How much do you really know the world of your story? Seriously? How much research have you conducted before you actually embarked upon this filmmaking journey? Before you sat down to pen the screenplay? Before you began involving other people and taking up their precious time with the aim of producing your story, both the personnel directly involved in the shoot and, moreover, the marketing and distribution people tasked with the job of helping you cultivate your audience? Seriously?
There’s no substitute to knowing everything about your characters – both fictional and non- — everything about their backstories, their motivations, all aspects of their behavior, and even their paths less traveled, those you don’t necessarily explore throughout the course of your on-screen ninety minutes of runtime.
I ask this because I’m aware how impressed I am – and I know I’m representative of the average filmgoing audience — as I listen to directors talk about sources they’d read before they even dared to write a single treatment paragraph, before they even sat down to scratch out a line of dialogue.
I’m in awe of creatives who – as I enjoy bonus features for some of my favorite TV show DVDs – talk about where they see their characters headed even though these are paths they don’t go down. It’s just the possibility that they could which appeals to me.
On another note, holes in your screenplay are glaringly visible. They stand out like gaping narrative voids and you will be pressed, as filmmaker, to account for them.
Your actors, for one, will seek the motivations for their characters’ various scripted actions and will want you to point them towards books and other sources they can read to deepen their portrayals and give them a keener familiarity with the materials. Your first danger sign that you haven’t done enough work is encountering an actor who knows more about the character than you do! Ensure this never happens.
Your art director/costume designer (usually the same person on indie shoots) will also seek your opinions on how you see things looking on-set. Ultimately, the creative decision is theirs, but surely you’ll have banged out several preliminary sketches or storyboards because you can see your story world in your mind’s eye. Even if your drawing skills aren’t worth a darn, you’ve at least selected comparative materials you can readily share with these crew types. You’ll be able to talk the talk, as it were, even if you can’t walk the walk, per se.
Your crew will absolutely need to see that you carry yourself behind-camera and with regard to all aspects of this project with the requisite amount of seriousness.
The more you know about your story, the more confidently you’ll carry yourself and the greater respect you’ll engender from the folks who likely aren’t working for much – if anything – on this film idea of yours. Since you can’t compensate them monetarily, don’t even dare scrimping on your “expert” status. As lead captain, they’ll expect you to have all the answers all the time.
Trust me, I’ve been there before and I know this only too well.
I thought up this post because I was also imagining life beyond your film.
Remember, filmmaking constitutes just half of the creative act nowadays, the other half being long-term audience engagement. What other sorts of things can you prepare as you go about the latter? For those who have been following this blog for quite a while will be able to read between the lines and know I’m referring to extra-diagetic content, the stuff that’s part of your film but unseen during the main film.
Knowing your story like the whiskers on your backhand means you can spin off other narrative wrinkles you didn’t have time for during the principal shoot.
If you’re Terence Winter shooting Boardwalk Empire, then your TV series has a welter of tentacles shooting off the main storyline. There are entire documentaries about the Prohibition era or the concomitant rise of American gangster culture as direct offshoots of the series. Period historians and other experts – not to mention marquee executive producers like Marty Scorsese and Mark Wahlberg – can volunteer their knowledge with material vast and engaging enough to fill up entire additional DVDs. Think about cobbling together enough box sets of the stuff to appeal to your target audience.
Knowing your story world also ensures the potential for further versions of your successful initial film and addresses one of primary indie filmmaker goals, “career.”
If you’ve already got three films in the pipeline before you set out and are not wanting for inspiration, consider yourself more fortunate than most indies who are struggling from project to project.
You happily no longer find yourself in that camp of filmmakers who treat their films like start-ups, each with their own financing thicket, casting issues, crewing-up challenges, and other time-consuming preparatory tasks. You can establish rapport and dialogue with your crew, getting closer to become that signature auteur the press seems to adore.
If you’re already going down this road, jump in fully. If you’re already going to burn through a couple of years of your life in development — with likely another thrown in for pre-production — have the courtesy to know all there is to know about your film’s story world before getting on-set.
Be a resource for your team.
Have all the answers.
Be as expressive as your position allows because they’re looking to you to be the Know-It-All.
Story world familiarity = control of your set and script. And as an indie, this is exactly where you want to be.
Adam Daniel Mezei, PMD | Producer of Marketing and Distribution
Indie Audience Engagement Services for Independent Feature Films and Documentaries
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