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on Jun 13, 2011

Chances are, you’ll never have a reason to drive the long way across Montana. There isn’t much going on up there and, let’s face it, it’s a really long drive. But if you do, make a point to do as much driving as possible during daylight, as the scenery is pretty stunning. You could stop the car every couple of miles, just to take pictures of the view. Before long, you’ll start plotting on how you might be able to embrace your inner Terrence Malick out in the middle of nowhere, shooting only at magic hour. And, hey, there’s a big statue of a dinosaur in Wall, South Dakota you could always use.

But me, I was just passing through as A Year Without Rent transitioned to a West Coast phase, and my little car that could wound up having driven from coast to coast, which isn’t so bad for a 1999 Buick Century with over 110,000 miles on it. Of course, with a car that old comes with occasional, uh, issues.

Sometimes I feel like I’m doing a year-long ad for Buick.

We started this leg of the journey in Minneapolis, where we got really lucky and happened to be in the room when the documentary SMOOCH fundamentally shifted. It was a neat experience, as we’d spent the day doing interviews of varying levels of interest about the subject of forgiveness, only to do just one more at the end of the day that even someone like me, someone who’d only gotten the elevator pitch of the film, knew could re-write an entire act of the movie. Afterward, director (and backer) Dawn Mikkelson and I went to get a drink where we learned that Osama bin Laden had been killed. It was a pretty crazy couple of hours.

From there, it was due west through South Dakota and Montana, all the way to Seattle, where Phil Seneker became the first repeat person on AYWR (somehow, Phil and I ended up judging a Regional High School short film contest). And then again, when I helped him shoot some footage for the Seattle International Film Festival.

But more importantly, it was nice to be busy, especially after the previous month and the notorious false starts and cancellations. Not only did we avoid the cancellations, but I was able to track one of them down, as Kris & Lindy Boustedt rebounded from the heartache of having their feature fall apart at the last minute to pick themselves up and make a short a mere one month after the scheduled start date of the feature.

If there’s a lesson in month #3, it’s that failure isn’t the end of the story. The older I get and the more I talk to filmmakers around the country, it’s becoming abundantly clear that the most talented filmmakers aren’t always the ones who find success. It’s the most resilient, the ones who are just too damned stubborn to quit. Making an indie film is, if nothing else, a war of attrition. Death by a thousand paper cuts. Just how many does it take to bleed you dry?

What do you do when your investors pull out or your DP has visa issues or your lead actor ends up getting cast in a project that actually pays well? First, you get drunk. And then you fix it. Because that’s what we do.

Let’s say your matte box gets broken or is otherwise unusable. You can start making excuses or you can do like Ty Migota on the set of THE SUMMER HOME and just hold the filter over the lens. And then, when you can’t get the lighting quite right with the barebones lighting package, you hold that ND filter over part of the lens and fix in 30 seconds what would take another half hour of lighting tweaks. Thing is, it worked.

I’m pretty sure Ty wouldn’t recommend that course of action, but if there’s any place you can throw out the rules, it’s on a no-budget short. The audience doesn’t care if your matte box was broken. All they care about is what ends up on screen. Or, to quote Mark Borchardt, “No one has ever, ever paid admission to see an excuse.”

If you’re wondering, I did get a new passport. One advantage of having all your possessions in your car is that your birth certificate is probably there too. But take a tip from me: don’t tell the Canadian customs people that you’re crossing the border for your Kickstarter project. Or that you’re going to meet someone you met on Twitter. They don’t really grasp the concept. Or maybe the person I got was having a bad day. All I know is that when they called me back up to the desk, the woman was reading emails on my phone. I’m terrified to see the damage of all that Canadian data usage on my phone.

Back in the states, with the indie film world focusing on the Brave New World of VOD, I visited AYWR backer Kevin Fox, who’s out-selling pretty much everyone’s social media-fueled, web-based self-distribution with articles in print magazines. Yes, print magazines.

It’s an interesting lesson that while all these fancy new digital tools are pretty cool, connecting with your audience hasn’t fundamentally changed one iota. You still have to find them where they live, speak their language, and make the sale. And, really, that’ll always be the case. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.


Finally, for everyone out there who’s ever crewed on a film — you know how sometimes the director and/or the DP gets some crazy idea in their head and it becomes your job to make it work? Of course you do. With that in mind, enjoy this final video. I call it “Nick vs. a Tree.” Enjoy.

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. His feature-length debut is now available to rent on VOD. Follow him on Twitter: @lmcnelly.

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