Film & TV

How to Make an Independent Film

Authored by Spike Lee

Director, Filmmaker

When you’re directing an independent film like She’s Gotta Have It, you might also be the caterer, producer, screenwriter, actor, and even your own 1st AD. And yet you can’t make an independent film all by yourself; you’ll need to work with a cast and crew to bring your vision to the screen.

Method 1 of 2

Working with a Crew

Budgeting takes compromise.

You can only make the film that you can afford. Scale down your plans for equipment, locations, etc. For example, you probably don’t have the budget to shoot atop the Empire State Building, but this limitation can inspire you to come up with a creative idea that might be better than your original, expensive idea.

Did you know?

The biggest way to cut costs is to defer pay. This is hard to do with strangers, so staff your team with people you know who have faith in your ability, the script, and the project. They’ll be more likely to sign an agreement and work for deferment.

No matter what, feed your crew.

The easiest way to have a revolt on your set is to not feed your crew, especially if their payment is getting deferred. Don’t skimp on craft services. It’s a considerable cost, but it will keep your crew happy.

Be on time.

Your crew is watching you, and it will be hard to regain their respect if you show up late to your own set. However, if you prove you’re dedicated to the work, they’ll go above and beyond to get the shots you need.

Share information with your crew.

Once everyone is on set, talk about your plans for the whole day with your cameraperson, 1st AD, key grip, gaffer, script supervisor, and any other vital crew members. They should all know the answer to the question “What are we shooting?”

Respect your locations.

Treat your locations, particularly people’s homes, like it’s your own home, and make sure your crew does the same. A lot of this is just simple respect—cleaning up at the end of the day, not leaving shit around, and being quiet during outdoor shoots, especially ones that start early in the morning or go late at night. Otherwise you might lose your location and have to scramble to find a new one.

Always have a backup location, just in case.

You might lose a location due to budget, scheduling, or weather, so always have a cover set, or backup. You don’t want to lose a day of shooting or be forced to make a last-minute rewrite.

Method 2 of 2

Working with Actors

Take your time when casting.

When auditioning, bring in your leads three to four times, both by themselves and with their costars to test their chemistry. Just because they’re great when performing alone doesn’t mean they’ll work well together on screen. The camera never lies when it comes to chemistry.

Earn your actors’ trust and respect.

Working with actors can be intimidating, but you have to learn how to speak to them and listen to what they’re saying, especially during preproduction and rehearsal. If you don’t settle any issues with the script during rehearsal, it’ll come up on set in front of the whole crew, and that will cost time, money, and respect.

Bond with your cast outside of rehearsal

You’ll want your cast to feel like a family. This can be accomplished by having dinners together or, if you’re making a heist film like Inside Man, by watching Dog Day Afternoon three or four times. Little things like this can go a long way and will pay off when they don’t complain about a particularly long shoot.

Treat every take as a sacred moment.

Once you’re shooting, be very respectful of actors and their craft. It shows the utmost disrespect when a phone rings or buzzes, or people move or talk, during a take.

Give your actors enough takes.

The easiest way to get a better performance from your actors is to do more takes. They aren’t robots and won’t hit it out of the park every time. Some actors are great on the first take; others are great on the eighth, ninth, or tenth. Give them the opportunity to hit their stride.

Did you know?

Even if you get the perfect shot, many actors will ask for one more take. Give it to them—but only one or two! Actors love getting another take to try things a little differently, but you have to stick to a schedule.

Encourage their best performance.

It’s your job to get the best possible performance from your actors, but not everybody responds to the same type of direction, so you’ll have to quickly learn what they respond to best. If you have notes to give, call cut and have a quiet one-on-one conversation; don’t embarrass them in front of the crew. And at the end of the day, let them sincerely know they’ve done great work.

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