How to Make a Short Film: Part One
Written by Michele Meek | Posted by: Anonymous
Step One: Writing the Script
I always think the worst low/no-budget independent films are the ones where the same person writes, directs and acts in the film. Fortunately, I have no gift or desire for acting. And anyway, taking on two of these roles — writing and directing — is enough a challenge. I spent about a year working on the Red Sneakers script, including several months in which I workshopped it with the help of a writing group. In the summer of 2006, I had my final script and was ready to plan production.
Of course, not all directors are writers so where do you find material to produce that award-winning short film? Luckily for you, not all writers want to be directors so all you need to do is find each other. NewEnglandFilm.com has a screenplay page where you can post calls for films or script ideas.
Finding the Talent: Casting a Short
I believe casting makes or breaks a film. What you don’t want is your audience wincing with embarrassment at bad acting — talk about a suspension of disbelief. But is it possible to find talented, experienced actors on a miniscule-budget short independent film? Sadly (for actors) and happily (for filmmakers), the answer is most certainly, yes. For Red Sneakers, I promoted the casting call through NewEnglandFilm.com as well as the Rhode Island Film Collaborative and CP Casting. I received dozens of resumes and headshots — many more actors than I had time to audition, so I selected carefully.
Alternatively, you can do an ‘open casting call’ which means you just have a space and time slot and hope the right people show up. For Red Sneakers, there were enough roles that called for specific features and ages so I wasn’t willing to chance it with an open call. I believe that by scheduling an appointment with a talented actor, you show them the respect they deserve, and therefore make it more likely for them to show up for the audition.
Wanting to keep the project professional, I didn’t want to have auditions in my home. Yet having little money for the budget, I didn’t want to spend for an official casting agent or pay to rent a space. I was living in Newport, RI at the time so I decided to call Newport Blues Café and ask if they’d lend me their space when they were closed, which fortunately they did. It wasn’t fancy, but there was a small stage and a separate room where I could have people wait for their audition if they arrived early.
For the auditions, I had my own personal miniDV (nothing fancy) set up which my husband manned for the day. I find taping auditions absolutely essential. There’s so much that happens in those small moments, and I would find it nearly impossible to make the right choice with only one pass. Having a tape also enabled me to show it to other people on the project (e.g. Amy Elliott, director of photography) and have them weigh in. Directing a film isn’t all about total control, after all, it’s about collaboration. So if you have people to offer opinions and thoughts, take them up on it. As the director, you still have the final say but with the help of your crew you can make an informed decision.
In reviewing the auditions, there were certain obvious choices and others which required more debating and pondering. You have to keep an open mind about your characters. For example, I ultimately chose Brenda Walsh for the character Mrs. Feinstein because even though she’s playing the nemesis, she brought a softer dimension to the role that struck me. I am no expert, but my philosophy on working with actors (child actors included) is to give them direction while giving the freedom to find the character. You need to give them background for the scene, but you never want to say their lines for them. You don’t want someone mimicking your tone, you want them to find the right tone through the beats of the scene and character motivations. I highly recommend reading some acting books (my favorite is A Practical Handbook for the Actor) and directing books (like On Directing Film) before attempting to direct actors — it’s important to understand their viewpoint as well as yours.
As with everything, it doesn’t matter how small your budget is or how amateur you really are — respond to actors in a timely, professional manner. I e-mailed everyone who auditioned to thank them for coming and told them I was still deciding and gave them a date when they could expect to hear from me. When I cast the roles, I e-mailed each person to notify them whether or not they got the part.
As it turned out, I cast one SAG actress, Gloria Crist. This meant doing a SAG Indie Contract (www.sagindie.org), specifically their Short Film Agreement since my budget was obviously lower than their cutoff of $50,000. Since this was a project filming in Rhode Island, everything was handled through the New England branch. Here’s how it worked: they sent me the paperwork, which required submitting documents (including a copywritten script) in the preproduction phase. It’s important to get that process rolling a month or more before your shoot (I actually was late but they still accepted it). Then you send in the Professional Performer Contract and Time Sheets during the production, and some final paperwork post-production. It enables a low-budget independent film to cast SAG actors while having the fees deferred.
Happy Accidents: Planning the Production
Planning is definitely the key word when it comes to filmmaking. It wasn’t the best planning on my part when days before the shoot I was running around to every Wal-Mart, Payless and you name it looking for the ‘red sneakers’ needed as a key (title-worthy) prop. At about my fifth store, I called my husband in a panic. There were no red sneakers to be found. And his simple response, can you buy white ones and just color them red? And then the spark! Not just because this could work, but because it was so much better — it would be part of the story. Cassie doesn’t already have red sneakers, she creates red sneakers by coloring her white Keds. Einstein was most certainly right when he said, necessity is the mother of invention.
So sometimes you need to embrace the things that go wrong and invent a solution that works better. Because things always go wrong. And for me, the scariest thing about an independent no-budget production is the anticipation of who’s not going to show up. It’s hard enough to make dozens of people come together in a coordinated effort for a two-day weekend shoot, nevermind when you’re not paying any of them. For Red Sneakers, we had two no-shows and one darn close call.
Let me tell you the simple crew we had decided on. My DP had said she’d be able to light it herself, but would prefer to concentrate just on the camerawork. So I found a lighting person who brought his own equipment. Certainly necessary, she felt were a sound person and a few production assistants. In addition, I had a location manager David Angell help me seek out some of the area locations in advance. The main house I actually located through NewEnglandFilm.com classifieds, but David secured agreements for a second house, a storefront and a diner.
Meanwhile, I had thought we’d be small enough to be below the radar and not need permits. But when I posted the cast and crew call on NewEnglandFilm.com, I got an email from Steven Feinberg, director of the RI Film and Television Office reminding me that it was a requirement to obtain permits in advance "for any productions interested in filming in our Ocean State." I was impressed with his attention to detail (although he did call my film Red Shoes instead of Red Sneakers). It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be legitimate, but to me permits spelled hassle and cost. Fortunately, I was wrong on both counts. All I had to do was email a script, shooting schedule and permit request, and voila — permit I had.
So back to my big fear: who ditched? Well, for the first no-show, I had a few days warning. The sound person I had ‘hired’ decided he had something better to do (I won’t name names although I’d like to). He even had the nerve to e-mail me that since he wasn’t getting paid, I shouldn’t expect any differently. So this put me in the unfortunate position of scrambling for a sound person for no money at the last minute. I did find someone, and I paid for his hotel (since he was coming from Maine to Rhode Island).
Another close call happened the day before the shoot. My DP’s car broke down driving from New York to Rhode Island. Since she absolutely needed a car to make it to the shoot, I agreed to pay for a rental for the weekend.
But the worst no-show was a bit trickier. For the kids’ roles, I had gotten recommendations from several places. For Cassie’s (played by Shelby Mackenzie Flynn) little brother Tommy, I had found a young boy through Models Inc. Well, the night before the shoot at about 1 am, I got a call from the boy’s mother saying he wouldn’t be able to come because he was sick. Of course, when you’re dealing with four-year-old boys, this is completely plausible and perhaps true (I never did hire that private investigator). That said, there were several reasons I didn’t buy it — first because when I offered him the part, his mom was the only one who didn’t get back to me immediately with enthusiasm (I had to follow up with her again to see if they wanted the part) and second because she was the only cast or crew member who didn’t confirm receipt of the shooting schedule (again, I had to call her several times). I say this for one reason — trust your instincts. I had a gut feeling (not to mention plenty of warning signs) that ‘Tommy’ and his mom weren’t interested in the part. It’s especially something to consider when casting children actors — since it’s important to make sure the child wants to be the actor, rather than it being forced upon them by the parent(s).
Anyway, needless to say my night sleep was completed with that 1 am call despite the fact that I had to be up at 6 am to get to our 7 am shoot. The rest of the night I spent thinking up a way to go on with the shoot the next day, and then worrying about if it would work out (and who else might not show up). Here’s the gist: I had originally cast James Patrick Flynn Jr. as Andy but decided to change his part to Tommy (which in fact meant he would now play the brother to his real life sister). Then I called the parents of Keenan Cochrane who was originally going to play the Kapinsky Kid to see if they would come down to Rhode Island that day, which they did. This left the Kapinsky Kid role open but I had a bunch of extras coming the next day and decided to fill from that group.
Embrace the Chaos: The Production
What’s important to realize during any film is although you need to concern yourself with details, it’s not really to your advantage to drive yourself crazy (or anyone else) when things don’t go your way. Best thing to do is embrace the chaos.
Another compromise was when our car scene (originally to take place in a moving car) wouldn’t work because the windshield was too reflective and the actors couldn’t be seen through it. Not having the luxury of coming back on a more suitable day, we tried a walking scene. But that didn’t work because our sound person didn’t have sufficient wireless mics (always have those on hand) and a boom shot just wasn’t working. Finally, we resigned ourselves to the scene in the car without it moving as if they are getting ready to leave but haven’t yet. I haven’t had anyone mention it as strange to me, even when pressed, so I think I may the only one it bothers.
There were a few other things in production that I had to chalk up to lessons learned. For example, our shot list was way too ambitious and we had to cut shots from every scene. Rather than being inclusive of all possible shot angles, next time I would spend more time in advance story-boarding. A great book on this is Film Directing: Shot By Shot, Visualizing from Concept to Screen. Our first day we went hours off schedule, so I created a militant schedule for the next day. We had originally scheduled to shoot in two houses the second day and decided to make it work with just one.
Overall the shoot was a lot of fun (it’s hard not to enjoy being on a set, I find). I think my favorite moment was making rain. Who needs rain machines when you’ve got a few well-placed hoses?
In part two, I’ll take you through the post-production (editing, scoring, obtaining music rights) and marketing (film festivals, screenings, dvd) for Red Sneakers.
For more information on Red Sneakers, visit www.redsneakersmovie.com.
- Red Sneakers Shooting Schedule
- Actor Release Form
- Child Actor Release Form
- Red Sneakers Production Budget
Recommended Reading: David vid Mament's On Directing Film A Practical Handbook for the Actor Film Directing: Shot By Shot, Visualizing from Concept to Screen