Sunday, June 14, 2015

5 Mistakes Indie Filmmakers Make

And now, as I (Sean) am embroiled in The LA Film Festival, let's get Levin's take of the joys and frustrations of Indie Film....

I consider myself a "small movie" type of guy. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy spectacle as much as the next person but when I want to be challenged, well, I go for the "indie" films. My favorite movies always seem to come from this category, whether it be Dogtooth, Upstream Color or Before Sunset, because indie films are more comfortable with pushing boundaries and reach for something new. And that, something new, is what I love about movies in the first place.

But I've been burned too. There is a reason why you'll see Sean blogging about Los Angeles Film Festival and not me, because I've come to develop an allergy to Film Festivals after a few unfortunate days of sitting through one shitty movie after another. And here are five mistakes that made those movies "shitty" in my humble opinion.

1 - Bland Visuals

In Upstream Color, a thief is robbing a person of her belongings. He somehow has control over what she sees. He's to the edge of the camera. The female protagonist looks up to see the thief's face and the thief says: "I have to apologize. I was born with a disfigurement where my head is made of the same material as the Sun."

All of a sudden, the screen fills with searing brightness as she's unable to look at him anymore.

This moment was awe-inspiring to me when I saw it. It was accomplished with simple, "indie" means that required no SFX, but its effect, this particular visual flourish, was indelible.

I find that many independent movies I see are content with just four-walling the entire thing and presenting the audience with simple visuals. But visuals are why we watch movies. The visual grammar of the movie is a fundamental part of the story.

Also, just because I chose Upstream Color, a mind-bending sci-fi, to make my point shouldn't make you say "Well, I'm writing a drama". Wong Kar Wai writes dramas too and his dramas look like this:

2 - Incomprehensibility + No Emotion = Sad Audience

The audiences go to Indie Movies to be challenged, to be exposed to something new. But we still watch movies to be emotionally moved. This doesn't mean swelling music at the climax to cue us into the emotions of your protagonists, but give us something. The worst movie experiences I had at the movie festivals were movies were I had no idea what the hell was going on AND I didn't care.

Now, that last part is really important. Two of my favorite filmmakers, David Lynch and Shane Carruth, excel at making movies that are famously opaque. Especially in Lynch's movies, there is no narrative through line to logically connect one scene to the next, but there is always a central emotion that keeps the audience engaged. If not for Betty and Naomi Watts' performance, do you think Mulholland Drive would be the classic it is today? Without the palpable grief the town feels after Laura Palmer, do you think people would have responded to Twin Peaks?


Of course it's important to have a theme. If we walked away, especially from an indie movie that didn't say something, we'd all feel robbed. And yet, I feel, especially with the indie movies, there is this weird responsibility to SAY SOMETHING and overcompensating in the process. There is a difference between being thematically weighty and just being didactic. I know the following example is hardly indie as it stars Brad Pitt, but shed it of its cast and the writing itself is small. It definitely has an "indie" feel to it:

A tale about the futility of hope in Obama's America because the inconspicuous TV's in the background tell us that OVER AND OVER AGAIN!
4 - This is not a Studio movie, but it sorta is?

The audience is here to see something different, something challenging. If they wanted conformity and predictability, they would've gone to the Blockbuster-of-the-month or stayed home and watched Hallmark.

Some indie movies feel like auditions for bigger studio tentpoles with their precisely 3 act structure with the clear resolution and the abundance of thematic cliche's like "Love Conquers All!"

You know the big movie this weekend, this little thing called "Jurassic World?" The writer/director of that movie first made the small indie "Safety Not Guaranteed" which, for all its faults, was definitely a surprising as hell movie that did a lot of unconventional things. So embrace that! There is a reason you're writing an indie screenplay and not a blockbuster!

5 - Do too many things because this is the one movie you'll ever make!

A movie about... EVERYTHING!

You will write many, many screenplays throughout your life. There is this tendency for screenwriters to go "This is my one crazy, indie, weird feature! I'm going to CRAM EVERYTHING IN IT!"

As a result, you read this screenplay and it feels like there are three different movies in there. A good question to see if this is the case with your screenplay is to ask: "Is there a consistent tone?" or simply "If I take this subplot out, does anything change?"

Pick one movie and stick to it.

In Conclusion: These are just some commonalities I found among the indie movies that disappointed me. Can you think of any other elements that these movies share? Do you think I'm wrong about anything? Have you seen any movies in the Los Angeles Film Festival so far that disappointed you? Share in the comments!

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