Keeping Your Friends While Making an Independent Film
(Another installment of Paul Kampf’s ‘The Wild West’ Series)
Independent film has the reputation of being a world that is fraught with betrayal. It’s been the subject of many conversations with friends within the independent film industry, and others considering moving into the industry. So, I wanted to address the “dog eat dog” perception with a bit of my personal experience.
It’s essential to accept the fact that making an independent film, whether $50K or $5 million is equal parts excitement, optimism and high-stakes gambling. Yet, most projects start out with a small group of people who decide that they want to make the film together and no matter what, they will remain loyal to each other.
If they stopped right there, no one would get hurt, no one would feel unappreciated, and everyone will still be talking to one another in three months. But, making an independent film means taking the risk that everyone who chooses to go on the journey brings essential talents and/or assets crucial to the project from conception to production. This is where the real drama begins.
I’ll describe the process like trying to fly a hot air balloon for the first time. Everyone is working hard while it’s on the ground and enthusiasm drives the impulse to get it up in the air as soon as possible. Then someone comes along who’s done this before (Producer) or is bringing the money (Investor) and tells you there are holes in the balloon that you didn’t see (script/budget) and that the basket is too full with people (your initial team) and you’ll need to make room in the basket if you want his participation, so someone has to get out (first price paid).
In the independent film balloon, the outsider might be completely right, absolutely wrong or somewhere in the middle. Regardless, alliances start forming inside the basket for and against the outsider joining the process. The group starts identifying the person from the original team that possesses the least value from this point forward. It isn’t usually a new thought to the group, but circumstances force them to face what they’d hoped to avoid.
When that person is asked to leave, it is always the most painful situation for everyone involved. But it also has a very positive effect because those still in the basket either start working harder and as a team, or they start highlighting all of their past value to the project to build a case to go on the ride. From here forward, the whole process evolves solely based on the requirements to get the balloon ready for flight.
If money is being spent, it quickly accelerates the removal of anyone who isn’t satisfying a line item payment. To extend my simple metaphor, the wind is coming (first day of the shoot) and dead weight is cut every time someone is perceived to hamper the chances of getting that balloon into flight.
I’ve personally been inside and outside of that basket many times. I’ve ignored my instincts as much as I’ve listened to them. I’ve fought for people that eventually pushed me out of the basket. I’ve fought against people that became key to the project’s ultimate success.
That is why the path to making any independent film is littered with broken friendships, perceived betrayals, and damaged egos. However, the bonds that are formed with those who’ve been through a seemingly impossible endeavor are life long and explain why a successful team finds a way to work together again and again.
So, before you move forward with your independent project, I urge you to have a blunt conversation with those who plan on being in the basket at the end. The sooner you identify everyone’s real value to the project before going forward, the less the ‘cost of doing business’ will damage the personal bonds that you feel today.
Over the last year I’ve been asked again and again why I put my time and effort into creating three films (two shorts and a mini-feature) with little money or time at my disposal? After all, the films did not feature any well-known actors, had tiny budgets and were shot in a combined total of seven days. As I think about these questions, I too see the difficulty in understanding the logic of such endeavors.
However, the whole process of creating these films was to explore the potential of filmmaking in a completely new way. If this process proved successful, Breadline would use it as a blueprint for future, larger projects. They were also the perfect projects to build a bridge between Breadline Productions and its actor training program (PAI Training). The three films used the skills of over a dozen professional actors from the training program. These actors possess talent, technique and passion, but lacked the chance to test their craft on an actual shoot.
When the time came, each actor gave everything to the process. There were no actor conflicts, egos, or insecurities on the set. The trust they had for one another was extended to everyone working behind the cameras. They understood the larger, common purpose and did whatever necessary to better the artists working around them. Ultimately, they are now able to bring the joy of our harmonious process to every film and TV set on which they work.
I collaborated with Juri Film and Director of Photography, Rene Júng on all three films. By circumstance and necessity, we had to create a clear, concise Director/DP language during the shooting process that allowed us to compensate for lack of time. Because of the extreme limitations of the shooting days, we learned how to “create” together with heightened pressures all around us.
As the saying goes, a film is made in editing, so it was crucial to develop the right personal and professional synergy with an editor. Through unplanned events, I ended up working with two different editors on these projects. One editor I’d already worked with on a previous feature, and the other was on recommendation. This experience provided a fantastic revelation about my personal expectations in the cutting process. I learned how essential it is to have the same synergy in the cutting room as I had on the set.
These projects also provided me the chance to work more in depth with film composer, Chris Cash. Chris had composed music for Breadline Theatre Group back in Chicago, and also was the composer for the feature film I directed, Brothers Three. However, we knew there would be a lot more to learn about one another through collaborating on three additional projects.
These endeavors not only solidified my opinion of Chris’ talent but also helped us find an even deeper level of communication. By the third project, the temporary music he sent was a near perfect fit for the final cut without Chris ever seeing one frame of any rough edits.
In the journey of these three films, I was attempting to answer, for myself, why I should make small movies? Ultimately, the answers became self-evident every step of the process. With the advantage of familiarity and common experience, lack of time cannot break the rhythm and focus of a filmmaking team. As time is saved, the overall budget is reduced. With a lowered budget, there is less risk for an investor and more potential of creative and financial success for everyone.
With a cohesive team firmly in place and battle tested, Breadline Productions is ready to apply this model to projects of all sizes. Of course there will be many others that join the process going forward, yet it excites me that they’ll be additions to the solid foundation now under Breadline Productions.
I didn’t make my transition into filmmaking until 2005, just as the decline in independent financing started. Before that I’d spent nearly twenty years in the theater. When I made my first film I thought my huge budget was astonishingly large. “A million dollars? Wow!”
I’d been producing world premiere theater at less than twenty-five thousand per production. Of course I realized how little money a million dollars really is with the associated costs of filmmaking. However I learned there is a currency much more important than the budget: the people.
People have been the basis of all the theater I’ve done. Everyone worked for pennies an hour because there was something in the production that furthered their craft, or provided a necessary elevation in their career.
When I stepped on the film set, I was shocked to learn that most of the crew had not read the script. In fact, none of them were given a copy of the script. Why should they get one? They were there to be paid per hour, not because of the personal journey they’d experience. This threw me at first, but it reminded me that it’s money, personal growth, or both. After that first experience, I committed to strive for both on all my future projects. Yet, if I fell short, the personal experience would be the base currency.
The simplest question solved a lot of future problems: How does this project benefit each person and the project?
I learned not to assume that my answer to the question was right. I had to make sure that every person felt the same way. If not, it comes down to the same disagreement. “We’ve been working X hours and you’re only paying me Y dollars?” If everyone was on the same page up front, then that disagreement couldn’t happen, right?
This sounds good in theory, of course, but I’ve felt the pain of theory being directly opposite of experience. So, I put it into practice. I made a little feature film (From Grace) that would have cost about $350K in practical budget, but would be an actual spend of less than $25K. A theater budget.
The cast was made up of very talented, but yet unknown actors all from PAI’s Acting Training Program. The actors needed the real world experience and were hungry to get the chance. The technical crew came from one company that was very successful, but hadn’t had the chance to make dramatic films in America. The editor and sound designer each had Emmy awards, but wanted to work on a compelling story. The main location was a bed and breakfast. The owners wanted to create and publish a cookbook. The film enabled and promoted that dream. This principle played out in every aspect of the process.
With everyone’s needs met, there wasn’t one disagreement, argument, or personal problem during the three-day shoot or three month post-production. Of course there were obstacles that couldn’t be overcome, but with all personal objectives clear, the project launched with a full team of like-minded talents. I was back in the theater again, living the artistic experience.
I’m not naïve enough to believe that this will be duplicated in every film I make, but it definitely set a blueprint for the model that Breadline Productions will follow going forward. Focusing on people worked in the theater, and as independent film funding continues to shrivel, we’re left with the story, the storytellers and a collective belief in the project.
It’s worked for two thousand years, so there may still be something to it.
‘Life Support’ is a short film that examines the difficulty of the future after suffering your greatest loss. A husband needs to make sure his young wife will be able to feel again after his inevitable passing. So, he has her place an ad on Craigslist for an intimate encounter with a stranger as proof she can and will connect again.
The makers of ‘Life Support’ placed her actual ad in various cities through Craigslist. Within hours they received hundreds of responses. Here are a few of them…
‘Life Support’ has been submitted to numerous film festivals. We’ll keep you updated on our progress.
Breadline Productions’ critically acclaimed passion project premieres at the Idyllwild Independent Festival of Cinema.
In “From Grace”, three couples take a weekend to get away from their lives, only to find that their lives are closer than they ever imagined. This unique film explores the faith and courage required to move forward in life after encountering our deepest personal truths. When filmmaker and Artistic Director of Breadline Productions, Paul Kampf, visited Idyllwild and came upon the Strawberry Creek Inn, he knew he’d found the setting for his film. Upon discovering the unique, delectable recipes created and served at the Inn, Kampf incorporated and features them in his film. “Although the script was finished months before I discovered the Strawberry Creek Inn, it felt as if I had written it to be filmed here,” says Kampf.
Kampf, wrote From Grace for a group of actors studying in his acting class. It was Kampf’s desire to offer his students not only training, but a forum for practical application of their newly developed craft. The film should have cost $300,000, but through the dedication and tireless efforts of the twenty cast and crew members Kampf assembled, the film was shot in three days and cost less than 10% of the estimated cost.
In addition to being an official selection in the Idyllwild Independent Festival of Cinema, From Grace has already received a California Film Award and an Award of Merit from the Los Angeles Cinema Festival of Hollywood.
‘The Film has just started the screening process,’ says Kampf who looks forward to seeing the film travel the festival route over the coming year. ‘Getting a film like this completed is a great reward for all of us on many levels. Any additional recognition is truly a blessing.’
It is Breadline’s goal to make films of all sizes and budgets with this same approach to filmmaking. By investing in people, and working as a team like we’ve done with From Grace, we have a greater chance of artistic and financial success.
Breadline currently has two short films in post-production, and is in pre-production for one more. After completing the next series of short films, Breadline Productions will turn it’s attention to a larger feature film, which already has a lot of momentum.
To see the other posters for ‘From Grace,’ check out our Flickr feed on the right sidebar.
It is impossible to build a career in this industry without tremendous support from many other people. Film and television are crucially dependent on numbers of people coming together to make a project come to life.
The same is true for any individual’s personal career. It’s such a rare occasion that one achieves measurable success while remaining a complete loner. However, it is just as true that you need to be fiercely independent or else you can easily find yourself on the short-end of many situations.
I recently sat down with a friend of mine to give him my feedback/support on the completion of a new feature film he’s been writing. A year earlier I met him after he’d hired me to help him develop another script, which he’s now showing around town to potential investors and producers.
My friend casually told me about a good meeting he had with a production company that read the script after it made its way into their hands through a strange maze of friends and business relationships. The company showed enthusiasm, but felt the script wasn’t right for them at this time. However, they wanted to build a relationship with the writer and keep doors open for any future projects. The company was created by formidable entities, so, understandably, my friend was very encouraged. Short of hearing the name of the company, I would have been equally supportive.
However, this company was greatly responsible for my move to Los Angeles. They’d read a script of mine, then two and pretty soon we were all enjoying the process of moving the scripts towards production. I enthusiastically introduced the company to an investor whom I’d worked with prior, and after a group dinner and breakfast in the investor’s home, the team was formed and heading towards production!
In film terms, ‘cut’ to ten months later and I find out in the trade papers that the investor is committing millions of dollars to the production company to fund a completely different project. The many hours of meetings, passionate pre-production discussions, and musings about our bright future together now seemed like a bad dream.
Sitting across from my friend, I wanted to go into detail about the people and circumstances that led to a very distasteful experience. However, I now understood that for him, under the right circumstances, with certain events lining up, he could have tremendous success with this company.
The point of the above musing is to say that it is always necessary to find the ‘I’ in ‘we’ in every business interaction one has out here. It’s crucial to define one’s personal goals in every creative endeavor, no matter how strong the personal relationships seem to be. Often this can be perceived as aggressive or self-serving, and believe me, there are enough people to support that observation. Yet, you can have strong personal goals alongside others with different, yet equally passionate ambitions. In fact, most endeavors only get off the ground when the individual self-interests lean on one another to birth an idea into existence.
Perhaps the biggest lesson that one should learn when trying to start a career in this business is to clearly define one’s personal goals and then seek out individuals whose own personal goals benefit from your own. It’s an essential lesson, yet rarely learned without one life-changing personal experience or two.