I didn't go to film school.
Written by writer / director Eric Schultz.
My path to directing my first feature film, a science fiction mind bender called Minor Premise about a breaking conscious neuroscientist, was through working as a producer. I started on the business side, moving to physical production and then to development. With every project I soaked up everything I could. I learned from filmmakers like the Borderline Films Trio, Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein, and many others. And each subsequent project became a stepping stone from one end of that business / creative spectrum to the other.
But I had learned enough as a producer to know that my first time as a director would be full of experiences I didn't know about. Which leads to the first lesson I learned during the minor premise …
No matter your inexperience, you are the expert on your film
Indie filmmaking is unique in that often the person with the least experience is the person in charge. You are likely to hire your supervisors based on their work in previous roles. Most of the time, your leads have acted on multiple occasions. But a new director may be the only person on set who has never done the job they're doing. Maybe you made short films or, like me, did neighboring production work, but not like that. It's like a car company hired you as CEO after seeing an assembly line and then surrounded you with a team of mechanics to instruct you. You are the newbie in many ways, but you also set the tone. It can be incredibly intimidating.
When this uncertainty creeps in, it is important to remember, despite all your inexperience, that you are the expert on your film. Only you have seen the film in all its glory, every detail and every nuance that you have seen hundreds of times in your mind's eye.
Before staging Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino asked Terry Gilliam how he conjured up his vision. Terry replies that as a director, you don't have to swear anything – that's what the team you hire is for. You just have to know what your vision is.
In Minor Premise, I had specific ideas about how the sound aesthetics of Ethan's lab would develop during the film. From a faint hum at the beginning to oppressively dark and fluorescent at the end. But I never had to worry about how to get that lighting because I had a great DP, Justin Derry, and that was his bag. And as long as we stayed in sync, we could get that ideal version, or at least get pretty close.
So it is the director's job to be convinced and to communicate. In addition, it will determine how much flex you allow for this idealized version. In other words, where do you sit on the scale from Eastwood to Fincher?
Find people who will improve your vision
This question of flexibility leads to the next lesson: How close you get to your vision depends a lot on the team you surround yourself with.
For starters, you want like-minded partners. People who share your quality standards and also hold you accountable for these standards. And while a team that shares your vision is good, a team that improves that vision is even better.
The structure of Minor Premise is quite obsessed by nature, so it attracted other people who were driven by trifles, like David B. Jacobs, our script supervisor. David is an amazing science fiction and comics freak who is the only person completely confused after reading the script for the first time. When we were on set, I had to improve my game to stay one step ahead of the inconsistencies David pointed out.
Similarly, in Scripture, we had detailed schemes of Ethan's lab created, but my production designer Annie Simeone took these diagrams and brought them to life in ways I never expected by adding fractal motifs and set design elements like that ruffled keyboard and guitar in his lab, adding new details to Ethan's character.
I also had the benefit of having two incredibly generous and close associates in Thomas Torrey and Justin Moretto. The three of us ended up writing the script together, but it was her concept and draft that produced it. Thomas and I spent hours rummaging through Excel spreadsheets with sections and schedules to make sure the narrative logic was worked out. Moretto is a neuroscientist by profession, so he gave the story an incredible authenticity. When we were on set, I was able to pay more attention to directing the actors, for example because I knew I had two co-writers who had a lot of other details in mind.
Knowing that I wanted my vision to be challenged and improved upon, meant getting Christopher Radcliff to start poking holes in the script early on. I made Chris & # 39; s directorial debut "The Strange Ones" so I had Chris & # 39; Approach to storytelling seen up close. Together, we created a nuanced arc of Ethan's story, particularly when it came to Alli and Malcolm. We then used this collaboration as a stepping stone into post production, where Chris was my first editor.
I found cross-departmental similar collaborations, from my composer Gavin Brivik to Adelina Atashi who ran the HMU, all of whom joined the vision and increased it while keeping within the limits of our micro-budget.
Turn budget constraints into creative benefits
One key to creating indie is finding creative solutions on a tight budget. There is constant fear when it comes to the wallet. The trick, however, is to look at constraints as opportunities for better creative results. More money can lead to obvious, boring answers, while limitations require ingenuity. An example from Minor Premise that I'm proud of is how we created the visuals for Ethan's cortical spread depression.
In the early edits, we watched our protagonist Ethan Kochar get tired and go from sweaty to sweaty as his condition worsened, but it seemed like we could up the ante with a more haunted view of what was going on in his brain . The obvious solution from films like Lucy or Limitless is to use VFX to show this type of neural progression. Computerized imagery of synapses, etc. But there was no way we could do it with our budget. Plus, the science in our movie is pretty lo-fi and itchy. Instead, we found a way that is both tax-prudent and fits the identity of our film: macro photography with practical elements.
My producer, Ross O'Connor, pulled out a favor and booked a photo studio on a Saturday. The day before, I took the train to a butcher in Midtown. There were many strange looks when I went through her inventory of animal organs. Chicken stomachs, beef tripe, cow brains, sweetbreads … I've bought something from everyone. Why not? With an all-in for less than $ 100, it was all worth a try, even though my wife wasn't thrilled with how our fridge looked that night.
The next day we cut cross-sections of the organs, put them in an aquarium, poured gelatin-infused water over them, turned on a few 5K tungsten lights, and started experimenting. At one point we added Alka Seltzer tablets to the mixture, and then it got even more steamy and weird when the hot lights started cooking the meat.
We shot everything at a high frame rate on a macro lens and together we created the best moments in the edit. The result was a unique visual representation of Ethan's deteriorating mental state. It was the kind of spaghetti on the wall, a controlled but imprecise, happy accident process that you cannot replicate. Based on this approach, a visual language specific to minor premise was created.
It was a fun day. Easily our cheapest shoot and possibly the biggest bang for our buck in terms of making the movie better.
Focus on improving, not winning
This was probably the most enduring lesson and the one I struggled with the most. Especially in post-production when you are alone in a room and are confronted with a mountain of material and time.
More than any other movie I've worked on, Minor Premise was a bear in the cut. The film is so subjective and stylized, and it plays with time and structure in an exciting but daunting way. The process took much, much longer than expected. It took years.
After Chris Radcliff, I hired James Codoyannis as my second editor. We couldn't afford anyone full-time at the time, so I worked with James on his days off. Then I would go home and use the time in between to think about the next round of things I want to try.
Every day when we finished editing we asked ourselves, "Have we made the film better today?" We tried not to solve every problem, but just to make the film a little bit better. If we did that, no matter how little the improvement, the day was a win.
If your barometer of success is in Sundance, or sold to Netflix worldwide, or hired a top agent, you will most likely be disappointed. When I focus on these markers or compare my film to others, I feel bitter and feel sorry for myself. I would get very "Ethan". But when the focus was on what we were learning about our film, I found we were more open to Eureka moments, and over time the film made great strides.
You are tinkering and tinkering and shaping the movie until it takes its final shape and someone, usually a producer, is forcing you to stop. Then you take a breather, sneak back into the lab and do some more tinkering. And at the end of the day, on the other end, you come out as a better filmmaker and with a film that, while never ideal, says something personal and resonant about how you see the world. I think if you're lucky you can do it all all over again, but we hope Minor Premise finds its own obsessive geek audience in the meantime.
Click here to learn more about Minor Premise, which is now available for pre-order on iTunes.