Not every director is suited for low-budget indie filmmaking, and that’s OK if you’re Terrence Malick or David Fincher. But chances are, you’re not…or not yet, anyway. I get a fair number of calls from biggish directors and producers who are having trouble raising money for their films and want to explore how to make them on the super-cheap. I’ve entertained some of these requests, collecting funny anecdotes along the way, like the director who wanted to fly in stars from another country and rent large trailers for them, but forego unions and production insurance. Or the producer who wanted to cast an actor whose agent demanded $12,000 worth of perks, when our entire costume budget was just $4,000. As much as I want to work with these namey folks, I usually end up politely declining because I know that it will be difficult for them (and for me, especially) to make a movie on a fraction of the budgets to which they’re accustomed.
I’ve now worked with twenty different directors on mostly low-budget indie projects–some of whom I’d like to work with again and again; others, never again. By now, I can tell when a director is lying, even if he or she doesn’t realize it–”it’ll be 70% handheld,” “we can just run and gun it with a skeleton crew,” “all I need is an extra half day for second unit stuff.” Yeah, right. Most of the director foibles I’ve dealt with are due to inexperience and will likely resolve themselves with time. But sometimes, I wonder if some people just weren’t meant to direct–at least not low-budget indies.
So what are the traits that I think make a director “indie-friendly” (and more generally, “producer-friendly”)? Besides the usual traits that all directors should have–passion, confidence, focus, a high E.Q., a collaborative spirit, a sense of humor, the ability to command respect, an openness to feedback balanced with decisiveness–here are the traits that are especially important when working with limited resources:
1. Fast Writer
I’ve worked mostly with writer-directors, which offers an efficiency that’s often missing when the writer and director are different people. So much rewriting is done not just during development and prep, but also during production. Some of my directors have had to rewrite whole scenes minutes before shooting them. There is probably a lot more production-directed rewriting in the indie world since we are constantly trying to figure out how to stretch a budget. Development periods are also a lot shorter for us because they have to be–typically, no one gets paid during development; we only get paid if we’re in production. As such, it’s nice to work with speedy writers who can discuss, digest, and incorporate notes quickly to produce a shoppable draft.
Anything can happen in filmmaking, especially if you have limited resources–extras stand you up, location owners change their minds at the last minute, the G&E truck takes a wrong turn and shows up 2 hours late. So it’s critical for a director to be able to adapt to these exigent circumstances and figure out how to make lemonade from lemons. I’ve worked with directors who refused to shoot because a featured extra didn’t show up. Even after I’d come up with workable solutions, the directors still resisted, insisting that the entire film would be ruined without this extra. Really? You have a set, a camera, equipment, and a cast and crew of 50 at your fingertips, and you’re just going to cross your arms and pout? You’re a creative person…create something! If it ends up sucking, then reshoot it. But for now, use what’s right in front of you and try to make something. (By the way, I’ve never had to reshoot any scene that called for an unexpected last-minute fix like this.) Being adaptive and thinking on your feet also helps when there are happy accidents. Filmmaking is organic and unpredictable, and when the right mix of elements strikes on set, a good director will know how to capitalize on it.
3. Editing Experience
It is so valuable for a director to have editing experience because she or he will know on set what’s important and what’s not, what can be sacrificed and what can’t. Indie films are scheduled so tightly that it’s often very tough to make the day. All of my feature productions have been between 19 and 24 days, shooting between 4-7 pages and 15-35 setups per day. Sometimes, shots and even scenes have to be cut on the day of shooting. A director who also edits will have a much better sense of which shots are expendable, and how to make up for losing them.
4. Ability to Visualize
This seems obvious, doesn’t it? But you’d be surprised how many directors can’t do this. Many indie directors I’ve encountered come from writing or theater backgrounds–they can write great dialogue and work well with actors, but they have no idea how to compose a frame. Yes, this is what cinematographers are for, but it’s much more efficient when a director can actually visualize what shots will look like before crew and cast go through the trouble of setting them up.
5. Doesn’t Sweat the Small Stuff
This is probably the most controversial trait on the list. Artists are, by their nature, perfectionists–and they should be! However, the reality is that perfection is tough to achieve on a small budget. Of course, we should always work very hard to achieve it, but the obsession over minor details–like the way a curtain drapes over a windowsill in the background–should not compromise more important things like the actors’ performances or the entire shooting schedule. Except, of course, if you’re making an art film in which the position of curtains is paramount. But if you’re making a traditional narrative film where the writing, acting, and storytelling are the main events, then those are the things you should focus on. A production’s budget and schedule are a zero-sum game. It’s rare to get everything you want; it’s usually very give-and-take. So it’s important for directors to choose their battles wisely.
6. Highly Prepared
One of my favorite first assistant directors, Nicolas D. Harvard, has a great motto: “Fix it in prep.” Indie films benefit immensely from directors who are incredibly diligent about doing research, shot lists, storyboards, and the like during prep. Some directors I’ve worked with have refused to do shot lists because they don’t want to be “locked in” to doing those particular shots on the day of shooting. This is silly because a good producer and crew understands the importance of being flexible on set and allowing for the organic nature of filmmaking to take its course, and would not pressure a director to stick strictly to his or her shot list. On the contrary, a shot list is what allows a director the freedom to improvise on the shoot day. Going into production without a shooting plan is very dangerous because it could easily throw the entire schedule (and consequently, the budget) off the rails.
7. Solid Work Ethic & High Stamina
Making a movie is hands down the hardest work I’ve ever done. That’s why I’m so picky with my projects. I cannot imagine working so hard on something I don’t care about. So when I take on a project, I expect to work very hard on it, and I expect no less of my director. Once, during late-stage prep on a film, the director kept checking into bars and restaurants on Foursquare, and tweeting about how much fun he was having hanging out with his friends. I did not like this one bit. If I and your crew are working our asses off on your film, then you should be too. Indie directors must have a very solid work ethic, and a high stamina for long hours spent doing what will likely be the most intellectually, physically, and emotionally challenging work they’ve ever done.
8. Vast Knowledge of Film
It’s important for all directors to know the language of cinema. By knowing what’s been done before and what certain shots have traditionally communicated, a director doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. He or she can then more easily pay homage to, do variations on, or reject conventions. Being able to refer to certain films, scenes, or shots also makes it much easier and quicker for a director to articulate his vision to the crew and cast.
In all productions, but especially indie ones, a director often has to defend the creative decisions that conflict with budget or schedule limitations. As such, a director should be able to clearly articulate why he needs 5 picture cars instead of 2, or 21 shoot days instead of 20, or a Steadicam instead of doing it handheld. A good producer will listen and OK the expenditures if the director provides a strong rationale for them. Of course, it’s also beneficial when directors can clearly and efficiently communicate what they want to their actors and crew, and woo financiers with a pitch. Directors should practice untangling the creative jumble in their heads to form coherent thoughts and actionable requests (that, or find a producer who can translate for them).
Being articulate also helps when a director is promoting a film. Communicating your vision to the media and the public can be a difficult thing to do, especially if you can’t afford fancy publicists to guide you. Some directors I’ve worked with are great at making movies, but can’t write loglines or synopses, pitch their own films, or conduct coherent Q&As, so I’ll have to pinch hit. But it’s really nice when they can do these things, because no one cares about the producer! Distributors also expect directors to play an active role in film promotion, especially now that the landscape is so difficult, and so much rides on the cult of personality. Bonus points for the director who is active in social media. There is no substitute for authenticity, and when a director can tweet in his or her own voice, it generates a lot more interest and engagement.
11. Technically Adept
Knowing how to use Twitter and Facebook is part and parcel of the overall technical aptitude that’s important for an indie director to have. Indie directors and producers often have to be jacks of all trades–more so than ever now that so much of marketing and distribution falls on our shoulders. When you can’t pay your Web designer, graphic artist, or assistant editor enough to be on call (or when you can’t afford these folks in the first place), you should be prepared to do the job yourself. So if you have some spare time, learn how to use video editing, photo editing, illustration, and web design programs, and of course, social media tools. You should also try to stay abreast of the latest camera and post-production technologies because in indie land, post supervision often falls to you and your producer.
Directors can be spoiled, bratty, entitled people. There is no place for that in the low-budget world, where everyone is working very long hours at very reduced rates. Directors who consistently show appreciation and respect for their cast and crew effectively motivate them, and that motivation is necessary fuel for low-budget productions. The director–not the producers or the actors–is the one who ultimately sets the tone of the production. If he or she is an unappreciative jerk, then everyone is miserable and left to wonder what all the suffering is for. An appreciative director also shares the limelight, and gives credit where it is due. And if/when Hollywood comes a-callin’, an appreciative director will remember the “little people” and “give back” by continuing to work with those who believed in his or her vision before anyone else did.
So there you have it! If you don’t possess most of these traits, please don’t call me–unless you are David Fincher or Terrence Malick. Actually…no, never mind, not even then. I will just enjoy your brilliant films from afar.