May 28 2015 by Tom Wilton:
Maybe you know what I mean because you, dear filmmaker, have a monster of your own also.
It’s that pulsing feeling inside your rib cage, releasing all that determination into your muscles, giving you the courage and strength to go out there and do superhuman things in the world of cinema.
You know what I mean, right? When you come off a long, difficult-to-set-up film shoot, dazed and confused by the sunlight. And though you’re exhausted, you feel bulletproof, like you just did something that so few people ever actually achieve. You directed a film.
I’ve been there several times. 5 features, countless shorts. And all thanks to my monster called Ego.
But now it’s time to step away, at least for a little bit, because for all the learning that being a micro-budget film director has given me, I know it’s only half the story. I need to get better at not only raising budgets, but also how to properly work with them. Fees. Agents. Insurance. Schedules. Rewrites. Rentals. Meetings. Lots and lots of meetings. Sure, I’ve got experience of all of these things, but can I really do it at scale? Can I hold my own with the heavyweights?
It’s time for me to find out and to put my Ego in a box. For the next two years, I intend to work primarily as a writer and producer, assisting other directors to make their movies a reality.
The reasons are varied of course, but I guess mostly, it’s because I already know how to make movies for nothing. And whilst shooting three films in a year makes great copy (and you learn a ton), it doesn’t necessarily catapult you into the The Big Leagues™. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite. I got an offer or two to shoot more films of course, just as long as the budget was in the 4 digit range. And that’s fine - I’ll certainly continue making no-budget films down the line, but I’d rather they were financed by me. After all, when there’s no salary, you do it for the love, not for somebody else to try and get a breakout hit for no investment.
And that’s the other truth about making no-budget movies, almost nobody ever sees them. That’s a hard break for anybody to deal with (and of course, a dent to the Ego). Yeah, yeah, I know there are film festivals (which I’ve fallen in love with all over again), but I’m talking about a life post-festival. Most small movies just aren’t heard from again. Yes, they will land somewhere (VOD, small theatrical, YouTube), but without the marketing dollars, a micro-budget indie is a paper boat on a blustery ocean.
Of course, when it comes to advertising movies, the incentive to spend is primarily around who is in the film, because familiarity sells. The economics of selling a film really do go: stars, genre, quality - in that order. If your top down list is: great actor (though not well known), talky-drama, really, really good - it still doesn’t matter. Not in the wider market. And that always hurts the Ego.
Again, I love making small stories with not-yet-stars. I’ll keep doing that forever. But right now, if I ever want to stand a chance at graduating that universe, I have to spend some time swimming in the other half of the industry - making films where people get paid.
So here I am - a writer and producer on several upcoming projects. I don’t want to oversell this here, we’re not talking Michael Bay-budgets, but rather small indies where they can at least afford some craft services.
I’m coming in as a writer first and foremost a lot of these projects, as really, money doesn’t denote anything, at least on a first draft. Personally, I always write as if it were to be made for no money (so no big explosions or wildly ambitious locations), and I always keep the cast small. Beyond the producibility element (you can always go bigger if the budget allows), it’s really about giving actors something to do. Again, the economics come into play; names sell movies, and most actors are after something challenging. Even if I feel that these projects are big because the financials are exponentially larger than anything else I’ve worked on, for Hollywood A-listers, these numbers are chickenfeed. So less characters means more screen time, and (hopefully) more a complex persona for Hollywoodlander to explore. At least, that’s the theory.
Indeed, there have been times where I’ve swallowed uncomfortably as we’ve signed off on for equipment quotes bigger than whole budgets for my own films. You realize that when there’s money on a film, people just assume there’ll always be more coming from someplace else, and so it gets spent fast. The trial for me has been when to let that happen and when to press on the brakes a little. It’s definitely a curve.
And so it is. I’m learning as much as I’m contributing. I’m filling up the Rolodex with fancy names as much I’m challenging talent. It feels good. But I’m not the boss. And honestly, sometimes that’s hard. There are times as a seasoned director that you want to call the shots, but you don’t. You mustn’t. This was true on Elsewhere, NY (writer, producer, budget under $500), and indeed, even Communion (associate producer, budget around $15,000). Even though I’ve been a producer on small films, I’ve never let the Ego dictate the action. That’s not what you’re there for. You’re there to learn from the director, the actors, the crew. You’re there to facilitate all these people in doing their job, and to spend the small amount of money you do have as wisely as possible.
And now here I am, helping to spend slightly more money, but the same rules apply. Facilitate, don’t dominate. Keep that Ego locked down. Learn how to say yes to the things you had doubts on, but also staunchly defend against decisions you know are just plain terrible.
I’m not sure that even a year ago, I would have been happy to put down the proverbial director’s megaphone in order to work for others. My own Ego needed to be the director. And I served it well for a long time happily, charging forward, shooting movies, attending festivals and then tuning into the radio silence on the other side.
It’s a rough run for a micro-budget filmmaker, that’s for sure. But, for me at least, I recognized that, in order to graduate, I needed to lean on that skillset all those years of experience had given me. And I have to commit to it. If I want to do this right, I need to be a writer-producer-gun-for-hire for a little while. I need the new learning, the new relationships and a place to challenge myself all over again.
There’s a monster in my chest called Ego. It’s served me well, but it’s time for it to step out the way a while, just so I can try and get better at this business we call film.