You learn more from your failures than you do from your successes. Failing at things doesn’t, as we’ve discussed before, make you a failure, but if you’re going to dwell on those failures, it may as well be constructive! In that vein, we’re going to go through every mistake I’ve made as an indie filmmaker (so far), in the hopes that you can sidestep the fumbles I’ve already made and get straight to your own unique “learning experiences.”
Unfortunately, I have made so many that this article serves only as, ominously, Part 1.
Hiring someone despite red flags
When I set out to make my first ever web series, my friend and director told me we needed a director of photography. I had no idea what that was, or how it was different from a director (I mean, they both had “director” in the name, right?), but he knew more than me and I agreed to make it a hiring priority. Our third producer, who had lived in New York his whole life, knew more people than us, and recommended his friend who for the purposes of this article we’ll call… No-Go.
Since the director and I had never met No-Go, we made a plan to all hang out in the city after one of my barista shifts to get a drink. No-Go had never DP’d before, but he had a nice camera and presumably knew how to use it, and I started to understand why the director wanted a DP. Ah, they’re the ones with the cameras! So young, so dumb. Anyways.
After spending about thirty seconds discussing the type of camera No-Go had, things started to get real weird. First, when relating to us his film and TV experience, he revealed his greatest artistic achievement was cutting together a snuff film to torture incoming pledges to his college fraternity. According to him, at first it was good fun, clipping together scenes from actual gruesome crimes and injuries, and it wasn’t until he got to a video of a man being decapitated and then stopped to think to himself, wow, this is a real human person. Allegedly, the fraternity still uses this video even seven years later. My director went to take a smoke break.
The next 45 minutes consisted of No-Go showing us a series of escalating GIFs and short videos of a variety of unpleasant things, none of which I’m going to repeat, but all of which he found hysterical. My director took several more smoke breaks throughout this, stranding me each time. I’m a very competitive person and played along as if I was unfazed, not wanting to appear weak in front of a person who I was slowly realizing might be a serial killer.
So anyways, we hired him.
We shot the pilot for my web series Brains over a weekend, the first day filming all my monologue in a dorm room and the second wandering around Prospect Park and the Upper West Side. None of the footage from the pilot online is footage No-Go shot, because on his way to set the second day, he walked off the subway leaving behind his camera, all the first day’s footage, and my director’s lenses that he’d loaned him. He didn’t even bother to show up after this occurred- he texted our producer what amounted to “whoops” after we’d spent an hour waiting for him and wondering where the hell he was. Thankfully I’d brought my 2011 HD camcorder to film behind the scenes footage, and we ended up using that for the rest of the season, reshooting the entire first day a few weeks later. For season 2 we hired a DP with an even better camera who was an absolute delight to be around, and I’ve worked with him ever since. We never saw or spoke to No-Go again.
- If someone seems off, regardless of their skillset, DON’T HIRE THEM.
- More than one person in your network has a nice camera.
- Back up your footage at the end of each day, no exceptions.
- Never leave expensive equipment with a person you don’t trust, even if you’re supposed to literally see them the next day.
- Don’t hire a serial killer as your director of photography without good references from previous sets.
Almost quitting my show when someone quit on me
Because our original DP wasn’t drama enough for the first season of Brains, we also lost a lead actor early in the process. In addition to no footage from the current pilot being shot by No-Go, we also reshot the outdoor Prospect Park scene a few months later due to the actor playing Damian, the romantic lead, dropping out. The only footage from that pilot that wasn’t reshot was the iPhone scene in the middle of the episode.
The original actor playing Damian is someone we’ll call Jom. Jom was my roommate and good friend from grad school who was the first person to ever read the Brains season 1 script aloud with me. He was instrumental to the final draft, recommending things that influenced the show significantly going forward. He was also an alcoholic.
I didn’t know this before we because roommates, but within a month of moving in with each other (and our director and script supervisor and eventually my boyfriend as well) I had to call an ambulance and spend 18 hours in an ER with him. Three weeks after that, he’d fallen off the wagon again, cut me out with a string of incredibly painful texts, emails, and shouts through the wall separating our rooms, and quit Brains the day before we started shooting episode 2. Confused and hurt, I canceled the shoots we’d planned for the next two days and took a two-hour walk with my other roommates around our new Brooklyn neighborhood, crying and ranting and yelling “life is pointless!” * at people giving me strange looks.
We’d cast the show largely from our classmates, most of which were women, so losing our romantic male lead with the third-most lines in the show was a huge blow. Our core creative team, all of whom had moved to New York only a year prior, knew no one else, and I was exhausted. I was exhausted and I was emotionally spent and by the end of our two-hour walk, I had all but decided to quit.
Thankfully, I didn’t. My friends and collaborators talked me down, we rescheduled some of our shoots that didn’t require the romantic lead and made an account on a casting website to post a call for a new Damian, a process I document in more detail here. We found our new actor, someone I’ve now cast in literally every project since, took another week off to shoot the entirety of Relativity, and finished Brains’ principal photography right before the summer from hell ended.
- Maybe don’t be so dramatic about everything.
- Everyone is replaceable, and usually the replacements are better.
- No production complication is the end unless you let it be.
*actual quote. Not an exaggeration.
Losing a third of my budget to laziness
As outlined in this financial breakdown of my first season, a significant portion of money spent was spent because of mistakes I made through laziness. These lazy money wastes included:
- $41.11 for a prop gun that looked so bad we only used it once and it was mostly framed out
- $58.00 for lavalier microphones that weren’t compatible with our phones (which were going to double as our recorders)
- $32.56 for adapters for the above lavalier microphones that still didn’t make them work with our phones
- $28.94 for more prop guns that I sent to my mom’s house in Colorado so we didn’t actually get to use them until season 2
- $312.41 for Ubers and taxis
Literally all of those charges could have been avoided, or at the very least reduced significantly.
- Don’t buy ANYTHING if you haven’t shown it to anyone else, especially if you have another director or producer or high-level crew member who isn’t you
- If you intend to use your phone to record audio, actually check if the mics you’re buying work with phones (I have used these mics on both of my web series so far, with pretty good results)
- If the microphones you buy don’t work with your phones, don’t spend more than half the cost of the bad mics to buy adapters- JUST BUY WORKING MICS.
- Unless someone is injured or physically unable to take equipment on public transportation, don’t take cabs or Ubers. I spent $42.20 on transportation during season two, despite our filming more days and with more equipment. The two Ubers we used throughout the entire four-month shooting period were to take a sick cast member home and to quickly retrieve some forgotten props.
That’s where we’ll stop for the day. If you enjoyed hearing about my mistakes, let me know, and I’ll do another of these! I have two pages more of things I can write about. In the meantime, what are some mistakes YOU’VE made on your filmmaking journeys so far, and how are you learning from them on future projects?