Top 7 Mistakes You Make on Your First Feature
Waiting. You wait too. Make it now. You need money? No you (probably) don’t.
What are you waiting for? You can make the time if you want it bad enough.
Break the task down and work on it in small increments. Write a page every day. Hell, even a sentence. Just constantly keep moving towards the finish line no matter how long it takes.
Money is not an issue. A lot of acclaimed directors shot their first films on low-to-no budget:
Steven Spielberg – Firelight = $500
Quentin Tarantino – My Best Friend’s Birthday = $5000
Christopher Nolan – Following = $6000
How did they do this? By writing character driven scripts that focus on storytelling rather than locations or special effects. Are they greatest movies ever made? Maybe not. But everyone has to start somewhere. Where they were 20 years ago is no different than where you are now.
Time to man (or woman) up and join the big leagues.
You made too many shorts.
Thinking you can’t do something is the first step to not doing it.
Don’t justify your fear by adding another short to the never ending list of shorts because you think a feature film is this big scary thing. You already know that there is no better practice than actually doing it.
Or maybe you are scared of not getting it right? No one’s first film is perfect but the important thing is that you see it through. The experience you get on your first film is the beginning of what will drive you forward as a filmmaker for the rest of your life.
You think you need another short for ‘practice’? Quentin Tarantino directed his first major feature (Reservoir Dogs, 1992) after only directing one black and white amateur film (My Best Friend’s Birthday, 1987) so what’s your excuse?
Not doing enough pre-production.
“Do as much pre-production planning as possible. The last thing you want to do on a 10 day schedule is to walk in the first day and say ‘where shall I put the camera?’….so when you come to shoot the picture you’re following your pre-arranged plan and you don’t have to stop to figure things out. You’ve done that in pre-production” – Roger Corman
The hours you put into pre-production well double in the amount of time you saved during production.
By knowing what you want to get first it leaves time for you to be spontaneous or capture a moment that might not have happened if you were too busy running around trying to figure out what you’re going to do.
So plan as much as you can and you will find yourself (and crew) live happier lives because of it.
Making what you think others will like instead of what you like.
“The mistakes happen when you try and figure out what everyone likes because the only thing you can be sure of is what you like…It gets all messed up when you’re trying to repeat and copy. Reach deep into your personal stuff. Your own joys and happiness and sadness and pain and struggle and victory and share them. That’s what we want to see” – Darren Aronofsky
That pretty much says it all right there.
Your first feature should be how you see the world presented on the screen for the audience to experience. It will define how you view yourself and how others view you as a filmmaker.
Not being open to the suggestions from others with experience.
“Of course. Everyone knows this. Why is this on the list?”
Because you’d be surprised how many people forget the simple importance of being open minded. Film making in itself is a collaborative medium and, even though there is a hierarchy, each member of the crew is responsible for being artists in his or her job. You need to find the trust and believe that they know what they are doing.
For example, an actor’s job is to act. So if your actor says ‘maybe the line could be said like this?’ you should take that into consideration.
No one is saying that you have to be a yes man. Just trust the actor to act and consider it. Don’t just rush to say no because it isn’t the line you wrote.
Another thing to keep in mind is that directors sometimes have mentors who aren’t even in film. Take Tarantino for example:
“In True Romance (Tarantino’s first script) I was trying to do my version of an Elmore Leonard novel is script form….a style I was inspired by more than anything you could point your finger at” – Quentin Tarantino (Creativescreenwriting.com, 1998)
If Tarantino can be inspired by an author, why wouldn’t you be able to learn something from an actor?
Think about it.
Not getting deliverables.
So you made your film and now what? You want to go to the festivals right?
It’s important to know which festival you want to go to and what kind of deliverable you need in order to submit your film.
For example, Sundance doesn’t accept Blu-Rays for short films while TIFF doesn’t accept Blu-rays ether but accepts DVD screeners instead. Cannes accepts Blu-Rays and DVDs but also Beta (SP or Digital), 35mm film print, DCP (Digital Cinema Package) or HDCAM / HDCAM-S.
Make sure you put in the time with outputting many different versions of the film so you don’t have to book an editing suite after you’ve done post just to render something out.
Need a list of basic deliverables? By all means click here.
Falling in love with the footage.
The shoot is done and all you need to do is assemble your masterpiece.
Now you’re sitting in the editing suite scrolling through your footage wondering how you will be able to cut anything out because letting go is always the hardest part.
But remember, it’s for the best. You need to keep what’s most important in mind- the story. Think ‘does this scene move the story forward?’ and ‘Is this last 15 minutes in the third act really crucial?’ If the answer is NO then maybe it’s time for you to trim a little fat.
Many actors were cut out of big budget movies entirely:
Harrison Ford – ET
Paul Rudd – Bridesmaids
Gary Oldman/Mickey Rourke/Lukas Haas/Bill Pullman/Billy Bob Thornton – The Thin Red Line
They were probably cut because it was excess baggage on the story the director wanted to tell.
Don’t stress out about cutting. At the end of the day, you can rest easy knowing that you’ll never cut as much as Terrence Malick.
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That’s pretty much all I can tell you, kids.
This would be a good time to mention the 60 Day Feature Film Challenge that’s happening next year. If you’ve had that screenplay just sitting on your desk for years the 60 Day Feature Film Challenge will give you the kick in the ass you’ll need to get it done.
More info by clicking here. NOTE: The deadline has passed but subscribe to get news about 2016’s 60 Day Feature Film Challenge.
Keep making movies!
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But I don’t know anything about making movies. I wouldn’t even know where to start. How can someone like me make a feature film?
Look bub, it’s not impossible. Anyone and their grandma can get a used, cheap DSLR and shoot a movie. The thing to keep mind is that craft is key, not tools. I have met tons of people who think spending thousands on gear is what will make their films exceptional. They all end up putting visual/written storytelling to the sidelines.
If I had a dollar for every boring but beautifully shot short film I’ve seen on Vimeo, I’d have enough money to be a toy collector too. They might as well just render their sequences out as “DSLR_cameratest001.mp4”. But hey, everyone needs a hobby.
(Please ignore that. I’m not bitter, trust me. I realize the importance of this small scale practice but don’t get relegated to it.)
The important thing is that you find that burning desire to tell a story and use it as a beacon. Every gear purchase/rental and practical decision you make should stem from the storytelling.
I think you might be off on the gear thing. I mean professional gear is the only way to get a professional look…right?
Not exactly. Plenty of films have been either partially or entirely shot on low-to-mid end DSLR’s. Like I said, content is key. Professionalism is when craft and tools come together as one.
What’s the story you want to tell? Is it a horror movie? Then maybe you should consider 16mm for it’s grainy look. Are you shooting a doc? Then maybe you should consider a DSLR for its maneuverability and compact size.
The tools are meant to be used as you require them. There is no line in the sand when it comes to professional and unprofessional. The thing that’s most important is your vision as a director and what you require to fulfill that vision.
There is also a lot you can do with editing now a days. Whatever your looking for might be able to be achieved in post. You should look into it.
“It’s a poor craftsman that blames his tools”
I understand the importance of pre-production but I just want to shoot. Can’t I just go shoot and figure it out?
Well yes, you can do that but it’ll be a bad time for all. Trust me, it’s no fun. You’ll feel the pressure when you see your actors dick around on their phones while you stare at the floor trying to figure out what the fuck you’re going to do next.
Why would you spend any of the limited time you have figuring everything out when you could have done that on your own time beforehand? Don’t be lazy, trust me. You’ll pay for it not only during the shoot but after when you look at the dailies.
But hey, I’m not your mom. If you still want to do it then knock yourself out. Sometimes the best way to learn things is the hard way.
Just remember not to drag your feet when it’s 3 years down the line and it’s just you staring at your editing timeline trying to fix what you fucked up.
I am a director/actor/writer/producer/cinematographer/camera operator/editor/sound designer. Are you trying to say that I can’t do this all on my own?
No, I’m sure that you can do that all on your own. Many people have done it all before and you can’t argue with the results of a finished product at the end. All I’m saying is to consider opening it up to other people.
If you’re honest with yourself, you will find which one of those jobs you really have a passion for. When you find that, consider outsourcing the other jobs to other people. Just because you aren’t doing everything it doesn’t make any less YOUR movie.
The less time you devote to what you don’t want to do, the more time you have to do what you should be doing.
Besides, there are a lot of talented people out there who would love to work on a masterpiece like yours. Why would you want to shoot down their dreams?
You seem to be a brilliant, talented and ridiculously handsome writer. Do you have any advice for someone who has never written a script before?
I thought you would never notice.
Seriously though, I’m in the same boat. I just learn things and try to share what I learn with other people in hopes that they will do the same when I need advice. I feel that as a writer you always try to do the same thing over and over again; find new ways of saying what you want to say and try to tell the next story better.
That’s all we can do as artists really, no matter what point we are each individually at.
If you need help formatting, there is plenty of script writing software out there to help you. The most famous of which being Final Draft.
The rest of advice I could give is technical but I feel that’s secondary.
You can find a lot of screenwriting books that could tell you about formatting better than I could (I recommend Screenwriter’s Bible by David Trottier)
There are also plenty of none-technical books that can help you get over the hurdle of self doubt and procrastination (The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is a good one)
In the end, it’s up to you to weave your own story. You know what moves you better then I would. Just tell your story it will be the best version of that story because it is yours.
Keep writing and you’ll get there.
Director / Writer / Self Loathing Producer
You know how Eminem is a self proclaimed Rap God? Well up North there in Canada, Curt's referred to as Toronto's "Film God." Studying mathematics and physics, his switch to filmmaking has given him a unique eye where he sees how things are traditionally done in the industry and goes "Um.. WTF." With a focus on results, and not just "festivals", Curt has taken cues from the startup world as well as deep psychology to help other independent filmmakers get to what levels of success they define.