How I Got my First Feature Film Made

Feb 28, 2018

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After over 15 years of waiting for someone to make my movies I decided to take the plunge and figure out how to make a movie myself. It wasn’t easy but it also wasn’t nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. The truth is that if you make a decision to make a film and just refuse to take no for an answer I believe that you will make one.

Don’t Take No for an Answer

You might have to sacrifice your dream script or casting that actor you really really want, you might have to figure out how to shoot it on one location and eliminate all expensive props, you may have to condense your shooting schedule from five weeks down to just a few days, but if you have the attitude that you’re making a movie and everyone who tells you otherwise can go suck it then you’ll make one.

That’s where I was before starting the adventure that became my first film, I’d Like to be Alone Now. Before we go any further, here is the trailer to the movie just so you have a sense of what kind of film it is as there’s going to be some references to it in this post:

So let’s back up just a bit. Before I made this film I was in a heck of a rut. I had just spent about two years developing a relationship with a director named Danny Kaufman that culminated in him making a feature I had written. Unfortunately, we had a falling out about credits on the film (I should have caved MUCH MUCH sooner – I’m writing a post about this soon) and he still doesn’t talk to me. Even though it takes two to tango I’m going to accept the responsibility of that relationship going into the toilet. It’s completely my fault for not having a clearer head about what this artform is really about. So if you’re reading this Danny, I’m sorry 🙁

That film, called Married Young, turned out pretty good. Since we had a falling out I’m not sure what happened with it but to my knowledge the director has yet to distribute the film.

While we were making the film everyone’s hopes were very very high. There were times when we thought we were making the next Annie Hall and that everyone’s careers were going to change overnight. It was a big blow to me to get cut out of the process and I’m sure it was a big blow to Danny that it didn’t get picked up by a major distributor and get the red carpet treatment.

If Failure is Too Expensive You’re Doing Something Wrong

One of the biggest disappointments to me was that the film got expensive. While I did not personally invest in the film (as I didn’t have the means to do so), the cost of the film really got so high that I suspected if it didn’t explode as a masterpiece and get picked up by A24 or Fox or someone on the top tier of the distribution world that it would be difficult to motivate Danny and the crew to make another movie.

As I watched the film getting made I realized that most film sets have a lot of excess baggage that they don’t really need. There are usually too many people on set and each person is another mouth to feed which quickly adds up. There were kids in the film and even an animated character that we had to account for during film and it quickly became apparent that those were huge time sucks and really hurt the film’s ability to be nimble on set. Lastly, I remember locations being very difficult to find and expensive to rent.

Work Within Your Financial Constraints

Even with all those challenges working against the film I was able to see what was really working for the movie, and by proxy what I thought would work for any movie:

  1. Actors are usually willing to go the extra mile and work hard for material they believe in
  2. Your cinematographer feels as much ownership on the film as you do and usually has his heart in it as well
  3. Technology has gotten so good and cheap that you don’t need nearly as much as you think you do
  4. There are ways to put polish on your film that require creativity over cash.

Armed with these four facts I decided to write a script that would work with having little to no money on hand. Since I was relying very heavily on a cinematographer and actors I knew that the script had to be something that would attract both actors as well as cinematographers.

To try to eliminate as many other hard costs as possible I knew I had to shoot locally to avoid any travel costs and I had to use a location that I had available for free so I decided to shoot in my own house. The only problem was that I wasn’t about to move out all of my kids furniture out of the house and redress it as a new set yet I knew that I wasn’t about to shoot with child actors because of all the complications that it brought on Married Young.

I knew that the script had to be something that would attract both actors as well as cinematographers.

So if the furniture stays but the kids are missing I had a few options:

  1. The family as on vacation and someone was house sitting
  2. The kids were at school or camp and all the scenes are filmed while they’re away
  3. The kids have been kidnapped
  4. The kids have died

I went with the fourth option as it hurt me just thinking about it and those kinds of raw emotions are what makes for engaging storytelling. I then fleshed out the script in a way where I knew I could shoot it quickly as time is money on set.

Taking Advantage of New Technology and Thinking Outside the Box

Studying all the gimbals and latest camera stabilization technology I decided to write something that had a birdman type approach where instead of shooting coverage the entire movie was shot in long steadicam takes. This would force us to get at least 10-15 minutes of footage done each day and also act as great bait for the cinematographer as well as the actors. It would also mean we would have to rely on sunlight since we couldn’t hide lights anywhere which meant that we would shoot shorter days and skip a lot of the expenses on lighting, grip and electric.

I had a few thousand dollars put away and figured I should start casting and see what kind of talent I should find. I got in touch with someone I had met over the years and he suggested that I do a dry run of the movie with impromptu camera work and I loved the idea. We shot about 40 minutes of the film with me as one of the lead actors and I realized a couple things:

  1. I could not direct if I was acting and didn’t like the way I was coming off on screen.
  2. I did not love the camera work, actors or location we used

I was hoping to see what was working and what was not in the film but every time I watched the dry run all I saw was that nothing was working and I literally scrapped the entire crew and cast. I just didn’t see anything that really fit the film from the dry run so I decided to start a new.

When Things Aren’t Working You Need to Move On

Luckily I had just met a producer, Rob Margolies, with experience in both getting name actors attached as well as producing on a budget. The number he was telling me seemed a lot more in line with what I had in mind and within a few days of meeting him I decided he was a much better fit for the film.

Although I had planned on shooting the film on a shoestring budget Rob convinced me to let him put together a business plan that we could then take to potential investors. We made lists of everyone in my inner circle who I thought might find investing in a movie interesting (there were literally 3 people) and they were a total bust. What happened during that pitching process though was Rob made lists of potential actors who were somewhat affordable on a modest budget and my heart got set on seeing name actors in the roles.

Once You See Things One Way It’s Hard to Go Back

When I got rejected for funding by my friends and family I decided to keep pushing and put together a fundraising campaign on kickstarter. During the kickstarter campaign Rob also found an investor who put up nearly 50% of the budget – go Rob!

The kickstarter campaign was successful in getting alot of funds in but ironically over 95% of the money raised came for four people – three of whom were people I had never met before. They were friends of either the casting director or the production designer and totally floored me. As soon as you decide to make a movie and get the train moving things start falling into place a lot of the time. People come out of the woodwork because they feel like it’s almost there and just needs that little extra push to get over the hill.

Legitimizing Your Project

With Rob’s investor and a successful kickstarter campaign we had just enough to get into production (I would later fund post myself as my own financial situation got a bit better). I managed to attach David Fynn and Vanessa Lengies based on the relationship I had with them from working on Married Young. It’s a hell of a lot easier to text actors directly to read your script then go through their agents.

Rob had a similar relationship with Spencer Grammar and with the three of them attached to the project it became legitimate in the eyes of most agents and managers. It was still a ridiculously low payday (not scale but well under everyone’s quote) so we got a lot of rejections but I was absolutely thrilled with the cast I was blessed enough to get.

A No-Drama Shoot

Everything else pretty much went as you’d expect. Everyone showed up to set to act, Rob helped me find other key crew positions. My DP, Tarik Hameedi, brought along a couple of his connections to work in the camera department, and seven and half days later the film was in the can (I did have to fire a few people who weren’t pulling their weight but that’s for another time).

There’s more details I’m skipping over but the basic gist of it is that I wrote a script I could shoot in my own house in a week. The shooting style made lighting the space basically impossible so it cut down on gear tremendously, I used every relationship I had to get good actors involved in the project, it shot locally and only required a week of everyone’s time, and I didn’t write in any complicated props or fx that would eat up budget.

You Could Make the Same Movie for Free

In truth, if you were to make the same movie I made but shot it yourself or had a friend shoot it and use non-union actors working for copy and credit you could have easily got the film in the can for just the cost of catering. I still flirt with the idea of shooting something like that all the time. I’ve become friends with a DP who owns his own gear and is looking to shoot something with that kind of film rebel mentality so who knows, we might make a film and pay people in Taco Bell in the near future.

Being Proud of Your Work

The film hasn’t been released yet so there’s no telling what will come of it or how it will affect my career but one thing is for sure – I’m really proud of the movie. The performances, the camera work, the amazing score Aaron Symonds put together for the film are all top notch. It’s a film I would gladly pay to see in a theater myself and something I will stand proudly behind any day of the week. My biggest hope is that we can find a distributor who will put it out theatrically for a couple weeks in Los Angeles so I can qualify Jack McGee for an Oscar nomination because his performance really is that good but only time will tell.

Just Go Out There and Do It

If you can’t tell from the tone in this article the bottom line is go make a movie with whatever you have. If you’re too timid to start with a feature then go make a short. There’s an addictive quality to making movies. They’re a lot of hard work and they take a while to put together but once they’re done you’ll find that you’ll wake up the next morning with an incredible itch to shoot another one.

Don’t let money be the determining factor as to whether or not you will make a film. I’m not a big fan of shooting on an iPhone, especially when a GH5 can easily be mistaken for a RED camera these days, but if you have to buy gear off craigslist just for the shoot and then sell it on craigslist for 90-95% of what you paid when you’re done then do it! Go out there and start getting to know actors. Meet DPs and people who love to shoot. Learn how to edit and practice with whatever footage you can get your hands on.

Follow the Fun

Making a movie should be fun! I’ve been on sets where people are there out of obligation and it’s absolutely horrible. If you’re reading this than you’re in film because you love it. Don’t lose sight of that. Go out there and make and remember if it sucks you don’t have to show it to anyone so you really aren’t risking all that much.


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