How to Finish Your First Low Budget Indie Film When You’re Clueless!

Indie Film, Threesomething, james morosini, Joe Swanberg, filmmaking, filmmaker, indie filmmaker

How to Finish a Low Budget Indie Film When You’re Clueless!

I had the impulse to make a feature length indie film, Threesomething, after doing a bunch of shorts, but I had no idea what to do or where to start.

Here’s my journey…

Developing an Indie Film

In November I ran into a filmmaker I admire at the Oaks in Los Feliz and my girlfriend was like, “go talk to him.” So, while I was nervous I’d be invading someone’s privacy on a Sunday afternoon, I did. He basically told me I should just do it and stop asking people about it, just make what I can with what I have. Things will fall into place, just take the leap. I went on a little family vacation, talked incessantly about the idea to make the indie film, and called my best friend Sam Sonenshine over and over to try and get him excited about making a feature.

I was in touch with Ben Meserve, who had shot some of my short form work and he was excited about making a longer film. He had just gotten a Red Scarlet and wanted to use it, so I brought him on as DP.

Indie Film, Threesomething, james morosini, Joe Swanberg, filmmaking, filmmaker, indie filmmaker

I then bought some basic sound gear on Amazon – An H4N (which we later returned and traded for the H6 because of the extra XLR inputs), an NG2 mic, Rode boom pole, two XLR cables, and an SD card. I knew that by spending some money there would be no turning back.

I didn’t have a script and felt impatient and too excited to write something, so I decided to just go for it. Joe Swanberg had made a bunch of movies in the spirit of just doing it and I loved that and wanted to emulate that feeling. I knew I wanted to make something about male friendships (specifically about my friendship with Sam). I’ve never been good at them and I thought that would be an interesting, weird, and funny topic.

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Pre-Production on an Indie Film

Sam and I decided we’d be the main actors and that he would co-write and co-produce – I would direct and edit because I had had more experience doing these two things.

We had many loud enthusiastic conversations in my kitchen about what we wanted to make a film about. I’ve been sober for the past five years and have never made anything about that whole process, so we were thinking we’d maybe have the indie film be about a character coming out of rehab, even though I never went to rehab (first dumb move – making something I know very little about.)

We also knew that we wanted to have my character stay at his ex-girlfriend’s house post-rehab (second dumb move – the house we were using was in Santa Monica and we live in East LA – a 45 minute drive.) We Skype auditioned people to play this character and finally met Isabelle Chester – Sam’s friend from an acting class – and she seemed the most willing to collaborate and bring her own special sauce to the experience – so we brought her on. First smart move.

As we were location scouting (running around on Google Street View), we discovered Izzy had a dope house in the hills which she offered us to shoot in.

Before starting principal photography I called my friend Alex Lehmann who’d done this before (he directed the indie hit Bluejay this past year starring Mark Duplass) and asked him a million questions. If anyone is planning on doing this – ask a ton of questions and don’t worry about feeling dumb. You likely will. That means you’re learning. If you want, reach out to me and I’ll help you as much as I can, even though you’re probably better off just going for it and I might just fuck you up.

The main reason I had never made a feature in the past was that I didn’t know how and that scared the shit out of me. I realized that if I just set my intention to embrace all the mistakes I’d inevitably make, I’d learn by doing. Sure, I was reading a lot of books and listening to podcasts and asking a million questions, but by actually DOING, I quickly learned what I needed to learn.

Production

In the interest of avoiding our perfectionistic/procrastinating tendencies, we decided we’d start shooting immediately. We Skype-auditioned a bunch of people to play the guy who picks me up from rehab and got a college friend to do it.

He came over and was up for whatever – we hit the road in our friend’s car with a very loose idea of the scene. We used our iPhones as lavs which we taped to our chests. I was trying to act, direct, and make sure we didn’t get into a car accident. That first day, the story felt overly sentimental and contrived.

It was a hot day and I felt like a complete sweaty idiot that was wasting people’s time. So, our first day was kind of a bust – we didn’t get anything we wanted and the camera was super shaky. It felt like we had just shot some scenes because that’s what you’re supposed to do when you make a movie. None of it was from the heart, it just felt stupid, like we were trying to be funny or interesting.

The second day was kind of the same. We felt like we were trudging. Sam and I were fighting a lot on set and we didn’t really know what we’re doing. Something didn’t feel like it was lining up.

I started questioning why we even wanted to make the movie in the first place. Was it about trying to be liked? Trying to get attention? Was it because I felt overwhelmed by the fact of being in my mid-twenties and not having done anything that I am truly proud of? I thought I was making it because I really wanted to see if other people felt the same way I did about the discomforts and weirdnesses of being in the world.

Indie Film, Threesomething, james morosini, Joe Swanberg, filmmaking, filmmaker, indie filmmaker

The iPhone lavswere too tricky to organize – everyone was emailing their files to a shared email account at the end of the day – that would work for a short, but for this amount of footage it just wasn’t practical — so Sam and I bought some Sennheiser G3 lav on eBay for $800. If you’re using lavs and don’t have an expert sound recordist on set — make it absolutely clear to whoever is listening to audio that if anything sounds off sound-wise — they have to speak up.

On indie film sets, everyone is always trying to act like they’ve been on a million film sets. We’re all a little insecure in some way or another. If someone doesn’t know how to do something, they’re likely to act like everything’s fine. As director/producer, your job is to make everyone feel like it’s always safe to speak up if there’s a problem.

The shoot trudged on.

We shot a scene on the third day we’d been planning to shoot since the start: in order to get closer to each other, our characters have a threesome with Izzy’s character; one guy feels left out, the other guy falls in love, the girl has to navigate this strange situation while also trying to find meaning in her own life.

This was by far the most interesting and alive scene, so we completely changed course and decided to make a film about that. Izzy had a small part in the beginning, but after her first scene, where she basically broke down crying in the middle of a threesome, we were like, fuck, how can we make this person way more central, she’s incredibly special. We restructured the rest of the film around this narrative and planned on tossing the first two days. (We ended up using that early footage as promotional material).

When we figured out our main story, we also got a better sense of how we would shoot this thing. Because so much of it was improvised, and we only had one camera, we had to figure out how we’d cover the story. I listened to some podcasts on how Joe Swanberg shot his movies, and again talked to Alex.

I’d let the actors (often including myself) play around in a master shot for twenty minutes or so, and then when we’d cut, we’d discuss what resonated, and we’d go in for roaming closeups and inserts. A lot of this stuff would come together in editing. The mentality I had was that we needed to just throw everything up against the wall. We really only needed 5% of the footage to be good, the rest could be uncomfortable and bad, that was okay.

At night, between shoot days, Sam and I would microwave Trader Joe’s dinners and exhaustedly discuss what was working and what wasn’t. We’d often change stuff up at night for what we needed the next day.

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Post Production on an Indie Film

We finished our 10 days of shooting just before New Years. I went to NYC to visit my mom and her new boyfriend, spent a couple weeks alternating between watching porn and spending too much time in front of the screen editing, and by the end of it, I had my first rough cut.

I moved through the content chronologically, dividing the film into basically four parts – Act 1, Act 2, Act 2.5, and Act 3. Sam and I had referred to Blake Snyder’s book Save The Cat a bunch during the story development process because we wanted some structural guidance as we were trying to come up with this indie film on the fly.

Each day of the edit I gave myself a specific goal for which scenes I wanted to complete. I’m not an editor, no one ever taught me how to edit, so the way I’m doing it might be dumb or impractical, but I have my own little system – here it is.

I used Adobe Premiere. I was scared I’d make irreparable mistakes in post production on a project this long (I had only edited shorts) so I read a bunch of articles on how to organize my footage and asked friends. Basically, my bin structure was this:

  • 01 Raw Footage
  • 02 Acts (With scenes, numbered, on each act)
  • 01 Act 1 02 Act 2 03 Act 2.5 04 Act 3
  • 03 Music
  • 04 Selects (For Sam and Ben to make picks of their favorite footage)

First I synced sound, then I organized the files into the various bins so it was easy for me to find what I was looking for. I would watch all the footage from an act then, go scene by scene, watching the footage again and again. Then, I would pick out the moments that I liked the most and get a sense of the funniest and most honest material. Then, I would take a pass at trying to piece together the footage (which was fucking hard because it was improvised) and then put that on one timeline, then take a completely separate pass. I’d show someone both cuts and then combine what I liked from each of them.

Indie Film, Threesomething, james morosini, Joe Swanberg, filmmaking, filmmaker, indie filmmaker

I downloaded a bunch of soundtracks from other movies and chose the music from Rushmore to be temporary music and incorporated some temp music I found online. Again, had no clue what I was doing on this end, so approached it with a sense of

“let’s see what happens when I put this here and that there.”

I screened the film for Sam who had been in Europe over the break and was devastated when he wasn’t jumping for joy. The film needed a ton of work and I was initially disheartened when I realized that. The lesson here was that I wish Sam would coddle me more and that the next time I’d share the first cut, I should keep expectations low.

At a certain point, we bought a backup hard drive that was 6TB – when I transferred the data from two hard drives into this one, many of the video files re-linked to the wrong audio files. This was a total shit-show nightmare that led to lots of me yelling in my apartment and feeling like all was lost.

After I got most of my shit together, I figured out how to fix this and was able to move on.

For any first time editors, my advice would be this: look up some videos on youtube, download Adobe Premiere, and just start messing around.

Reshoots

Because our production was so run and gun we had to go back and get reshoots for a few of the scenes. There were problems with some of the story, shots didn’t come out the way we wanted them too, and our ending kind of sucked, so we re-did a lot of this stuff.

We paid $80 to get a Ronin Gimbal for two days to smooth out some of the shots and went to some cool locations to give the movie a bigger feel – the stuff we got adds a lot to the indie film and is kind of the connective tissue to some of the other scenes.

Marketing an Indie Film

I wish we had considered marketing from the start so we could have documented more of the process. It would have helped us garner interest and develop an audience that will be loyal to the movie, regardless of whether or not festivals like it. Live and learn. We knew we were getting a late start thinking about marketing and we’d have to be twice as aggressive. Check out a scene from the film:

We brought on my girlfriend, Allison Gehrke, to do graphic design, and Sam’s girlfriend, Emily Rowan, who took charge of running social media and being our marketing head, and who ultimately joined the producing team.

Emily launched social media accounts and started following similar projects. We started posting every single day and reaching out to potential fans and collaborators. We discovered pretty quickly that marketing can’t feel like marketing, it’s gotta have the same voice as the film — it has to sound like us. Otherwise, you sound like everyone else and it’s really not fun and just feels embarrassing.

Originally we thought we should get along with everyone, not ruffle any feathers. But you know what? Donald Trump is our fucking president. If he can stand before the nation and say whatever’s on his mind, so can we. It’s no time to be polite. It’s time to be 100% unapologetically honest and ourselves. Even if it alienates some people — it’ll help us identify our people.

SOUND, COLOR, MARKETING, FILM FESTIVALS, DISTRIBUTION, MASSIVE SUCCESS, CHILDREN, SICKNESS, DEATH

All of these things are still to come. We’ll update you as we continue to move forward. Check out our indie film at www.Threesomethingfilm.com, and subscribe to our Facebook page or Instagram and we’ll send you a copy of the film when it’s ready. Feel free to shoot us an email with questions or if you just want to connect MorosiniSonenshine@gmail.com or www.jamesmorosini.com.



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