The Biggest Mistakes Filmmakers Make
by Gini Graham Scott
Excerpted from Chapter 21 of The Complete Guide to Writing, Producing, and Directing a Low-Budget Short Film by Gini Graham Scott (Limelight Editions, an imprint of Hal Leonard)
The Biggest Mistakes Filmmakers Make
Some of the biggest mistakes filmmakers make have already been alluded to in previous chapters. Here I want to highlight the ones I have noticed the most.
Writing too much detail in the action or narrative section, or discussing what the characters are thinking or feeling. Don’t treat the script like a novel. Only describe what will go on the screen and keep these descriptions short—just enough to set the scene, since the director will set up the script based on the chosen location and the available décor and props. Only include the mini- mal descriptions of a character’s feelings to indicate how an actor might show those emotions on screen; don’t go into detail about the character’s internal processes.
Having the characters say too much, explain past events in detail, or describe what they are doing or plan to do. You want to keep the dialogue natural. But even if some characters might have a lot to say if this was real life, avoid long speeches. Generally keep your dialogue to five lines or less. If someone has a lot to say, break it up with cuts ahead or some kind of action. Also, avoid characters describing at length something that has happened in the past—find a way to show it in action, such as through a flashback—though avoid too many of those since the audience can become lost and confused. Additionally the audience doesn’t need detailed explanations about why a character has done or plans to do something. They can usually figure it out by inferring a motive or intention from the action.
Feeling that a “final” script is final. Even if you have gotten feedback and engaged in rewrites based on the comments you have gotten, be open to change, since any script might be revised in the process of filming. Many actors have different ways of reworking the dialogue to make it their own, and you may get other input from the director (if you are not directing the film yourself), from the director of photography, or from others on the set. Even some PAs, especially ones who have gained experience working on other sets or aspire to become a DP or director, may have suggestions. So be open and flexible to change if it seems reasonable and desirable, while keeping any changes within limits, so they don’t turn your script into a completely different story. You will often get a better performance from everyone when you are open to some improvisation and changes on the set.
Failing to follow up and confirm arrangements for a shoot. You want to be sure everyone who is expected arrives. This is especially critical for a small shoot, since if a key person doesn’t show up at the last minute and can’t be replaced—such as your director of photography or a lead actor—you can’t shoot your film. That’s why it’s crucial to follow up with reminders after you have gotten a confirmation to make sure the person remembers and is still on board so you have time to find a replacement if necessary. Thus, send out reconfirmations three times—about seven to ten days, three to four days, and one day before the shoot. These confirmations don’t have to be repeats of the same message, which might be seem too heavy-handed. Rather you can combine these reminders with providing additional information, such as sending the latest cast list, a scene breakdown, or providing directions on how to get to the start of the shoot.
Not clarifying who will be doing what on the set. You want to be clear—preferably in advance, or at least on the set—about the different roles people are playing so they understand what they are supposed to do.
Not being prepared to make last-minute changes. You need to be flexible to making revisions to adapt to unexpected events, such as when someone can’t come or you can’t shoot at an expected location. For example, on most shoots the actors don’t take on crew roles. But if someone on the crew, such as a PA or script supervisor, doesn’t show up, if you ask, one of the actors not in that scene might help, such as by using the clapboard and logging the scenes or helping to set up a green screen for a shot. Or if you have to shoot in a different location, change the action to suit that new location.
Letting someone else take charge, when you don’t like what they are doing. As the producer, your job is to bring together the team and see that everyone is performing their expected roles. If you are also the director, you are in charge of what the actors and crew members do. While the DP is responsible for supervising the technical aspects, including framing the shots, the director normally checks what the DP is doing and can ask the DP to reframe a shot. If you like what everyone is doing, fine, give them free rein to do it. But if not, rein them in, especially the DP, and remind them of your vision for the finished short. Normally those on the set will respect this, since there is a clear hierarchy flowing from the producer to the director to the DP and then to everyone else.
Losing track of the time so you don’t complete the shoot that was planned for one or two days. Because of the nature of the low- budget short, it is usually planned to shoot in one or at most two days. If the shoot goes over, it may prove difficult to get the actors or crew back together to complete the film. Thus, besides setting up a shooting schedule with approximate times for each scene, stick to this as much as possible. If the scenes are going over, check with the cast and crew to see if they can stay a little longer to finish the remaining scenes. If not, consider if you can adapt the script or eliminate less important scenes so you can finish in one or two days as planned rather than not finishing the film.
Letting a cast or crew member’s ideals of “art” or “perfection” get in the way of completing a shoot. The risk of letting others envision what the film might be is that a cast member may want even more takes than planned to get their part absolutely perfect. Or a director, if other than you, or your DP may be so determined to get the scene right that you go seriously over your time schedule and risk not completing the film. If you see such a problem developing, you have to take back your control. To do so, as appropriate, take the person who is trying to take over aside, or remind the whole group that you need to get the production back on track in order to complete it in the one or two days scheduled, or you may not be able to finish the film. Such a warning will commonly get everyone to be more conscious of the time. But if it doesn’t, say, because you have a DP who pulls the “I’m an artist” card, at least you tried. Later, if necessary, you can bring in another DP you can work with to finish the film.
Failing to make sure the actors or crew members have what they need for the shoot. While as a writer, producer, or director you are not responsible for the more technical aspects of the shoot, you want to make sure that everyone has what they need for the shoot and knows what to do. For example, while the actors may expect to bring their own selection of clothing and even some props (such as an engagement ring to show off in a scene), you might send the actors a list of the type of clothing to bring or the special props they need. Similarly, while the DP and camera people generally expect to bring their own cameras, you might make sure they are bringing enough supplies, or that you have extra batteries or extra mini-DV tapes or SD cards for recording the video or audio, if needed, so you don’t run out in the middle of filming.
Failing to adapt the shooting schedule in response to last-minute emergencies and no-shows. Unfortunately it happens. Key people don’t show up, equipment breakdowns occur, new camera and sound people need extra time to figure out what to do. In the case of such problems, in lieu of cancelling the shoot, you might make some changes to the script or shots so shooting can go on. For example, you might combine the lines of two characters into one. You might set up the scene to be shot with several takes by one camera shooting from different angles rather than having two or three cameras shoot the scene at the same time. You might recruit an actor with a small part to become a PA or change his or her look to play another role. In short, find creative ways to make changes, if possible, to go on with the shoot and get the best shots you can under the changed circumstances.
Working with people who aren’t team players. Every film involves people who have to be willing to be guided by whoever is in charge, whether that’s the producer, director, or producer/director. If you find that someone is difficult to work with or you hear from others that this person is difficult, it’s generally better to find someone else who is easier to work with since you’ll have a more comfortable shoot when everyone gets along. Even if someone is great with the camera, sound, or lighting, if someone acts like a “diva” with an inflated sense of his or her own importance, this attitude can quickly undermine morale and make for a tension-filled shoot. So it’s preferable to avoid such people. If you feel like you are walking on eggs in working with someone, don’t take that walk in the future. Find people who are great to have on the team.
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