What Working in Indie Film Really Looks Like

Why do you want to be a filmmaker, and how do you get there?

“You have to make it happen, rather than wait for someone else to recognise you.”

Lights Online Film School caught up with filmmakers Zak Klein, Simon Ryninks, and Tibo Travers to discuss their latest collaboration, Contractor 014352, a short film about a data entry clerk who seeks to overcome the drudgery of his day-to-day life by forging a connection with a stranger.

Currently in the funding stage, Contractor 014352 builds on the success of The Elevator Pitch, a fourth-wall breaking trip through the film industry following a plucky intern’s struggle to get to the top. It was a finalist at the Sundance London Short Film Competition and has played at festivals around the world.

Let’s give it a watch:

Simon has directed for the BBC and helms music videos, Zak works as an award-winning screenwriter and budding script editor, and Tibo oversees SweetDoh!, his London-based film production company, so the trio brings a kaleidoscope of industry experience to the table.

Without further ado, let’s jump into the interview!

Filmmakers Simon, Zak, & Tibo | Photo by Luigi Cianfarano / Shorts On Tap

Filmmakers Simon, Zak, & Tibo | Photo by Luigi Cianfarano / Shorts On Tap

Thanks for joining us, guys! We stumbled across The Elevator Pitch last year and thoroughly enjoyed its breakneck pacing and meta commentary on the movie business. I’m almost afraid to ask, but what inspired the idea…? Personal experiences? Deep-set fears? Or was it just a fun opportunity to lampoon industry stereotypes?

Zak: When I was starting out I did a lot of internships at film companies, trying to find my place in a hierarchical culture and figure out how to reconcile my creative ambitions with the reality of a difficult and forbidding film industry, where everyone starts at the bottom, and your creative talents are pretty much irrelevant to the work.

Simon: I’d had a lot of experiences being sat opposite someone with the power to make or break my career. Every time I knew I had to make a great impression, but had no idea how. So I’d end up being this weird, heightened version of myself, desperately trying to impress someone who is, essentially, just a person with a job and it ends up being sort of absurd…

Zak: We were both a little jaded. So Simon and I met up for a beer and I came up with the idea of a plucky, naïve intern at a film company who has tons of ambition but no awareness of the realities or etiquette of his work place. It was such an obviously self-indulgent idea that Simon and I decided to take it even further, and have the intern making a film about himself doing just this, and recklessly showing it to a producer. Once we’d broken the fourth wall, we decided to keep going and take it as far as we possibly could within 3 minutes. The result is The Elevator Pitch.

Simon: Amusingly, we’ve had a lot more meetings and chances to do “elevator pitches” since making the film, and no-one’s pulled a baseball bat on us yet…

From The Elevator Pitch

From The Elevator Pitch

Haha. So take us behind-the-scenes of The Elevator Pitch, guys. Once the screenplay was written, what were your next steps? What was the film’s budget, and how did you realize it? How long were you in pre-production, production, and post?

Simon: The Elevator Pitch had an incredibly fast turnaround from initial conception to its release. It was just a case of “we’re gonna make this,” so we did and I think that aided its free-form, stream of consciousness, feel.

Zak: Yes, although we had to shoot it over three consecutive weekends, because of scheduling issues and most of us working during the week.

Tibo: We’ve been at this for while, so we thankfully have networks we can turn to for crew and cast, usually with a pretty quick turnaround. We’re fortunate enough to have worked with some top rate crew, and it would’ve been impossible to do this without them. The budget was £1,500 which mainly came out of Zak and Simon’s pockets. Everyone worked for free, but we wouldn’t do it like that again. Since then the three of us have made a vow to always pay people on our shoots as there’s only so many times you can pull favours and people should be paid!

Simon: It hasn’t always worked out like that, sometimes there’s just no money at all, but we really are trying. A miniature sketch series Zukuscope, for instance, was a no-pay kinda gig. But it was very small, casual, and a lot of fun for everyone involved. The total budget was about £20, so no one expected anything!

Tibo: Indeed. We always strive for an independent approach, using creative ideas to overcome our practical limitations, and of course, we always put the narrative at the heart or our projects. We try to never compromise on the story.

From The Elevator Pitch

From The Elevator Pitch

Absolutely, Tibo. We’d love to hear a bit about the tools you used to make The Elevator Pitch – cameras, lights, software, and the like. The aesthetic is appropriately low-fi, although I am curious to know how you got access to the movie theatre location!

Simon: People have praised my “choice” to adopt a lo-fi aesthetic, saying it really compliments the story. I never mention that we had no alternative.

The Elevator Pitch was shot on a Canon 5D Mk III with very limited lighting. We rented about £100 worth and our very talented Director of Photography Dino Dimopoulos did a lot with very little. I cut the film with my regular editor Hiran Balasuriya on Final Cut Pro 7 but, as with most editors, he’s since transitioned to using Premiere.

Tibo is a really good producer and knows how to make a small amount of money stretch really far. We managed to get all the locations for free with as few unit moves as possible, thankfully, as we had plenty of them and hardly any time.

The cinema was the only spot we filmed in that wasn’t in East London and, as with everything else on this show, we got it for nothing because we’re close friends with the manager. We had maybe three hours to shoot before they opened their doors for the first screening of the day.

Tibo: Most of our budget basically went into making the lift!

Simon and Tibo at a Contractor 014352 Production Meeting | Photo by Zak Klein

Simon and Tibo at a production meeting for Contractor 014352 | Photo by Zak Klein

Well done maximizing your resources! The three of you are collaborating again to produce Contractor 014352. We’ve had the opportunity to interview some directing duos here at Lights, but you guys are the first trio of filmmakers!

How do you work together from beginning to end? Who does what? Generally, how do you come up with and develop ideas, and what is your process for producing films as a tight-knit team? Are there ever any creative differences, and if so, how do you resolve them?

Simon: Officially, our roles are clearly defined: Tibo produces, Zak is the writer and I’m the director. However, there’s a tendency for roles to overlap a little.

I’m often involved in the writing, with the script being developed over many conversations between Zak and I. The two of us also step in to tackle some production demands with Tibo, and Tibo often steps in on-set as assistant director. I imagine this may cause problems for some teams, but we’re all very comfortable with each other and the egos rarely get in the way of getting the job done. We never have any creative differences…

Zak: Actually, that’s not true. Sometimes…

Simon: OK. OK, sometimes we disagree. But Zak and I have been friends since our early teens, and we’ve always made films together.

One thing that’s characterised our friendship has been a shared sense of humour and passion for storytelling. As kids we’d get carried away inventing stories we’d find side-splittingly funny and inadvertently alienate our confused friends in the process.

I can’t state enough how invaluable that has been to both of our creative development – to have that level of comfort with someone, where you can bounce ideas off of each other without fear of judgement. We also feel comfortable enough to be pretty blunt with each other when we don’t like an idea. Again, ego doesn’t ever seem to interfere with our ideas, but we do have a tendency to push each other to be bolder, more absurd and irreverent or, in the case of Contractor 014352, more visually imaginative.

Artwork by Kavan Balasuriya

Artwork by Kavan Balasuriya

You’re currently underway with a Kickstarter Campaign for Contractor 014352. Why did you decide to turn to crowdfunding for this project?

Tibo: The budget is higher than any of our previous shorts, mainly because we want to pay the crew properly, and because we’re aiming high in terms of casting. We already have several “known” actors attached, so it’s vital we can provide a solid production base, and to budget for it.

Even though we were all planning to put some of our money in the film, we knew straight away that it wouldn’t be enough. I have completed two campaigns on Kickstarter before, so I knew about the process. We talked about it and decided that it was the right thing to do, not only because it would complete our finances, but also because it would force us to really work on creating a network around the film.

Zak: We’ve been developing the script for nearly two years, so it feels like it really has to happen now. We can’t wait any longer for someone to give us the money to do it.

Simon: It also felt really appropriate to try and raise the money through Kickstarter as the film is about connecting with strangers. So it’s cool to offer individuals, who may be strangers to us, the chance of having a relationship with its production.

From the Contractor 014352 pitch video

From the pitch video for Contractor 014352

Very cool! I love your campaign’s pitch video. It’s a highly personal treatment of the structural elements that tend to generate success – the introduction, the pitch, the showcase, the call to action – that recalls the meta vibe of The Elevator Pitch.

How did you come up with the idea? Also, did you do any research into successful pitch videos before beginning your own? If so, what did you learn, and how did that inform your approach?

Tibo: In every one of my previous crowdfunding campaigns, I’ve strived to come up with a video that was really distinctive, a style or concept that would stand out. On this one, a lot of time was spent writing the script for it, and in a way it almost became a separate piece altogether. We did turn to other successful campaigns, but that was mainly to have a look at the perks people offer or go for, and the way project presentations are usually structured.

Simon: We’ve created a campaign that presents us, the film-makers, as underdogs struggling to be heard, which is very in-keeping with the film’s narrative and central themes. We were also wary of doing a video that was too earnest. We wanted to avoid making that video you see all the time with the film-makers on a couch addressing the camera. It works for some people, but we’re not always comfortable with sincerity; it’s not that we’re disingenuous, it just felt more honest and more “us” to do something that was gently irreverent and sort of mocking the classic Kickstarter video, as well as ourselves.

Tibo: I think it’s also important to mention that we will still be funding a remaining part of the film ourselves after raising the £12,000.

Interesting. Even so, we’d love to hear about your Kickstarter experience so far. Is running a campaign something you can “set and forget”, or is the process more hands-on? What’s involved?

Simon: The process demands a lot of your attention, you have to constantly be reminding people of its existence, constantly thinking of new ways to spin the same material, you can’t let the ball drop. I don’t think any of us anticipated it being that demanding. It’s a full-time job really.

Every day that passes without much interaction is a day without donations and every day we don’t receive donations, we end up £400 behind target. I’ve found that thinking about it I’ve got some crazy debt to pay off has really helped me generate the requisite drive to keep fighting. Because it can be really discouraging when you’re shouting about it, and no-one is listening.

Zak: We have two weeks left of the campaign, and we’re pretty much on target, but there’s still no knowing how it’s going to end up. The important thing is to stay positive and keep pushing it, pushing out there.

Absolutely, guys – keep fighting the fight. Contractor 014352 looks like it’s worth it; what an interesting concept. I’m especially intrigued by the juxtaposition of mundanity with epic, Terrence Malick-esque images of space!

How did you develop the idea? Of all the stories you could have told, why put so much time and energy into telling this particular one?

Simon: Contractor 014352 is a timely story that needs to be told. It’s a story of us vs them, of recognising the individual from the masses, and the importance of every human interaction we have – even the ones we consider unimportant. It reminds us that a chance encounter could open up your world. Based on a poem Zak wrote in 2012, we’ve been honing the script for the past two years but it feels perfect now and it was worth taking that time.

It’s hard to say exactly what made this project feel like a worthwhile pursuit over all this time, when others have fallen by the wayside, but I think it has something to do with its quiet ambition. This is a very spectacular film, but in a modest and, dare I say it, quite British way.

The film also explores a lot of the same concepts as The Elevator Pitch such as the little guy rallying against a perceived injustice and the role of fantasy in our everyday lives. I also think that it has something to say politically, but in a very gentle and universal way. Essentially it’s a very special film, which is probably why we’ve persisted with it.

Your Kickstarter Campaign is very transparent about the budget. How did you determine the bottomline and breakdown?

Tibo: Being transparent about our budget allows us to create a dynamic of trust and confidence with our backers or potential backers. The breakdown itself was done through initial research and based around previous budgets.

After making a few films, it becomes easier to come up with a close estimate on figures. We also know the few favours we can pull on different areas, and can count on a strong network if things don’t go as planned. The fact that it is a co production between two companies (SweetDoh! and The Milo Wladek Co.) also gives us a reassuring backup.

From The Elevator Pitch

From The Elevator Pitch

Let’s step back and look at the big picture. How have you carved our your careers in the industry to date? Any words of advice for fellow filmmakers eager to make a living practicing their craft? What challenges do they face?

Simon: I’ve just come back from a film festival in France where the consistent topic of conversation amongst the filmmakers was financing – how do we get it? It’s by far the biggest challenge because there’s just not enough funding opportunities for shorts. At least not in the UK. It’s quite shocking actually, because short films are such a vital part of a film-maker’s development, and there aren’t enough new voices emerging.

Zak: My advice would be to make films. Just make them however you can, and make them as good as they can be, with the resources you have.

There are always ways to make films that people want to watch, if you have talent and ambition and a clever way to make it happen. Even if you have no money at all, you can still devise a script with a really low-fi concept and make the script really sparkle. If you then make that film and have to compromise on other areas, it will still engage people because of the storytelling. Develop the script and show it to people whom you trust.

When you’re starting out (and in a way I still feel like I’m starting out) it’s about building up a body of work that you’re proud of, and building up confidence in making films. It’s not about the results. It’s easy to complain about the difficult industry and a lack of opportunity or money, but it’s less easy to go out and make films in spite of that. The ones who manage to make genuinely inspiring work in spite of these obstacles get recognised eventually. But you have to make it happen, rather than wait for someone else to recognise you. I tried that for a while and it didn’t work.

The Elevator Pitch Cast & Crew | Photo by Hanna-Katrina Jedrosz

The cast and crew of The Elevator Pitch | Photo by Hanna-Katrina Jedrosz

Simon: Pretty much all of my success has come from working with other talented creatives so my advice is to always remember that film-making is a collaborative artform. To be a lone wolf is missing the point. Find people you love to work with and keep on working with them: listen to each other, trust and inspire each other, improve each other’s ideas, get better together and always share the credit. I mean that sounds pretty sappy, but film is a really brutal industry and you just can’t survive on your own.

Zak: Yikes, you make it sound like Battle Royale. It’s not all bad. There are nice people too – you just have to know what your strengths are and play to them.

Simon: Yeah, which is what the kids in Battle Royale do… with katanas.

Tibo: Be passionate. Make Connections. Have patience. I’m not talking about Battle Royale, I’m talking about making films!

Haha. Some wise words, guys! So, you’re all working professionals and successful creatives. In light of this (and in light of the themes of The Elevator Pitch), I have a bit more involved question for your roundtable to follow up on the last.

You might, say, take a high-pay commercial gig one day, then spend the next working on a no-pay “passion project”. Is there ever a point at which “passion project” transitions from “no-pay” to “pay”? The notion of “the starving artist” is so baked into our culture; there’re many indie filmmakers out there who’re hungry to get stuff made. I’m curious to know when, if ever, this drive might go too far.

Simon: The transition does happen for some, but the odds are always stacked against film-makers. No passion is about money. If money is the main drive, film is certainly the wrong business.

Tibo: I personally get passionate quite easily when it comes to work. There is always an aspect of making a film that I find exciting, whatever its nature. So the notion of “pay” or “no pay” is the only one that really changes. And I think in this case it’s good to keep a balance, and to work on some micro budget films every now and then. Again, with patience and hard work, paid jobs eventually come.

Zak: The drive to make films goes too far when someone gets killed, or when you kill yourself making it.

Simon: It can definitely affect your mental health though. I’ve felt depressed over a lack of momentum or support on projects. Film-making is an addiction for me. I’m really only happy when I have a project on the go. Paid or unpaid, it doesn’t matter a lot of the time. If it’s something I believe in, I’ll take the hit.

Zak: Sometimes it feels like all you’re doing is “taking the hit” to get something made, like the whole process is just taking one big hit, over and over again. But if you keep taking hits, your skin grows back thicker. Then it doesn’t feel so bad.

When is it appropriate to get paid? Always! If you are providing any kind of commercial service or promotional asset (film) for an organisation, for a company who has some kind of income, you should be getting paid.

Things do get complicated with fiction, though. If you’re an independent filmmaker working on a short film, then everyone knows this is a passion project and therefore not about the money. If you can pay people to work on your short film, or be paid to work on someone else’s short film, do it. But if it’s simply not possible given your budget, then make sure your project is going to be really worthwhile for everyone involved, and that your crew members’ experience is smooth and enjoyable. Then they won’t feel like they’re “taking a hit” and neither will you.

With any luck, it’ll be fun. After all, isn’t that what making films is all about?

Thanks so much for sharing your time and perspective with us here at Lights, guys. All the best with the rest of your Kickstarter Campaign! We encourage our readers to watch their crowdfunding video – it’s an excellent example of how to make your call to action stand out.

For more from Zak, Simon, and Tibo, check out their awesome Kickstarter effort and get involved with bringing “Contractor 014352″ to life.

 Michael Koehler, with

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