Four Notes for Young Filmmakers

So, I have been on the screening board for a film festival recently, acting as one of the first tiers of viewers deciding whether a film is worthy of eyes higher up in the festival ranks. After watching what seems like endless hours of films I have come up with a brief primer of things to do or say, or not do or say, when blindly submitting an independent feature to a festival...keep in mind these are just my own quirks but I think some of my advice might be good for many budding directors to hear regardless!

1. Words to Avoid in Your Film Synopsis: oddball, quirky, offbeat, and twentysomething. The former three words are like red flags signalling "We're sooo kooky and weird, BE PREPARED for our kooky, weirdness!" If a filmmaker is setting out with these as goals it makes me wary of how rounded the film is going to be in general and, so far, my aversion to these terms has held up after viewing many of these self proclaimed weirdos! I often think directors who set out with the (highly subjective) "strange" in mind begin with a few askew concepts or scenes or characters and try to link them into a story but this doesn't really make for a good film, maybe a good short film, but- with rare exception- not a great feature length idea. If you are going to claim your film is weird think about your reasons for doing so! And those reasons better have some good narrative purpose! And then there is twentysomething. Twentysomething...usually these films are well made but the content of the films deal with an age group that is lost at best and there are very few truths that seem to emerge from this floundering demographic other than existential boredom! And who wants to watch existential boredom? I don't. Maybe other twentysomethings do, but a film tied to a tiny target age group, especially an age group of little disposable income/sometime film goers, leads to a narrow audience from the get go and churning out stereotypical indie flare for an age group that is well versed in this genre can easily lead to more boredom. Broader audience appeal is probably often better in terms of blind submitting a film.

2. If you are fixing things in your film (reshoots, color, sound etc.) it shouldn't matter, your film should be good enough despite these technical inadequacies. Quite a number of screeners I've watched have had blaring apologies or intertitles explaining that "the color is to be fixed here" or "sound clean up here." I know that a lot of these are technical markers for the filmmakers, a way to signify that work is still to be done prior to the final product, but these interruptions bum me out...if the film is enagaging enough it should withstand a few technical flaws, right? If, as a director, you find it so distracting that the sound is slightly off maybe you should be thinking harder about why you are making a film in the first place? Is it for technical bravado? Or to say something, show something, that has not been said before in a voice you want to hear speak? I know it is slightly unfair being that these are rough screeners but these apologies are jarring and whirl me out of the film and, if the film isn't so strong to begin with, makes me worry that the filmmaker thinks a few tech tweaks alone will fix the problems...

3. Why are you making this film? This is not a rhetorical question. I always assume that this is the first question a filmmaker asks when they embark on the long, arduous, expensive process of making a film....but, after watching these screeners, I realize that this is not always the case. The films I tend towards are ones that have a clear answer to this question; docs with socially progressive ideas or moving action, narratives exploring a type of character that is usually silent, horror movies that exist purely to evoke a reaction of fear or excitement or terror. Why make a meandering film about feelings...? Why make a film simply to showcase your acting abilities...? A pretty picture? Nice. But why? I mean these are valid reasons to make a film but the first thing any filmmaker should really consider is what it is they want to do or say through their film and why it should be done in this (complicated, all encompassing) format. Independent cinema exists for voices, stories and ideas to be heard beyond the Hollywood spectrum and if you are willing to possibly max out a few credit cards or build a town in your yard for the sake of a film, it might be best to know what it is you are looking to impart to your audience beforehand. I honestly recommend that a great filmmaking practice is to get into the habit of asking yourself this question, not only will it make your film stronger, make it feel like there is a sense of purpose, it will also allow for you to more strongly convey to others (including investors, distributors and other industry insiders) what, and why, you are laboring over this thing.

4. Jokes are friends and read more books! Funny is a thing lacking in independent cinema. So many films I've previewed in recent days seem to rely solely on seriousness, casting a somber shadow over the screen with maybe the occassional blip of irony...but sometimes humor can be just as biting and true as tears! Two of my favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut & George Saunders, use the truthfulness in ruthless humor to expose the horrors of reality. At best indie filmmakers seem to look towards (a hard to replicate) Wes Anderson dead pan or the (obnoxious) Apatow for comedic guidance but this makes for a dry and derivitive sense of humor that isn't really interesting to anyone. It's ok to laugh! And it's ok to laugh at what you personally find funny! Without laughter how else are we going to get through the rest of whatever this thing is....? And, lastly, filmmakers: you got to read more books. Books have paved the way long before cinema in terms of conveying ideas to an audience, even if you are making super obscure experimental films there is probably a writing precedent that can teach you a thing or two about telling the thing you are telling. Films encompass so many types of media- sound, image, acting, music, etc.- but the driving reason for making a fiction narrative feature or documentary is a story you are trying to put into the world. A camera can help you articulate but the words need to be defined. So, go to a library! It is totally free! I swear!

Now that the accessibility of filmmaking has reached an all-time high it's time to start honing skills to make the level of production, meaning and the general level of cinematic joy come through every little film that decides to get made! I hope this post finds all you young indie filmmakers well, I encourage everyone to be creative but a mindful creativity is something we should all ask from eachother! Make your film and make it good!



Donna K. lives in the Midwest and on the internet. Mostly she writes about her interest in the offline world.