Now let me just kick things off by saying that this is not an article meant to dissuade young filmmakers (and I don’t just mean young in age) from pursuing their dreams. Far from it. I’m an indie filmmaker myself so I’m all for sticking your head up into the clouds and dreaming big. Dream, dream and dream some more. Just be careful this is what you really want.
So, this being the case, what bit of advice could I give this young lady that would be the most helpful to her? As I sat there mulling over my answer I thought back through the years. Through my own experiences as an indie filmmaker, learning and growing and watching others learn and grow around me. I thought back to the surprisingly few filmmakers I saw dig in for the long haul, and the many who gave up and sought other fields of employment. I realized that all these people had something in common. One primary element that helped shape the decisions that they made, helped guide them through the labyrinthian and often unforgiving world of filmmaking, and ultimately told them if this was the life that they wanted. This element was love. Hey, don’t laugh. This is important. With this common element in mind, there was just one bit of advice that I could give this girl that would help her most of all. So I told her. Make sure you love it. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Obvious even? It’s not.
Actor Bill Oberst Jr. (ABRAHAM LINCOLN VS ZOMBIES) talks about the success of the Facebook App TAKE THIS LOLLIPOP.
I know what many of you might be thinking. Uh thanks, Mister Filmmaker, but what I really wanted to know was the numbers to some investors you know who might be keen on funding my short script. Or, how does one go about getting an agent? Or maybe, what kind of film schools do you recommend, or do you recommend skipping them altogether? Or, just throw me a friggin’ bone here and just tell me where to start etc etc. Well, those are all just details. More to come on that later. First, back to my advice. Make. Sure. You. Love. It.
There’s a big difference between loving film and loving filmMAKING. The “idea” of being a filmmaker, and all that comes along with it, sounds, well, pretty cool. Let’s be honest. it IS pretty cool, but it comes at a cost. Most things you really love don’t come for free or without a lot of hard work. That’s what makes them so rewarding. It’s no different with filmmaking. The idea of what it is to be a filmmaker, as you can imagine, is a pretty subjective thing, but most people are awfully surprised when they find out first hand what filmmaking is really about. Once you take a peek inside to see what makes it tick, big surprise, there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears popping out at you! There’s also tremendous creative gratification and freedom, for those who are into those kinds of things 🙂 Like anything else though, it takes a lot of work. More than you probably realize. Hard hard hard work. It’s HARD, and hard does not always equal fun. Let me draw the two together now. Filmmaking is not always fun. Sorry. Now don’t let this turn you away. For most filmmakers, myself included, the struggle is part of the appeal. If you’re in it for the right reasons, you won’t mind it either.
At the risk of stating the obvious, being an indie filmmaker means totally dedicating your life to the art. There’s no halfway. Not if you really want to make it. It means years and years of ups and downs, crappy pay (if there’s pay at all), tough hours, stress, exhaustion, letdowns, you name it, and all with NO guarantee of success. In fact, the odds of success are astronomically against you. Whether you have talent or not, it’s a numbers game and there are a lot of other filmmakers out there in the world. With the technology available today, anyone can make a movie. Here in LA alone, there’s a million filmmakers all trying to get ahead, and with this sea of aspiring filmmakers there’s bound to be consequences. Most production companies don’t option indie spec scripts anymore. They don’t accept cold submissions, be it a script or a directing reel, unless by referral. Hell, you can even have three or four feature length films under your belt and still not get an agent on the line. In short, it’s a scrappy bare knuckled fight to get yourself noticed. For those few who do manage to get representation, who manage to get a real film under their belt with name talent (even A-list talent), guess what? The fight is not over. I’ve met more than a few people like this who were involved with a great film a few years back and now find themselves sitting at home living paycheck to paycheck wondering, what the hell happened? Yes, it’s a numbers game and the fact is that there are a heck of a lot of people out there all vying for a very limited amount of jobs, which means that the not-so-talented and the talented alike are often left out in the cold. So, to summarize, success is difficult to achieve.
However, it’s important to note that success is in the eye of the beholder. What do you need to have achieved it? A produced feature? Distribution? The chance to pay the bills doing what you love as opposed to doing your filmmaking on the side outside your one or even two “Mon-Fri” jobs? Do you need fame? Money? Agents drooling at your feet? Only you can answer that. For me, i discovered long ago that I could live without them. All of them. I’ll make films until I die a happy old man, and if barely anyone ever actually sees them I’ll still be proud to have made them. I’ll still have a profound sense of accomplishment of having produced them because not just anyone can do what we do. The joy I had at making films when I was young is still the same joy I gain from making films now. For me, the films are the cake. The rest, the money, fame, accolades? I’d consider them just icing on the cake. And who doesn’t love icing, eh! Really though, there needs to be more there. What you need to ask yourself is if they are just icing to you too. If not, you might be in for some trouble ahead.
Now before someone accuses me of being a pretentious film purist, let me say this. It’s okay to dangle carrots in front of your eyes, so to speak, as a manner of motivation (money, fame, etc) because there’s nothing wrong with those things in their own right. Just be sure there’s more to your love for filmmaking than just that because they won’t sustain you for very long. Not very long at all. When you come out here with stars in your eyes it’s hard to keep them sparkling a few years down the road when you work two jobs, live in a studio apartment the size of a closet, have to borrow your neighbor’s bike to get to work each day and just don’t QUITE have the time to get back to working on that script you’d started six months earlier.
Then again, you might just prove to be that one in a million story. The new kid on the block who comes in dreaming big and hits the jackpot right off the bat. It’s happened before. It will happen again. If that person should happen to be you, well…hey, I’ve got a great script for you to read!
Back to the podcast interview. Yes, I simply told that young girl sitting in on the show to make sure she really loved it, and now I’m telling you the same thing. Take it or leave it, up to you. Now, as mentioned before, she very well might have been saying “Uh, thanks for stating the obvious, but where’s the real advice?” Well, this advice is as good as any advice you’ll ever get. If you can ask yourself if you really love filmmaking and answer with a yes, you’re on your way. You’ll figure out what you need to in the coming years, in terms of where to start and how to build your experience, skills, resources, etc. You will find your way. You really will. All the good indie filmmakers always do.
For those of you who aren’t really sure yet how to answer the question, that’s okay too. Most won’t really know until they get out into the trenches for a bit. Hands on experience is the ultimate test. Whether it takes a few weeks, months or years, your gut will eventually tell you “Yes, more please!” or “Get me the hell out of here!” It’s only natural. If you’re not in a position to get into the trenches yet, don’t worry. Go get a camera, any camera. Even a still camera nowadays takes better resolution images than anything i had access to when i was young. Now go shoot something. Anything. Write a one page script. It doesn’t matter. Just go make a film and see if you truly enjoy it. If you have a real passion for it, you’ll know it.
I sincerely wish you all much success, in all its many forms!
Peter Dukes is an independent filmmaker living in Los Angeles, where he’s lived and worked for over ten years. His company, Dream Seekers Productions, has produced 14 films to date, with two more scheduled for production in 2012. He’s currently busy working on two separate feature films independent of his company.