By Mark Harris, October 5th, 2010

So blah blah blah how do we sustain, how do we distribute, blah blah blah. But I’ve come to a realization lately. Well, I’ve come to admit a realization. Many many micro-budget Independent Films just aren’t very good. Maybe if they were better, some of these other problems would be easier to solve. I’ve heard this from many people in the Indie-Film-o-sphere, but usually in blog comments that offer little more than snark.

So I’m going to try to look at the problem and break it down some. We’re always dealing with these things in THE LOST CHILDREN. And be warned, most of the lessons come from Hollywood. Because though they often make really bad choices, they typically know what they’re doing.

What happens next?

What happens next? This is the number one thing we need to strive for. Soap Operas could last decades by effectively posing this one question week after week. How many of us actively focus on this question? Working through post on THE LOST CHILDREN, it’s always, always on my mind. At the end of every scene, at the end of each act, I’m constantly asking: “Will they want to know what happens next?” If that one question isn’t in the air, you are left to founder on ambiguous things like your “voice” as a filmmaker. Which probably isn’t original. Or even worth listening to.

Right now my fiance and I are almost done with Season 3 of Mad Men. Last night we finished an episode that was so good, we had to stay up and watch the next one. We had to know what happened next.

I remember finishing The Wire, Season 1. I got Season 2 in the mail from Netflix. I put it in at about 11PM. I could not stop until the season was done, about 7AM the next morning. I had to know what happened next.

I had the same experience with Buffy. Finished a season, and ran out to Tower at midnight to get the next one. Had to know what happened next.

I know these are all TV shows, but I think the same rules apply to films. The last time I think I had to know what happened next in a film, was No Country, Inception…I can’t remember the last time I felt this with a micro-budget independent film. Primer?

I think there are exceptions to this. I actually found The Watchman movie pretty compelling, though to a large extent it was slow and moody. I felt like the film gave me the same experience the comic had. It allowed me time to ponder the ideas presented. And I think that was part of it structure. Intentional.

But for the most part, I think we really need to be asking: “Will the audience want to know what happens next?”

Characters

This should need no explanation, but it took me so long to learn, I figure others may not get it yet. It’s not about you. It’s not about your vision. It’s not about the filmmaker. Nobody cares about you or what you have to say (which is probably not original or unique anyway). It’s about the characters. They don’t by any means have to be “likable,” but they do have to be compelling. Some of my favorite characters ever are scumbags, or at the very least massively flawed: Walter White. Don Draper. Scorpius. Vic Mackey. Omar Little. When was the last time an indie created characters like this? Are we working hard to create compelling, memorable characters?

Use the Red Letter Media smell test for characters: Ask people to describe your characters without using their looks, clothing, or profession. I’m working on a web series now for next year, and this is probably the single more effective tool in our writers’ toolbox.

Writing and acting

Just like it says. One of the biggest issues with micro-budget film is the belief that just having access to cheap gear means you know what the Hell you are doing. You don’t. And out of all of the things you need to do to make a film, it seems that writing and acting are the ones people think they need the least skill in. Many micro-budget films shoot scripts that are…to say the least, underdeveloped. People think that just because they can type, they can write. They think that just because they have some (probably not original) idea, they should just run out and write it down and make a movie. We often had the same issues at the DVXFests. People would come on the board and say things like: “Script done in 3 days!” yes, your script sucks. And no I don’t even have to read it to know that. Because if you wrote it in 3 days and your name is not Epstein, you didn’t spend enough time on it, and are probably not even aware of which questions you need to be asking. If this is your first micro-budget feature and you have never written a feature before, you should spend at least 1 year on the script. At Least.

I find it painful to watch the acting in many micro-budget films. Often you don’t have access to professional actors to begin with. And on top of that, you may not know how to direct them. Meaning, you haven’t learned the actual, demonstrable skills a director needs to do his/her job. Do you know what an objective is? Do you know what actions are? Can you communicate your needs to an actor in these terms? Do you know how to get an actor to do nothing? Do you know what that means? When you have very experienced professional actors, you can sometimes let them go their own way. Meaning, if you don’t know how to direct, they will still be able to turn in a pretty good performance, because they know how to break down a script, figure out actions, etc. But with inexperienced actors, if you don’t know how to direct, you’re in trouble.

As we work on our film, I am constantly applying this test: I watch a real movie, a Hollywood movie or TV show with professional actors. And then I ask myself: “Does the acting in my movie/scene look like that?” If the answer is “no,”  I know we have a problem. You should always be holding yourself up to the best work you can find and asking: “Is it as good as that?” Always.

Feedback: focus groups

This term I’m sure, causes many an indie to sprout hives and die. But it will save your butt. I encountered this first in the indie film world when Zak Forsman invited me to be a part of a focus group for Heart of Now. I was no stranger to feedback. I had long participated in DVXUser short film competitions. And those generally led to a lot of good feedback from filmmaking peers, mostly on technique. And in the software world, I had led teams and held code reviews. But with Heart of Now, it was the first time I had been invited to an actual focus group for an independent film. I think I was pretty honest with my feedback. I tend to be pretty objective about work, including my own. Zak then screened Heart of Now for about 50 people who weren’t friends, past collaborators or “fans.” And this is critical; showing it to people who don’t know you and have no stake in your success. Absolutely critical.

When we started THE LOST CHILDREN, we made a series of small videos representing parts of the story. You can see them on the film’s site. They are right at the top of the home page in that little rotating carousel. Before embarking on the actual film, we created these and showed them to a focus group. Then we asked them a series of questions. We used that data to alter the script. It’s not about pleasing or pandering to an audience. It’s about trying out your material and seeing if you are even being clear. Do people even understand what you’re talking about? Do they get the points you’re trying to get across? Do they find the characters compelling? Are they with you for the ride?

We are fortunate enough that a small group in LA is putting on a rough cut focus group for us later in the year. And we are doubly lucky in that the audience (hopefully) will be made up of people who don’t know us. We did this in the example I mentioned above too. We asked friends to send us people who don’t know us. People who have no interest in our success, so will hopefully let us know if we just wasted their time. Again, critical to the process, I think.

I encourage everyone to do the same. In fact, I ‘m brainstorming ways to create some safe review processes through NEW BREED.

Let’s all make better movies.

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Posted in Storytelling The Lost Children creative collaboration editing

Mark Harris is a filmmaker and technologist in New York City. In addition to producing several shorts Mark is currently working on his first feature film, THE LOST CHILDREN. Mark also runs Gowanus Software, a technology consulting firm in Brooklyn, NY focusing on enterprise and mobile solutions.

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COMMENTS

  • I enjoy when people are expressing their opinion and thought. So I like the way you are writing
     

  • Great post.Thanks.

  • nice comments .i really workable in movies.

  • Mark Harris

    UPDATE: Zak informed me they did in fact do another screening with about 50 people who weren't friends, past collaborators or "fans."

    I corrected the post as well.

  • As always Mr Harris, it is refreshing to hear your thoughts.

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