Development for the Sarah Jane short film actually started Jan 2014 when I decided to shoot this myself.
I had become a little jaded about waiting on other people to produce my story.
Over the years, while I was writing and re-writing Sarah Jane (screenplay), I’d compiled some film equipment. So I decided to produce a small “practice” project with family and friends. If it turned out “decent” I would submit it to local video/film festivals. If it didn’t I would just use the experience to make me better the next time around.
I had also spent years interviewing other filmmakers, reading production blogs and watching film commentaries. And I had been on-camera talent for a while with an agent, but nothing quite like this.
Also, all of my experience on set was before Myspace, Facebook Live, Youtube, Vimeo and Amazon.
Still, I just wanted the full experience of writing and producing a completed project. Besides, I knew that I needed something viable in my production portfolio in order for other professionals to take me seriously outside of writing.
Although I didn’t need another writer and had already done 3 revisions of the screenplay, I did need a second pair of eyes. I had an author friend who had also tried to get her stories adapted to film. She’d been through a similar set of disappointing film experiences, and I wanted her to have a completed project under her belt in some way.I called her and pitched the idea about producing a project ourselves. She’d be my second pair of eyes for the production script.
Between Jan 2014-Dec2014, my script passed between me and the author friend a couple of times. In January 2015, I was actually going to contact her to tell her nevermind, because neither of us at the time had initiated a script breakdown or any talks about pre-production. I knew she wasn’t ready for the technical part and our film paths were different, I really wanted to be a “real” producer, learning all facets of producing, and I also wanted to learn to direct. Another year had passed since I decided to “shoot it myself” and yet we hadn’t started.
While that was happening, a guy contacted me on an online community and asked if I wanted to be a part of his writer collaboration group. I didn’t respond right away but when I had time to review his group I gave it a whirl.
The writer’s group ended up not being a match for me. Around this time, I had decided to continue on my film project alone. Realistically, I’d need someone local who had funding and technical skills for one of the key crew roles to join forces with and I didn’t have that.
Before I could call my author friend and tell her my decision to go it alone, the writer’s group creator and moderator asked if I had any projects with strong female protagonists. Of course, I had as he was aware from my postings in the group before I ended membership.
He said he had some people who might be interested in producing. I decided to give my author friend another go around, so instead of telling her, nevermind, I told her it’s time to go into pre-production. I gave her the update on the guy from my writer’s group and his “connections”. I think we both were like, “we’ve been down this road before”. But we were willing to take another chance.
Unfortunately, the whole experience I had (with the moderator and his “connections”) went south, due to creative differences. The moderator wanted to be a “director” on the short film. He had no film experiences but supposedly directed High School stage plays. We were all learning, and I felt I couldn’t do it on my own, so agreed to let him direct, thinking whatever he didn’t know, he would work actively to learn his role.
Ideally, I wanted to watch an experienced director on my first film production and learn firsthand. The problem was, we didn’t have an experienced director on the project to learn from.
Not knocking this. We all have to start with something in order to become experienced and he advised of his inexperience in the beginning. But I really was rooting for him. I wanted him to succeed. Directing required a lot and with me also producing I wasn’t trying to wear both hats (at first).
But 4 months in, I had to make another decision. He hadn’t done any location or tech scouts, I had to tell him about shot lists, as we couldn’t do the storyboard with the budget and resources we had. He was reluctant to meet regarding script breakdown, virtually or in person, and he wasn’t receptive to producer feedback.
I had no idea what his vision was for the project as he hadn’t reported any. In addition, our communication styles were different, not just generally, but completely different than when we had connected in the writer’s group.
If it was going down like this and we hadn’t come out of prepro, I imagined what filming and post-pro would be like with him as director.
Eventually, I had to let him go, and when he went he took the key crew with him.
Key Crew issue: The cam ops and sound, were my key crew for this project and they were related. They also brought their own equipment, which was a “plus” at the time we first met. But, when you’re related to your right-hand man (woman) you have a different communication style or method. You talk more and sleep in the same house so there are things about your roles you discuss that the rest of the crew and filmmakers aren’t aware of.
So, if you’re writing, producing, directing your own project, where you’re also cam ops and editor, this system might work for you. But when you’re sharing responsibilities with a team of people from different backgrounds, experience levels, and skillsets, you have to communicate differently. Which they weren’t doing.
In fact, one of the key crew didn’t like how I ran my set. He said you’re running it like a real, industry film production.
To me, that was a compliment. What was wrong with that? There’s accountability, redundancy approval, communication, and paperwork. It’s professional. Wouldn’t you rather be affiliated with a project that’s serious and professional? He said yeah, but that put a spotlight on more creative differences which would have been resolved if they were ever available to really discuss the project beyond casting and surface issues.
But I guess that as much administrative and operational workflow I created to run my production, it was just too much for the brother duo and the director.
When we let go of the director, that brought them (crew) on to the project, they just upped their price and decided to commit to another project that had filming dates the same as SJ.
How can you crew two projects at the same time? Needless to say, this is how I found out that I didn’t have my crew anymore.
Luckily I had a plan b and a plan c.
Other mishaps included: an actor bailed on the first day of filming, and after editing and color grading, finishing funds were depleted. This turned post-production into a two-year post journey as I learned about sound design and handled it on my own.
But guess what?
My short film wrapped on schedule and is currently in submission to various festivals.
I’m so thankful to the cast and crew who hung in there. The new crew who saw my fledgling production and took on the challenge and my aunt for coming through as co-producer to finish the project.
Most of all, I thank GOD for HiS Grace through it all. I sharpened my producer/director skills and I believe all happened as it should, to push me into those areas so that I could write, produced, and direct my first feature.
So what did SJ teach me?
- Pre-plan your butt off.
- Really nurture the pre-production phase of your project.
- Bring people on board who have experience and test their knowledge.
- Make sure your filmmakers and key crew have “chemistry”
- Do reference checks on your key crew and filmmakers. How were they on other sets and do they have completed projects they spearheaded? If not, what can they bring to the table that will ensure their commitment to the project?
- Always. Always. make sure you have at the very least an assistant director.
- Have enough PAs
- BREAK DOWN YOUR SCRIPT and get a realistic budge
I mean I was writing, producing, AND directing, among other hats you have to wear with a skeletal crew, so having someone running that set so I can focus on directing helps.
There are more lessons I learned and I’m sharing them on my Patreon page later in the year to get on board now so you don’t’ miss out.
To read the full SJ chronicles visit: >>click here<<
IT was KINDA SCARY.
But it’s also the type of experience that I’ve been missing and needed in order to grow as a filmmaker, (although we shoot on video). LOL.
You wear many hats on a small, uber-micro film budget. And I learned a lot. And I’m grateful.