“Definition of an independent film is torture with less money and time.”
– Joey Lauren Adams
The title of this post alone proves to me that at least my sarcasm bone is alive and well, if somewhat weak and a little pallid. As for the rest of me right now? Not so easy to gauge.
This is going to be the kind of post you write at 4am after a month of not getting more than 5 hours sleep a night, when blood sugar is somewhat low, the twitch under your left eye is growing disconcertingly stronger and a slight hysteria may be setting in. Which means that it probably shouldn’t be published for the world to see – at least until you’ve had some sleep and had a look at it again through slightly rested, but still dreadfully bleary eyes.
But screw that. I’m in a sharing mood and am ricocheting from anxious to impatient to depressed with monotonous regularity, so I need to get this out of my system. In other words – it’s my blog and I’ll express if I want to … to dreadfully paraphrase whatever the hell that quote is from. (I know, I know … it’s a song … I think).
Since we last spoke, I have filmed, edited and released the second season of my web series, Shakespeare Republic, prepped, shot, edited and released my first commissioned short film Speaking Daggers (also part of the Shakespeare Republic universe), prepped, shot, edited and released my first music video O, Mistress Mine (from the soundtrack of Speaking Daggers, written and performed by the crazy talented Jaron Natoli), begun development on my next project, ‘Till The Boys Come Home (we shoot the pitch teaser for that in a couple of weeks), am continuing to try to work out how to complete the documentary Champion (hint: it involves getting more money) and pulled two other projects out of the “do later” drawer to get ready for rewrites over the coming months.
“I couldn’t sleep one night and I was sitting in my office and I realized that I was an independent filmmaker.”
– Darren Aronofsky
I was also appointed the Chair of an independent theatre company, walked away from being the Chair of an independent theatre company, begun work on a Shakespeare teaching program in schools and accepted the role of General Manager and Board Member for a (rather brilliant and awesome) local web fest.
I have been on the international film festival and webfest merry-go-round with submissions for the three Shakespeare projects, which I’m very happy to say have done rather well, despite my fears that I’d finally be caught out for not knowing what the hell I’m doing and having the whole house of cards come crashing down, so causing my rather brilliant team to whip off their rose-coloured glasses and immediately burn me at the stake for duping them into giving so much of their time and energy to a dud.
Which is probably why I keep insisting that the Shakespeare projects in particular are an experiment … which is actually the truth, even if people think I have some amazing master plan … I actually don’t people – truly.
“I don’t try to guess what a million people will like. It’s hard enough to know what I like.”
– John Huston
Don’t get me wrong. Once the ideas come together I happily plan (it’s the producer in me), but I’ve learnt that God loves to let filmmakers think they’re in control and then, just when you think you’ve got everything covered and all contingencies in place, she gives one of your actors severe vertigo mere weeks out from filming (true story), and said actor insists on being the trouper they are and still doing the gig, which they did and did brilliantly and you’d never know, but which I also suspect began the sleepless nights cycle I’m still in.
Or decides to nudge the maintenance guys to test the bells and alarms at the school you’re filming at without warning the day you have two episodes to shoot back to back – one of which also involves a drone and a dog that’s never been on set before (also a true story), and then, once the maintenance guys finally finish what they’re doing (because you have to wait as you’re not paying for the venue), decides to give you a really bizarre sound that echos around the space that takes another half an hour to locate and culminates in you having to ask the already long-suffering staff on site with all the sweetness you can muster to please turn off their heaters because the gas pipes on the outside of the building are the culprit – on one of the coldest days that September.
Yeah, that was fun for everyone and made us really popular. Not.
Or lets you think that you might actually get paid for doing your job as Director/Producer, because – oh my Good God – you have an actual budget … but then throws a whole stack of dramas in your way that means you have to use your fee as the contingency, which you resignedly do, because you suspected it was too good to be true and you console yourself with the knowledge that at least everyone else on the gig got paid, even if it was just industry minimum (sadly, also true).
I think all this is God’s way of keeping filmmakers firmly in our place – i.e. under her thumb, slightly squirming in discomfort. After all, she is the greatest story of all, how dare we try to emulate or eclipse her …
But I digress …
There’s nothing creative about living within your means.
– Francis Ford Coppola
Now, those of you who know the success that Shakespeare Republic, in particular, has achieved on the film festival circuit will be thinking “Oh shut up McLean, seriously, what have you got to complain about?”. And you would be right. The response to the work has been amazing and is likely now boring as all get-out to all of you on my social media feeds.
Actually, that brings me to another point. I don’t share the success of my work with everyone to brag. Trust me, every time I go to post, I spend far too long deciding what tone to use, how to word it so it isn’t obnoxious. Some might ask why should I bother doing that? Why not crow from the rooftops how well the work is doing without apology? Maybe because I’m Australian, maybe because I’m a woman, whatever the reason, I’m very conscious of not coming across as self-satisfied and smug and always worry that I haven’t succeeded in achieving that impression. But that’s a topic for a therapy session for another day.
The reason I do share how well the work is doing so liberally with my networks is to ensure that my amazing team of creatives get the acknowledgement they deserve for their work. Seriously, I could not achieve this level of success without them being firmly alongside me on the oft-times bumpy, frequently vaguely hazardous road known as independent filmmaking. With the kind of time constraints, lack of resources and lack of money that we make this work under, it could not be achieved without their unfailing energy, talents and skill.
Sure, I’m the one who comes up with the harebrained ideas more often than not, and presents them to the team as a fait accompli – and instead of tying me up and dumping me off a pier, or, more sensibly, just walking away, they accept the inevitable and do everything in their power to make that vision happen. And not only do they fully come on board, they often contribute their own brilliant ideas, so growing what we have even further in scope and vision.
So I’m not kidding when I say I couldn’t do this without them and they deserve all the accolades they have been getting for the work to date.
I always believe it’s better to have 30 imaginations working on a project, rather than one imagination telling the other 29 what to do.
– Trevor Nunn
But while accolades are lovely, they don’t pay the rent (or pay for equipment or wages), or put food on the table. I have joked over the past few months – on finding out that one of the awards we have been lucky enough to win is 24 carat gold plated – that maybe we can work out a way of melting it down and selling it to fund the next project, but sadly, I don’t think it would bring in a lot of cash, and I don’t know how to do that anyway, so that’s a bust.
Which brings me to the “glamour” side of the title of this article. The perception that making content as an independent filmmaker leads to attending a flurry of glamorous international parties/red carpets/whatever, is a fallacy.
Its not always the case, but sadly independent filmmaking doesn’t tend to come with unlimited travel funds to fly around the world at the drop of a hat. It is tough to say no to a festival that really wants you to attend (especially if you’re nominated for something) because you have to pay rent that month and taking off to a fest in Spain will likely lead to you being homeless when you get back.
I know, it’s a good problem to have. But it’s still a problem. It’s a learning curve, and I am certainly going to try to build a festival budget into my next project’s finances, just in case. That’s presuming that I get this kind of success again, which is the other thing I try not to think about. Fear Of Screwing Up … “FOSU” … is a thing all independents deal with. Sometimes you have lightning in a bottle and if you aren’t in a position to leverage it, it can be somewhat frustrating and a whole lot scary that it won’t happen again and you’ve missed your chance. But enough of my personal neurosis.
The directing of a picture involves coming out of your individual loneliness and taking a controlling part in putting together a small world. A picture is made. You put a frame around it and move on. And one day you die. That is all there is to it.
– John Huston
The reality of independent filmmaking is that most days you’re sitting at your computer, no make up, hair probably not washed for a week, possibly still in your pyjamas (or is that just me?), putting together schedules, eking that last cent out of the budget, haggling with people on the phone, constantly asking for stuff for free (and always feeling bad about it) and if you’re like me and do all the things, writing up the new drafts of the script, as well as putting together shotlists and lookbooks, attempting to storyboard (I so wish I could draw!), all the while trying to not look at your ever-growing “to do” list, because you know there will not be enough hours in the day.
It can be very lonely, despite all this activity. The internet is not a good substitute for seeing people in person, just saying. Some days I can go the whole day without saying a word, if it’s purely a computer work day, which I know will be hard for people to know me to process, but it’s true. This is possibly why I talk so much when I’m around others, now I think about it.
If you also direct, like me, the rehearsal and production meeting period is somewhat of a blessing, even though it means you have to get out of your pj’s and brush your hair. Another creative human or several in your space is like a breath of fresh air. New ideas! Creative brainstorming! And, if you’re really lucky with your collaborators, a wonderful synergy that is so exciting, uplifting and invigorating all at once.
I love that part of pre-production, I have to say.
Then filming – dealing with crisis, working with awesome creatives, not getting enough sleep, early mornings, a huge amount of laughter (well, that tends to be how my sets work), playing with a group of people that I truly adore and being filled with wonder at their genius. Again, it’s one of my favourite parts of the process.
Post production used to be a chore for me – did I mention I do all of the things? – but since our amazing Editor, Thanassi Panagiotaras, has joined the fray, it’s kinda awesome. It can be painstaking, and involves a LOT of hours, but luckily he and I get along famously. Add to the mix our awesome Sound Editor, Tim McCormick, also one of my closest friends, and it’s another kind of creative party. And if you don’t believe me – that’s me with Tim and Thanassi in the header image.
They’re pretty awesome, right?
There’s nothing quite like the idea of failing spectacularly to excite a film maker
– Mike Figgis
And then it comes full circle and it’s back to the confines of my office, usually on my own, working away on the websites, posters and other graphics/promotional assets (I did mention I do all the things, right?), submitting to festivals, doing social media updates, getting the odd email to say that someone actually likes the work and has officially accepted it, then creating the screening files, poster resizing, translations (you haven’t lived until you’ve had to translate three of your Shakespeare episodes into French, Italian or Spanish when you don’t speak any of those languages and don’t have the money to pay someone else to do it. Hello Google Translate … I’m not kidding), updating posters, websites, social media and the myriad of other things that need to be done when a project gets traction.
And avoiding obsessively refreshing a festival website on the day official selection announcements are being made that I REALLY want to get into. Because that’s really not healthy.
Not complaining – good problem to have – love that everyone’s work is getting an audience and recognition.
We finished filming last September for the web series and in April for the short film and music video and had a total of 12 days filming in all. Post-production finished in April for the web series and in May for the short film and music video with a total of about three weeks working in person with other humans. Since then, I’ve pretty much been working full time on getting the work out there and then responding as needed as it actually finds people who like it enough to offer screen time to it.
So I’ve spent most of my time in my pyjamas, with bed hair and no make up at my computer, going slightly stir crazy and definitely feeling that a holiday might be in order. Then I remember we have to pay to submit to another festival, and the work always comes first.
A director must be a policeman, a midwife, a psychoanalyst, a sycophant and a bastard.
– Billy Wilder
Luckily in recent weeks, I’ve had two intrepid souls join me in my home office (which has taken the pressure off the amazing Billy, who is my fellow producer, holder of the credit card and my partner in life, for his sins), which has meant I’ve had to, once again, get out of my pjs and into actual clothes, but has also meant that I’ve had some human contact once again with the work. Jess and Nik are a bit of a god-send, as I do think I was starting to lose my mind a little. When you catch yourself putting the kettle in the fridge, it’s probably a sign you should slow down or spend some time with other kids in the real world. Just saying.
And we’re gearing up for the next thing, so the cycle starts again.
Why do this? Why put myself through the late nights, early mornings, constant pressure, the gradual development of the bags under my eyes that are now suitcases, the anxiety that I’ve forgotten something and the actual times I’ve forgotten names, meetings and that I agreed to have coffee with a friend?
Because I love it. Truth be told, it may not be glamorous, but it gets me out of bed in the morning (usually groggy and after I’ve set five alarms, but still …). It may not be paying me well, or at all in some cases, but I get to express my creativity every day in some way, and that’s never a bad thing. I juggle my “day” job of designing t-shirts to try and pay the bills, alongside creating this work, but I’m still creating. Which is what we’re all here to do in whatever way we do it.
If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies.
– Kathryn Bigelow
Is it a woman thing? This need to push the boundaries, go harder, stronger? To prove something to the world? To ourselves? I’m not sure. “Hi, I’m Sally and I’m a workaholic.” I’m not blind to that. What I’m so afraid of if I stop, I’m not sure.
But I am learning that it’s okay to slow down occasionally.
So, today (because it’s 6.30am now and I had a rough day yesterday), I am going to unplug. Walk away from the computer. Not engage with anything unless it’s IRL. I’m going to sleep. Ah, to sleep, perchance to dream! Take care of me for a day. What a concept!
And now that the screening file that I have spent the last two days hard-coding Spanish subtitles into has uploaded via the transfer link for the festival concerned (you didn’t think I was taking time out to write this blog post because I had nothing else to do, did you?!), I am going to turn this computer off and go to bed.
As the birds begin to sing to the approaching dawn and the first streaks of light grey hit the sky outside my window over the rooftops of the surrounding buildings, I’ll leave you with this last musing …
We are all storytellers. We are all intrinsically creative. Working in this business as an independent may not be glamorous or pay us a fortune, but the joy of playing with others who are in love with telling stories, creating worlds and making magic happen is the juice that makes everything else bearable. The wonder of hearing an audience gasp, exhale or laugh at something you first imagined in your head long before it hits a screen is humbling and the perfect illustration of how we are all connected.
THAT is where the glamour is – the true meaning of the word – to enchant, to bewitch, to becharm, ah, my friends, that is truly the magic of what we do. And as independents, we get to do that without interference or censure. That luxury comes with a price, but that’s how we do our bit to change the world, hopefully for the better.
Sweet dreams, sweet princes and keep shining bright.
All that said, if you’d like to help a gal out, you can send me Bitcoin, Ethereum, LiteCoin or Dash at the following addresses (thank you Billy for setting up my wallet!):
Long live the internet!