As I continue to develop my feature film script and prepare for the craziness of development/pre-production/production etc., it’s sometimes helpful to look back and remember the lessons of the past. After all, that’s why I learned them, right? And perhaps no other project taught me more than ‘Winner Takes All,’ for which I juggled duties as writer, producer and lead actor (power to the hyphenates!!!).
‘Winner Takes All‘ was shot in December, 2009, took a year and a half to edit (eventually clocking in at 17 minutes) and premiered at the Atlanta Film Festival in April, 2011. It went on to gain acceptance into ten international film festivals and secured distribution through Guest House Films’ dark-themed collection called, ‘Black Briefs.’ Ever the perfectionist, at one point, I wanted the film to get into Sundance, 50+ film festivals, win an Oscar, take over the world and make me a mega filmmaker/actor hyphenate. However, once reality set in and my ego faced the stark truth that there are thousands of shorts made every year (and hundreds and hundreds of really good ones….), I became satisfied with what we accomplished. But more than the outer accomplishments were the valuable lessons learned about what we did both right and wrong. I’ll start with the stupid side.
Five Stupid Things I Did Producing ‘Winner Takes All’
1. Underestimating the importance of the ‘smaller’ departments. One horrendous day on the set, we went into overtime. This is pretty much death for an indie short because we had to shell out extra money for our cast and crew and order a second meal. Although we had to do it, the overtime was completely avoidable….had we only paid more attention to two departments – costumes and make-up. Why did we go into overtime? One of our lead actors could not find the suede pants established as so critical for his character and we did not have anyone from the costume department on hand to organize the clothes and make sure the actors had all their outfits as needed. We figured, ‘Hey we only have four actors and each actor only has one outfit. We don’t need a wardrobe department on set.’ The costume (which was eventually found tucked away in a second bathroom no one knew was there) took three hours to find. By that time, the camera crew had to change the lighting set-up they had planned, re-light and flip around to get another character’s coverage. (Another lesson – if you think actors will be responsible for their own costumes, you are wrong). Making matters worse, this was also the day our make-up artist arrived two-and-a-half hours late. We didn’t have a rolodex of other make-up artists available and because she was the ONLY one in her department, we simply had to wait. We spent SO much time organizing the camera crew, the equipment, the insurance, the permit, the meals that we neglected to remember just how important these ‘small’ departments are on a film set. And boy did it cost us overtime dollars. On a film set, there are no ‘small’ departments.
2. Not investing in a cash box. We ended up having more than $300 stolen from a rehearsal and later had to work double-time to track down all the receipts from people in all different departments, from craft services to production design. I truly believe the theft and the receipt hassle would’ve been solved had we invested from the beginning in a small cash box with a sign-in/sign-out sheet for all the petty cash. When you give people cash, they tend to just think of it as money in their pocket. When they are forced to sign-out for the cash they receive and know they’ll have to sign-in once more with receipts to accompany the change, they take it seriously. A fifteen dollar cash box would’ve saved time and money on our production.
3. Applying to film festivals with a rough cut. Sometimes you are told that film festivals are used to rough cuts, that they can see past any audio/color correction problems. Maybe if you’re Woody Allen or Terrence Malick. If you’re newer to the festival circuit, I would never, ever apply with any sort of rough cut. Why? With ‘Winner Takes All,’ we applied to a big festival that was sort of “shooting for the stars” with a rough cut and didn’t get in. Later on, once we had a finished version, we applied to another festival that I thought was the PERFECT fit for our film. Guess what? We still didn’t get in. Of course, there could be a million reasons why but I couldn’t help but notice that the main programmer of the “shooting for the stars” festival was the SAME PERSON that later declined our finished version for the “Perfect Fit” festival. I truly believe the person may’ve thought they saw the film once in a rough cut form and didn’t need to see it again, robbing us of a chance to make a great first impression with the finished piece. Remember, these festival programmers don’t just work for one festival. They work for several and once they see your film, they’ve seen it. So make sure they don’t first see it as a rough cut.
4. Not Having a Plan to Manage Stress. As a filmmaking hyphenate, you will face an extraordinary amount of stress and unexpected stress should be factored into a plan to take care of yourself emotionally, physically and spiritually during the process. Three days before production started, my wallet was stolen, which included the company credit card to which all our equipment, insurance and expenses were charged. My identification was gone. Everything. On top of learning lines, organizing equipment and dealing with all sorts of new people and personalities, this sent me over the top with stress and some of it was avoidable. If I could do it again, I would pre-plan a massage just before production. By the time I shot my webseries, I knew that I would take the first twenty minutes of every lunch break to meditate and take quiet time no matter how many of the cast and crew members wanted to talk. Have some fun distractions like an iPhone game or app that helps you unwind and make a plan to play it, even if you don’t feel like it in the moment. Or if you have a romantic partner, let them know you might need some mindless nookie one night of the production just to have some stress release. And let any romantic interest know up front that for the length of the shoot, you won’t be available to emotionally caretake or solve anything sticky in your relationship. It’s just too much to ask of yourself. In indie filmmaking, stress always takes a toll and it’s part of the beast you must face, but manageable stress feels a lot different to the body than unmanageable stress.
5. Not understanding the difference between an editor and a post-production supervisor. Our first editor was a close friend of mine who had won an Emmy for her editing on a reality television show. She was highly qualified to edit the film based not only on her television work, but on her narrative work in the past. However, she was not used to dealing with workflow issues. In her office, the footage just appeared in her editing suite and she went to work and did a fantastic job. We were basically expecting her to serve not only as an editor, but also as a post-production supervisor. This was especially unreasonable since we were dealing with Red footage, which at that time was considered a super-beast to deal with in Post. She eventually left the project because of other family and career obligations, but we got the message and hired a post-production supervisor (who ironically enough, ended up being our editor). But still, we should’ve had a post-production supervisor from day one to help establish the post workflow, especially knowing the difficulty of dealing with Red footage. It would have saved us heartache and made for a happier editor. So be aware of who your editor is and if you’re going to expect them to function as a post-production supervisor, that should be clear with them and – unless they’re you’re bestie or doing a huge favor – they should be compensated and credited extra for performing more than one function.
Okay, so there are the stupid things I did. Here are the smart ones:
1. Hiring a director that shared my values about acting and the creative process. I desperately wanted to learn how to direct, but I intuitively knew that writing, producing and acting was more than enough to handle on my first outing of this scale. We had a number of choices in terms of who to choose as director, but we went with Camille Carida, a smart decision. She shared the most important values you can share as creative collaborators – a similar emphasis on what is important about the lives of human beings and how they are to be explored in an artistic venture.
2. Hiring with balance in terms of other key collaborators. As a producer, I wanted Camille to feel comfortable with her d.p., but I also wanted to highlight choices that balanced out her strengths and weaknesses. She was strong in creating performances and understanding and executing the theatricality of the piece. The eventual d.p. John Matysiak has an uber-cool, perfectionist approach to the visuals which balanced out Camille being newer to shotmaking. We tried to echo this balance throughout our hiring process. We are excited to take chances with newer people in some departments, but would not take newer people for EVERY department.
3. Investing in High Production Value. I saw ‘Winner Takes All’ as my own version of film school and spent quite a bit of money doing it. Because there are so many shorts being produced and so many shorts competing for slots in festivals, I mitigated my risk in terms of inexperience with spending money for high production value. I don’t recommend this strategy for every new producer. And in truth, I had produced two uber-low-budget shorts that I didn’t feel comfortable submitting to festivals. But I don’t regret spending the money on high production value for ‘Winner Takes All.’ It helped give us an edge in competing for those slots – our high production value is still noted by almost everyone who sees the film. And it helps the film stand out as an enduring calling card. Since I learned so much on ‘Winner Takes All,’ I didn’t feel the need to invest in high production value as much the next time around but for this first big effort, it was crucial.
4. Selecting a film with one location. Our film took place entirely in a theater, which gave some much needed stability to our shoot. My producing partner Elizabeth Gordon and I considered producing a different short film, but we decided that the film with only one location would be a good hedge against our relative inexperience as film producers. Turns out, we were right. Between the wallet being stolen and all the other problems that came up, we desperately needed something steady and secure. The fact that everyone could show up to the same location, park in the same lot and keep the equipment in the same place was a very needed boost of stability. Plus, we got a number of different looks within the theatre — on stage, in the audience, in the light booth – so we still managed to do pretty well in terms of visual variety.
5. Going for it with Alec Mapa. We really wanted someone amazing to play Simon. After a bit of a process bouncing ideas with Camille, Elizabeth and our casting director David S. Zimmerman, we felt strongly that Alec Mapa would be an amazing choice for the piece (and he was). In the LGBT world, Alec is definitely a celebrity and not someone that I knew personally. However, David did have friends from his time living in San Francisco that knew Alec. David arranged for them to approach Alec, who gave the go-ahead for us to call his agent. Then, we simply offered him the part. I wasn’t even sure of the protocol for doing something like that, but just got through it, with a little help. It worked. Within a day, Alec’s agent requested the script. Within two days, we made a deal and he came onboard the project. Alec’s terrific performance brought a lot of value to our film to the degree that other filmmakers approached me and asked me how we landed him. The answer was really surprisingly simple – we asked.
Okay, so those were some smart and stupid things I did producing ‘Winner Takes All.’ In the next week, I’ll take you even further back to show you some stupid/smart things I learned producing two plays and also investigate some stupid/smart things I did directing my first project.
Hunter Lee Hughes is a filmmaker living and working in Los Angeles and the founder of Fatelink. His current feature film Guys Reading Poems is touring film festivals and this blog is dedicated to the process of making his second feature film, “Inside-Out, Outside-In.” If you enjoy the blog, please support our team by following us on Facebook, Twitter (@Fatelink) or Instagram (@Fatelink).