When One Head Is Better Than Two

Kelly Sullivan on set A candid moment for actress Kelly Sullivan (Jina)

I’m usually very scared when I’m approached by a hyphenate to work on their film – the producer/director. I wonder how they’re going to handle it when I need to have them sign a check while they’re on set trying to direct, or when I have to get their signoff or opinion on something that will not add value to the screen, but will definitely fuck us if we don’t take care of it. Often the experience isn’t pretty. I’ve had arguments over the cost of bagels.

But I recently found myself in a similar situation, and, probably due to hubris, I figured I could handle it. I could walk the producer/director tightrope. I’m still not sure I’ve pulled it off – I often worry that I’ve been too worried about producing to be as effective a director as I could have been. But it is possible, and with some sweat and initiative, it can even be enjoyable, to wear two hats.

Trading Space For Time

In military tactics, there’s a maneuver called trading space for time. You send a fast, light force up against the enemy, then retreat ahead of them as they advance, harassing them then running out of their reach. By the time they hit your main forces, they’ve been demoralized and depleted.

Independent filmmaking works in a similar (though hopefully less bloody) way. Without a huge budget to depend on, you need to spend a lot of time in prep, chipping away at the problems of getting locations, signing up vendors, raising money, finding cast and crew, etc. If you wait until just before you start, or count on being able to hire your buddies at the rate they promised you six months ago, you will inevitably burn through more cash than you want to and probably achieve suboptimal results.

So if you’re the producer and director, start early. Do your line producer’s script breakdown, and director’s script analysis, as early as possible. You may have to do some of this work over again if you do a rewrite down the road, but that’s okay. You’ll be able to answer the ‘big picture’ questions:

  • What are my characters’ arcs in each scene, each sequence, in the whole script?
  • How many locations?
  • How many script days?
  • How many characters?
  • Special props/action/effects?
  • How many shooting days does it look like I’ll need?
  • How are my characters’ choices reflected in dialog vs. nonverbal (image/action/sound/wardrobe/makeup/hair/editing)?
  • What can go wrong?

You will never know the complete answers to these questions. But getting some initial answers now will enable you to write up a shooting schedule, a budget, a scene-by-scene ‘beat sheet,’ and some creative notes to pass on to your department heads.

Leaning On Others

I had to lean on the people around me more than I would have if I’d had a full-on partner, especially during preproduction. My attorney, casting director, DP, and production sound mixer heard me bitch a lot. Since most of them had known me for a long time I think they were okay with it. (At least I hope so). On the other hand, I believe it gave them an opportunity to contribute more to the film creatively than they might otherwise have had. This is a very good thing. Your crew will almost always know more than you about their specific area. They’ve probably solved the problem you’re facing before, and can find their way to the solution faster than you can.

Staying Organized

There’s no real secret organization sauce. But if you’re constantly looking for things, forgetting appointments, and leaning on other people to keep your life together, you had better find a system that you can work with. Nothing erodes people’s confidence in their leader faster than seeing that the boss can’t find the map, never mind the road. And since much of your job consists of communicating with others, it’s also critical that your system be understandable by more than just you. That’s the real basis for the seemingly endless paperwork that accompanies filmmaking – production reports, callsheets, sound reports, camera reports, lined scripts, location directions, crew and cast contracts, and even the script format itself.

Recognize and Contain Your Obsession

It happens to every director: you get fixated on something that you think is critical. My obsession was over some smaller props (paperwork, crayons, some other odds and ends) that had to look absolutely 100 percent right. Other directors I’ve worked for had a specific shot they insisted on (and which completely screwed up the schedule to shoot). Maybe you wanted a location to look just like the one you grew up in. Or you have a line you think is so important you’ll shoot 50 takes until your actor gets it right (or he bites his tongue and chokes on it). As a director, you are completely convinced that the audience will not get your film if this ONE thing isn’t right, and you will drag the entire budget and schedule (and your precious prep time) down to get it onscreen.

Guess what: in all likelihood, the audience isn’t even going to register this ONE thing – assuming it even makes it into the final cut. Audiences overlook gaps and fill in details all the time. Use that to your advantage as a producer – push your director-self past your detail obsession (I realized I had to stop when I kept going on ebay to buy more crayons).

Be In the Moment AND The Moment After That

As a director, your focus should be on what’s unfolding in front of you on set, in the rehearsal space, or in the editing room. As a producer, you should be thinking at least one step ahead, and preferably several.

To deal with this I did my producer’s prep in the morning when I woke up, and when I first arrived on set. Then I tried to stay in director mode until lunch. I leaned a LOT on my PAs, giving them petty cash and problems to solve. They were awesome.

At lunch I tried to think about the schedule, reshuffle the day a bit, then I got back into director mode until wrap. Often I dropped off my DP, Ben Wolf, on the way home, so we both had a chance to talk over the ups and downs of the day. I often got some ideas from talking with him about the next day. At night I tried to slip back into director’s mode by reading the sides and my scene analysis notes just before going to bed.

The main idea here is to not try to do both jobs at once, but do each one fully, when it makes the most sense.

Give It Up

At a certain point, despite your best efforts, your director and producer selves will clash in a big way, and you’ll have to make a decision that could cost you big bucks but save the film. My personal opinion is that the director should be allowed to win in this scenario. You can often find more money in the budget, or cut back on something else, or (worst case) raise more money. But having 3/4 of a movie that’s on budget doesn’t benefit anyone.

The trick is that you can only play this card once. On Found In Time I scheduled a over-ambitious day – combining soundstage work with a big chase scene. Stunts, set building and dressing, extras. Needless to say we went into OT. But there came a point where I just had to let it go, or we wouldn’t have gotten the material we needed to make those scenes work. I ended up cutting back on a few other things for the rest of the shoot, and recouped some money through prop returns.

Okay, next time I’ll get back to post production. But to sum all of the above up, the key things to being a director-producer are: do your prep ahead of time, stay organized, and get good people to work with you.

Breathing In During Post

Many thanks to the folks at the recent New York City Film and Finance event ‘Eyes on the Film Festival’ for providing valuable insight into the festival programmer side of this discussion.

There’s always a lull in the post-production process, and it usually appears somewhere between picture editing and sound post. Typically the end of picture editing is marked by somewhat arduous, anticlimactic chores, to get the OMF and Quicktime files ready for your sound designer and composer. You might also be getting various comps and elements ready for the visual effects artist, and, depending on what you shot on, going back to your camera masters to conform for your colorist.

And then… there’s very little to do. All the people that you’re working with will need time and space. After thinking mechanically and technically for a few weeks, it’s time to start looking a couple of moves ahead again. Which is where I’m at now.

How Do You Know You’re Locked

Before you deal with any of what I’ve just described, ask yourself: are we really picture locked? It’s worth taking some time before answering that question. There’s really no magic formula. Dan and I watched the film several times, all the way through, then made minor changes after each viewing. I could tell we were close because the changes kept shrinking in scope. Sometimes a small change can make a big difference – a few frames left in can let a moment breathe, a few frames cut can trim the dead space out of a scene.

One way to gauge whether a film is locked is to look at your dissatisfaction with the film. Is it based on things that you can change in picture, is it because you don’t like something that you can still fiddle with (like an audio or music cue), or is it due to factors absolutely beyond your control/budget? If you keep coming back to a performance or a moment you never got in production that you can’t synthesize in the edit, then you’re probably ready to move on to sound post (or you’re headed towards further reshoots).

Another way is to look at the flow of the film – the moments within the scene, and the transitions between scenes. If you can allow yourself to relax a little, and not hang on every cut or word of dialog, are you still entertained by the film? Do you feel unsettled by a cut, or does it all seem to flow by smoothly? If you feel that it’s all pretty smooth, then you’re probably done.

Getting Back To The Big Picture

At a certain point, you have to throw your post schedule out the window. Not that you shouldn’t be striving to finish the film in a timely way, but the film becomes the boss. And in a larger sense, the budget is as well. I’ve been lucky enough to snag really excellent people to work on Found In Time for very modest rates, in part because we understand that if a better paying gig comes along they’ll have to take it for a little while. As long as the film isn’t moldering on a hard drive for months on end, I think it’s a fair way to work.

So while the film winds it’s way through post, you should start thinking about what you need to move the film forward once it’s ‘done.’

  • Press Kit: This should include a PDF with cast and crew bios, a synopsis of the film, photos (see below) some happy production stories, and ANY reasonably positive press you may have gotten during production.
  • Photos: If you didn’t grab stills on set, get the best-quality frame grabs you can. You’ll need a set of 300dpi TIFF files for print, and a set of 72dpi JPGs (high quality) for the web.
  • Short Teaser: This should be about a minute long and can contain rough audio and temp score elements (as long as the audio isn’t completely awful). The idea is to deliver some sizzle, but not much steak – give the audience a taste of the film.
  • Full-Length Trailer: Somewhere between two and four minutes long. You’ll want to hold off on creating this until the sound post and color correction are further along. Uncorrected audio and picture can make a trailer unwatchable or at the very least unprofessional looking.
  • Key Artwork You should at least be thinking about this at this stage. It’s okay to send out sharpie-inscribed DVDs in sleeves for festival submissions (some will argue that even here better packaging helps). But for handing out to press, industry, producers reps, and even (who knows) selling a few units directly, you’ll want to put together a central, iconic set of artwork – title logo, poster shot, and tagline that you can base a campaign around. Mock up a poster, one-sheet, DVD face and wraparound sleeve cover in Word or (better yet) InDesign or Photoshop. Print a few out at home to see if they’re pleasing to the eye, before dropping money on a print run.
  • Pitch: You probably developed this during the developing and financing stages, but revise it to reflect the film you actually made. Can you explain the film in one minute/three sentences or less?
  • EPK: This can (and usually does) include all of the above, plus behind-the-scenes footage and/or interviews with key crew and cast members.
  • Get on the Web – Build Your Site, IMDB, and Withoutabox Goes without saying. Also start getting people on your emailing list, or weed out the deadwood from your existing one.

As you can see, this is a lot of work to tackle. But now is the perfect time to do it, while the film doesn’t require as much of your attention.

The Bigger Picture

When you’re doing all of the above things, it’s important to figure out what the story of your film – as a product – is about. It’s difficult to think in these terms, especially if you’re the creator. It’s like trying to justify your child to a bunch of strangers. But it’s essential in order to create publicity materials that are enticing and organic to the story. Think of it this way: people have a LOT of choices – perhaps too many – and limited time and attention spans. Why should they choose to plunk down their hard-earned dollars on your film, rather than another (or watch tv or a webisode, or play a video game, for that matter)? What is special about your film?

The easiest way to tackle this is to ask yourself some questions: Who is your film good for? What films is it like? What films is it not like? Do you have niche appeal – for example, do you have a film that tackles a specific issue or fits a specific genre?

Look at the ad campaigns for films that are similar to yours. Is there a common graphical element, something that separates them from other films? It could be a typeface (I remember in the 80s horror films often had red, dripping titles), how the photo elements are arranged, or the tagline (“this time it’s personal” or “the girl is out there”). Perhaps the trailers had similar music.

The trick is to stand out from the crowd, without pushing producer’s reps, festival programmers, and sales agents out of their comfort zones. So while you’re looking OUTWARD at other films, you need to also look INWARD at your own project. Is there an iconic image, scene, or even line of dialog that captures what you’re trying to say? This will (hopefully) supply you with the inspiration to craft a publicity campaign that highlights the uniqueness of your work, while retaining the conventions of the genre your film is in.

While you probably did a version of this work early on during the financing stage (so you could put it in your business plan), the film that’s in your hands now is doubtless very different from the one you set out to make. So you’ll need to reappraise and readjust your artwork.

Graphic Language

Part of how you get people to respond positively to your DVD cover or poster rests on your ability to command the language of graphic design. It’s similar to, but not the same as, the language of film. It’s too big of a discussion to get into here, but if you don’t have a good print/web design sense, or if you don’t really know the difference between CMYK and RGB, work with someone who does to create your media.

Last point: for DVDs that are going out to reps, agents, and festivals, you’re better off eschewing graphics for readable text. Whether you handwrite on your DVD or have them printed, make sure you include the title, your name, phone number, email address, total running time, language, sound type (stereo, 5.1), the DVD type (region code), the video type (NTSC/PAL), year completed, and whether it’s in color or black and white. This may seem like common sense, but I’ve gotten a LOT of screeners over the years that lacked this information, which forced me to have to hunt down the missing information from the press kit or email. So I’m already in a bad mood by the time I start watching the film. And I’m not even a festival programmer – they watch thousands of Da YEAR generally.