How I Got Lucky With My First Feature Film

Your first feature film is usually the hardest and, paradoxically sometimes the easiest to make. What you don’t know often won’t hurt you, and a lack of experience can sometimes be your best friend.

I have been making movies for decade, but I’ve been trying to make films for 15 years. That five year setback was perhaps the best thing that ever happened to me. Let me explain.

I didn’t come to film until I was in my late 20’s. I’d been an English Major in college, with a personal focus on writing and story. When I dove into movies, there was a ton of technical stuff I had to learn. There was a three year period, in fact, in which I never read one novel – I was too busy diving into books about the 180 degree rule and lens choice.

What I soon realized was, story is everything. The best cameras ever can’t save you if your story sucks. An Arri Alexa is pretty, but the images it gives you won’t help if your characters are inert, flat or devoid of life. Conversely, you can shoot a movie on an iPhone and have it come to life, due to the fact that your story truly moves.

When I teach Directing for Film, I tell my film students that Jimi Hendrix could make a five dollar guitar sound good. It’s not in the equipment – What matters is in your head.

So when I got the film bug, I tried in vain to get several projects off the ground. The good news is that people want to help you. At one point I was talking to David Gordon Green’s amazing DP, Tim Orr, about making my first feature film (I cold-called him and he was very nice).

First Feature Film

How I Got Lucky With My First Feature Film

In my case, the problem was I couldn’t even raise the funds to build it.

Some smart folks are afflicted with what I call “Intelligent Doubt.” This is the intellectual’s approach to selling – you know you have a good solid first feature film in your hands, but you also know that the odds are that your investors will never see their money back. It is simple math. That fact-based approach, though, will kill any sales technique you’ve mastered.

Intelligent Doubt is not good if you’re a filmmaker.

So after trying and failing for years, I grew desperate and did what every book, every film expert everywhere tells you not to do: I decided to fund my first feature film on credit-cards.

When I made my first feature film, Sinkhole, digital was still a long way from being anything. DV was starting to happen, but the resolution and color space just weren’t there. So I opted to play with the big boys and shoot 35mm. Pretty much all of my budget was in camera rental, film, and film processing. So I effectively made my movie for free, if you discount the camera stuff.

1. Find Your Team: I found my team – local actors I’d gotten to know and trust. The worst thing ever is to cast someone who flakes out on you halfway through your movie. Go with someone who’s hungry and dependable, even if they’re less brilliant. Likewise on the crew. Find some serious players who are looking for that next step up in their career. Find people who are serious about what they’re doing. No room for posers. It helps to be nice and likable. People will be generous if they like you. Dicks get no recourse.

2. Shooting Schedule: On our first feature film, we devised a staggered shooting schedule that allowed us to keep our day jobs and not take a month or so off at a time. We shot on three day weekends for an entire winter season – 24 days in all. It was a nice way to mount a mini-shoot, get a lot done, and then go back to our real lives happy and tired.

3. Food Is Compensation: Food is important. And expensive. Feed your people well. The staggered shooting schedule allowed me (really the only producer) to approach various local restaurants and businesses in my off days and ask them to donate food for 12 to 20 people at a time. Ask, and most times you will receive. These businesses are happy to help out their local community – a couple extra pizzas and salads aren’t really that expensive for them – and a thank you in the credits is pretty terrific advertising. At one point we were shooting in a pub, and a local top-notch Mexican restaurant came in and set up a hot bar with so much food that the bar patrons were helping themselves.

4. Find Great Locations: To make a first feature film film with no money, it is key to keep it contemporary. No costumes, no antique cars, no tough props. Make use of existing locations – ju jitsu them into an asset by creating a story around what you can actually get. In my case, it was old trailers, rural areas and dead end roads. Find the production value around you and make it work.

5. Be Bold: We stepped up, and with my DP’s insurance papers, we were able to ask the local police to shoot on the Interstate. We ended up closing I-40 (a major thoroughfare in NC) just because we asked nicely. Insurance is key.

So with these tools, a good story, a solid and serious cast and crew, available locations, donated food – We were good to get my first feature film going. For me, there was the added expense of the 35mm camera, the film (we shot short ends), and processing. This added up to close to $50K. I had no way of going around this, so I put it on my (several) credit cards. It was terrifying and creativity-killing and all that. But I had to do it. So I did it.

Luckily, my day job was in video production – ah, another method, practice your art in your day job – and with some competence it can be a nice paycheck. And so I scrimped, saved, and eventually paid off what amounts to a small mortgage.

Was it worth it? Every penny!

The film premiered at a reputable 2nd tier fest (Dances With Films) in LA, I paid a publicist for some quality publicity (again biting the bullet and spending the money) that got us some attention. A renowned distributor (Shoreline Entertainment) actually came to us, and the rest was history. That movie has now been played on TV all over the world. Not bad for a first feature film.

More importantly, it got me in the game.

Suddenly I was invited to the IFP (two years in a row), landed an option deal with a prominent NYC production company, and was literally attaching Oscar-winners to my next movie. The fact that my sophomore film ended up in development hell feels like only a detail. I got close – very close. And in movies, close counts: It’s career capital that you can build up and use to get access, to get attachments, to get a development deal.

Several movies later, with other high level projects in development, I’m still at it. For my fourth feature, American Breakdown, I’m mounting a Kickstarter campaign – I love the full creative control. But note that I’m still playing the same game: Available locations, a hungry cast and crew, and mostly donated food. But this time I’m using other people’s money. It’s a good trade up.

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Paul Schattel’s movies include Sinkhole, Alison and Quiet River. Check out his new Kickstarter campaign for American Breakdown here.

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