Indie Filmmaking: Everything Goes Wrong All The Time

Last year, I attended a panel on independent filmmaking at the Chicago International Film Festival. The panel consisted of producers and directors, including one first-time director who was busily touring the country with his first feature and winning awards at SXSW and other prestigious festivals. Unfortunately, I can't remember the director's name or the name of his film, but I do remember an important point he made about independent filmmaking: 

Everything goes wrong all the time.

Of course, this is a bit of an exaggeration. (Sometimes things actually go as planned.) But the general sentiment is 100% accurate. Independent filmmaking is an extremely messy process, one that involves all sorts of bootstrapping, jerry-rigging, "MacGyver-ing," and a lot of other creative problem-solving techniques. Sometimes luck is on your side. Often it is not.

I frequently compare the process of independent filmmaking to putting out fires. There's always a new fire to put out, and you never know where and when the next one will pop up. Unfortunately, a lot of the challenges and hurdles of independent filmmaking are largely out your control: inclement weather, a sick actor, stolen equipment, etc.

But you should never go into a production thinking that these sorts of problems won't happen. They will happen. In fact, bad stuff will happen seemingly all the time. Your lead actor will bail the week before principal photography. Your DP will start doing drugs on set. Your key location will fall through the night before. And so on. (Yes, all of these things have happened to me before.)

As a filmmaker, I want to be able to manage this chaos as much as possible. Or at least be prepared. The best way to learn how to do this, in my experience, is to do some serious debriefing after each shoot. It's easy to point the finger and blame other people for why this or that went wrong. In my mind, however, it's better to focus on what I can do differently as a producer/filmmaker the next time around so that the same sorts of problems are less likely to arise, and so that we're better prepared when they do arise.

In other words, I try to reflect on what went wrong and think about it in an a clinical manner. Blaming others is primarily about moral censure. Diagnosing a problem, in contrast, is about figuring out why something went wrong and making the necessary adjustments and corrections so that it doesn't happen again.

Often, the key to avoiding debilitating production problems is to plan for contingencies. Always have a Plan B and Plan C for every major aspect of your project. It's always better to over-prepare than to under-prepare. This doesn't mean you should hire 50 PA's when all you really need is 5. (That's just stupid.) Instead, over-preparing is a matter of making sure that you're never caught off-guard by a situation that deviates from your original plan. For instance, if your lead actor bails on you the week before the shoot, you should have several viable alternates if you've done a thorough casting process. But if you just asked your roommate to be the lead, well, you're going to be shit out of luck when he decides he's going on a road trip the week of your shoot.

Also, it's important to make sure you have the right people in the right positions. This sounds obvious, but it's often difficult to execute. On my previous project, for instance, one key member of our crew was extremely enthusiastic and wanted to take on a lot. But he was also very inexperienced and, quite simply, got way in over his head. It's easy to blame him for all the things he screwed up or failed to do. But, at the end of the day, the buck stops with me; I'm the one who hired him, and I'm the one who delegated responsibilities to him that he couldn't handle. Yes, he probably should have asked for help when he couldn't do what was asked of him. But it's ultimately my responsibility as the main producer/filmmaker behind the project to make sure the right people are in the right positions.

So on my next production, I'll aim to do a better job of assembling my team and of delegating responsibility. And if I'm successful in this, the next production will go better than the last one. 

When you have the right team in place, as well as a solid plan (and backup plans), you actually stand a fighting chance as an independent filmmaker. Everything may seem to go wrong all the time. But at least you'll be ready.

Eugene Sun Park