How to Make a Movie: My First Feature Film

Lights Online Film School recently had the opportunity to interview one of our newest students, Josh Beck, about how he made his first feature film EVER. If you want to learn how you too can learn to make a movie you’ll find this film and corresponding interview incredibly valuable. You can watch the teaser trailer for the film and read our interview below.

Hello Josh and thank you for talking with us about your first feature film. First of all, a huge congratulations on getting your film shot! As our blog readers know, making a movie is no small undertaking.

Let’s start at the beginning with your story. Can you tell us a little bit more about your film’s storyline?

This film is about a young woman who is suffering from depression in the worst possible way. Our main character, Ever, has lost the love of her life in an accident, her family relationships have been destroyed, and she’s pushed away everyone around her. Being alone with her pain is starting to feel unbearable and she’s made the decision to end it all for good. Before she gets the chance to do anything permanent, she meets Emily, a friendly and open-minded photographer who takes it upon herself to keep Ever alive and happy. The friendship between these two girls quickly evolves into a romantic relationship. Ever seems to have found the key to her happiness, but her new feelings are exciting and terrifying all at once, and Emily’s love may not be enough to save Ever’s life.

A story about a girl, who loses a boy, but finds a girl. How’s that for a tagline? I’m still working on it!

Where did you get the idea for the story?

It all started when a friend of mine took me to the L.A. premier of the 2011 Sundance film Bellflower. I was immediately blown away by the movie, but more importantly, I was amazed that a young group of filmmakers we’re able to make such a cool film on such a low budget (I think it was around $17,000) and I decided right then and there that I was going to write a new feature script of my own and get it made on a low personal budget.

I sat down in the living room with my roommate at the time, and we brainstormed on story ideas for hours. I knew I wanted to touch on the subject of depression because it’s something that I suffer with myself and I knew I could portray it in an honest way. I knew I wanted my friend Wendy McColm to play the lead role so my first idea was to have this female character, who was in really bad shape, meet a guy who was going to bring her out of depression. The idea sounded really boring right off the bat, but my roommate Colin kind of half-heartedly said “what if it’s a girl?” and a big lightbulb went on.

I’ve always been sort of a feminist in the most basic sense of the word. In the sense that I believe women are amazing and deserve every bit of respect (and in some cases more respect) than men, and I think women are so often under-represented in film. First of all I was attracted to the less-common idea of having a female lead, but then also to have another woman be kind of the hero in the story who tries to get the protagonist back on track. One thing I do want to stress to potential viewers is that this is not a “lesbian film.” It’s a love story between two people, where gender doesn’t need to be an issue.

How long did the script take you to write?

I started outlining immediately and I just kept adding more and more detail as the weeks went on. I think I was afraid to actually start the screenplay since the only other feature I had written took me 2 painstaking years and I wasn’t ready to jump into another one so soon. I ended up writing the first 10 pages, then shelving the project for several months. I got a new job, moved into a new apartment, and was doing the online dating thing, so my life was starting to feel pretty content and balanced and I basically had no motivation to finish the script. I was still constantly coming up with new details about the story, but no actual writing was getting done.

In early 2012 I was dating a girl that I was really into but she broke it off, and shortly after that I was laid off from my cushy managerial job. I got sent into a deep spiral of depression which was exactly what I needed in the way of motivation to work on the script again. It may sound counter intuitive, but for some reason that’s the way I work. I finished the first draft of EVER in 3 depressed-filled weeks.

Okay, let’s zoom out for a moment to help other filmmakers wanting to learn how to make a movie better understand just how long the process takes from start to finish. How long did your entire film take to make? I mean from the time you sat down at the computer to write your first word to the time you called “that’s a wrap”?

The first word was written in the Summer of 2011 and we wrapped production in the Spring of 2013.

The film is currently in post production. How long do you think the editing process will take you?

In my experience, editing never actually feels done. I’m a perfectionist, so without any producers on my back I could edit this film forever! Luckily there are some film festival submission deadlines I have my eye on, so I hope to have a presentable cut ready by early August.

What’s your post production work-flow look like?

Since I’ll be doing 95% of post myself, there’s no strict format that I’m adhering to. It’s not like I need to have a locked picture by a certain date so the sound person or whoever else is next in line can start on his or her job. I’ll probably be tinkering with all aspects of the film throughout the post process, but in general the idea is to sync sound, edit the picture, edit sound, mix sound, color correct, color grade, die happy because I’ve completed an impossible task.

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What was the budget for this film?

$12,000 – take THAT Bellflower team!

I noticed you shot the film on two Blackmagic Cinema Cameras. Can you tell me a little bit about your experience using that camera? What drew you towards wanting to shoot your first feature on the Blackmagic Cinema Camera rather than the other options available to you?

I know there’s a photo online of me and my cinematographer, Micah Van Hove, each with our own camera, but it’s sort of misleading. The Blackmagic Cinema Camera is brand new to the market, and with any new piece of technology, there are always bugs and issues to be worked out. Micah is actually currently writing a detailed article for another film blog about our experience with the camera, but I can sum it up by saying we had to send our camera back to the manufacturers in Australia 3 separate times because of the issues we were having, and one of those cameras in the photo is a defective one that we were returning. All in all, despite the massive headaches, production delays, time and money that I’ll never see again, the image quality you get with this camera is so worth it. I was originally going to be fine with shooting the whole film on a Canon 60D, but when Micah showed me the specs and price-point of the BMCC I knew it was the right camera for this project.

How did you find the camera handled in low light?

The main reason I wanted to use this camera is because the dynamic range is pretty amazing, and since I knew we weren’t going to be lighting the film very much, I needed a camera that could pick up the detail in all the dark areas. A lot of the indoor night scenes we did have a china ball set up in the corner of the room, but just about all of the exterior night scenes have no lighting setups. Whatever Los Angeles decided to give us was what we had to work with. All of the daytime scenes utilize natural light.

If you had to pick one downside about the camera, as it related to your shoot specifically, what would it be?

Besides the technical difficulties, I can’t think of anything that really hindered the filmmaking process. I’m not a gear nerd at all, but I’m sure Micah would have some insight on how to improve the camera. I know he was struggling a bit with the weight. Most of the film was shot handheld on a shoulder rig and he would need to take breaks because of the physical strain on his body. Secretly, I like that the camera is heavy because it keeps the image more stable, but don’t tell Micah! OH! I just realized the NUMBER ONE THING THAT SUCKS ABOUT THIS CAMERA… THE GLOSSY SCREEN! You literally cannot see anything out there in the sunny daylight. We didn’t have any sort of video village so trying to stand behind Micah while looking in on his frame was impossible. I would recommend investing in an EVF.

What lenses did you use to shoot your film?

Off the top of my head I think it was: Nikon 20mm, 50mm, 105mm, Sigma 30mm 1.4, Canon L 24-70mm

Did you use zoom or prime lenses? Why?

I knew I wanted a handheld feel for this film, and I knew for the few tripod shots I didn’t want any pans or tilts or movement of any kind, including zooms (just my weird artistic choice). We used almost all prime lenses, but we had that canon zoom lens for when we were stealing a location and wouldn’t have time to swap lenses.

I noticed you’re using a shoulder rig to shoot many of your scenes. Can you tell us a little bit more about the decision to go that route?

I have this weird thing when I’m watching films where certain types of camera movements will take me out of the illusion and I’ll be very aware that this is a camera on a set. This happens every single time I’m watching a student film or low budget film where the crew is trying to do more complicated camera movements than their equipment will allow. For instance, trying to do a smooth pan on a cheap tripod NEVER works. Don’t even try it! I think a non-shaky handheld shot feels much more organic, and a nice locked tripod shot gives the audience no other option but to focus on the scene. I think these 2 shooting styles really compliment the tone of my film and the mental state of Ever’s character.

It looks like you had a pretty skeletal crew. That’s, of course, pretty common for most filmmakers making their first movie. But I’m curious to know how many people were involved in this project behind the camera?

For most days on set it was me as director/producer/sound recordist, Micah as cinematographer/camera operator, and our friend Nate Kamiya as line-producer/boom operator. That’s basically it. I’m not sure if it gets any more skeletal than that.

I have a little bit of a background in the music industry playing in bands and recording music so I have a good ear as well as the technical skills to record good audio, so it made sense for me to save money by setting lav and boom levels myself. Also, what I learned while making this film is that many times a director will be too far away from his or her actors to properly hear the dialogue. On a small set with not a lot of fancy equipment, it was vital that I be the one monitoring with headphones so I could also direct the actors’ performances. Not an easy task.

Did you have a 1st AD or production assistant helping you with any logistical details or did you do most the planning and organizational work yourself? How hands-on were you with the organizational elements of the film? If you did this process yourself, did you find it overly time-consuming?

My god this was the absolute WORST part about getting this film shot. I did not have a 1st AD and I was doing 99% of the scheduling, planning, and organizing myself. It would have been great to have a bigger budget just so I could pay people more to pause their lives so they could work on my film, but it just didn’t work out that way. Everybody has another job they need to get to, or a family event, or trip out of town, or whatever else causing me to constantly have to rework the schedule. Everyone on the cast and crew was really passionate about the project, which was great, but me trying to schedule and organize a film shoot around other people’s lives is not something I ever want to do again.

From an organizational standpoint, how would you structure your next film differently?

If I get the opportunity to make another film and it has to be another low budget production, I will definitely hire someone to do the leg work so I can focus on the creative side.

Who is one key person you didn’t have on set for this film that you feel would be 100% necessary for your next film?

A personal Masseuse. I’m only half-joking about this, too. Making a film is stressful and it’s important to take some personal moments to collect yourself. Don’t be afraid to call a time-out every once in a while if you can spare the extra minutes (extra time on a set set? HAHAHAHA).

What microphone did you use to capture sound?

Wireless Sennheiser lavs, RODE NTG-3 for outdoor boom, Audio Technica at4053b for indoor boom, ZOOM h4n for backup audio.

I noticed you had 2 Raid storage devices for your footage. How much footage did you actually shoot and how much digital storage space did you require for your film? What safety precautions did you take when it came to backing up and storing your footage?

Originally we were going to shoot the film part RAW and part straight to ProRes so I bought these 2 hard drives at 4 terabytes each and I was going to link them. I was planning on buying 2 more for backup, but ultimately we shot the entire film ProRes which saved a lot of space. The footage takes up 3 terabytes of the 1st drive and I ended up just using the 2nd one as the backup. I should probably backup again sometime soon but I like to live on the edge.

Were you concerned about overshooting and requiring more hard-drive space? How did you approach your scenes knowing that this is something you needed to be aware of? Did you shoot less takes, rehearse before scenes or have a pretty good storyboard?

I didn’t stress about it too much. I bought these 4 TB G-Technology drives (with built-in fans!) for only $299 each, so I knew if I was running low on space I could buy more.

There was no storyboard for this film. Micah and I met a couple times several months before the shoot to work out a shot list, but neither one of us even looked at it while on set. It was more of a formality to get us on the same page. We did very little rehearsing as well because of everybody’s schedule, but each scene came together pretty quickly, and it seemed like after only one or two tries I was already starting to get usable takes. That’s what happens when you cast really good actors. We ended up moving throughout the day pretty quickly as well. It was rare that we ever went over a 6 hour shoot day and I’ve been on other professional film sets with 10, 12, 16+ hour days.

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I see you shot in real locations. How did you get access to them? Did you design or prop each location once you got access to it, or did you look for inherent design qualities you thought would match the aesthetic of your film?

When I set out to write the script I knew I wasn’t going to have a budget for locations, so I wrote the story with great looking places in mind that I knew I would have access to, or that I knew I could steal pretty easily. I used houses and apartments of friends and family and public places that naturally look beautiful on camera like the beach. When your crew is only 3 or 4 people nobody really hassles you, even in Los Angeles. The one location I knew I was going to have to pay for was the vintage bookstore where Ever works in the story. I wrote the script with Counterpoint Records & Books in mind because I’ve been there many times and it’s absolutely beautiful. They used it for a scene in the movie Beginners as well as some other films. Luckily the store owner let us shoot there at a rate I could afford and we used it for 4 hours.

You seem to have a very consistent tone throughout the trailer. All of the elements seem to piece together properly. Nothing seems jarring or out of place. The characters seem to fit into their locations, the colors seem to match the mood and everything is enhanced with your choice of music. Tell me a little bit about your thoughts about the tone of the film. Was it something that sort of came together naturally, or did you have your eye on it through the entire process?

The tone is something that I kind of struggled with, but I didn’t realize I was struggling until it was almost time to shoot. I was pretty certain that I had a solid vision for the film when writing it but once we were on set and everything was real, I could tell that I was sort of sending mixed signals with the tone. Part of me had written a film kind of like Garden State where it dealt with serious subject matter but had a sort of stylized quirky subdued comedy to it. The other part of me had written a script that was this sort of ultra-realistic “day-in-the-life” movie where plot wasn’t as important as character. My favorite film is Blue Valentine and I admire Derek Cianfrance for his absolute dedication to realism. Nothing comes off as fake or forced or posed and that really resonates with me. I ended up finding my groove after many long discussions with my lead actor Wendy, and I think EVER definitely leans more toward realism while still maintaining a story that’s interesting to audiences.

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Can you tell me a little bit about your casting process when it came to making this movie? How did you go about finding Wendy McColm & Christina Elizabeth Smith? Can you offer any casting tips to other indie filmmakers out there who might be about to cast for their first features?

Wendy has been a friend of mine for a little over 4 years now. She has a pretty respectable internet following, but I am by far her biggest fan. I honestly don’t think anybody else has seen more of her acting and directing work than I have. She’s extremely talented in all things creative, and I wrote this film with her in mind. I would have never made the movie if it turned out she couldn’t do it.

The role of Emily was actually written for another friend of mine but she moved to another state so I was scrambling to find a replacement. At some point a friend casually recommended Christina to me and it just happened that she has the look I wanted for the role and she’s talented as well. I think I just got really lucky.

Obviously you should be very cautious about casting friends in your movies, but in general I think it just pays off to be a resident in Los Angeles because you’re constantly meeting talented and passionate people, which makes it easy to do the casting. For some of the roles I ended up posting casting notices and holding auditions, which was honestly one of the most thrilling experiences I’ve had on this film. I really enjoyed auditioning actors because it made everything feel real for the first time. If you’re local to L.A. there’s a company called CAZT that lets filmmakers use their space for free so I’d definitely recommend it.

Can you tell us a little bit about your choice in wardrobe? Did you use look books or other forms of inspiration to help guide you in the right direction visually, or did it come naturally to the characters? Did you buy your character’s wardrobe or did you use the real clothes of the actors?

There was only one outfit in the entire movie that I bought and it was a nice formal Chinese dress for Emily’s character to wear at an art gallery showing. Every other outfit was already owned by each actor and I made wardrobe choices that reflected the vibe of the film. I never actually use the word “hipster” in the script, but there’s definitely an undeniable “Silverlake / Los Feliz” feel and those areas are where we shot most of the footage.

One thing I think a lot of filmmakers don’t consider is that when you’re shooting out of sequence it’s SO IMPORTANT to have all your wardrobe outfits selected in advance and to keep a detailed list with reference photos of what each character is wearing in each scene. My characters had a lot of wardrobe changes and even though I was really good about staying organized, I almost made a couple critical errors because I was second guessing my wardrobe list. In the heat of the moment on set your mind can play tricks on you and you might start thinking you’ve made a mistake and you just shot an entire scene in the wrong outfit. I almost freaked out at the bookstore location but ultimately I just decided to trust the list I had made and double checked months before when I was in a more calm environment, which was the right decision because everything ended up just fine.

From a directing standpoint, and specifically from the standpoint of working with actors, can you tell me a little bit about your process?

Since this is my first feature I wanted to keep my strategy pretty simple: cast really great actors, then stand back and let them act. I had very little to say to the actors when giving notes because I wanted to see what their first instincts were. Wendy, especially, is very adamant about getting the best out of her performances, which helped me a lot. Most of the time she would be absolutely amazing right out of the gate, the performance was exactly what I had in mind, or maybe I’d throw in a tiny suggestion. Compared to other directors I guess I had the advantage here, writing a character for an actor that I knew very well.

Anyone who’s ever made a movie knows that bringing the right “energy” into a scene is really important. How did you get your actors to work towards that right energy? I often hear actors say that they find film sets overly technical. They can imagine the characters and they understand the story-arc, but once the cameras are rolling, the boom is a few feet above their head the story all of the sudden feels technical to them? How did you avoid (or try to avoid it) from your film set?

For this I think it helps a lot to have a small crew. Friendly relationships between people form pretty quickly, and when the camera is rolling with just 4 friends in a room together, it’s a lot less nerve-racking for the actors than if you were in a giant cold sound stage with 100 people watching you.

Now that you’re editing do you find the images look the way you visualized them when you were writing the story? Is the story coming together in way that was outlined in the script or is it taking on a bit of a mind of its own?

I honestly don’t remember much of what I saw visually when writing the script. It’s not as if I wrote the script one day, then saw all the footage the next day. The vision changes over time as more concrete details get added to the process. You lock down one location that’s slightly different than what you imagined but your mind quickly adjusts, you figure out the exact wardrobe for that scene and another piece of the puzzle is in place, color schemes, hair styles, lighting, blocking, dialogue performances, all of these elements sort of get established one piece at a time until the final product is probably different than the original vision, but the new vision feels like the right one.

If you had to chose three main “takeaways” from this project, things you learned so that your next project will be better… what are they?

1. Hire someone to be “the bad guy.” Whoever this is on your crew, there needs to be someone (not the director) who can deliver bad news and someone whom the actors and other crew members can come to with problems and schedule changes and concerns and location directions, and food requests, and advice about dating or whatever else.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask for favors, but also don’t take them for granted. I’ve always been a very independent person and I hate asking for help, money, or favors, but as soon as I realized that getting this film made was more important than myself, I found that people are generally pretty receptive to your needs as a filmmaker. If someone says “no” it’s not the end of the world, and if someone says “yes” it’s important to make them feel appreciated.

3. Even if your job is only the director, take the time to learn every other job as well. I wanted to make sure that I understood every aspect about filmmaking before I went into production because I wanted to be able to have an opinion about the way things should be done rather than just taking someone else’s suggestion blindly. Also, if someone had to cancel that day or if circumstances required me to fill in for any task during the shoot I wanted to be able to perform the task myself with confidence.

Any final thoughts or suggestions for those wanting to learn how to make a movie of their own?

I think I would have more useful advice about this after I’ve made a second feature, but I’ll offer some wisdom anyway. Be ambitious but don’t overreach your abilities. Play to your strengths, don’t set out to make a film that you can’t afford to produce or that you didn’t get the right funding for. It’s tempting to try and find only people who will work for free but that’s not always a good thing. Offering to trade help on their productions is great, but if you can afford to pay people even the lowest rate, do it. If you have to sacrifice in other areas of the film, do it. People deserve to feel like they’re not wasting their time, and a happier cast and crew makes for a better on-set experience and, in the end, a better film. Also, buy more batteries and gaff tape.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us Josh. We wish you continued success as a filmmaker and we look forward to seeing your work in our student community!

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