Balls of Steel™: Lessons on a Set

Every day in every corner of the world, some pro, maverick, or student is making a film. Can you find your way onto the set in some capacity? If you can take part in the shooting process, it will forever change how you approach your writing.
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The printer spits out your finished script. As you hold the hot pages in your hand, you get the brilliant idea to shoot the film yourself, convinced you’ll finally have total control over your words *insert the evil laughter of world domination*.

Image courtesy of david-proctor.com

Image courtesy of david-proctor.com

Even in the indie world, there’s no such thing as control.

This past weekend, I played Executive Producer on the set of gone Elvis, an independent short film written and directed by my friend, David Newhoff. David knew that despite my having zero experience producing, I am a learning junkie, so he asked if I’d lend him a hand fundraising. In exchange for my crowdfunding prowess, I’d get the learning opportunity of being behind the scenes.

He didn’t even have the script done when I said, “Hell, yes!"

After 45 days, we successfully reached our Kickstarter goal and set the date to shoot. Twenty-six pages of script, 19 actors, 10 crew members, approximately 15 locations, and four days to get it in the can.

Did I mention David has a bedazzled Batman cape in his trunk? I think I saw a crack pipe there, too. Oh wait, that was just a hallucination after spinning on the stripper pole day four of the shoot. But that’s a story for another day … maybe.

Superhero or not, David was right. I learned a hell of a lot about filmmaking in a four-day crash course. But being a writer, my mind always comes back to the script.

David wrote, directed, and operated the camera, but only was the DP because of unexpected, last-minute circumstances beyond his control. With all of that involvement, you’d think every word he wrote would make it on film, right? Wrong.

Sometimes a hungry crew, a rainstorm, or a detail left out of an earlier scene required that sequences be reshot on a different day, changing the entire game plan. Expect the unexpected, and expect scenes to be cut.

As David shared on set, “Writers shouldn't fall in love with every word; directors shouldn't fall in love with every shot.”

In guerrilla filmmaking, decisions have to be made on the fly, and when it’s all said and done, hopefully you’ll be able to find an even better story in the editing room.

But there are indeed things you can do to help your odds. In my opinion, it all starts with the script.

Write what you love, then analyze it for locations, wardrobe changes, props, number of actors, and any variables you can control before the shoot. Do that while still in the writing stage, prior to pre-production or crowdfunding.

In writing your script, you’re building a foundation for your film on more levels than just story. It’s the blueprint for your project.

I’m no expert, but Roberta Munroe is. For five years she was the short films programmer at The Sundance Film Festival and wrote an incredible best-selling book, How Not to Make a Short Film: Secrets From a Sundance Programmer.

Roberta has been a past guest of Scriptchat and is producing one of our co-founders shorts, Vivienne Again. Writer and director, Kim Garland, is graciously allowing me to tag along to keep learning. While Roberta’s book is invaluable, the best way for me to learn is to experience the process and see her lessons applied.

Even if you never want to write a short film, being on set and helping a friend make theirs will forever change your writing. Short or feature-length, budget matters, location matters, cast matters … and those variables start with your words on the page.

Above all, when you write a great script, the cast and crew will give you their best work because you have set the bar high. When your film succeeds, they succeed. Give them a script that makes them want to bring their A game, and once they do, let them help you bring yours to the table too. After all, filmmaking is a collaboration.

I urge you to find a friend who's making a short and watch the process from script to screen firsthand. It’s magic and a continuation of the honing of our craft. Our number-one job as writers is to write well. When we do, we’ll attract the producers and talent we need to get our words on screen.

Step away from your laptop and take learning into your own hands. After all, this is your career. Get guerrilla if you need to.

Please share your filmmaking experiences and lessons in the comments below. It’s the best way for all of us to learn.