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on May 9, 2011


If you’ve been following A Year Without Rent on a regular basis, you no doubt are aware that the second month has been plagued by a rash of last-minute cancellations that, among other things, stranded the car in long-term parking at an airport. It was expensive.

It’s been a frustrating month, and that frustration boiled over the other day in a blog post titled “Get Your Shit Together”, the basic premise being that a lot of filmmakers, being so hell-bent on being artists, forget that they’re essentially running a small business. And, like a small business owner, they have employees under them who depend on their ability to be somewhat organized.

It’s something that transcends budget or genre or shooting format or editing software. It’s the fundamental idea of treating people well, of being a good boss. There’s absolutely no excuse for not being able to control your chaos, at least a little bit. You owe it, not just to the people working for you, but to your film, to your investors (even if said investor is your credit card), to your reputation, and to your career.

Look, no one enjoys making films in chaotic circumstances more than I do. After all, you’re reading an article from someone who once shot and edited a feature film in two weeks (cue shameless plug).

There’s value in the chaos, but it’s still not an excuse. Neither is your budget. No one cares. One thing that’s becoming pretty clear (if it wasn’t already), is how the smaller your budget is, the more you need to be on top of things. There’s precious little room for error. You can’t afford to lose half a day because you didn’t confirm the start date with your lead until the night before. Think I’m exaggerating? I wish.

On one shoot this month, a film desperately behind schedule broke for lunch. Only, there was no food. None at all. No one knew where it was. 45 minutes later, it arrived, which was 45 minutes that production will never get back. Set-ups lost forever. That can be an eternity on a micro-budget shoot. And what was gained (other than the fact that I got to take a much-needed nap)? Not a damn thing.

Sun Center Studios

Thankfully, the whole month wasn’t one big cancellation. We visited a number of friends and backers way up in Minnesota, sat in on the overdubbing of music for a lesbian musical, visited a casting call where someone’s headshot was a mostly nude photo of him in his bathroom (his camera phone covering his face, naturally), reunited with some of the crew of my upcoming film UP COUNTRY, found some free beer for your next production (more on that later), and hung out with a Playboy model (only, no one told me until days later).


All in all, a pretty interesting month.

The high point of the month, fittingly enough, came courtesy of a cancellation. Stranded in Pittsburgh, the phone rang from fellow filmmaker (and one of the producers of my upcoming film UP COUNTRY) Sean Hackett. His film HOMECOMING would be screening in Erie–a mere 2 hours away–and he wondered if I’d be interested in adding it to the itinerary.


producer & director

I’d seen an early cut last summer, maybe even the first one, so I was anxious to see what they’d done with it. Turns out quite a lot. Whereas I remembered the first cut as a film that wasn’t sure what it wanted to be, the final product was one of the more assured indie debuts I’ve seen in a long time. Revolving around Brea Grant’s lead performance as an army medic, HOMECOMING is a beautifully apolitical film that explores the impact of war on a soldier’s extended family back home.

Perhaps what’s most interesting (at least to me) is that Sean has managed to make an indie film about the war in Afghanistan without falling into the traps so many first-time directors do of trying to “sell” the war with footage in some quasi desert somewhere that tries really, really, really hard to look authentic. And of course, it never does. The film spends half the budget on something that ultimately looks pretty good, but still somewhat obviously faked.

brea signs

Instead, Sean puts Brea Grant and another actor in the back of van, outfits them in authentic military gear, and does in 10 seconds what a lesser film would spend days on. There’s no need to show off what awesome stuff they can do if it doesn’t serve the story.

It’s something that so often in the indie film world we forget in our constant goal to look like a “real movie”. We don’t need the big battle scene. Hell, we can’t afford it anyway. So why try and force it when there’s smaller ways to get the same effect? Spend that energy on making your characters real and the rest of it will take care of itself.

As the costs of production come down, and the barriers to distribution fall, it’ll be interesting to see how filmmakers react. Sure, all the walls are crumbling, but so are all the built-in excuses. You can’t blame your budget anymore. Or the programmers at Sundance. It’s just you and your work on a screen somewhere. No place to hide.

And, yes, earlier I did say “free beer”. A brewery in Minnesota with a history of lending a hand to indie film productions has a pretty fantastic offer on the table. I’ll let them explain:

Filmmaker Lucas McNelly is spending a year on the road, volunteering on indie film projects around the country, documenting the process and the exploring the idea of a mobile creative professional. You can see more from A Year Without Rent at the webpage. Follow him on Twitter: @lmcnelly.


Editor’s Note: Thanks for all the comments. We think all opinions have now been fully expressed and this thread has run it’s course. Comments are now closed for this post.

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