The Key to Successful Indie Filmmaking: Turn Your Obstacles Into Creativity

The Key to Successful Indie Filmmaking: Turn Your Obstacles Into Creativity

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FILMMAKER: Ian Stoops

STORY: Tips for making your first indie feature, and turning disadvantages into creativity

First off, let me preface my article with a bit of a note. I have never made anything more than a couple of shorts before for my film school. However, I am working towards my first feature film, Monsters From The Beyond!, a tribute to 50's and 60's B horror flicks. What prompted me to make a feature was that Robert Rodriguez’s TV network “El Rey” announced a promotion called “The People’s Network.”

What that means is that they take viewer submitted content, short films, feature films, music, and artwork, and if it’s in the spirit of El Rey, they’ll put it on the air. I was up until 3 AM that night brainstorming.

I finally came to what I liked as a 50's B Movie kind of vibe, because what I love to do with my dad, and now with my girlfriend as well, is watch what my dad affectionately refers to as “Schlocky Horror Movies,” old “B-Grade” horror flicks that don’t compare by today’s standards. Outdated effects, less than stellar acting, and in some cases, a gratuitous amounts of blood and violence.

But the purposes of this article I am writing for fellow indie filmmakers is not to conceitedly promote my own experiment with film, but give a bit of advice. I am far from a professional, nor am I an expert in the field, I’m just a guy with something to say, and I hope it helps. So without further ado, my stance on all things film making.

Advice on Writing

Harder than it seems. The first draft of Monsters from The Beyond! was a mere 60 pages long. Far from feature length. And unless I make some changes, draft 2 looks like it could fall shorter than the first, and not for lack of trying.

One thing to do would be to fully flesh out ideas and write lengthy treatments. Don’t forget that it’s easier to take stuff out than to add more (This may not be the case for things that you’re passionate about, but try your hardest). Take these treatments with you when you go to write it, it will be easier. 

Writing Dialogue

This is really hard for me, because I grew up under my own little rock for the first 17 years of my life. I was fed a constant diet of 80's comedies, 40's and 50's horror movies, Looney Toons, Star Wars, 90's action movies, noir films, neo-noirs, and 75% of Disney’s films, so I have no idea how people talk today, and just when I think I’ve got it, everything’s changed and I’m left twisting in the wind. 

My advice for this would be, if you’re in a similar boat, is to go out, and just listen to the way people talk. Anybody and everybody, from all walks of life. Take notes.

Advice on Manpower

The last thing, that “professional” film-makers, I’ve found, want to hear from people like us, is “copy/credit.” They don’t want anything to do with us if there’s not a paycheck. DO NOT let that discourage you, we were just looking for help in the wrong place. Learn to look elsewhere for your cast and crew.

If there’s a talent agency in your town, walk past it. If there’s a pre-existing production company in your town, don’t try them. Create your own cast and crew from people you know. You may have to teach them everything, but that’s OK, there will be more love and passion in the project than with “professionals” that you had to pay.

Advice on Money 

Money is such a difficult thing to get in gross. That’s why it is stupidly important to be able to save money wherever, whenever possible.

One of the cardinal rules of Independent film making is to write around what you have. The first draft I wrote for Monsters from The Beyond! broke this rule, quite a bit. But I bought a couple of props that I knew could be carried into future endeavors. Try to buy your props on sale, that will save you money.

The lights I use, and have used for my projects to date (mostly film school remember), are seven to ten dollar aluminum-dish clamp lights from the hardware store, and light bulbs rated for 3000K. I couldn’t find any for 3200, but I gotta work with what I got. And in my opinion, my clamp lights work better than the lighting kits the school lets us borrow.

That ends my little digression on equipment.

Filmmaking Superstition 

About a year ago, I picked up Robert’ Rodriguez’s book, Rebel Without a Crew, and I encourage you to do the same. It’s about how he made his first feature El Mariachi (which is an amazing film in and of itself). The book is essentially his production diary from beginning to end, which gets to be frightfully funny at several points throughout, but also offers a lot of good advice.

He describes the term “Mariachi Filmmaking,” where creativity, not money, is used to solve problems, which I think is a great way to make movies, especially where we are now.

The superstition part of this article comes here: I keep my copy of Rebel Without a Crew with me when I’m making whatever project the school, or myself, has me working on. With the hopes that, even if not everything goes smoothly, something different and possibly better will pop up.

Advice on Style/Voice

This is the single most important thing a filmmaker can have in his/her arsenal. Especially where we are now.

Films with no style are sometimes not afforded even a glance, but if there’s some flair, and something special to that which you have put together, people are more likely to take notice. Don’t let your voice get muddied by anything, it should be very clear. A filmmaker’s style is his signature, and we need to sign everything we make.

Advice on Impairments

I’m colorblind. I have a red/green deficiency, and for those that don’t know, colorblindness is nothing more than getting shades of certain colors confused, in my case, reds and greens give me the most trouble, and can appear yellow, green, red, orange, purple, blue, pink, gray, whatever, depending on the original color, shade and lighting.

So as you can imagine, color grading and correction can be a bit of a chore. This won’t be an issue for me on Monsters from The Beyond! because I’ve decided that film should be in black and white (to better reflect the “B” movie-ness of it), but for future films it may be, but I’ll think of something.

Point is, don’t let any impairment get in your way, find a way around it, incorporate necessity into style. If you’re confined to a wheelchair, you’re your own dolly, and you can use low-angles to put the audience in your place. If you’re deaf, make a movie with no dialogue, instead, all the actors sign their lines, and those of us that can hear require the subtitles.

Others may see a disability as unfortunate and constricting, but you should see it as an avenue for creativity

Advice on Film School

Now, I hate to keep referencing Robert Rodriguez, but let’s be honest, he’s a beacon to us all, and this reference comes with my spin on it. Quoted from his book, here’s his stance on film school:

“If you’re still thinking you may need to go to film school to learn some more, forget film school! Take that $20,000+ you were planning on spending on UCLA or New York University Film School and put it right back in your pocket. They can’t teach you how to tell a story in film school, and even if they did, you wouldn’t want to learn it from them anyway.” (Robert Rodriguez)

In a nutshell, Robert tells us to not spend the money on film school, save the money we were going to spend on it and make our movies with that, learn to tell our own stories in our own way, with our own voice. 

And I can hear you all now “But you’re going to film school, you contradictory author you.” That’s true I am, but my tuition and that of everyone that went to my school district, is paid for by a group of anonymous benefactors, so I figured I’d go to film school anyway.

But I digress, here’s my spin, closing statement, and inspirational quote that I believe I coined:

“You can know all the technical aspects of movie-making, all the numbers, setups and  rules, but if it doesn’t feel right, you’re doing it wrong.”

-Ian Stoops



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