A Film Is Born Three Times Pt. 1: Re: Writing

“A film is born three times. First in the writing of the script, once again in the shooting, and finally in the editing.” — Robert Bresson, French film maker.

I think folks at first take for granted that a film is a thing born of an idea, written, produced, and edited and then it just exists… but there’s so many changes along the way. Your first draft is almost never, ever going to be what appears on screen. And it probably shouldn’t. Some first drafts are better left being forgotten, but you can’t make a final draft without suffering through the whole writing and re-writing process.

The Road Less Traveled

I talked a bit about my short horror film The Road Less Traveled in my how-to post here: Making the No Budget Horror Film – Bridget LaMonica

The very first very rough draft was written in 2014 while I was at SCAD. Cassie is abandoned at a bar by her friends and captured by two bad men named Miles and Dawson in a cool car.

While in their nefarious clutches, Cassie calls her mother, who races to try to find her. Cassie gets her revenge, only to have her mother finally arrive in time to bury a couple bodies. I called the story Werewolf because that was the monster at the end of the story.

Hunted, an early draft of The Road Less Traveled:

Cassie talks too much. There’s a lot of her talking on the phone, to a friend at a bar, to the kidnappers. Blegh.

She has a cell phone and is able to call for help (kind of a horror movie no-no).

Cassie is resourceful. She knows ways out of her situation but finds her methods were anticipated.

I sent the draft to my friend Masha, who gave me a great critique. Eventually I created the story that was much more interesting to me: Mia (formerly Cassie, now with a more appropriate name – Missing In Action) kidnapped by a lone serial killer named Clyde (the name is never said out loud) who brings her to an abandoned slaughter house to do his evil work. Jokes on him, because Mia fights back. This was called Hunted.

The script was presented to director Lindsay Barrasse. With Lindsay’s attachment to the script and her love of classic horror, we leaned further into classic horror tropes and set the story in the 1970s instead of modern day. No more convenient cell phone.

Draft 9:

Cassie is now Mia and she has no spoken dialogue (only a few lines of voice over).

This version mentions a “90’s style watch” but later we changed the date to the 70s.

Mia is adept at survival — she knows some skills but is unable to escape until later.

I wanted a horror story that played on the classic tropes while delivering some surprises. I had a not-so-subtle reference to a favorite TV show, Supernatural.

Hunted became The Road Less Traveled, inspired by the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken”, Supernatural‘s “The Road So Far” and the fact that we had a female victim who would prove herself capable. The film became more and more about female empowerment, especially since most of our production team was female.

A note: I almost never find my title until a few drafts later. Same with a theme or tone — sometimes it just takes that long to finally whittle down to what I want to say.

Routine Procedures

Before The Road Less Traveled was produced, I had a thesis film at SCAD called Routine Procedures.

This script began in a short script writing class. The basic premise being a group of soldiers discovering an alien box in the woods that could spell doom for all mankind.

The very first (equally very bad) draft saw Johnson, your average Gary Stu with his boss Magnus and a feisty Latina soldier Reyes (inspired by Private Vasquez in Alien). Reyes ends up being an alien. There might have been some idea about aliens enslaving humanity or something? I dunno. This draft doesn’t exist anymore and nor should it.

This script went through several drafts in the class, becoming a time travel story in which these soldiers discover this alien artifact that forces them to relive the same day over and over as they deteriorate. Only one soldier notices, and he is freaking out, man.

Draft 3, Page 1:

In this version we have about 5 characters: Johnson, Sterling, Reyes, Magnus and Hopkins.

This draft was way too talky with too many characters. Still I can see all the major things I kept from this draft forward: Johnson as our lead who figures things out, Magnus as the hard-as-nails superior who is afraid of change, the story starting by mentioning de ja vu.

I condensed the best parts of Hopkins into Reyes and deleted Sterling entirely. He was a useless jerk.

I worked with director Nick Bow to make the film. He suggested Johnson should be a woman. I stopped. I was about to argue. And then I realized, yeah, why didn’t I think about that? The genders of Johnson and Reyes were flipped and we put out a casting call. We got some excellent people to fill out these roles and it wasn’t who we originally expected.

Draft 9, page 1:

The characters were reduced to 3.

We wanted to be clear what happened where (time travel stories get complicated). We labeled the repetitions and the different sections of landscape we were shooting in.

In Draft 3 Reyes saw a snail stuck in a loop. Here it’s a millipede.

Less dialogue and more focused.

As I recall, the title Routine Procedures was there for most of the drafts. I think the first one or two were called Maneuvers or something vaguely military-esque. When I settled on Routine Procedures, it helped sell the fact that this was a time travel story.

Let’s Wrap This Up

Drafts are called such because they are a continuously changing process. The first draft is often called a vomit draft (ew) because you might need to get your initial idea out fast. You bring it to a critique group or a trusted friend who can give you notes, and then you incorporate that into a rewrite. The script is never actually done until it is filmed, and even then it’s open for interpretation.

Next up, Part 2: Production.

Cinematography on the Cheap

Recently I was invited to help teach cinematography on a budget for my local library’s film maker club. I figured, why not share the love here?

So, congrats — you’re embarking on your first or fortieth short film production. Unfortunately, you don’t have much money to put into it. How can you personally go cheap without sacrificing all your production value?

In this Medium post, Lance Adams figures short films cost approximately $500-1000 per minute. That’s a lotta moolah.

Keep in mind, if you’re producing your short film, you need to budget money for food and snacks for your crew, props, locations, equipment, crew, actors, gas money, etc. There’s a lot of costs associated with even the cheapest of short films.

You can also check out this article on the biggest issues when budgeting a short film.

For the sake of this blog post, we’re going to look strictly at the cinematography side. Maybe a friend has asked you to be the DP on their short film, or maybe you’re trying to do your own film on the cheap. Here are some choices that will have less of an impact on your bottom line.

Shooting a Budget Friendly Script

Aim for a short script (emphasis on short, 5-10 pages max) that has few actors, few locations, and even less in the way of special or visual effects. Less is more in this case, and limiting yourself with these parameters will make it more likely that you succeed in shooting this short film on a tiny budget.

The Camera

Panasonic Lumix GH5

Oh, so you want to shoot your short film on a RED Gemini 5K? That’s nice. That’ll also be around $1200/day. Without a lens.

I recommend shooting on smaller, more compact cameras for the no-budget short. DSLR’s are highly popular, but if you have access to a Blackmagic –that’s cool too. If you don’t have a DSLR, they’re a fairly cheap rental on a service like Sharegrid. For a good comparison, a Panasonic GH5 (DSLR) is about $80 to rent…per week ( via LensRentals.com). Big difference from that RED, huh?

There’s quite a few people out there doing some cool things with their iPhones too. For that type of shooting, download the app Filmic Pro (available for iOS or Andriod). It’s $15 and from what I hear, well worth the money. The app gives you full manual controls over your phone’s camera, enhancing your ability to shoot more cinematically.

Use What You Have

Lay out all the equipment you have right now. Camera, lenses, accessories, lighting. This is where you’ll start. Don’t have pro video gear? Start getting creative. Your household lamps can double as practical lighting in that bedroom scene. That tripod could turn into a dolly if you put it on wheels.

I’ve been asked a couple times how I achieved a particular “dolly” shot inside of a car. There was no room for a dolly or a slider for that matter, so I placed my Sony A7s camera on a roll of duct tape I had in the car and pushed it on the center console to get a nice dolly effect on the back seat of the car. Get creative!*

*Safely, of course.

Lighting Options

\I said LIGHTING not lightning. Don’t light your sets with a Faraday cage experiment, so help me God…

You better light those scenes so you can see what’s going on! Bad lighting will ruin good cinematography.

Earlier I mentioned “practicals,” which in this case would be lights that exist in the world of your film. That might be a lamp in a bedroom scene or the ceiling fixture in a kitchen. That’s a good start but you’re probably going to want to work a little more light in, or creatively block light for some “negative fill.”

Image from Premium Beat’s article: Lighting a Scene Solely with Practicals

As far as inexpensive, semi-professional lighting is concerned, I’d say invest in a couple of reasonably priced LED panels.

These LED light panels can be found on Amazon.

I bought two Neewer 480s and one 660 (pictured above) from Amazon, and I’ve used them on multiple film shoots. Lightweight, dimmable and ranging in color temp from 3200 to 5600K, these light panels are a life saver.

I also have a few of these itty bitty LED lights that might be meant for product photography, but have come in handy in a pinch when a large light can’t fit somewhere.

Manipulate your lights with gels (if not color-adjustable already) and use bounce and reflectors to direct the light where it needs to go. Use dark fabric such as duvetyne or something way cheaper to eliminate light where you don’t need it.

I could go more in depth on the practical ways to light or shoot on the cheap, but I think you get the idea. If there’s anything you’d like me to explore further in a future blog post — just let me know! I’m happy to help.

In the meantime, check out this YouTube playlist I made of tips/tricks for doing cinematography on the cheap:

Networking in the Digital Age

Earlier this year I borrowed a book on networking from the local library. Build Your Dream Network by J. Kelly Hoey was not likely to help me much in my business, and I knew this going in. The film industry is less about LinkedIn and corporate ladders as it is about building a reel and meeting people who want to hire you again. Reading this book was slow going–

–and then the pandemic hit. Suddenly a book on networking just seemed ironic when everyone was stuck at home and every gig and job for the year was cancelled.

Thanks to a very generous library return policy, I finally finished this book and wanted to share some insights on networking as it applies to working in film.

I’m also keeping in mind the quarantine aspect of our current situation. Going to any sort of networking or meet-and-greet event is currently out. Stay socially responsible and do make your connections from home while things are still slow and social gatherings are not possible.

Networking in General

Networking is defined as “the action or process of interacting with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts.”

Making connections is how you get jobs. Sure, you can get gigs by applying to online job postings, but if you’re a freelancer, much of your work will be through repeat hiring by people who like you and projects that received your name as a recommendation. Expanding your network is a way to get some sense of job security. The stronger your network, the more likely you will work. See what I did there?

Also, networking should be considered an ongoing process. It’s not just something you do until you get the first job, or for the first year of your career — it’s continuous. Contacts come and go and production companies can move. You don’t want all your eggs in one basket.

I also highly recommend having some sort of network in place before you move to a new place. Reach out to some folks in the area you want to live, ask questions, put examples of your work out there. You’ll be more established than if you go in blind.

My Networking Experience

When I first moved to Georgia, I spent the first few months living off my savings and reaching out to as many people as I could. I also went to some networking events with varying degrees of success.

Most of my connections were made through Facebook groups. Thanks to Atlanta Film Community’s bi-weekly “Self Promotion Posts,” I was noticed by a local DP and director, both of whom have continued to hire me on their projects.

Networking is connecting through shared stories and experiences. Its building a human connection, not simply stating a need to be filled (or, in the case of startups, a check to be written).” – J. Kelly Hoey

I’ve connected with other people by seeing their online presence on social media, reaching out and having a chat, exchanging resumes and reels.

One sound designer I networked with put up a self promotion post on a general film page. I saw it, looked at his work and contacted him. After seeing his quality of work and interacting online, I knew he’d be a talent to have on set. After our first film together, I continued to recommend him for numerous jobs, and he’s done the same for me.

A fellow camera assistant posted about wanting to connect with like-minds in Atlanta. I reached out, and we’ve both recommended each other for jobs. She even had me over at a dinner party (ahem, in January, pre-COVID) where I was able to connect with even more people.

You should be getting the sense that networking is not about saying “hire me,” it’s about developing a relationship and mutual respect with another person. This should be done delicately. Don’t spam post anywhere, don’t eek out desperation, and know the right time to send an unsolicited message to someone you don’t yet know. You should know when the time is right.

Reach out to people you admire, whose work you appreciate. Check out someone’s work on Instagram, Twitter feed or their website and demo reel. Send them a quick message if you like their work. It means a lot. That might even open up a dialogue, but you shouldn’t try to force someone to hire you.

Thanks to these weird times we live in, the latest film festival to show my short The Road Less Traveled — Cat Fly Film Festival of Asheville, NC — held an online streamed event. I reached out to two people — one in Atlanta who I hadn’t met before, and the director of the film I liked the most in the festival By Sunrise, a superbly done short horror film. Thanks to interacting at this streamed film festival, I made excellent connections I may be working with in the future.

Networking fails

Build Your Dream Network also had some great pointers on how not to network.

One such piece of advice is very sound: don’t just reach out to someone when they’ve landed a big job or coveted position.

“But,” you argue, “Didn’t you just say to reach out to people whose work you admire?”

Sure! But did you establish a relationship with someone, only to ghost them until that success and it looked like you could get something out of it? Don’t be selfish. Keep up on your contacts, check in with the people you like and recommend people for jobs. It’s all good relationship fodder.

Now, you can say “congrats!” to them if you feel necessary, but if that’s the only time you’ve contacted the person, the contact might be too little too late — at least according to J. Kelly Hoey’s book.

I’m proud of my friends and colleagues when they post their successes, and I try to do my part by sharing what they want shared, supporting a fundraising campaign or posting when they’re going to do a livestream or a radio interview. It means a lot to have that kind of support.

Conclusion

If you have a garden, do you only water it when the tomatoes are ripe? Think of that daily watering and maintenance as a way you should approach building your network. In the film industry we meet scores of new people at every job — you don’t want your name to disappear in a thrown away call sheet.

So, while things are still slow, this is your time to reach out to people, make those connections, and maybe polish all your public profiles and make sure things are up to date. You’ll want to hit the ground running when production starts back up.