SUMMITING YOUR FIRST FEATURE FILM:
AND FIGHT LIKE HELL
Thinking about climbing the mountain of making a feature film? Me and my team strapped a pack on a couple of years back, and reached the first summit barely able to breathe just recently. What advice can I give to you? Despite all the in-depth research, meticulous planning and treasure-troves of experience with smaller projects, I discovered that nothing can really prepare you for this. But here’s a few guidelines that I learned from my experience that might give you an idea of what you’re in for.
For context on who I am…
My name is Laurence Braun, I grew up in Los Angeles and ever since I was young, I wanted to be a filmmaker. I got my producing start in NY theater and stumbled into independent filmmaking a couple of years ago.
For context on the film, here is a quick synopsis…
“THANKS FOR DYING is an improv-driven “mockumentary” feature film that follows the antics of three misfit production companies as they prepare trailers for their overly ridiculous film ideas ("Double Dynamite," "Soy Identities," and "Hot Wacky Blood: The Love Apocalypse") to pitch to a major film studio.”
Sounds crazy, right?
“RIGHT WAY,” MEET “WOOD CHIPPER”
We knew right on day one that we were certifiably insane for the type of film we chose as our first feature. We were making a mockumentary, which we knew needed to be unscripted by way of dialogue. We had a fantastic team of improv actors, but when it came to every step of the process, there was no formula to follow as far as to how you a) rehearse and prepare your actors, and b) how you plan a shooting schedule around contained chaos.
To ensure that what we captured on the day would work, we experimented with rehearsing the actors in numerous different ways, including planting them in public places to interact with real people, completely in-character, as practice. Our goal was to hone their dialogue to the point that we could harness what we called “burst improv” and plan a shoot around giving the actors as much freedom as we could provide with a tight, 14-day production schedule. It was massively complicated, to say the least, and I still have grey hairs from the amount of times we had to rearrange the shoot on the day, but it was 200% worth it as it gave our film the unique DNA we were looking for.
To this day I’m not sure if there really is a “Right Way” to approach any project. There are definitely tried and true techniques worth reading up on and learning, but when it comes to how you create your overall approach, I think it’s important to make it customized to your project.
GOT CRAZY? BRING IT ON
Since our film is about quirky, odd independent filmmakers, we not only had scenes showcasing their antics, but one scene was dedicated to showing trailers for their projects they were working on within the film. This meant coming up with several different styles of filming – our biggest challenge was an action film trailer. In order to pull this off, the director didn’t want to go the easier route of faking anything; he wanted explosions and pyrotechnics, which were on-set disasters-in-the-making that looked too risky to even consider. I was flat-out against this idea but he was persistent, so we compromised by brainstorming a few ways to pull it off.
Since most conventional ways were way out of our budget range, we worked with our production designer to create mortar explosions and got creative with a little use of pyrotechnics via miniatures. We also DIY’d a few car chases and mixed in some stunts via green-screening to polish it off. When we viewed the final product for the first time, our jaws hit the floor. Check it out for yourself:
We had never messed with FX like these before and it was absolutely bonkers to risk dangerous experimentation, ESPECIALLY when this portion was only a small part of the film overall. Had we taken the safe route, however, this trailer would never have ended up as awesome as it did and the entire film benefitted as a result.
Whether you like it or not, risk-taking is a fundamental part of the game of filmmaking. The best advice I can give is to learn how to embrace it and make it work for you and your project.
SPEAK SOFTLY AND CARRY SEVERAL ANTI-AIRCRAFT GUNS
I had heard filmmakers say that making a film is like going to war, and I had always thought that was a little dramatic, but once I experienced being under-fire during production, I realized how true it was.
Name any problem you can think of, and I guarantee you we had some form of it – talent, weather, permits, lighting, camera, locations… literally, anything that could possibly go wrong, always did. At first it was overwhelming and I really started to think that this film just didn’t want to get made, but I was fortunate that the cast and crew believed in the project so much that we all fought together to make our days. Without their willingness to lend a hand and share ideas, we never would have crossed the finish line.
This was by far one of the toughest parts of the process, but also the most rewarding. I learned that each day was filled with unpredictable challenges, but more importantly, I found out what I was made of and capable of. I can guarantee you will be pushed and tested in ways you could never imagine, however, if you can protect the mothership and win a few battles along the way, be sure to take a few moments to observe how your project ends up changing you – hopefully for the better!
CREATIVE, COMMUNITY, COWABUNGA
Once we finished the film, we knew we had reached the first summit and could take a breath. It was a very short-lived breath as we took a look at the next, much higher summit: Distribution.
Film festivals? Online distribution? Self-distribution? The more we weighed our options, the more options seemed to present themselves. After we decided on film festivals as our first goal, we knew we needed to approach our next steps in a creative and different way. Kickstarter was where we put our first foot forward:
Why Kickstarter? Not only did we need funding to get our project seen, but more importantly, we needed a forum to be able to build a crowd around our project. We knew that if our film was ever going to have a chance of being distributed, we needed to start building an audience for it yesterday and Kickstarter was a great way to rally our networks together and start aiming for our target audience. If you’re in the market for joining a cause for a good film, please don’t hesitate to check our videos out and join the party!
A community supporting your project is invaluable. From your own networks, to your target audience, if you can rally people around your film and do it in a creative and fun way, you will find strength in numbers.
DON’T FORGET TO INSPIRE, INSPIRE, AND…
OH YEAH, INSPIRE
Some of my favorite moments working on this film involved sharing our vision for the project with the cast and crew and listening to their ideas, advice and thoughts. It not only gave us new perspectives, but it made others get fired up about what we were setting out to do together as a result. Some of our best fixes to problems were generated this way.
If I can give any filmmakers one piece of advice, it would be to inspire. Inspire your talent, crew, vendors, agents, colleagues, friends, family, etc. to care about your project. If you can accomplish that, your film has a better shot and you will get more out of the experience as a result.
Now, back to the hike…
We still have a long way to go before we reach our second summit and we can only guess at what the view will be like… But on the really tough days, I always take comfort in one, solid fact.
I wouldn’t trade our journey for any other.
Laurence Braun is a Pasadena native and graduate of Boston College. After school in Boston, Braun moved to New York to work on the off-broadway show, ‘Dark Deceptions,’ in 2005 as an associate producer. Since then, he has worked as a producer on two Broadway shows: ‘Lieutenant of Inishmore’ (2006, 5-time Tony nominated) and ‘Coram Boy’ (2007, 7-time Tony nominated). Braun first began his producing work in film with the short film, ‘Cienfuegos,’ which went to 20 festivals worldwide. Recently, Laurence finished producing his first feature film, ‘Thanks For Dying’ and currently works in programming with the Hub, a new children¹s cable TV channel.