In 2013, I wrote and directed my first feature film. ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ is a neo-western that told the story of Cleo Callahan, a teenage sharpshooter who strives to avenge her older sister’s untimely murder. The film was produced with a tiny budget of $18,000, raised through crowd-funding and our own money. Eschewing the conventional wisdom of making shorts or music videos at the start of my career, I came out of film school (where I learned a lot about screenwriting and precious little about directing), went straight for the throat and decided to make a feature. It had always been a dream of mine to be a director, and I reasoned that my best shot at that particular throne was to get started right away.
In Part 1 of this regaling, I talked about how I managed the pre-production of ‘Darkness’, and aligned the pieces in the best way I could, hoping that the stars would align simultaneously. In this, the sequel article, I’ll talk about the actual shoot and how we managed to get the film out there in the end. If it’s your dream to become a filmmaker, then hopefully some of this can inspire you to go out there and shoot your own films. It’s not a question of talent, more a question of how much work you’re willing to put in.
You’re Always Adapting Your Own Script The most important thing to remember on an independent film is that you’re going to encounter a lot of problems that you won’t be able to fix because of the limited budget. This means you have to stay flexible and adaptable. A lot of times on the set of ‘Darkness’, certain things that I’d written simply weren’t achievable for one reason or another. For example, a shooting club was written in the script; we couldn’t gain access to one, so I reset the scene out in the countryside, with the character shooting at old bottles instead. It’s also important to stay flexible on the set; a couple of times I took out huge swathes of dialogue in scenes that worked better once the actors and I had them up on their feet.
Keep to the Schedule Many independent productions are notorious for running overtime by a considerable margin. Because crews are working for a small set fee or nothing at all, it’s an easy thing to exploit. However, if you want to keep your crew happy, you should always try and stick to the schedules you set, even if it means compromising some elements. On professional sets, overtime means huge amounts of costs, so finishing on time is a good habit to get into. Shooting at night and shooting in rain will always take longer, so plan accordingly. On ‘Darkness’, we only went overtime twice on a 24-day shoot; we made a conscious effort to keep to the times we’d set. This helped keep the crew motivated and happy, and also made us look as if we knew what we were doing; a handy masquerade when you’re in charge of a 20-person team.
Keep the Costs Down in Post These days, you don’t need a facility to complete post-production on your film; ‘Darkness’ was finished at home studios using desktop computers and hard drives. Make sure you don’t skimp on the hard drives, either; this store your film, so be certain that all footage is backed up at least three times on three different sets of drives. When it came to the sound, I learned how to use Adobe Audition to facilitate the copious post-sound work, and also went on to complete the 5.1 mix when it came time to hand the film to the distributor. If you’re prepared to put in the work, these programs aren’t that hard to learn, and can save you literally thousands of dollars on the back end. You’ll also have the benefit of time; even with thousands of dollars, you’ll still be at the lower end of the scale when it comes to posting houses, but if you’re forging ahead yourself, you’ll have all the time you need to get everything the way you want it.
Premiere and Release One of the major and very real fears that independent filmmakers have is that no one will see the film once it’s finished, and all the work will be for nothing. Unfortunately, this is an all-too-relatable scenario for many indie productions, and the last stage in a film’s life is where you really need some luck. ‘Darkness’ premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh in 2014, and went on to play all the major Irish festivals. Later that year, we were lucky enough to be selected for the Slamdance Film Festival 2015, which takes place in Park City alongside Sundance. From there, it was off to the races; we got a sales agent, then a distribution deal, which culminated in Netflix picking the film up in December 2015. A big premiere at a major festival is crucial for an indie film, and will give the project some much needed pedigree. Aim high, far and wide, and remember – it only takes one.