How to make an indie film

We talk to the indie film producers of Time Apart and Trench about how they went from idea to production.

Last year these filmmakers were dreaming about making their debut indie feature films. Now they are in post-production and will have their low-budget, self-funded features finished in less than 12 months.

Time Apart is a Sci-Fi Romantic Drama produced by Melanie Rowland and Ric Forster.

Trench is a Film Noir Comedy Thriller produced by Perri Cummings and Paul Anthony Nelson.

I moderated a meetup with these talented producers, who were also part of our inaugural Feature Film Accelerator, for Lean Filmmaking Melbourne. They spoke candidly about the challenges of developing low-budget features and shared insights on how they made their films a reality.

Below is an edited transcript of the panel discussion at this event.

Kylie Eddy: I wanted to start by asking both teams to talk about your filmmaking experience before making a feature. What kind of projects had you worked on before you decided to make a feature?

Paul Anthony Nelson: I was wasting my life! I’ve wanted to be a filmmaker since I was a teenager but through various circumstances — lack of confidence, lack of funds, all the things that we use to talk ourselves out of these sorts of things — I hadn’t done it. It became a sort of art form for me. But about eight years ago we formed our production company Cinema Viscera and we started by trying to make a short film each year. After about three or four shorts, we started writing feature film projects. It was stuff that we’d planned to be micro budget, after some writing you’d realize “nah, this needs about two or three million dollars” — so you’d finish that script and you’d go to the next one. And that would be too big as well. We got to a point where we’d made four shorts, and had three [feature] scripts in the pipeline that were all low budget but not micro budget. Then we met Kylie.

Perri Cummings: What Paul said. I come from a theatre background as well, so I was very used to mucking in and creating shows and publicizing them and marketing them and putting them on and creating an audience and stuff like that. I think that really helped. I did the screenwriting course at RMIT. I’ve written for some TV shows — before I’d graduated from RMIT I was writing on Neighbours. Along with a couple of writing partners, I’ve had television shows optioned a couple of times, but nothing really came of those opportunities. That’s where we joined forces and decided we wanted to create our own work. Ultimately we wanted to create feature films.

Ric Forster: I studied TV production at university in the UK. Then started working in the TV industry, working up from being a runner, to get into the story room of a UK show called Hollyoaks, which is a five nights a week soap. I was also directing their behind the scenes content, then came over to Australia and have done the same sort of stuff on Neighbours, some story stuff and directing their digital content. In the past few years I’ve made nine web series and a handful of shorts. I thought directing a feature was always going to be the scariest, you know, it seems like such a huge undertaking. You could spend years writing a perfect script, and you’ve got to amass all this money, but I realized that if I added up the duration of one of the web series it was seventy minutes long in total so I thought maybe I can do it. Going from there with the Lean program we started doing it.

Melanie Rowland: I was similar, studied Film & TV at uni. I got into working in Film & TV in Production predominantly, helping friends out on shorts and web series. I decided it was time to step up and produce my own project. I produced a web series before so this feature is the second thing I’ve produced.

KE: It sounds like you have all been doing lots of work on web series and short films. What do you think was holding you back from making a feature film?

PAN: Part of it was the confidence of — I need something else — I need something to get me from life to features. I need a transition. I need to have made a short that cost a certain amount of money. I need to have made something semi-professional to get myself there. I think that’s all self-talk, because you don’t need any of that. It probably helps to try your skills out on short films and such, and then jump into a feature but it doesn’t have to be big. It could just be with five friends on a weekend. Just to practice how to plan a shoot, block a shoot, direct, edit, and put something out there. But for me it was always inventing new reasons on in order to deflate my own confidence.

I’ve got to say though, the other flash-point moment is about a month before we got involved with Lean, in my capacity as a podcast host, we talked to Joe Swanberg — he’s this incredible independent filmmaker from America. Basically he just started making his own films for one or two thousand dollars with a handful of actors who also co-wrote the script and worked as the crew. Essentially they helped give birth to what we call the mumblecore movement. Sometimes he’d make as much as five or six movies a year. Now he’s at a point where he’s working with really well known actors. He’s full of the “just do it” ethos. He says to just go straight to features — make it as small as you can, and just start. And the next will be better, and so on. Work at a low risk. That resonated so hard, and that was the point where we went “okay” and decided to make it. Suddenly those reasons to talk myself out of it melted away.

RF: I like to write and direct my own stuff but the mountain to climb of a feature script was daunting. You’d get writing on a script and you’d get halfway in and you’d think it’s just not working. The approach we ended up taking with the Accelerator was just basically beat out the story as an outline — every scene had a purpose, but no dialogue. That compressed the script into a 15–20 page document. Then we shot it, it was good.

MR: Something else I think a lot of producers fall into when making their first project is the idea that you have to get funding, and to get funding you have to have done it before. Then you’re stuck in this loop of how to get money to do what you want to do. But you can just do it. Get a really small crew, pick up a camera and just start filming it. Now we have a credit. I feel like we side-stepped that glass ceiling that we’re stuck under for funding.

PC: It’s also about getting over the preconceived idea that your first film has to be your best film. I think we spent a lot of time polishing scripts because we believed we had to start off with a bang, that our first film had to be incredible. But we’ve come around to the Lean idea of “done is better than good” which is a great mantra. I don’t know if anyone else is a perfectionist in this room, but “done is better than good” is a great mantra. We don’t want our first to be our best because we want to keep making films.

PAN: The shorthand here is fuck Citizen Kane!

KE: Where were you at with Time Apart and Trench conceptually before you started the Accelerator program?

MR: Ric was the writer — it was originally a web series idea and we had a 4 or 5 page outline and it was going to be something like 20 episodes. It was just an idea we had kicking around for about a year or so.

RF: It was very rough — we didn’t know all the beats, just the concept that there’s this couple and the guy started disappearing one day and shows up again a year later, and for him no time has passed but for her a whole year’s passed. In effect the story was about long distance relationships and whether it would work for them. Going from that seed of an idea and to turn that into a scene-by-scene outline — we used a feature film’s basic structure, we put up a whiteboard and all the acts and turning points, and used post-it notes to fill it out.

PC: Ours was different because we definitely needed a script for the noir style. The heightened dialogue was key. When we met Kylie we had a pretty good idea of the beginning and ending of our story, but through this process our story changed. The script development was fantastic. We had a treatment and first scene breakdown written when we started the Lean process. We had a firm idea of our genre and our story and some of our characters but through this process that definitely changed.

KE: Both the projects had an idea of what they wanted to do, but had been gestating for about a year or so —

PAN: Less than a year — we were trying to crack the micro-budget thing. What’s something we can make for a $1.98. I’m a film buff, and a director buff, and wanted to make something that really engages with a heightened genre, something modern day and something that celebrates Melbourne. I really wanted to make a black and white grainy first film. With all that in the air, what comes out of it? Melbourne seems to lend itself to noir. Our city uniform is black; we’re obsessed with lane ways, and organized crime. So we thought, why not? We started hooking that into some real world stuff, some feminist issues we wanted to explore, and it was born out of that, really. This was probably a month or two before Lean.

KE: I initially approached you all and pitched the idea of this program where you’d take your feature concept through to a filmed draft version of the film in three months. What your initial response to that?

PC: It sounded impossible, because we had a quarter of the script by the time we started. In that three months we had to write, cast, film, edit and put it in front of an audience and that seemed daunting. So doing that made us realize that making the actual film was going to be easy. It was a great process. There were a lot of late nights though.

RF: The deadline was tighter than that. We had three weeks until we finished our first cycle. That’s going from the 4–5 page outline to a feature length version of it filmed, using whatever we could. We didn’t have actors, we didn’t know how old the characters were going to be, we didn’t have locations. We had a concept but it was still blank slate. But we did it. It does sound impossible but once you let go of it having to look nice and you have a deadline, whether you have to cast friends or whatever, it can be done.

PAN: Our hardest thing was getting the script done because we didn’t want to go down the improv route. But the shoot was relatively calm. We had a warehouse space to shoot, we cast friends, we gave the script to them just a few days before the shoot but we told them there were no stakes on this, we have a mantra which is “shoot like you’re 12 years old” — that’s the rationale we went with for the first draft version. Don’t worry about forgetting lines — if you forget lines just power through it. We shot an entire draft version in just two days. It was all about getting the story bones worked out, seeing how it walks and talks.

MR: Very early on in the Accelerator hearing Kylie’s ideas — if you have a background in production it goes against every instinct you’ve ever been taught. I spent a long time resisting everything Kylie said, but she convinced me in the end. What was so great about the first cycle is that it gets the momentum going, and you realize that perhaps there are fewer barriers to getting it made than you thought. Spending four days creating a crappy first pass and you start thinking how many more days do you need to make it good. It changes the way you think about how you can go about making your film.

PC: There’s a massive difference between getting feedback on your script and getting feedback on a draft of your feature film that you screen in your lounge room. That was really valuable.

KE: Traditionally, you get your feedback from other industry professionals, but with Lean we’re trying to get as quickly as possible to the actual audience for their feedback. We care less about what the industry has to say than what the audience has to say. The reality is if you can find an audience, the industry will pay attention. They will come to you. And if they don’t, it doesn’t matter because you can just keep on working. The reason this works is that it’s an iterative model where you make multiple versions through cycles — it means you don’t have to make it perfect, you can test the story because you know you’re making another version. Once you stop trying to justify perfection (which is unattainable anyway) you can get feedback on what’s actually working, or not, in the film format that we deeply understand. You don’t need to be an industry person to understand a film, an audience can just express their feelings on what they’ve seen, and it’s your job as a creative person to interpret and act on that feedback.

To give some context to the three months, we spent a couple of weeks thinking about the audience — flipping the traditional model on its head — I forced these guys to go out and talk to people who might be in their audience. Not even pitching the film, just understanding the genre and where its audience lived. Then in a weekend we did a short film version, just to get an idea of where the story could be going, then they had four weeks to do a full draft version. I love how when Paul and Perri presented theirs, Paul said “you know, if only we’d had three days, not two” — and then there was six weeks to do another whole draft version of the film.

Both of you took quite different approaches in terms of the style. One with a script, one more improvised. You also have different skill sets. Can you both talk about how your divided roles on your projects?

PC: We needed to get our script done quickly so I worked as structure queen and script editor, and we would discuss the story and structure. I’d break it down into scene cards and we’d discuss each of those in nightly meetings. I would write a scene breakdown, Paul would then go and write the script from that, I would do an edit on that and we would do that process again. We were keeping the channels open, as we had to work really quickly, which helped us find a great way that we can work together. As far as producing it, we had actors who we wanted to test, and this is a fantastic way not only to test actors who ended up being better than we ever thought they’d be for the roles, but also for them it was a brilliant rehearsal process. They had much more input to their roles. We tried once, disastrously, to go to a named actor without a script — that was embarrassing. From that moment onward we went to people we’d worked with who we knew were good actors. It was surprising how many great people jumped at that. Through this process we’d make plans on what we wanted to do, we would then action them, and as soon as that was done we’d make the next plan. Through this process we became really good at asking people for stuff. When you ask people, and you’re honestly passionate about what you’re doing, people jump on board to help you. It’s really great.

PAN: At this level, it was a lot to ask of someone who had no idea who we were. We learnt very quickly and we went to friends, and they all vibed on it. When I say friends, they’re all professional actors, a lot of whom had done theatre but maybe hadn’t done any screen work yet. You form your team and all come up together, which is interesting. You know that somebody who’s done great work but they’re not with the right agents so they don’t get on TV, and they just want a chance to prove themselves on screen.

MR: I produced the film. Under that umbrella fell locations, costume, continuity, communicating with all of our cast — the lead we cast one of our friends, her first time in a lead role — everyone else we auditioned on StarNow. On the shoot I also sound recorded, I drove the car…

RF: It was just the two of us that made the film. Mel did all those things; I wrote, directed, shot it, lit it, edited it — if you’d have asked me a year ago if I wanted to DP my own feature I’d have said no way. But it was one of the good things that came out during this process. The first cycle we did was really rough. The anonymous audience feedback didn’t hold back — a lot of it was about story. We did a second version where we added a bit of production value, shooting scenes in the correct locations, continuity was important, actors weren’t wearing mics you could see anymore, and this time in our feedback we asked about production values and the audience liked it. They were happy. Our plan to have to rope in every DP we’d ever worked with to work a day or two each — we didn’t have to do it. In the end I think one day we had Mel’s sister helping us out. That was the big learning point — we could do it with a tiny number of people.

PAN: That’s the great thing. Each time you take it to an audience and show them a cut, they’ll tell you what’s important. If they think this story thing needs work, or if the lighting needs work, they’ll tell you. You start finding out that the things you think are really important aren’t a big deal to your audience.

KE: That’s the idea behind creating massive value with minimal waste — both teams thought they’d have to get a full crew and spend heaps of resources on making it look great but the audience understood the story with the rough and ready style. Guess what? You have just saved yourself money, energy, favours, that you can funnel those resources into something the audience thinks is important.

Can each of you tell me what was the best thing about developing your film in the Accelerator program?

PAN: That first version, shooting the entire draft feature in two days, and sitting back and going “for better or worse, we just made a feature film” — it might not be quite what we want but that’s a feature film. And thinking, “If I had one more day, it could have been better”.

PC: I think finding a loyal audience and being right about that audience — predominantly women as our cast has two lead women, in fact our detective is a woman — was great. In fact, we’re running our crowdfunding campaign at the moment and about 80% of the people supporting our film supported early and are the demographic that we went for. It was really great to discover our audience early on in the process so we can target it and so it can be really satisfying for them. The feedback and what it did for me as a writer,was really great, and making a film that my audience is going to enjoy.

RF: Letting go of that sense that it’s got to be perfect. It puts so much pressure on your shoot days — you’ve got all your scenes and you’ve got to nail them, and you sit back looking at footage and in a traditional process, going back and getting pick ups can be very expensive and impossible sometimes. So we’d pick a scene, have a go at it and shoot it. Certain scenes I didn’t like were the scenes that got a laugh with the audience. It was having faith in the audience and being able to test things you might not be happy with and the audience liked, and vice versa — there were things that I liked that audience just didn’t respond well to.

MR: The momentum to start such a huge project, which is so daunting before you start it, but if you can have a program that takes you through it, then you’ll find a way to actually do it.

KE: Since the Accelerator finished in November last year, you have gone into production and both gone down different paths of next steps for your feature. Where are you at now?

RF: We are still in post — we’ve screened a few versions of the film. We had an actor leaving the country so we had to have a locked cut to do ADR. We’re doing to go back and make some changes based on more testing. We’ve got a few festival deadlines on the horizon so hopefully we’ll get it done in time for those.

MR: If you want to keep in touch about the film, our website is timeapartmovie.com and we’re on Facebook at Time Apart Movie.

PC: Since finishing we did another draft of the script. We cast it; we got our crew on board. We got fantastic production designers, all working for profit-share. We were incredibly lucky to get someone who sponsored our shoot with a small amount of money, and we shot it in April over sixteen days. We are currently crowdfunding for post production — we’ve got a fantastic colourist, a sound mixer, a great jazz musician composing an original score for us. We’ve got some festival deadlines to hit so it’ll be complete by the end of September. Our website is trenchfilmnoir.com and on Facebook at Trench Film Noir.

PAN: It’s just about getting it up to that professional standard, so we’ve got so many people to do many favours and they’ve charged a fraction of that normal rate. But all told, getting the entire feature film complete, will cost less than $29,000.

KE: So the actual hard cash spent for the entire film for Trench is $29K excluding the sweat equity that went into it. Time Apart will come in at about $12K. Don’t go on an overseas holiday and make a feature instead! It’s possible.

What these filmmakers have achieved on micro-budgets is a fantastic achievement. Now let’s open it up to questions from the audience!

Q: It seems the best way to do it this way is to have as many long dialogue scenes as possible and also multiple cameras to cover those long takes. Is that something you agree with?

MR: I would say you are correct in your assumption. Things we learnt — less locations and a smaller cast would be better.

RF: I’ve got to underline that. Sometimes there are things in the plot and characters where it’s too big of a leap between scenes so we’d add in another scene. To do it quickly and cheaply, multi-cam and long takes would be the way, which is the case with a lot of Swanberg’s movies — if you want to be smart.

PAN: We were fine with the single camera but the location thing is key. Use as few locations as possible. If you can set it in a beach house Duplass brother style, do that. We wanted heaps of exteriors, and we just cut out heaps, now two thirds of the film is set in a nice city apartment. As far as long takes — that didn’t really affect us.

Q: You said you gave the script to actors on short notice — was there any rehearsal time or warning?

RF: Early versions of the film were the rehearsal as far as we were concerned. If we didn’t like something we’d have another crack at the scene again. There were quite a few pick ups.

MR: Everything was improvised. As we went along we would write some dialogue scenes and some pressure existed with regards to getting in and out of a location by the end of the day. But we did have a lot of discussion with the actors and gave them ownership of their characters.

RF: The actual process as it was improvised. There were long takes which were a bit rambly and so for subsequent takes I’d just ask the actors if they could lose parts of what they’d said. And in the edit I would condense it even further.

PC: One of the things we did in terms of characters and locations is that we married each character to a location. This helped with actors’ availability and with the noir style it really worked as it was like the character’s environment. They were strongly identified with the location.

PAN: The whole short notice with the script was just for the first version. For the final version we had five days of rehearsals with the cast, and we went through each character and asked the actors to take real ownership of their characters. We wanted everyone to know the drill so we could save money on set. We gave them the final script two or three weeks before shooting.

Q: Can you talk about DPing your own film and how you overcame the reservations you had going in?

PAN: I’m not a DP — I’ve shot videos but before this shoot, but I wouldn’t know one end of a lens from the other. I also had that fantasy of wanting to shoot my own feature just once. I recruited a lighting person but he was only available half the time. In the end everyone pitched in. I had some assistance but I just learnt along the way. You quickly learn one end of a lens from the other. You quickly learn what a 24 does against what a 70 does. Shooting in black and white helped us a little bit because you didn’t have to worry about matching the sky tones or anything else. As long as you lit it consistently, you’re okay.

PC: As far as the creative process is concerned, when we were in pre-production Paul was the writer and director, and on set he was both director and DP. The film really evolved because he had to let go of his role as writer, and the film’s come out better for it.

RF: We made the decision to shoot the whole film handheld to avoid extra equipment, and shot as much as possible in available light. We shot heaps of exteriors. The difficulty sometimes is trying to focus on the visuals but then it’s hard to pay attention to the actors’ performances. It can be hard to watch the performance properly but you just have to trust the actors a bit more.

PAN: I had the exact same thing. You worry about things being in focus instead of performance. That tends to happen a lot when you’re sharing both roles. It did provide a freer, loose feel because I didn’t storyboard so it was really interesting to see that.

Q: What was the biggest change from audience feedback that you weren’t expecting?

PC: One of the best things we did was getting off our soapbox. We had a political view that we wanted to express, that we were very passionate about, and we were reminded that that would naturally filter through. The audience wanted to see relationships, good story, great characters and humour.

PAN: In our early version the villains were very clearly Men’s Rights Activists and it felt like you were watching a pamphlet. We had to dial that back in subsequent versions. Now it’s far more realistic and fun.

RF: Since we made a romantic film, one of the notes in the first version was that they weren’t sure that the characters liked each other! The actors hadn’t worked together a lot yet so it was as a result of that. For the second version we added in a lot more scenes where they’re getting to know each other and they’re loved up. Then the notes we got back were that it was too slow. The last version was to find the balance of that relationship and we’re still discovering that in the edit — having those romantic moments but have it not be dull.

MR: What I’d say about feedback is that it changed our ability to listen to feedback. Early on you just want to defend everything that you’ve done, but if you can get past that and dissect what people are saying, you’re able to improve the film. The problems are going to be there whether you listen to your feedback or not. It’s a matter of getting feedback and learning to learn from it.

PAN: What makes it more valuable is that it’s not from an industry gatekeeper — you’re getting it from people who are actually going to see your film. They’re the ones you’re trying to please, not some screenwriting guru. And that’s super valuable.

KE: The reason we focus so much on audience is that they’re our boss. When I discuss the iterative and cross-functional nature of Lean, people sometimes ask me who’s in charge and who makes all the decisions, but the audience is in charge. Ask your audience at every key step to help guide you.

The reality is most of us could spend a lot of energy and time and money on something nobody even wants to see. People are going to judge your film anyway — let’s try and bring them in early and do something about it.

Q: How much of your focus was put into things like health & safety, public liability, etc.?

MR: To shoot on location in the City of Melbourne you need Public Liability Insurance, which the cheapest is about $500, so we got that. Other than that it was just common sense. In terms of safety, we weren’t asking our actors to do anything dangerous. We did get permits. Shoot in the City of Melbourne because they’re free, or $50 if your crew is bigger than six.

PC: We used Auspicious Arts, which took a lot of the pain out of us being first time producers. Our money for production and post goes directly through to them, which means we’re covered under their Public Liability. They helped us with all our budgeting and contracts. They’ve been brilliant. If you’re a first time producer and you’re looking to do this, have a talk to them.

RF: On the permits thing — someone did check. We were shooting outside of a bank and someone came out and asked if we had a permit. It was a beautiful moment where we could pull it out and show them we had one. In terms of paperwork, we didn’t do a lot of the stuff we’d normally do.

MR: I sent out a version of a call sheet, with their call times, costumes, and any other key details for each shoot day.

PC: We had a production manager who did our call sheets. Another key thing you need to budget for your shoot is catering. We spent about $3,500 out of $14,000 on food.

KE: It’s really hard to get a feature up, especially when you’re doing everything yourself, but these inspirational filmmakers demonstrate that with creativity and hard work it’s possible to make an indie feature with next-to-no money.

Lean Filmmaking Feature Film Accelerator

Time Apart and Trench were developed in our Accelerator. It’s an intensive 15 week program that takes you step-by-step through story development, audience discovery, distribution strategies and industry feedback.

To be part of the Accelerator you need a squad of 3 to 4 people with the combined skills to make a film including acting. You don’t need a script.

If you want to transition from short films, or web series, to a feature we’ve created this program to develop a project in a few months, rather than spending years doing it the traditional way.

Applications for the next intake of the Accelerator, commencing in August 2016, are now open.

If you’d like to chat about your feature project, just general advice or find out more about this program, I’d love to hear from you. I’m an indie feature writer/director/producer and co-founder of Lean Filmmaking. Book a time to talk with me now.