NOBODY WANTS TO MAKE YOUR FUCKING MOVIE

Aaron Keene
Aug 25, 2016 · 8 min read

The most important filmmaking lesson nobody teaches

In the ten years I’ve been writing screenplays, I’ve had a lot of odd jobs. I’ve been a pro-snowboarder, worked as a bellman at snooty hotels, as a repo-man, a video store clerk, a strip-club barback, as a private investigator, and I currently work in advertising. I have a lot of strange insights and bizarre quirks from these experiences that inevitably find their way into my work. I’ve also learned a thing or two on this long journey that helped me make my first feature film, Panopticon — and I’m certain some of this info could help a lot of you, too.

Still from Panopticon, written and directed by Aaron Keene now streaming on Amazon Prime.

If you’re just getting into filmmaking — and by “just getting into filmmaking” I mean “in your first ten years of filmmaking” — the most important thing you need to realize is this:

NOBODY WANTS TO MAKE YOUR FUCKING MOVIE

“But, I’ve got a really great script!” you say.

I don’t doubt it. There are definitely a lot of great, undiscovered screenplays out there, and at least one of you has certainly written one of them — but nobody wants to read it. Nobody who’s going to pay for it, anyway.

But what about people in the industry? They’re starving for original content, right?

Back when I was working as a bellman at a hotel in San Francisco, I finished my first feature script, Symphony in Red. It was about a violinist who collected debts for an underground gambling ring. Being the young, motivated 20 year-old that I was, I came up with a plan to sell it.

I figured out that if I could get just one email address at an agency in LA, that I would be able to figure out the email address for every single person that works at that agency because they are formatted the same. So with a little bit of digging, I was able to connect with any power player in LA that I wanted to. I drafted a persuasive cover letter and I spammed the hell out of Hollywood. I took the time to adjust each one a bit, so it felt more personal. Out of all the hundreds of agents I contacted, I only needed one to read it and my career would skyrocket from there. Or so I thought.

BUT AGENCIES DON’T ACCEPT UNSOLICITED SUBMISSIONS

That’s when I learned that no agencies accept unsolicited submissions — that is, submissions that aren’t brought to them by a producer, name actor, relative, or friend. No problem — I reached out to producers the same way.

BUT PRODUCERS DON’T ACCEPT UNSOLICITED SUBMISSIONS

This may seem obvious to a lot of you, but I was young and dumb. This was news to me. As one agent put it when I followed up with a little pleasant persistence:

“Why the fuck would I take time out of my weekend with my son to read your shitty screenplay?”

Even though she hadn’t read even one page of it — it was a shitty screenplay. She also had a more relevant point — she already has to read scripts at work all day from people who have the reputation of being able to write. Why would she take a chance on me on her day off?

Now, I don’t want to make it sound like I stopped trying to sell scripts after Symphony in Red. I’ve been in LA for 6 years, have written close to 20 features, and have had some very promising meetings. But even established writers and filmmakers have flops, so it was difficult to get people to take a chance investing money in an unknown writer.

THEN THINGS TURNED AROUND

How did this happen? It’s because I realized nobody wanted to make my fucking movie. So my talented girlfriend Sara (also a writer/director) and I made a movie ourselves. We did an Indiegogo campaign that not many people wanted to support. (So much gratitude to the people who did help. I’m forever in your debt.) We only raised $4,858 of the 10k we sought, but we said fuck it — we’ll figure out a way to make it anyways.

We scraped the thing together with every dime, credit card, and day off of work we could manage. A year later — it’s premiering September 2nd and 4th at the Portland Film Festival. (Update: It’s now streaming on Amazon Prime.)

Only 4 more people were on set than are in this shot. Panopticon 2015.

Because of the success of this project, I now have another feature script Sara and I wrote that’s in pre-production. Someone is finally making our fucking movie. It’s a character study about suicide tourism that’s being produced by Henrik Fett. (Black Swan, Grand Budapest Hotel, Apocalypto) We’re insanely lucky, but we also worked hard to get here.

MAKE A MOVIE YOURSELF

Now, this isn’t to say you shouldn’t try to get your movie produced. Always hope that somebody will make your dreams come true — but expect that you’re going to have to bite the bullet and do all the work yourself. The only way to get good at making films is to always make films. If you sit on your ass hoping to sell a script or get one financed — you’re wasting time. You could be improving your craft.

ALWAYS WRITE

If you’re a writer — always write. I wrote Panopticon while sitting in the back of a surveillance van working as a Private Investigator. I continued writing it when I was done with my 12 hour shifts. I did the pre-production in that same hot sweaty van. When it finally felt like it was finished — when it felt like this script needed to be made — I posted an ad online for a Director of Photography and went from there.

All the key players shooting Panopticon.

FIND PEOPLE WHO ARE AS EXCITED AS YOU

Most DPs were out of our budget — but a high rate doesn’t always equal quality. Just because they own a RED or a Black Magic Cine or whatever camera is popular on the day you read this — that doesn’t mean they can execute your creative vision. There was one guy, Thomas Bailey, who had a 7D and hadn’t really shot anything of note before, but he had an eye and was an all-around creative dude. When I talked to him — we clicked. We like the same movies. From reading the script, he knew how it would best be shot. He didn’t cost much money because he had a passion and a fire to create — just like I did.

The same goes for every position on set. The actors that we cast were extremely talented and they were hungry to work on something truly creative. Most days, we shot between 10 and 20 pages. That’s insanity. If our stars Guilherme and Sylvia were anything less than professional, they would’ve broken — but they nailed it. I can barely remember what I ate for lunch much less 20 pages of dialogue.

LEARN TO DO AS MANY JOBS ON SET AS YOU CAN

Over the years, I volunteered on sets. I worked on sets. I shot a bunch of short projects myself. I edited a bunch of short projects myself. I produced a bunch of short projects myself. When it came time to make Panopticon — I did most jobs myself, because I was free labor. I had days where I wasn’t sure if I could pull this thing off, but because of my wide range of experience, I was able to figure it out. I’d gladly and gratefully collaborate with talented individuals in the future when the budget allows, but if it doesn’t — I’m confident I can pick up the slack.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK FOR HELP

For the things I couldn’t do myself, I begged my friends to do. I have a friend who is a brilliant musician in a band called the Dead Horse Rhythm who was kind enough to do the score of the film for me. He and his girlfriend, Amanda, who did wardrobe on the movie, even let us shoot in their house.

We were also lucky enough to have Sunny Bak, who runs the Venice Art Crawl, help us grab a few free art gallery locations down the street from our apartment.

IT’S OKAY TO BREAK SOME RULES

We didn’t get permits, which caused some complications in the production. Nearly everybody in Los Angeles has had some run-in with productions before and expects they can make decent money if one is on or near their property. We were kicked out of parks, the beach, and even back alleyways because we didn’t have permits. It’s unfortunate that Los Angeles, the center of the film industry, makes it so difficult to make a no-budget movie. Shooting like this is probably a lot easier elsewhere. But we persevered because everyone on the project was dedicated. We were just making this because we love film and had a story to tell.

PLAN YOUR PRODUCTION BUT ALLOW FOR CREATIVE FREEDOM

When you’re on such a tight budget and most of the money is coming out of your own pocket, you make sure to spend the time planning every little detail. We left a lot of room for creative freedom on set, but the production details were airtight.

BE GRATEFUL

There’s been a lot of talk about what I’ve done here, but every single person in the credits gave a piece of themselves to this movie. As much as I say “my feature” — it does not belong to me.

Every day on set, I did my very best to show how grateful I was to the people who helped bring this thing to life. The best way to run a smooth production is to appreciate the people who are there. 90 percent of our budget went to paying cast and crew and feeding them. It wasn’t much, but they knew it was all we had. If you need to decide between special effects, renting a lens, or paying the talent and the crew — pay the talent and crew — they’re the ones that make the movie everything it can be.

I’m so thankful to every single person who has given blood, sweat, and tears to bring this thing to life. What I write in this paragraph will never do enough to prove it.

SOMEDAY, SOMEONE WILL WANT TO MAKE YOUR MOVIE

Just don’t ever stop trying. If making movies is truly what you love to do, you don’t need me to tell you that. You’ll never stop anyway.

Like this article? Check back in a year when I write “Nobody wants to distribute your fucking movie.”

You can now Watch PANOPTICON on Amazon Prime.

Panopticon Trailer

Aaron Keene

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https://aaronandrewkeene.persona.co/