you do hope to ever sell your film to a distributor.
15) Keep good books, have good deal memos for crew, etc. The less ambiguity there is in your relationship with people the better. And the more clear it is how the money was spent and who gets the money if any comes in, the less likely there is to be fights and even legal disputes afterwards. Everybody wants to be cool and casual about money, especially on a shoot where you’re all focused on the art. The more this stuff is clear, accounted for and in the open, the more you can deal with the art.
16) Good Lord, there’s probably another dozen that come to mind. Producing a feature film is a complicated thing. Kudos to you for taking it on and being part of creating a piece of art that contributes to the betterment of humanity or something. Try to be organized and try to actually enjoy the shoot once it gets going.