Lessons From Filmmakers: Be Prepared

I've always been interested in talking with other filmmakers in an effort to learn from their experiences and improve my own work. A few weeks ago I sent out a blanket invitation for filmmakers to send in their responses to a list of questions I drafted. I wanted to post their stories to this blog so that we can all better ourselves as filmmakers. I hope this will be the first in a series.

The first installment comes from Richard A. Lester, an author and filmmaker who has worked in a variety of jobs on several different film projects. His credits include:

  • Writer/Director: Night of the Snakehead Fish
  • Writer/Director: Stacked Deck
  • Director: Screen Used: Rusty’s TV and Movie Car Museum
  • Producer/Sound: Shelby Staxx
  • Producer/Actor: Shelby Staxx meets the Hunchblack of Notre Dame
  • Music/Actor: I Filmed Your Death
  • Boom Operator: Afterlight 

Tell me a little about your background in video/film production. How did you get started? How long have you been in the industry?

I directed my first indie film about 13 years ago. I was a fan of movies for a long time, and jumped into filmmaking on a whim. I read a few books and bought a cheap camera. I got my friends to be in my movie, and then started connecting with others that did the same. Over the past few years, I’ve been a part of productions for Azbest Studios (my production team now), Piano Man Pictures, and Timid Monster, among others. 

What is your specialty?

I do a bit of everything. In indie film, you sort of have to. Usually, I operate the boom and H4n. I also write (I’m a novelist, as well), and direct. 

When have you felt the most stressed while working on a production? What happened?

The major stress factor on a set is time restraints. You never have enough time to get your shots finished, especially in the way that you want. At the end of the day, you have to get what you can and figure out how to work around it. 

Describe a time when things just didn't go the way you planned while working on a shoot.

Things rarely go exactly as planned on shoots, which is why you have to have contingency plans and be able to think on your toes. While shooting Night of the Snakehead Fish, we lost an actor for a day. Luckily, we only need him for one shot. I ran to the store before the shoot and bought a sweater that looked similar enough to the one the actor had worn in previous shots. We also had to borrow a woman’s wig because the actor’s hair was longer than the stand in that we used. We shot the seen a little darker than I had planned and in close up (from the back!) I don’t believe anyone has ever noticed that it’s not the same actor. 

When things completely fall apart while on a production, what have you done to solve the problem? What would you advise others to do if they find themselves in similar situations?

First of all, it’s important for everyone, especially the director, to take a deep breath. Movie making can be highly stressful, and if things go wrong, everything falls onto the director’s shoulders. You have to get your head straight and then identify the problem.

A good director will surround himself with an experienced crew who can provide ideas, if needed. You have to figure out how to get what you HAVE to get for your movie to work and move on. The good thing is that tomorrow is a new day, and you have the chance to get things back on track. 

When have you felt most proud of the creative solution(s) you and your production team came up with to deal with adversity while on a production? What was that creative solution?

This is a really simple solution, but an important one. The first time I worked with Azbest was for a trailer to my book, The Check Out. I wanted it to look like a 16mm exploitation film trailer with quick shots of various scenes from the book. Most were pretty easy, however, we did have shot of a man in prison. There was absolutely NO money in the budget, so we could not shoot in a real prison. We brainstormed and came up with a cheap, but effective solution. We placed the actor in a prison uniform (which they already had) against a concrete wall in a back yard. We grabbed a couple of bamboo sticks and held them very close to the camera. It worked beautifully, and is impossible to tell that it wasn’t in an actual cell. I saw how creative and practical this group was that day, and it made me want to work with them on a regular basis.

What's been one of the biggest lessons learned from your mistakes/failures that have helped you in other productions?

There is one mistake that I have seen a few times on projects, both with large and tiny budgets. A director should never walk onto set if he or she is unprepared. When you make a film, you are responsible for a group of people (anywhere from 3-30), most of whom are probably not being paid. To waste their time because you did not do your homework is unforgivable. I crewed on two different films that had this exact problem. The directors showed up with an unrehearsed cast and no real shot list to speak of. They were both rough shoots, but they taught me a lot about how to run a set. Later that year, I directed my own short. We had two days of light tests and rehearsals before the actual shooting dates. When it came time to call “action,” we knew exactly what we wanted and how to get it. 

What advice would you give to other filmmakers?

Before any shoot, rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse. Know what shots you need, and be realistic about how many you can get. Never, ever waste your cast and crew’s time. They remember that, and will likely not work with you again. 

If you remember one thing, remember this: always be prepared. 

Where can people find you on the Internet?

If you would like to be featured on this blog, discussing your own film production experiences, let me know in the Comments section. I'd love to hear from you.