Making Your First Film at Fifty: 10 Lessons Learned
“Your mother recognized you today.”
It started with a phone call and those five words my father said to me about six years ago. I was shocked because my mom was in a nursing home, battling the last stages of Alzheimer’s. She never recognized me anymore.
But that day, something triggered a memory…
My father was referring to a broken plastic photo clock with my smirking mug – my “present” to my mom on Mother’s Day a quarter of a century ago. She saw it, smiled and said “Robert.” That simple gesture not only made my day, but gave me the creative inspiration to finish a script I’d been stuck on.
It was a film about a suicidal woman that meets a man who is immortal, and the dramatic arc between one person struggling to survive day to day and the other that has lived forever. I needed a visual metaphor – something timeless but which also captured the woman’s personal struggle. (In the movie, it’s a childhood photo of a lost sibling.)
I ended up using that busted photo clock to open and close my first film – only the photo inside changes at the end. And although my mom passed shortly after we completed principal photography, I ended up dedicating my first film Blessid to her memory. It won best picture and a handful of other awards at festivals. And this month it’s out on Amazon Prime. What a ride!
Here are 10 lessons I learned along the way
1) You can’t do it alone.
Even if you’re Robert Rodriguez (Grindhouse, Sin City) you need people to inspire you, believe in you, and execute for you. I was fortunate to have the support and talent of a phenomenal cast and crew, patient and generous family, and supportive friends – old and new. It takes you to put the ball in motion; but it takes a village to push the ball up the indie movie mountain.
2) Get out of your comfort zone — QUICK.
I’m an introvert by nature. Spending more than a few hours with a cluster of people wears me out. But producing a movie puts you in the thick of things. You are wearing many hats, solving constant problems … or asking others to solve them for you. I used my home as “home base” for the film (more on that in Lesson 10), and was constantly surrounded by actors, crew and the drama that comes with it. We shot Blessid during the only 2-week vacation I’ve even taken in my 10+ years at my current job. I’ve never worked so hard on a vacation in my life!
3) It starts with a great script.
The old saw is true, for indie film the script is God. If you write it yourself, as I did, then find a good script analyst and spend the time and money to do a rewrite or two. Fortunately I wasn’t the only one who really liked my script. I got a director hell-bent on horror to make a drama and an entire cast and crew go above and beyond because they believed in the film’s core message (and they liked the director!). If you want to read the synopsis, you can check it out on IMDB here.
4) Empower your cast and crew, keep it simple, and stay out of the way.
I was involved heavily in pre-production and post. But during the actual shooting, aside from making sure the meals were on time, the locations were lined up and the checks were delivered – I stayed out of the way. It’s good to keep a watchful eye and add input when necessary (which I did), but if you’ve picked a capable Director and DP, you need to trust your crew to get the shots they need. On Blessid, we shot 8-10 pages a day but ended up needing only 1 additional day for pick-up shots and no ADR (additional dialog recording).
5) Feed your crew, pay your crew and give them due credit.
Indie films pay far less than Hollywood features, commercials and even corporate videos. To keep your crew motivated and (somewhat) happy you need to get them good food, pay them a fair indie film wage, and give them proper exposure in the front and end credits (and on IMDB). And if their family helped out or they have a cute kid, put them in the end “thank you” credits too. Finally, make sure to hand out checks when you wrap the first week of filming. It’s a great way to ensure your crew comes back for week two.
6) Commit to finishing the film, no matter what.
I blew through most of my budget during principal photography. There I was – with not much left and picture lock, sound mix and foley, music composition, color correction, film festivals and deliverables staring me in the wallet. I dug a little deeper into my own funds and ran a second crowd sourcing campaign. I also kept my day job and took an extra year to get the film done right. No one (except the actors) is waiting to see your film. Don’t rush – and do it right.
7) Don’t marry the first distributor who says “Yes”.
A good film and compelling key art will get distributors to look at your film. Blessid had about a half dozen potential suitors. I didn’t go with the first one to say yes, or the best-known name. After much deliberation with my entertainment lawyer and other filmmakers, I went with a newer firm because I felt it offered the best chance to monetize my movie.
8) Submit to festivals and attend if you get in.
Unless it’s Sundance, Tribeca, Cannes, Toronto or Berlin…chances are you won’t get a distribution opportunity. But your chances of winning awards at smaller festivals increases. After winning Best Feature, Best Director, Best Lead Actor and Best Cinematography at Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, I soon found a distributor – or they found me! The best thing about attending festivals is when people come up to you after a screening and thank you for making the film. Floored me! (Additional bonus: My DP was rewarded for his hard work with a BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY award and credit for a $15,000 Panavision equipment rental package for his next film.)
9) Enjoy the process, even when it sucks.
Every film has a thousand things go wrong and, when it’s your money, the stress level factor is quadrupled. I (helped) make a great movie, but I
think know I didn’t enjoy the experience as much as I should have. I am trying to do that now with my documentary.
10) Do not film at your house (and kick your family out in the process).
Guilty as charged. And, surprisingly, still married and alive. After 12-14 hour days the last thing you need to do is spend 90 minutes cleaning up the house and getting up 90 minutes early the next morning to let people in. And then there’s the inconvenience to your wife and kids – especially if you film during the school year. Even if you send them to a decent hotel – if they have a special diet and no kitchenette, you’ll hear about it. I owe them a Disney trip.
Note: There are no funding tips here, sorry. I ended up paying for most of the film myself, although I did have two investors and two successful crowd-sourcing campaigns. Thank you to everyone who supported me!
If you have Amazon Prime you can watch it for FREE here: Amazon Prime
About the Filmmaker:
Bob Heske is a multi-award-winning filmmaker, screenwriter, graphic novelist and indie comic creator. By day he churns out compliance marketing content for financial services; by night he is maniacal at his keyboard – creating characters and dramatic conflicts far more interesting than he is. You can watch his first film BLESSID on Amazon Prime here. Blessid is directed by Rob Fitz and stars Rachel Kerbs, Rick Montgomery Jr., Gene Silvers and Chris DiVecchio.
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