I am a writer and director, and I’ve made a whole bunch of short things in the last few years, both independently and in collaboration with various other parties.
But, early last year, I got to fulfill a childhood dream and tackle the big one: I made my first feature film. It took almost four years of non-stop hustling on the part of myself and my two collaborators, Max Azulay and Phil Primason, but earlier this month, we had our world premiere at the Austin Film Festival, and it was quite an experience. It was no longer a pile of script pages poorly stapled together; it was no longer folder of video files or a password-protected link… it was a movie.
Now, with our New York premiere only a few days away, we’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the rocky and unpredictable road that we’ve travelled down to get here. And so, without further ado, here are some of the hard lessons that I learned throughout the process of making my first indie feature film.
1. No, it’s not the same as making twenty short films
When my collaborators and I first began writing, all we had done was make short films. We weren’t worried, however. How different could it possibly be? Isn’t it basically like shooting a bunch of short films, all back to back?
Nope. As it turns out, making a feature film, even at a relatively low budget level, is a lot more like starting a small business than making a handful of shorts. You need to assemble a long-term core team, you need to raise money, and you need to inspire total strangers to trust your vision. Unlike a short, which can be made more or less in a creative vacuum, you need to be legally, financially, and emotionally ready to see your film as something that deserves to exist, will be worth watching, and could even be a potential business opportunity for other people.
As an insecure artist through and through, this was profoundly hard for me to embrace, but I quickly learned that if you want to keep people invested, literally and figuratively, over years and years, this is a required step in order to get to the good part.
2. Surround yourself with talented people who are excited to work
Early on, we wasted months pursuing people that wanted absolutely nothing to do with us. While reaching outside of your circle can sometimes be rewarding, it really served us well at many instances to hire cast and crew through our existing network rather than sit around hoping that Ben Affleck’s manager’s friend’s cousin would get back to us.
As it turned out, we could not have asked for a better, more driven, more inspiring cast and crew. They’re the kind of people you want to live in close quarters with for a month and play board games. (Hint: if you went to film school, the people I am describing are probably right in front of you.)
3. Always be refining, but stay connected to the inspiration
Another big difference between making a feature and making a bunch of short films is that you are forced to sit with a single idea for literally years. As someone who spent a long time making a new short video every week, I was very much not used to this. Besides, the idea for this film came from a short that I wrote in 2011, when I was 24 years old. 24? Who wants to pour their heart and soul and time and money into a film based on an idea that some idiot 24-year-old came up with?
Instead of going down that rabbit hole, I would instead try and focus on the root of the original inspiration, remind myself what excited me about it, and what still excites me about it. After all, any art is a snapshot of a moment in an artist’s creative life. With a multi-year project, you need to appreciate it for what it meant, what it means, and what it will mean in the future. All that being said, you should still constantly question your premise, refine the script, and improve, simplify, and heighten the story. But all of this can be done without undermining that spark of inspiration it originally came from.
4. Stay calm, even when it seems impossible
There is a lot pressure on a young filmmaker on the set of their first feature film. Investors visiting the set, schedule difficulties, money troubles, lack of snacks, you name it. There was an evening on our set where we had to decide whether to reschedule multiple exterior scenes that were slotted for the next day due the possibility of rain: if we made the wrong choice and got rained out, we’d lose an entire production day and cost the film thousands of dollars. And this was all while I was having a severe allergic reaction to the location we were shooting on!
Pressure, anxiety, and stress do not mix well with creativity, inspiration, and intuition. You need to believe, almost religiously, that the film will be better if you let yourself stay calm, present, and actually have fun. And while it may seem crazy in the moment, it ultimately serves the film best.
Just by the by: we ended up deciding to shoot that day. While it did drizzle a bit, we got everything we needed. And, when we were outside, my allergies got a lot better!
5. Ask for help, and then trust your gut
Since our film did not begin with a studio or network “green-lighting” it, there was never an “authority” in the room to tell us the “right” way of doing things. Instead, every decision was total guesswork. How do we get our script to actors? What lawyer do we hire? Do we even need a lawyer? How do film festivals work? Is the movie ten minutes too long? Is the movie total garbage? These questions would always lead to us seeking out advice from smarter, more experienced people that had been down this road before. This, unlike hiring, was a situation in which reaching outside of our circle served us well.
The scary truth, however, is that the world of independent film is a bit of a wild west, and so even the best advice can sometimes be useless if it’s been made obsolete by changes in the marketplace or in the technology of filmmaking and content distribution. So, that’s why I will end this by emphasizing that there is no “right way” to do any of it. It’s all guesswork, for everyone. This is terrifying, but also liberating. After all, you’re an artist. You’re not looking to join a conversation; you’re looking to start one.
Matt Porter is a writer, director, and actor based in New York. His feature film 5 Doctors stars Max Azulay, himself, Emily Walton, Bobby Moynihan, Adam Dannheisser, and Eddie Pepitone; it will premiere at the Bell House in New York on November 9th. Tickets are available here.