Read this if you are:
• Unable to get your film produced
• Starting out as a filmmaker
• A first-time feature filmmaker
Since his 1995 breakout indie hit The Brothers McMullen, Edward Burns’ story has been the stuff of filmmaking legend: a twenty-something, moonlighting at Entertainment Tonight in NYC pulled together a feature film for $25,000 and struck gold.
But it wasn’t always roses for Burns, as he outlines in Independent Ed: Inside a Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and The Twelve Best Days of My Life. His career took some serious downturns wherein he couldn’t get a movie made to save his life.
He blossomed as a filmmaker when movies were few and costly, and, at 48, he’s progressed through the turn of the tide, films growing less expensive and more abundant.
If you’re an independent filmmaker, I can’t recommend Burns’ book enough. Drawing from his 14 Directing credits, and 33 acting credits with collaborators like Steven Spielberg, Robert De Niro, and Dustin Hoffman, Independent Ed breaks down:
- The rapid changes that have happened in independent filmmaking
- How they almost ended his career
- How he used them to upend filmmaking and distribution standards; and,
- The lessons he’s learned along the way.
There is a wealth of information in this book, and heaps of inspiration. When I finished it, I found myself rearing to get out and produce.
I’ve pulled a few key quotes with some short descriptions that should inspire and inform filmmakers. From beginning your film, to putting it out, I have broken them into categories:
These quotes alone serve as an actionable guide for getting your film produced and out to an audience.
But I can’t recommend the book enough. For $12 in ebook form, this is one of the best modern filmmaking lectures you’ll ever find, and it reads like a motivational tale told on a bar stool in Long Island—in the best way possible. You can get it through Amazon or iBooks.
So check out these 32 pieces of wisdom from Independent Ed, and get to producing!
“Over the course of the first two or three years I was there, I wrote five or six screenplays. I was hungry. I had stuff to say. I had people in my head clamoring to get out. I also understood that if you’re going to be a writer, you have to write.”
Consistency of writing is essential. The more you write, the better you become and the greater the likelihood of getting something produced.
Ed Burns spent four years as a PA at Entertainment Tonight. In that time he was building industry experience, getting to know his peers, prolifically polishing off screenplays, and looking for an opportunity to put something of his own into production.
Give yourself time every day—be it 5 hours, or 5 minutes—to write. Stay disciplined and your options will be less and less limited.
- Write The Whole Script—Not Just Sequences
“As a young screenwriter, I used to be guilty of playing the same beat over and over in an effort to inform the audience, and this was painfully obvious when I saw the first pass.”
Over-explaining and redundancy are common mistakes for up-start writers. Make sure you’re writing scripts as complete films.
I like to edit my scripts line-by-line, then scene-by-scene, then in full. Once I’ve reduced the small notes to nothing, I can begin reading with fresh eyes, viewing the story as complete and seeing how it holds together.
Repetition can be a tool, or it can appear amateurish.
- Write With The Budget In Mind
So we wrote down a list of guidelines to work off, eventually calling them the McMullen 2.0 Rules.
- “As with The Brothers McMullen, we would self-finance a feature film for $25,000. This number would be our shooting costs, meaning we would get the film shot (or “in the can,” as we used to say) for $25,000. Postproduction would eventually cost another $100,000.
- We would shoot no more than twelve days.
- We would use a three- to five-man crew.
- All locations had to be secured for free.
- We would hire unknown actors who would be willing to wear their own clothes and do their own hair and makeup.
- We would shoot available light anywhere we could. If we needed to light a scene, we would use the absolute minimum, no more than three or four lights, similar to the lighting package that your local news crew might use.”
If you want to get your script produced, or produce it yourself, it’s important to craft that script around locations, people, and props you have access to. Especially early on.
Writing a script that will cost $20 million dollars to make places a lot of reliance on outside parties with deep pockets. If you write a film that’s easily and inexpensively producible, you’re increasing the likelihood that the film gets made.
Writing a lot of scripts doesn’t allow you to play again, unless those scripts are brought to life.
- Hire People You Like
“Put simply, we have a “no asshole policy” and that applies across the board to anyone on set. We make it a point to do our due diligence on the actors and make sure they cross the talent threshold but are also team players.”
I love the simplicity of this policy and it’s crucial for filmmakers in every phase of their careers, but particularly on microbudgets.
You want your crew and cast to carry a common bond and work hard together for the same goal: getting the movie made. Indie filmmaking is a no-frills game, and you need people who can swallow their egos for the greater good and love.
Build a team who love each others’ company—people who will want to end the day over drinks and lively conversation.
- Be Realistic On A $0 Budget
“If for any reason one or several of my actors bailed on me, or we ran out of money, I would at least have some footage for a short film. I was being a realist. I knew the odds of getting this film made were against me”
If you’re working with people you barely know and don’t have the money to pay them, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll stand you up.
This happened to Michael and I on our first film, Painted City. we waited around for an actor who decided not to come, and refused to answer his phone until he was two hours late, having stranded us with three other actors, on location.
Fortunately his partner in the scenes was a complete rockstar. I re-wrote the the scenes with her on the fly, she memorized all additional lines in an hour, and we finished the day’s work early!
At the time, we were completely unprepared for this, but it’s important to weigh the possibility and plan alternatives.
- Convenience Is Appealing To Collaborators
“It’s one thing when you’re locking people up for two to three months and paying top dollar, and it’s another deal when you’re offering scale and a couple days work. But the fact that it was only a couple days worked in my favor.”
Engineering your film to only demand a few days from each cast/crew member is a great way to cut costs and make the project more appealing to those involved.
While this is most applicable in LA or NYC—where seasoned professionals often travel for more work—this can be very helpful to keep in mind when pitching your film to crew and talent, no matter where you are located.
We’re a culture of convenience. The ability to drive home to your loved ones after a fun, challenging shoot with other good people is often worth a significant pay-cut, especially if the material is exciting.
- Don’t Bother With Stars, Early On
“In other words, to get that bigger budget, you need a movie star attached, but without a fully financed movie, many movie stars won’t read your script. It’s a classic catch-22.”
Ed goes on to say that it can often take movie stars up to 6 months just to read a script and reply to a filmmaker’s offer, no matter their answer.
It takes a certain amount of pull to even entice a performer with starpower, so early on it may be best to produce films with little-known, quality talent.
The more these films work, spread, and form a library that proves your filmmaking chops, the greater access you’ll have to name talent because of your track record.
Early on, don’t bother waiting. Just get to making.
- Stay Flexible
“Aaron has reminded me on numerous occasions that we need to always have several irons in the fire, and we should pivot quickly to the project that is getting traction. Given how tough the movie business is, we never believed in having all of our eggs in one basket”
Aaron is Ed’s production partner and he speaks the truth: at any point in your career, unnecessary idle time will kill creative flow and industry mobility.
Unless you’re worth multiple millions of dollars, are in demand, and can afford to relax a bit between projects, keep a few productions waiting in the wings at all times.
Give each project its required attention, but don’t rest your life on a single prospect. Diversify your options and be ready to jump to something new if one proves not to be happening.
I see this as a failing point for many early-career filmmakers: they hedge their bets and rest their future on one project, which cycles around for years until they’re too tired, broke, and bummed out to move on. Don’t let that happen to you.
- Cast Hungry Up-And-Comers
[To his casting director] ‘Help me find the kids who keep knocking on the door but lose out on the part because they’re not a name yet, kids in their twenties who would be excited to have a break, who were as hungry as Connie Britton was when we made McMullen.”
Up-and-comers are looking for opportunities to show their chops. They’re often relegated to small extra rolls or single-line walk-ons.
Seeking out these hungry talents creates a reciprocal relationship: They’re willing to go to the moon and back for your project, and you’re giving them a feature platform to carry and shine in.
Everybody wins, and the budget will thank you!
- Pep-Talks Keep Collaborators On The Same Page
“We would discuss the day’s goals, what we needed to accomplish, and the challenges we thought we would face. I still do that today with my producer and DP. That drive to set always reminds me of a pregame locker room pep talk.”
Athletes and large companies have morning check-ins. I’ve found this to be very productive on every project, from small short films to commercials.
You may not be able to drive to set together, but taking the time to go over objectives with your key players is time well spent. The immediate inkling is to arrive on set and get straight to work.
I’ve found that taking 15 minutes to outline the day with everyone present saves 15 minutes of uncertainty between each setup. Even if people aren’t completely listening, they’re hearing and taking in nuances that will keep them sharp throughout long, hustle-filled days.
- Smaller Is Better
“And we kept our schedule to fifteen shooting days. Like the first two films, we relied on friends to help identify some locations we could get for free. Since we were such a small crew, and had no plans to move things around, the homeowners were happy to have us.”
If you write and prep your project correctly, being small can actually have many advantages.
I’ve worked and been on so many bloated sets with an unnecessary amount of cooks in the kitchen, dragging efficiency down by standing around in their unending downtime
Use being small, skilled and driven to move ahead quickly, which will also drive momentum and energy by keeping collaborators engaged and on point.
- Spielberg Gives Actors Space and Time
“To that end, he said, ‘I like to give my actors three takes to figure it out. If I step in after the first take and give you a note, especially with young actors, you’ll hear me rather than your own voice. That might rattle you, too. Hurt your confidence. OR cause you to question your choices.”
While shooting Saving Private Ryan, Burns noticed that Spielberg barely gave actors notes or interfered with their performances, often going four takes without a single word to the on screen talent, then calling cut and moving on.
It can be extremely helpful to give your actors the space required to find the scene, while moving through it at a manageable pace.
If you casted correctly, your performers will be capable of trying unique performances on each take and varying your options in post. If you’ve prepared correctly, they’ll understand their characters and points of view long before you call action.
- Departments Slow Films Down
“We didn’t have an art department, so we identified existing locations that worked for our world. Instead of limiting us, this liberated the filmmaking.”
It’s redundant, I know, but I can’t stress this enough: building your film’s world around your accessible world, and keeping a light production footprint is huge!
This practice has saved Michael and I in the past and, when avoided, has tanked projects for us. Limit the variables that can go wrong in production and you streamline the process immensely.
Obstacles will always arise; cut a few of them off at the heels and be flexible to handle the unavoidable incidents without anyone losing their cool or becoming overwhelmed.
- You Don’t Need The Whole Location
“We pay a smaller fee, take a section of the location while the establishment stays open for business, and we shoot our scene. The studio filmmaker and probably most indie filmmakers would tell you it can’t be done.”
Buying out a whole restaurant, bar, coffee shop, or store for the time it takes to shoot is costly. But do you need the whole place?
Ed decided he didn’t and shot scenes in open restaurants, gyms, and other spots—after getting permission—without taking up too much space.
Having seen the finished film Newlyweds, these sequences are noticeably louder than your average studio film’s dinner scene, but it also subjects the viewer into that location with the characters.
This is very tricky to pull off and should not be done without an experienced sound operator, but it’s worth weighing if you and your team have the skills.
NOTE: Michael and I tried this in Painted City at a coffee shop where I knew the owner and asked permission to shoot there while the place was open. You never realize how loud a quiet cafe is until you’re trying to record dialogue with a single shotgun mic, no live mixing, no lavaliers, and one crew member. Feel empowered by this quote, but be smart about it.
- Feed People Well And Have Fun
“However, I made sure lunch was first class. Every day, we picked the nicest restaurant near where we were shooting, ordered great bottles of wine, and sat together for two hours (we had heard that French movie crews did this) at one long table, eating, laughing, and talking about film.”
This can be done relatively inexpensively and the value it lends to morale is priceless. If there’s one thing experienced indie filmmakers know it’s: feeding people well keeps them happy.
One of my personal heroes, John Cassavetes was known to do this with his cast and crew at the close of each day—as far as I’m aware.
It creates a sense of family, gives each collaborator something to look forward to, and gives an added opportunity for you, as producer, to spoil those who are lending you their precious time, for little to no money.
- Long Days + Massive Speed
We worked eighteen-hour days and shot sixty-seven pages that week. By comparison, a good day on a Hollywood movie, you’ll finish two or three pages of the script.”
When you’ve cast and hired well, planned properly, treated your collaborators well, and harnessed a common excitement, you can truly get the best from each and every person.
I’m sure everyone was exhausted after these eighteen hour days, and I certainly don’t advocate abusing people’s durability or commitment.
However, the job of a great producer is to mobilize and get collaborators as excited as she/he is to be involved in the project. If that job is done correctly, you can all go to the ends of the earth together.
- Spacing Out Shoots Isn’t Always A Bad Thing
“We shot the film in fifteen days over the course of three months. This gave me the opportunity to have several weeks in the editing room between shooting days. I was able to use that time to look at my footage and performances and rewrite according to what I liked or what wasn’t working.”
The whole philosophy of scheduling has changed. Films used to be scheduled as regular work weeks to accommodate the many players in the game and keep large amounts of gear consolidated for a period of time.
If your footprints are light, there’s no actual need to approach the process this way.
While most people—myself included—prefer to keep shoots concentrated to week-long blocks, it’s just not always possible. Especially with no money.
Use the time in between shoots to cut your footage and figure out if you need anything else the next time you’re with your crew and cast.
NOTE: Another Painted City aside—Michael and I took this to an extreme with an overly ambitious script that took us one year of holidays, nights, and weekends to film. In that time, we were exhausted and lost a lot of steam. Be very careful; you still need structure and a clear vision.
- Kill Your Darlings
‘Look, if these scenes that are painful to cut are any good, you’ll put them in your next screenplay,’ he said. Thinking that made sense, I made the cuts and got the running time down to ninety minutes. And you know, none of those scenes I cut ever ended up in another screenplay. The scenes you cut deserve to be cut.”
One of the hardest parts of editing your film is finding scenes you loved on the cutting room floor.
This is especially difficult as a director editing your own film, but it’s imperative that editing decisions be made in the best interest of the finished project.
As a filmmaker, you’ll be in love with every element of your film because every shot, line, and action is tied to a hard-won decision you made. From the outset, you have to walk in knowing anything you shoot could end up being cut out to serve the greater good.
- Post Is Always Bigger Than You Think—Don’t Skimp
We knew that postproduction has certain costs—including sound work, color timing, title creation, and sound mixing—that are necessary to absorb, and it is the most expensive part of making microbudget films.”
Never underestimate the post production process or associated costs—this is where your final vision is rendered.
Don’t try to force skills you yourself may not have, and be aware at the earliest stages of where other help may need to be sought out. If you have no grasp on VFX, it can be a massive waste of time and energy learning skills that someone else can execute in half the time. But there’s a cost.
Remember, the goal is to finish a film and get it out there. You owe that to yourself and your collaborators, so be realistic about what can and can’t be done in post, costs, time, and ultimate quality.
- Make The Film You Shot, Not The One You Wrote
Years later, when I worked with writer-director Nick Willing, he put it like this: ‘When you’re in the editing room, you need to listen to your film and not scream at your film.’”
Another common editing mistake for inexperienced or first-time indie filmmakers is trying to make your film into something it simply is not.
You have to be flexible with your vision because throughout production, your film may change significantly from its original conception on the page.
Edit the film you shot, not the script you wrote. Work with what you have, not what you wish you had. This is a mistake I made on Painted City and the result was a disjointed and often forced final product. Ouch… Hurts to say, but it’s true and the lesson has been well learned.
- You Have To Love The Work
You pour yourself into every scene, push yourself to solve countless problems, and as the film comes together in the editing room, with a definitive beginning, middle, and end, you say, ‘Huh,’ with a note of surprise. ‘This works. I love it.’ Love is blindness.”
This quote is both empowering and cautionary. Blind love gets small films made, but it can also stifle objectivity.
As the ringleader of your vision, you’re responsible for balancing your undying love for the film, and making the often difficult decisions associated with producing the best possible product that will resonate with an audience.
As my DP and producer Mike Elliott aptly said: “You don’t make the film you want to make; you make the film you can make.” Be in love with the work and see it for the moments that work, but also those that don’t.
- Promote 2 Stories
“I realized that when selling a film to the public, especially a small independent film, you not only need to sell the story, actors, and genre, but you also need a couple other related stories around the film to generate press.”
For Ed’s first feature film Brothers McMullen, the second story was: “Twenty-something filmmaker pulls together a high quality, compelling movie for $25,000.”
How many people saw Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi solely because they wanted to know what a quality $7K action movie looked like? You need to find the story, outside your film’s narrative that helps it sell.
It may be related to a newsworthy political issue, or simply how the film got made in the first place. Find the story behind the story and use it to get audiences talking about your film and spreading the word.
- iTunes Is The Arthouse Theater
The process turned out to be similar to a traditional release. The digital window simply replaced the theatrical window.”
When Ed released his microbudget film Purple Violets exclusively on iTunes, it shook independent release conventions. This model has grown increasingly common since.
Replacing the theatrical window with a strategic digital rollout can be hugely profitable for small films, opening them up to a massive audience in the multiple millions who are searching their favorite platforms for something not found in theaters, at low costs.
Ed was the first to do this and promote it as such. Now small studios do this as a first order of business. You can do it too with your little film.
Embrace Your Strategy
“We would not make excuses for our nontheatrical release. We would embrace it.”
Don’t treat your “small” release strategy as the equivalent of having a movie go straight to video in the 1990s. The climate is different now.
Embrace your means, use them to your advantage in promotion, and own your path to the audience. This will maximize productivity by focusing on what can work best for your film, not someone else’s.
Festivals Are The Indie-Theatrical
“I realized I could also have a theatrical release. It was called the festival circuit.”
The vast majority of films and filmmakers cannot afford a traditional theatrical run. But theatrical runs don’t conventionally serve to make a profit.
They are a means of promoting your film across the country or world in hopes that word will spread, people will later buy or rent the movie, and it will live on for a long time after.
Using festivals as your film’s theatrical run is a fairly inexpensive way to gain that exposure and propagate your film’s reputation in multiple markets. Instead of focusing on awards, use the festival circuit to create and connect with fans.
This point was heavily driven home in Jon Reiss’ game changing indie film distribution handbook, Think Outside The Box Office. Michael bought me this book for my birthday in 2011 and it changed my life.
Utilize The Whole Internet
Marc and his team target tech bloggers, hip websites, tastemakers, and connectors to help create buzz on films lacking bigger marketing budgets and resources.
There are companies dedicated to this, and you can do it with your small team. There’s more to promoting a film than posting on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
Think of your movie’s key characters, plot-points, themes, and overall genre. What kinds of audiences are generally interested in such material? Where else do they spend their time? Are there specific blogs, forums, Reddit threads, or social groups they congregate at?
Using these online spaces to promote your film is a low-cost way to spread word; much like casting hungry young actors, these promotions are a mutually beneficial relationship: blogs, forums, and groups subsist on regular content. Make your film a part of that content stream.
Low-Overhead Yields Higher Profits
“Because we had almost no marketing costs, high distribution fees, or manufacturing expenses, for example, film prints and DVDs, the film moved into the black within a few weeks after its release. Our little $9,000 film had turned into a genuine moneymaker for us, and we continue to see profits come in every year.”
From production to end release, the moral of this story is as old as it is true: the lower your costs the easier it is to break even and profit.
A “risky” $20 million dollar film stands less of a chance to make its money back than an even “riskier” $10,000 film that’s promoted intelligently.
Keeping low overhead has a host of benefits, from cast and crew mobility and minimized post-production, to market release and recoupment. Microbudget filmmaking is evolving from an act of desparation, to a clearly superior approach for many filmmakers.
GENERAL ADVICE FROM ED
I found these final quotes from Ed Burns motivating, important, and beneficial reminders that stretch across careers and points in the journey.
Again, I cannot recommend Independent Ed enough to all you filmmakers out there. I can guarantee it will be $12 well spent and will make your next film seem like it could happen tomorrow!
Here are the final bits of guidance:
Find Experienced Guidance
“Talk to people who have been through it. Ask questions. At the end of the day, you can make the decisions, but let those with a longer résumé help you figure out the answers or at least the best possibilities.”
“A couple thoughts for the first-time filmmaker: If you allow yourself to get crippled by the possibility of failure, you’re going to rob yourself of a lot of great experiences. There are very few great films, but something great, be it a new actor relationship or learning a new technology, has always come from my experiences making films, even if the film itself was disappointing. Additionally, consider how you can empower people who are working for peanuts. Looking for Kitty lists eight people as producers or co-producers, including Aaron and myself. Why so many? We give out producer credits as perks to people who work mostly on the promise of a percentage of profits. Everyone has skin in the game. Find skilled, talented people willing to share a vision and work shoulder to shoulder doing whatever it takes to make the film a go. It’s a collaborative business. If they help produce, make them producers.”
Filmmaking Is More Than Money In + Money Out
“Please don’t listen to the naysayers who complain that we have a glut of movies, that there are too many people making films. Has anyone ever complained about too many poems, songs, or paintings? Because of these technological advances, you are now no different from the kids who keep writing songs on their guitars until they figure out what makes a good song, or the painters who keep throwing colors up against the canvas until they realize their vision.”
Do you have microbudget filmmaking strategies? Share them below in the comments! As always, thanks for reading 🙂