Austin Film Festival: Making Indie Films Takes a Team

To make a feature film may not take a village, but it does take a team. The Austin Film Festival session “The Filmmakers Team” explored what you need to make it from pre-production to post while maintaining your sanity – or at least a little bit of it. The session was a part of the 2019 Austin Film Festival and Writers Conference’ 26-year tradition of promoting the art and craft of storytelling. The festival also sponsors a Young Filmmakers Program with summer camps and classes and produces On Story for TV and radio.

The session was led by Creatives Meet Business founder Ashland Viscosi. Panelists, all of whom had films at the festival, included writer/producer/actor of Man Camp, Daniel Cummings, director/producer of Wade in the Water, Mark Wilson, and writer/director of Drowning, Melora Walters.

From left, moderator Ashland Viscosi and panelists Daniel Cummings, Mark Wilson, and Melora Walters.

Start with Friends

Viscosi kicked things off by noting what a collaborative effort filming is and asked the panel how they went about building their teams.

Cummings said he started with friends. “I shared the concept for Man Camp with people I had been to high school with,” he said. “I then sent it to other close friends, one of whom became the director. I was living in LA at the time, so I had friends in the industry. It then extended to friends of friends. Friends work cheaper, too.”

Director/producer Wilson shared that he worked at Panavision and had made about 20 short films, so finding a crew was not difficult. He said, “What’s important is finding people you like working with. People that are a joy to be around.”

Walters pointed to her long acting career. She has over a hundred acting credits starting with Dead Poets Society. “I reached out to people I had worked with before,” she explained. “I love working with the same people on new projects.”

To Vet or Not to Vet

Viscosi asked if they had a vetting process and how important vetting was.

Actors Tom Nicholson and Danika Golombek with writer Chris Retts, in ‘Wade in the Water’

Wilson observed that asking questions doesn’t really work. “Yeah, questions sound great,” he said, “but the answers don’t really mean anything.”

Cummings agreed. “You need to see people under as much pressure as possible. That way you see who hates one another.” He added, “One person who doesn’t click with everyone isn’t going to sink your project. Let’s say a guy is kind of weird and really creeps me out, but he’s the best gaffer on the planet. You can live with some weirdness.”

Viscosi wanted to know who the first person to bring on would be.

Cummings went with the writer: “I went to the writer and said ‘Can you fix this?’ and he did.”

Wilson said he chose to go with the Director of Photography. “We wanted to make sure we had the right look,” he explained.

For Walters it was director first.

When to Rest

Viscosi wondered how they kept people fulfilled once the film was in production.

Cummings said, “Feed them.” Wilson agreed: “Good food and a good vibe on set.”

Cummings added that it was important to respect people. He said, “People have a need for sleep and to decompress. Our crew was not union, but we honored those rules about time.”

Walters agreed. “Don’t go over 10 hours per day,” she said.

Viscosi observed that sometimes there are “fires” on the set. She asked the filmmakers how they handled them.

Cummings said, “I was performing in a film based on me, so it wasn’t that challenging. If you’re going to be performing in a film your producing, surround yourself with people who will protect you. There were fires I was kept unaware of by the director and production manager. Have people in place that you trust. I’d find out about things after wrap for the day at the production meeting.”

‘Man Camp’ team knows umbrellas can be a critical filmmaking tool

Viscosi pressed: “Have you seen bad things on other sets.”

Walters chimed in, “Constantly. I think to myself, please God, don’t ever let me do that.”

Pre-Production

Viscosi asked about how long pre-production should take.

Cumming said, “We started in March of the year we shot. We aimed for April but ended up kicking the can to July.”

Wilson said that his pre-production lasted about a month and a half.

Walters said, “For me it is like climbing a cliff. I have no idea.”

Viscosi wondered about how to keep people enthused and involved during pre-production.

Cummings said, “A good old-fashioned phone call. Even if you don’t have particular business to work out, if someone crosses your mind, call them. I’ve got three kids and I’ve gotten more gray hair from pre-production than from my kids.”

Walters agreed, emphasizing constant communication.

Wilson suggested: “Table reads and have some wine.”

Action

Viscosi asked, “And when production finally begins, any other advice?”

Walters observed, “I went to art school and we did critiques. In art there is no right or wrong. Just find the things that people are doing that are good. You really have to be positive no matter what.”

Crew of ‘Man Camp’ at work

Wilson advised “going with your gut”. He recalled, “Two weeks before production, we switched our lead actor to our second choice. If we hadn’t done that, the film wouldn’t have happened.”

Cummings said, “You can’t do everything you think you can do which makes filmmaking so miraculous. You have to realize it the first day of shooting that your team is just doing it. You could pass out and they would just keep doing it. It’s a miracle. And the day before you were just wondering if they would show up.”

Viscosi asked, “Do you celebrate?”

Cummings countered, “Like with a cake or something?”

Walters said, “Just remember to breath and calm down.”

Wilson said, “Make sure everyone feels valued and important on the set. Connect with each crew member at least once per day.”

If you’d like to connect with next year’s Austin Film Festival, you can watch its PBS series On Story, attend one of its year-round events, or, of course, check its website. You can view the Wade in the Water trailer here.

Leo Sopicki @@LeoOfMars

Writer, photographer, graphic artist and technologist. I focus my creative efforts on celebrating the American virtues of self-reliance, individual initiative, volunteerism, tolerance and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.

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