A Film is Born Three Times: Pt. 2 Production

“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.

Part 2 of 3. Read Part 1 on Re-writing here.

You’ve written the script. You’ve done the pre-production. You have your shotlist in hand and you’re ready to shoot. Surely, you have an image of what your film is going to look like in your head. The thing is — it’s really hard to make that a reality.

Once you’ve made your first or even fourteenth film, isn’t part of you a little disappointed it doesn’t look exactly how you pictured it? No? Just me, okay.

There’s a number of factors that go into why your film will change during production. Let’s go over a few reasons:

  • casting
  • location
  • equipment

Casting

You and a friend are prepping for a film competition and it’s the night before your first shoot day. You’ve got your gear and props, your script finalized, your cast set and call sheets sent out. Now all you need is–

Oh wait, your lead actor just quit. Now it’s 11pm at night and you’re supposed to be filming a mere 10 hours from now.

This is exactly what happened to Desiree and I when we were prepping our Mystery Box Film Challenge short. Our lead actor was cast via the film commission in Philly, and he decided at 11pm the night before the shoot that he wasn’t going to drive to Northeast Pennsylvania to do the short. Because he’d have to get up early. I can’t even make this up. The actor had the script and knew where he’d be filming for days in advance, and chose literally the 11th hour to change his mind.

Desiree and I very calmly… went into panic mode. After a moment of us going “literally, WTF” we contacted everyone we knew in the local film community, and the search was on. Friends contacted friends until we connected with a guy named Joe, who was more than happy to help us. He turned out to be a great actor, a better choice than we originally had, and our short film continued as scheduled.

Especially in the case of short films and volunteer projects, you could lose people at the last minute. The goal is to have a network you can turn to in order to fill in the gaps. Or start getting creative with the cast you already have.

Location

When I originally wrote The Road Less Traveled, I had envisioned a cat and mouse chase inside a literal slaughterhouse. Instead, we ended up in an antique barn, which I ended up liking so much more.

Sometimes your limitations on location will be budget related. You intended on x but had money for y (or z was free).

Weather, too, can play a part. If originally your location was going to be outdoors and a storm blows through, you might have to re-evaluate and see if you can film an indoor scene instead.

My thesis film, Routine Procedures took place in a crater….but since that’s impossible to create on no budget, we filmed in a sand pit used by construction. We filmed on days they weren’t out scooping the sand. A unique feature was that a lot of it was flooded, so we needed to purchase a canoe to get to the optimal location.

Equipment

You’ve got everything planned. Absolutely nothing could go wrong.

You get the idea now, right?

You don’t have enough batteries to continuously shoot. Your media fails. Your stabilizer isn’t stabilizing. Your mattebox donut has ripped and too much light is now hitting the filter.

This is one example where we had to replace a piece of equipment with something unexpected. The rubber “donut” that goes from the mattebox to the lens had torn, and too much light was hitting the filters. We replaced it with an old school mousepad with a hole cut in it. It worked great! Plus I ended up seeing this kittycat mouse pad on the next project I worked with this DP so obviously it made an impression.

Film sets are Murphy’s Law Incarnate. You need to be able to roll with the punches.

The following scenarios have happened to me or someone I know:

  • the DP underestimated how much media we’d need to record on and nobody media managed even after I pointed out we were going to run out of cards. The last scene of the day was filmed shooting one line of dialogue at a time on the last two minutes of card space.
  • Your wireless follow focus has lost signal and has some issue that can’t be solved, so you pull it off the barrel of the lens and pull focus by hand (like the pioneers did!)
  • The director suddenly wants a Steadicam-like shot without there being a budget or an actual Steadicam around. You see a rolling desk chair and get some ideas…

Don’t let an equipment malfunction limit your ability to shoot your film. There’s often a way around it if you take a moment to look at your options.

A Steadicam setup I did years ago for someone’s crowdfund campaign. The camera was way too light for the Steadicam, so I bongo tied a few 5lb ankle weights on there to compensate.

One of the absolute best skills you can have as a film maker is problem solving. If you can be adaptable, creative and a team player, you can find a way around your problem and into a solution.

Screenwriting Basics #3: Character

Unless you’re writing the type of artistic film where you only show time lapses of moss growing or something, you’re likely going to need characters to populate your script. They may be a hodgepodge group of high schoolers or even anthropomorphic cars.

The most important of which is your main character. And they should do more than just go through the motions.

Your main character needs to be interesting. Infuse them with details, quirks, dialogue that makes the reader, and eventually audience, enjoy going on this ride with them.

How do you do this? Start thinking details. Are they funny? Smart in a really unique way? Do they see the world in a way others do not? Do they have a personal struggle and you can’t help but root for them?

Do they have a general disdain for humanity but also the propensity for curing everyone’s ills?

Lookin’ at you, Doctor House.

You want to avoid stereotypes in your main character. Instead of having a genius doctor, you have a genius doctor who lacks a bedside manner, has a physical disability which leads him to a dependency on narcotics.

So let’s talk round vs flat characters.

“A round character is deep and layered character in a story. Round characters are interesting to audiences because they feel like real people; audiences often feel invested in these characters’ goals, successes, failures, strengths, and weaknesses.”


https://www.masterclass.com/articles/round-vs-flat-characters-in-fiction

Round characters are more interesting and make your reader and audience more invested in the story.

“A flat character is a two-dimensional character lacking depth or a real personality. Usually, flat characters have just one or two perfunctory traits. Often considered “stock characters,” flat characters can often be summarized in one word (like “bully” or “love interest”) and never digress from or transcend their role.”

https://www.masterclass.com/articles/round-vs-flat-characters-in-fiction

A flat character lacks the great detail that makes a compelling character. They fall into stereotypes — the distracted professor, the overworked single mom, the ditsy cheerleader… we’ve seen these time and again. It’s fine if they populate the rest of your world a bit, but for the characters we follow? We want more.

How to write a round character:

  • Character Traits. What are their character traits, both good and bad? What is the flaw your main character possesses that might cause them grief later in the story?
  • Details. What are their likes/dislikes? What is their appearance? What sports do they play? Where do they work? You might not use all of these, but it will help you make more informed decisions on how your character will act.
  • Believability. Your main character has believable reactions to events based on their character traits. A generally mellow person won’t just blow up at a minor inconvenience. It wouldn’t fit their character. Don’t lose your reader, and later your audience, by making your character behave strangely.
  • Conflict. Give them an internal and external conflict. The main conflict may be the fate of the world ending, but the internal conflict may be a father regaining the love of his estranged daughter.
  • Dialogue. Your character has a voice, and it should be a distinct voice. If you cover up the names of all the characters in your script and read the dialogue, you should be able to tell who is speaking. Don’t let everyone sound the same.

Building a really interesting main character is one part of writing that great first script.

Sources:

https://blog.reedsy.com/round-character/

https://www.indiewire.com/2013/11/screenwriting-101-5-tips-for-writing-better-characters-into-your-screenplay-33156/

https://www.masterclass.com/articles/round-vs-flat-characters-in-fiction

Screenwriting Basics #1: Budget Friendly Screenwriting Software

This is the first in a multi-part series breaking down the screenwriting process so you can get started writing your next great idea.

First, let’s talk where you write the script. I don’t care if you start in a paper notebook or scribble outlines on napkins, at some point you’re going to have to type this into proper screenwriting format on a computer.

Professional screenwriting programs like Movie Magic Screenwriter or Final Draft are a major investment. Screenwriter 6 is currently at the sale price of $169. It’s usually $249. Final Draft 12 is on sale for $185 (again, usually $249).

That’s a hefty price tag for someone who is just starting out. Luckily, there’s some really good free and cheap options out there too:

  • YouMeScript – a Google Drive extension. Features the ability to have multiple writers working at the same time from different computers. Great for collaboration but make sure you save often. It does not automatically save for you.
  • Fade In – Fade in provides a free trial to get you started. It is only $80 for the full version.
  • Writer Duet – a Cloud based software that has a lot of nifty features. The free trial lets you write your first 3 scripts on the program for free.
  • Celtx – This used to be free but it seems it’s gone through some updates and is now $15/mo for the most basic package.

The free options are fine for when you are learning to write or if you are simply writing for your own short films, but if you decide to go big time and start submitting to agents or contests or major production houses — get Final Draft or Screenwriter. There can be little formatting issues with the free programs that the pricey programs would sort out.

Study the Craft

You can’t expect to grow as a writer unless you work at it, study it and see what’s been done before.

You can see my list of recommended screenwriting books here: Reading List: Screenwriting.

How do you expect to write a script if you don’t read them first? The following link gives resources to the best screenplays to read in each genre.

You can also check out a lot more scripts on Simply Scripts and Drew’s Script-o-Rama. Just keep in mind some are transcripts written by a fan watching a show, which makes them not worth studying. You may also have to click through a few, especially on Drew’s site — some links are broken.

“So what’s all this I hear about formatting?” We’ll talk about that in the next Screenwriting Basics post.

Film Job Scams and How to Avoid Them – Take Two

I’ve written about it before, and I’ll likely write about it again — there’s many people out there taking advantage of folks desperate for work, a large percentage aimed directly at those trying to break into the film industry.

I actually had to push back on publishing this blog as more and more scams were outed daily on Facebook. Here we are going to look at some examples and discuss how to tell a job offer is actually a scam.

General Advice:

  • Actors should never be charged for a role or an audition. Never.
  • Actors do not pay to be represented by a casting agency. A legit agency makes money when you book roles. There is no upfront cost.
  • Anyone: If it sounds too good to be true, it likely is.
  • Beware of jobs offering weekly rates instead of day rates.
  • Be cautious with a job that seems to put the wrong duties on a job description (like a PA being expected to run sound or do payroll).
  • Do not trust someone who tries to send you a check before you do the job.
  • Be very cautious of anyone offering a big position above or below the line without seeing if you meet qualifications (I.e. Director of Photography job being offered without them seeing your resume or reel first.)

Check Cashing Scams

One of the most common scams we see in this business is the check cashing/phishing scam. In this one, the fake job provider sends you a check BEFORE the job in order for you to purchase equipment, pay other crew, or something similar. Usually this is aimed at production assistants and people new to the industry.

Nobody will send you a check before a job and nobody will expect a PA to purchase equipment or personally pay crew. The scam only serves to empty the unwitting person’s bank account, usually of thousands of dollars.

A play on this scam was posted on a Facebook group by Randy Swieca, adding in the New Coke flavor of Bitcoin to the mix. An applicant to the job said he was sent a check in the mail and told to deposit it in his account and send bitcoin to an undisclosed location. As the Facebook poster explained, money matters are a production accountant job, not something a PA is expected to do. The would-be applicant rightfully determined it was a scam and immediately posted a warning on the group where he saw the original post.

The Trying-Too-Hard Scammer

Zach Barry posted about a scammer going by the name Ann Gendry who sent an enormous block of text via e-mail.

For your sanity, I detail the red flags in the e-mail with this bulleted list:

  • Bad grammar examples: “I will like to thank you.”
  • Claiming the job will lead to a long-term opportunity. How?
  • Production assistant job that includes A LOT of duties that aren’t typical PA duties like check processing. She claims she is doing a short documentary, so it’s hard to believe she’ll need travel booking, making/distributing copies of scripts (for a documentary, remember), getting approval of copyrighted clips/music, assisting with pilot logistics (wasn’t it a documentary a minute ago?).
  • “Run errands such as purchasing supplies, props and other necessary items for the project.” This part is the check cashing scam. They will claim you need to purchase things and you will be reimbursed or they’ll send a fake check. YOU are the one out the money.
  • “Basic wage is $900.00 first two weeks preparation period and after which you will be paid Rate: $200./10hr on set.” No. You will not. This is not normal.
  • Then my favorite, the “About Me” section. Gendry claims “I have been short movie producer director in many places in Europe…I will travel a lot, hence the reason why I need an assistant to handle affairs for me on the home front when I am away on business which is usually quite often. This position is home-based.” This is very similar to a car selling scam on Craigslist where the scammer pretends to be abroad or in the army.

The Copy/Paste Scam

I’m calling it that because I’ve seen the exact same scam e-mail with only names and titles changed. For instance:

“I’m Vincent TONG I’m a producer for Reforma films I saw your profile posted on film production directory, I want to inform you about a upcoming short film project coming up in your area Titled ( Grateful ) Start date: May ‪25-30-2020‬, pay is $1800, I’m in search for effective FIRST CAMERA ASSISTANT kindly reply with your updated resume for more information and consideration thank you.

Kind regards
Stay blessed”

Vincent TONG (make sure you shout that last name!) e-mailed me May 4 2020. But then there’s also:

This particular scam usually comes in via e-mail, though I’ve seen it in a text message before as well.

The red flags in this “job offer” are:

  • film production directory (for some reason a lot of scams reference this vague nonexistent service)
  • Bad grammar/spelling/awkward wording from a non-English speaker
  • “Stay Blessed” and “Kind Regards” are often used to sign off on scam emails.
  • Unusually high pay for a position (especially for Production Assistant)
  • Job offers for jobs you don’t do — I’ve gotten this same one for Makeup artist.
  • Weekly or lump sums (“pay is $1800”) instead of day rates.
  • Scam emails will sometimes steal famous peoples names and production company names to try to sound legit.

Casting Scams

Alan Baltes

A community member in the Atlanta Film Production Group recently posted about Alan Baltes, a scammer who is well known for casting scams.

Alan gets his own heading because he’s made it a point to be a jerk scamming prospective actors time and time again. Baltes has previously tried to con people by pretending to cast for Jurassic Park: Dominion and sequels to Crazy Rich Asians. You can read about his exploits here in this article related to his Crazy Rich Asians scam. Now he’s focusing on John Wick 4.

Baltes claims he’s casting for movies while insisting on a $99 fee to submit, ironically to his own Cash App.

Actors — you do not PAY for casting calls or auditions.

NDA

Another similar scam popped up on a Facebook group where someone said they were asked to pay for an NDA (non-disclosure agreement). Again, that’s not a thing you pay for.

You can read further on how to avoid scams targeting actors here. And another helpful Backstage.com article on identifying scams here.

Modeling Scams

Vina Kent shared screenshots of a modeling scam that targeted her family and probably many others. Screenshots are attached and we’ll touch on a few details that mark this an obvious scam.

  • Models are asked to pick the date of the shoot
  • The locations for the job hasn’t been determined yet
  • A “modeling coach” could be provided for new models.
  • Weird hourly rates
  • A depot of $500 will be sent before the job (possible check phishing scam)
  • Weird wording/bad grammar
  • Giant block of text with no breaks

This one is clearly aiming to scam aspiring models out of their money.

So…How Can I Tell if a Job is Real?

Use your best judgement. If you’re uneasy, do your research. Google whoever is contacting you, the company, the producer, whoever you can. If someone has worked with them before, ask them before getting into a potentially dangerous situation. Keep in mind that scammers often steal the names of real production companies and producers. Chances are that Steven Spielberg won’t be contacting you personally for a production assistant gig, sorry.

Usually, legit jobs are really basic and to the point. For some reason many scammers send giant blocks of texts overexplaining everything. You could see that in the modeling scam and the email bullet point summary by Ann Gendry. They’re backpedaling. They’re trying to overwhelm you and get you to let your guard down.

Many of the gigs I’ve gotten boil down to this: “Are you available July 23-28? We need a cam op for a reality show.” I respond with my availability and then we discuss specifics like rate and job specifications.

Scammers try really hard to get your money. Don’t let ’em. Come across a scam? Feel free to post a screenshot on social media and inform your friends in the industry. A well informed community is safer because of it.

Special Thanks:

To everyone who allowed me to use screenshots and their personal interactions with the scammers to write this blog: Zach Barry, Vina Kent, Cyntoria Mccarroll, Alexandria Denise.

References:

Fake Production Assistant Listings

Crazy Rich Asians 2 Scammer Responds, Claims He’s the One That Got Scammed Movie Web

13 Signs of an Acting Scam – Backstage.com

How to Spot a Casting Scam – Backstage.com

“It’s a F–king Scam”: Beware the Hollywood Con Queen – Vanity Fair

Common Film Job Scams and How to Avoid Them – Bridget LaMonica

What’s Your Rate? (What’s Your Budget?)

A classic standoff worthy of any gunslinger this side of the Alamo.

One of the most hardest parts about working in film production is not what you’d expect. Sure there are challenges in regards to getting on set in the first place, gaining knowledge in different fields and just surviving your first long day as you question your sanity in regards to the freelance life, but there’s even more to consider.

I’m talking about rates.

In this business we set rates for ourselves to work on a production per day. This is usually on a 12 hour regimen, however there can be rates for specifically 10 or 14 hour spans as well. It depends on the production and the nature of the job position. Steadicam Ops, for instance, may charge a day rate for 10 hours or less due to the physical nature of the job.

Some jobs set the rates they are willing to pay for the various positions on their set. For example, a short film production may call you up, looking for a 1st AC, saying they are willing to pay $350 per day max. It is then up to you and your calendar whether you’re willing to take that rate for that day.

However the opposite could be true. An indie feature producer may call you, asking what your rate is.

So, why is the budget/rate stalemate so tricky?

You may have different rates depending on the scope of the job and the type of project. For example, I may not charge the same for a small short film shoot than I will for a corporate or feature film. It is also up to me if I’m willing to take a job, available or not, for any number or set of conditions.

Asking a production what their budget is proves a valuable way of gauging what the project really is. A Tier 1 feature is going to have a different budget reserve than does a small weekend shoot. A production not willing to share basic information can sometimes be a red flag. But having a basic understanding of budget will determine if you’re asking for your full rate, or a discounted rate. Either way is totally up to you. Ask for your full rate every single time if you’ll only work for that. It’s your skills on the table, after all.

Of course, setting your rate can be a hard decision. Are you new in the industry? Have many years of experience and special skills to bring to the table? That can change those numbers.

An important thing to remember about setting a rate is how many variables it contains. What are the expected rates for the job? How many days is the job? What are your expenses? How often will you get work?

There’s no one right rate. You can find out what union rates or commercial rates are and go from there, but a good rule of thumb is to ask. Normalize asking other people in your department what their rate is. Money is awkward to talk about but an important part of being a freelancer.

Oh! I didn’t even mention kit rentals and deferred pay.

A Kit rental is what you charge to bring your gear to a production. This is for specialized gear, like a camera, a Steadicam, a camera cart, a drone. You charge your rate PLUS the kit rental on that gear. To get an idea of what that rental should be, look at rental prices on something like Sharegrid or Adorama or local rental house. Kit rentals are important because that money goes towards paying that expensive gear off — and buying more.

If you see a job post somewhere indicating there’s deferred pay, I’ll give you two definitions: Deferred means “paid later” and also “you will never get paid.” If someone wants you to work a job for deferred pay, they are claiming they will pay you later. Films are expensive to make and likely the movie that doesn’t have a budget to pay it’s crew won’t be making a ton of money and then funneling any of it back to you. Financially, movie making is a risky business, especially in the independent world. Only do a deferred project gig if you want the experience and don’t mind if you never see a dime.