If one of your New Year’s resolutions was to make a move, or if you just wanted to introduce more stress into your life, then this is the blog post for you. With this twelve month movie making plan you will end up with a finished film in your hands (technically on your hard drive) and take up all of your waking moments in the meantime.
Sound good? Then you have what it takes to be a filmmaker.
No matter how your film turns out this is going to be an extremely taxing, educational, and rewarding year. The lessons you learn are ones that will serve you in any industry or job you find yourself in. Try to enjoy the process.
The plan here is geared towards a no-budget or extremely low budget film.
January: Brainstorm script ideas
Obviously the first step towards the big screen is to figure out the story that you’re going to put to paper. You might already have some ideas written down or have had ideas pitched to you by your friends, family, and hair dresser. (“You know what would make a good movie?”) If your idea bank is empty then there are worst ways to find one than getting outside (of your comfort zone) and experiencing life, culture, and the things your town or city has to offer. A simple walk through a different part of town can provide a new canvas or, at the very least, some extra oxygen for the brain.
You can observe a lot by watching. – Yogi Berra
Meet people and let them tell you stories. Have your own hookups, heartbreaks, adventures, and misadventures. Rich experiences can create more compelling words on the page.
If you received a compound fracture of your fibula from falling out of a tree on a crazy New Year’s Eve and can’t leave the couch in January then you could try to generate some ideas by watching movies and imagining them in a different setting. Slumdog Millionaire in South Central. Shawshank Redemption on Mars. (Actually that one could be good. The wheels are already turning. Penal colony on Mars where the warden puts the prisoners to work mining minerals…)
One other thing to start doing in January is saving money. Every dollar you save is one less you have to raise.
Stress Level: 1
February: Outline script
“A whole month to outline a script?” is what you are probably thinking right now. Absolutely. I’d argue that this is where the real work lies in the writing process. Perhaps you can slack on this if you are targeting the mumblecore genre but if plot is important to you then this step demands your effort and attention.
If you need help with this step I highly recommend that you read The Writer’s Journey or another book on screenplay structure. Save the Cat! is quite popular.
There is no right way to outline a script. A word processor, spreadsheet, or a notebook would work. Many people like using 3×5 index cards with a scene summary on one side and detail on the other. Alternatively you could try newer software such as Trello or Workflowly. What is important is laying out each scene, seeing how they relate to each other, and make sure that each one pushes the plot forward in some way.
Try to write towards your budget by utilizing locations and props that you have available to you at little or no cost. (That Mars penal colony script might not be the best idea afterall.)
Stress Level: 3
March: First draft
The script will practically write itself since you did such a good job outlining it. You already know what is going to happen in each scene so now you only need to fill in the dialogue. Of course it isn’t exactly that simple but a good outline makes the writing process much easier.
To finish a ninety page script you only need to write three pages a day over the course of the month. Very doable if you’ve done your prep. A script is more white space than not.
There is a ton of screenwriting software available (Highland on the Mac is my current favorite) but you don’t need it. There are free templates available for every word processor. You could even use a spiral notebook as Quentin Tarantino does. Don’t worry about formatting. Just get the words on the page.
Stress Level: 5
April: Second draft
While I have a whole month blocked out for a second draft I actually think you should take the first week doing anything but looking at your script. A little time away gives a fresh set of eyes and you might find that a scene you loved doesn’t advance the plot and needs to be cut. It is hard to make those decisions when you’re knee deep in the writing process.
One suggestion is to spend that time creating a movie poster you can use for your fundraising materials. Or take a vacation. It will be your last one in a while.
At some point this month have a couple friends come over for a bottle of wine and read your script out loud while you listen. Movie dialogue isn’t necessarily natural but you’ll catch when it sounds wrong.
Once you have finished your second draft then get a few people you trust to give you hard, honest feedback on it. That is likely not your mom or girlfriend. Maybe ask in Reddit Screenwriting as they have a weekly thread dedicated to this very purpose. If there is one thing that strangers on the Internet do it it is offer criticism.
You’ll likely do another draft at some point over the next couple of months but I urge you not to maintain a constant rewriting process. You have too many other tasks to take care of. You’ll also be surprised as how different the movie that comes out of the editing process is from the one you set out to shoot. Once you have a script you’re proud of stop writing.
Stress Level: 4
May: Raise money
The first step towards raising money is creating a budget by breaking down your script and creating a spreadsheet that shows the locations, cast, props, and wardrobe for each scene. Assign a cost to each component and calculate the overall dollar figure required. Pad it by at least 25%. (Moviestud.io can help you with this process.)
You remember those friends, family, and hair dressers that have been pitching you movie ideas? Now is the time to go back to them and tell them that you’ve been thinking a lot about their idea and think it has blockbuster potential. However you have this other project that you need to do first (“it is how Hollywood works”) to clear your plate for their film. The best way for them to speed up the process of seeing their story on the big screen is to fund your current project. (“To get Matt Damon attached to your project requires him seeing another film we’ve done together.”) Works every time.
Actually, almost never works. But friends and family are often the people that will help you fund your first film.
Alternatively, you’ve been saving a lot and have written a script that doesn’t require much. That works too.
You might want to consider creating a production company for making your film at this point.
If your budget is bigger than you can raise from friends and family then you should check out Film Notes. It is a wealth of information on fundraising for independent films.
Stress Level: 7
June: Cast, crew, and locations
Ideally you have some friends who possess some technical knowledge and share the same filmmaking dream as you. Even better if they own some of the equipment you need. Don’t worry too much about that is it can be rented. It is better to have a dedicated crew member than a slacker with a light kit. Professionals require being paid (actual money rather than points on profits that most likely never materialize) but will act like professionals and take great pride in their work. It is up to you to weigh the costs and benefits for your situation.
You can cast your friends if they can act (many people that want to can’t) otherwise you can turn to local theatre groups, a local university, or Craigslist. Depending on your location you can try one of the casting websites (might not work for small towns).
For both your cast and crew you’re going to want to make sure that they truly buy into your vision. Pay them if you can. But whether you’re paying them or not when the stress level rises on set (and that will happen) you do not want people who will up and quit in the middle of the shoot–possibly undoing days of shooting if it is somebody in a key role.
Take pictures of your locations from every angle and, if possible, at different times of day to see how the natural light changes. This will help with the storyboarding and scheduling process later.
If you are planning on having music created specifically for your film then it is never too early to get started with that process. You want it mostly ready by the time you start post-production as you don’t want anything holding up the editing process. Start talking to musicians.
Stress Level: 6
July: Props, wardrobe, and scheduling
Ideally your low-budget script was written with props and wardrobe you already have available to you in mind. Most medium sized cities will have places you can rent what you don’t have. Posting an ad on Craigslist might help you fill them out. Number each so that you make sure you have what you need each day of shooting.
Scheduling is a taxing exercise of trying to line up needs (scenes to shoot) with assets (cast, crew, locations). The script breakdown spreadsheet you created during the budget process will be the operating document for the scheduling process.
Make sure you get any conflicts from your cast and crew up front and then hold them to the schedule. Any last minute changes on their part will let down you as well as everybody else working on the movie.
Stress Level: 7
August: Rehearsals, storyboarding, equipment, and food
When shooting a low-budget film you run up against a lot of constraints. You won’t have the luxury of going over budget to add shooting days. You’re going to have a set amount of time each day, at each location, with your cast and crew. Preparation is key.
Two ways to prepare to make the most productive use of your time on set is rehearsals and storyboarding. Storyboarding gives you a good idea of how to set up the scene when you’re on set. You’re not married to shooting it that way, and, in fact, you should try different things on set, but it will save you time setting up each shot if you have given it a lot of thought before you even step on set.
Rehearsals will help your cast get comfortable with you and each other. More importantly it will help them know how you want them to deliver their lines when shooting. It is easier and cheaper (in both time and money) to experiment during rehearsals than it is when pressed for time on set.
Unless you know you are going to be making at least a film a year it is probably best to rent equipment, particularly if your budget is small. Try to put as much of your budget on screen as possible. Do not put this off to the last minute. Call around to rental houses early to make sure they will have the equipment you need available when you need it.
Since you should have already completed your scheduling you’re going to know what meals you’re going to need to provide. Do not underestimate the importance of food to the cast and crew that are giving you their all during the long, grueling days of shooting. Create a menu that provides quick, cheap, and filling meals that you can either create yourself or have somebody help you with. Or, if you have the budget, hire a caterer.
Make checklists for everything. Your call sheets can, and should, include lists of everything needed for each day of filming. Double check them and then check them again.
Stress Level: 8
If you’re making this with a very tiny budget then there is a good chance you’re planning on working around your’s, and everybody else’s, day jobs by shooting on weekends. There should be nine weekends over September and October which works out to shooting ten pages a weekend or five pages a day. If you’ve raised a larger budget you might be taking two weeks off of work and shooting two weeks straight.
Make time to shoot establishing shots for every location as they will come in handy during editing. Do not forget to capture room tone. Log every take. It will save you hours later when you’re reviewing footage.
Do not be afraid to move on if something is good enough. Every shot won’t be perfect. Pick your battles.
Stress Level: 9
Hopefully you have been able to review footage along the way as this schedule does not allow time for reshoots. If during the editing process you find that you just did not get the shot you needed you might end up out of luck due to a location not being available, cast not being available, or, as happened to us, an actress cutting off her hair. Make sure you have something useable in the can for each shot before moving on to the next one.
Stress Level: 10
November: Rough cut
Congratulations! You just shot a feature film!
At this point you are drained both physically and psychologically and deserve a week off to breathe deeply and appreciate what you have accomplished. It is a huge accomplishment that you’ve worked all year to achieve.
Once you have caught up on your sleep you will begin review your footage and assembling a rough cut. You can get free music to add to your film. Choose wisely as you will be surprised at how much music can add or subtract for a scene.
Like you did with your script I would recommend taking a week off after constructing your rough cut so that you are able to take a step back from your emotional attachment and look at it with a set of fresh and objective eyes. So, have a great Thanksgiving!
This is another opportunity to get feedback from people you can trust to give it to you straight.
Stress Level: 5
December: Final cut
This month you will really tighten up your edit and start seeing what the final film is going to look like. Be judicious with the editing. The audience doesn’t need to see people enter and exit every room or the minute of everyday life (notice how nobody ever goes to the bathroom in the movies unless it is for comic effect?). In general start a scene right before the dialogue or action that moves the plot forward and cut right after. Pacing is a key component of how an audience receives a film.
Editing can very rewarding and a final opportunity to be creative. Have fun with it. Try new things and don’t be afraid to scrap hours of work. You’re at the finish line.
When you have decided you have the final cut (a hard decision as you can go on tweaking forever) get your cast and crew together for a viewing party. Some drinks, some food, and a screen is all you need. You’ll have a lot of fun reflecting back on the late nights, mishaps, and flat out disasters that you experienced together. New friendships have been created that will serve you personally and professionally in the years to come.
Hopefully this has been an enjoyable experience for you. Ready to start over again next month?
Stress Level: 6