Secrets of Indie Filmmaking

Secrets of Indie Filmmaking: Story versus Slick

Ardent Partner Samantha Swan looks at the trend of slick over all else in movies and why indie filmmakers should look at Story first.

It seems that everywhere I turn, I am having high concept, slick looking pap shoved down my throat. Ever been to the movies and thought to yourself “Millions of dollars spent on skill and craft: on locations, sets, stunts, wardrobe, digital effects and above-the-line fees for stars. All that money and effort but they spent a nickel on the script.”

You must think it a lot; I know I do. And the truth is, there’s absolutely no reason why that horror film or thriller or sci-fi you’re watching can’t have a good script. So it’s effects heavy and there’s running and screaming, so what? Can’t the characters behave realistically at all? An honest human moment? Tight, sharp dialogue?

There’s a reason why Roger Corman and other genre producers have produced some good movies. It is true that Corman knew that to make $X he needed to spend a $V budget with $W on promotion. Such is math. But it is also true that he scooped up talented new directors with little experience and gave them total freedom within a specific framework – as long as there’s a topless girl on this page, blood by this page, etc., they could do what they wanted. This is why directors and writer-directors like Jonathan Demme, Francis Ford Coppola and John Sayles started with Corman.

Of course it’s a truism that when you’re shooting on a shoestring you should work with what you have and what you can access: Kevin Smith‘s convenience store in ‘Clerks‘, Robert Rodriguez‘ friend’s home in Mexico on ‘El Mariachi‘ come to mind. Think about what you have and what you may be able to access and write for these locations or props or whatever it might be. Is it cheaper and easier for you in the end? Of course.

But you’ve heard this a hundred times too. So today’s reminder “that you can do it” is more about the story than your effects, locations, etc. You can’t compete with Hollywood’s movie visually, even if it is lovely, but you can have a good story. You don’t have a giant budget, but you’re also not anchored to a schedule that the budget like that would bring, so you have time for your script.

You can work your script and story for as long as you need to, and this will only make you better. You can do reading after reading of your script and learn what you need to ‘fix’ or further develop. You can workshop or rehearse with actors as much as possible to refine your story. In a no-to-low shooting context, this is invaluable; not only are you making your script better, but it means when you do get to shoot, you are so prepared, you can knock off the shooting quickly. This is increasingly important if you’re shooting on the go, ‘stealing’ Locations or running-and-gunning. You can get in, shoot the already very prepared scene, then move on to the next one.

It’s not that you can’t make a movie with some of the same concepts and themes as bigger budget Hollywood movies, you can, but you can’t expect them to look the same. Your lighting package is not the same as one in a Hollywood studio, so your shots won’t look the same. Sunlight does not look the same. The house you’re shooting in is an actual house, not a set, so it doesn’t have fly away walls, so your shot plan won’t look the same.

But you can have a “ripping yarn”. You can have believable characters portrayed by well prepared actors, uttering honest words. You can tell a story that’s simple,  straightforward and human. Big stories and dramatic moments happen every day to people in real life. Look at the dynamics in your own family: crazy uncle; somebody’s a black sheep; why are those siblings always jealous of each other?

There’s already hundreds of big budget, effects heavy Hollywood movies. You and your story can be the alternative to that. The more choices we have, the better, I say. And remember, John Sayles wrote Piranha and Alligator so he could make films of his own, films like Lone Star and Casa de los Babys.

Stories about people.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________

READ Other Recent Posts by Ardent Pictures:

Point of View: Count Down to Hot Docs: The Thin Blue Line
Indie Inspiration: Lena Dunham: Why Not Being Jesus Is Important
Secrets of Indie Filmmaking: Micro-Budget Cinema: Is Enough Enough?

Leave a Comment

Let us know your thoughts on this post but remember to play nicely folks!