Making films is without doubt, one of the most rewarding and most frustrating professions any individual can choose (although some might say it is the profession that does the choosing!). Regardless, if you are making your first film, I am going to share what I learned in my attempt to make a seven day feature… The hard way…
The truth is, I have been acting and writing for over a decade. And after several small appearances in a some feature films, many shorts and a few stage plays, I decided I wanted to do something myself (before fate decides it is time for me to leave this world). And so, my mission began…
How My Seven Day Feature Fell Apart (And What I Did Next)
After appearing in a medieval zombie flick, I realized that between myself, and my close group of friends – We had accumulated enough set, costume and equipment over the years to make a fully fledged medieval feature film of our own. Originally we thought about making a Star Wars fan film, but we decided to change the story into a more of fantasy setting, with one or two small alterations (removal of Lightsabers and use of The Force to name a few!)
After a month of alterations and a two week re-write, the script was ready, and it wasn’t bad… I mean, it wasn’t Oscar winning material. But then again, we were aiming for the ‘leave your brain at the door and enjoy the ride’ crowd!
Once we had the script, we started calling all of our various friends in the industry who fancied doing a no budget feature. Since there was no budget, we sold the idea of “fun.” We all love working together and wanted to have a blast! So after a week of schedule juggling, we realized that we only had a seven day window in which to shoot.
This was a headache, but possible.
Intense planning went into the schedule. Every minute of every day was accounted for. And as the week approached, all was going well. We had three cameramen (two I knew and one on a recommendation), an experienced boom operator, actors, wardrobe, make-up and locations locked. . .
On the eve of the production, my phone rings. Then I start getting Facebook messages, followed by emails.
One by one, members of our crew and cast start dropping out. With each message my heart sank further and further until by 8pm (the evening before shooting started), I found myself in the seventh circle of emotional hell and still descending.
Have a Plan B (Not Kidding)
My friend Cindy, a woman who has the wonderful knack of putting things in perspective had a moment of clarity.
“Why don’t you cut the script down and turn it into a short?”
This was GENIUS!
An hour later I trimmed the script from a 120 minute behemoth to a 20 minute short. Many characters were cut completely. As for crew, all of my cameramen were gone, save for the guy who had a high recommendation. Our runner became the boom operator and he was given a crash course in audio recording. Our EOS5D’s never showed up, so we ended up filming on a 650D.
By far, this was not the grand project I had envisioned. But at least we were doing it!
At the end of the first days filming, I was happy with the work all the actors and crew had put in.
I wasn’t able to see any of the footage, due to a playback issue on our laptop. At the time, and because so much had gone wrong already, I figured the laptop would be a minor issue. At least we were able to transfer the footage. The laptop was (of course) a major problem!
The laptop issue was not resolved until a few days later, when we were finally able to review the footage.
I can remember how my heart started racing with excitement as the first few scenes popped up! Finally I could see the fruits of my labor. The project was moving ahead!
Then we started to notice things.
As we looked through the footage my stomach churned and my migraine became a pneumatic drill in my temples. We had stuff in the background (that should be there) shaky camera work, even though he used a steady cam and a bunch of useless footage – And that was just the start!
Out of the four days filming, we had only two scenes that could be used… And maybe two more if I was very clever in post.
With on three days left, I didn’t know what to do.
Should I re-hash the script again? Maybe go from 20 minutes to 5 minutes? Maybe just make a promo for the eventual feature?
I went to bed exhausted, rolling in bed with a pounding headache.
I still had hope we would find a plan to salvage the movie.
Surround Yourself With Friends and Family
When my eyes opened at 6AM, I looked out the window and was greeted with a sight I had not expected...
The project was finished.
I rang the actress who was scheduled to shoot and left a message. I didn’t want her to drive all the way into the middle of nowhere for nothing. Then my phone rang…
It was our actress, in tears.
She had suffered a car accident in the snow. Even though she was okay, she was shaken up quite bad and her car was badly damaged.
I tried to console her as best one can from the end of a phone line, but she had already hung up.
I was numb, in shock and defeated.
This film had been fighting me from the start, and it appeared it had won. My movie did not want to get made.
At this point, I sent the remaining cast and crew home… And I followed.
As I got into my house, my wife was waiting. I didn’t say a word. I just broke down and cried. My wife and my boys hugged me for what seemed like an eternity… It was a big family hug, which in equal measure, felt like the worst and best moment of my life.
I had failed, but at least my family still loved me.
Challenge Is NOT Failure
I carried on my regular job for months after my attempt at filmmaking. The truth is, I thought about the experience every day, sometimes for hours on end. What could I have done different? What could I have done to make it work? What if I had brought some others in to help?
It was question after question, followed by doubt after doubt…
After two months, I decided to look at the footage once more and edit what I could. And it was during this time I discovered something shocking. In spite of the camera work. . . And in spite of everything that had gone wrong – The chemistry, the atmosphere and the feel of the film was right on!
We had been onto something. This film worked!
Do Not Give Up On Filmmaking
After a few days of brainstorming, it was decided that we would go ahead with a second attempt at the film.
After reaching out to other members of the crew, it was decided that I would step down as director (this was my suggestion. The first attempt was too much. And I was too obsessed with the project to get a clear picture of what was needed.) We also completed another re-write of the script. And as a result, we had something better than originally envisioned.
We then spoke to another friend – A professional director who was looking to try something like new.
At the date of writing this, we have completed three days of the shoot. We have spread filming over the course of the year and all is going well. The footage thus far looks brilliant! And we even have a distributor ready to look at the finished film!
What is the lesson to learn from my experience?
There are a few lessons.
If you do not treat your film with respect, it will bite you, and it will hurt! I thought I could do this film justice in a seven day shoot…The film said NO! This was a painful lesson.
Secondly, no matter how bad your situation, no matter how badly things are going – Do not give up! Just because your film (or attempt at a film) does not work, that does not mean that it is a complete failure.
And finally, you can always salvage something. By not giving up – You are proving to yourself (and everybody around you) that your film is worth it and that you believe in it.
Matthew Saxon has been involved in stage and screen both in front and behind the camera for 10 years. He is currently involved in several film projects and can currently be seen on a UK tour in William Shakespeare’s ‘The Winters tale’ with Anvil Productions, which will also be in the ‘Ophelia Theatre’, London in late June for a five day stretch.