1,000 emails, 2,000 phone calls, 3,000 and 4,000 script revisions later, I was finally shooting Wild Birds. I had made it to set the first day, for the most part unscathed. How did I get there and how did I avoid the many catastrophes I had envisioned on the way? By organizing and planning and scheduling and reviewing everything until my production team and I were sick. But I think (and keep your fingers crossed) that it paid off. Below is a list of things I was glad I’d taken care of in pre-production:
1. Receipts. Don’t keep receipts until there’s downtime on Day 1. Start that spreadsheet with the first penny spent in development or pre-production. Having the cash in order means rentals, pay checks, petty cash, etc. is ready and accounted for. The goal is to not go broke and overdraft and rack up tons of credit due to a miscalculation or lost receipt. If you’ve planned out the shoot financially from the very start and have that master plan to go back to and adjust when you receive donations or add new expenses, there’s one less thing to lose sleep over. Sometimes it helps to see where you’re spending money when you want to cut costs too. For example: If the dinner at the production meeting cost $50 more than you wanted to spend, you know to have the next meeting/rehearsal at a coffee shop or maybe your apartment to avoid that extra expense.
2. Locking things down. Make sure everyone showing up to set is on the same page. Everyone should have the locked copy of the script and know when and where call is. It seems basic, but it’s easy to lose track of crew when there are vendors to barter with, things to pick up, things to drop off, things to buy, people to talk to, email, call…. If you have a good AD, everyone will know what’s happening, when and where, which will save you about 800 calls, texts, emails, gchats… from your crew. And it will save you a few bucks too, since you won’t have to pay for a cab for the lead actress who showed up at the wrong location across town…
3. Love your crew. Which brings me to the next point: respect your crew members. You hired them for a reason. Hopefully it was because you trust them to do their jobs. Let them do their thing so you can do yours. Micromanaging will only annoy them. And you don’t want to annoy them because a. they are largely responsible for helping you make your film a reality and b. you’ll probably want to work with them again, and c. you don’t have time – you’ll be too busy directing a film! And if you hire a good producer UPM and AD, there will always be someone to listen if there are problems or complaints and craft, meals and coffee (hopefully all free – see previous blog) are plentiful and show up on time, which will help keep everyone happy.
4. Safety. And speaking of headaches, try to remember to keep a First Aid kit on set and some Emergen-c… If you’ve hired a crew who knows what they’re doing (see 3) and don’t feed them things they’re deathly allergic to (see 8 below) and you rehearsed with your actors, including stunts and other dangerous blocking (6 below) and you location/tech scout to make sure you won’t blow the place up or fall victim to a natural disaster, you should be okay. But, it’s better safe than sorry, right? Someone will probably at least need a band-aid at some point.
5. Post Production Plan. Have a plan for post before the shoot. Maybe sure your DP and editor have a conversation. Same for the sound designer and sound mixer, sound mixer and editor, you and the editor, you and the sound mixer…. It takes so long just to get to the point where you’re on set and shoot that people often forget about what comes after. Don’t end up with footage you can’t sync! A ten minute dialogue will make sure production flows right into post, seamlessly.
6. Rehearsals. While production is super important, so are your actors. They are your film – or at least what relates the audience to your film. Take time to meet with them, rehearse with them, and explain the shoot to them. I was working with child actors, so it was especially important to make sure they were comfortable with each other, me, my DP and my stunt coordinator, as well as the script, before showing up to set. I lucked out here and had some really amazing actresses, so there were no issues in the talent department. But no matter how “cool” an actor says they are with “going with the flow,” it’s probably always best to make sure you’re on the same page and that you respect them and their time (just as you should your crew’s – by being organized and ready to go at call time on day 1!).
7. Paper Work. Print out your paper work before you get to location. Make lots of image release forms. Make all cast, crew, friends and family sign them! You want to put those photos everywhere to publicize your film. But you don’t want someone to sue you because you captured them mid-blink. Own everything you shoot: still or moving! You never know what you’ll end up needing and tracking people down months later is never fun for anyone. Oh, and make sure you have someone taking stills on set, other than the boom op with her iPhone… I promise you’ll want those photos. Make sure you have the proper SAG forms, insurance papers, permits… You don’t want to risk being shut down or scramble last minute for insurance papers so you can take your equipment out of the rental house. Save yourself the time, money and very large headache by having everything ready to go, and by having copies, and by maybe making sure a few people have copies.
8. And repeat. Go through everything, AGAIN. Does everyone who needs directions have them? Are those directions correct? Whose phone will be the “contact number” on set? Who’s allergic to what and who’s a vegetarian/vegan/pescetarian/freegan… Knowing all these things and having little lists or charts will help keep things running smoothly. If the talent has the wrong address or you find out that half your crew is allergic to the peanuts in the Thai lunch after it’s delivered, you’re going to have a huge headache. So plan ahead and check everything at least twice.
9. Filing Cabinet. Keep your set paperwork (including those image release forms) neat and tidy and completed in some sort of file or drawer where you won’t forget it. Same goes for those receipts listed in 1. For receipts, it’s easiest to tape them to paper (maybe organize them by department) and make photo copies to put in a binder or file so you can more easily find the exact one you need later. Still keep the originals in an envelope though, in case you need to make returns or use a warranty on something you purchased. Don’t forget to print copies of checks cashed and deposits too. And make sure you highlight or mark-up or write somewhere which receipts are paid or owed and to whom. Keeping that updated and accurate will help ensure you pay people on time (see 3) and will help with that spreadsheet you made (see 1). Hopefully you’ll have only spent petty cash on set, so you shouldn’t owe too many people money – other than yourself of course…
10. Expect Anything. These steps all sound like the ranting of someone with severe OCD (and maybe that’s all they really are) but there will always be a problem with every shoot, no matter what. That’s a guarantee. If you have everything you can control organized and in order, you’ll be able to deal with the snafus you do run into without disrupting the production too much. Don’t risk worrying about the little things when there could be big things you’ll need to focus on – like performance and sound and camera and the guy riding a snowmobile through your shot and………….
I tried to follow my own advice as best I could and I believe it paid off (fingers crossed). The shoot went smoothly, with very few bumps along the way. Because I forced my production team into ultra-organizational mode before the shoot, I was able to focus on directing and let my awesome producer, UPM and AD handle the little problems we encountered (without me even knowing about them until we wrapped!). We also lucked out on the weather! But that I couldn’t really control (though I did have some rain locations, just in case…)
More about physical production once I’ve seen the footage with my editor… In the meantime, visit the Wild Birds web site to read more about the production. More stills from set coming soon (and all with image release forms!)…
RFF 2010 Fellow Courtney Hope (mentored by Jeremy Kipp Walker) recently graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts with a degree in Film & Television. While a student at NYU, she wrote and directed several short films. Hope’s thesis film Sex & German Grammar, which was awarded the prize for Best Cinematography at NYU’s Fusion Film Festival, also screened at the Southside Film Festival and the Palm Springs Shortfest. Hope has also shown films at the London Super Short Film Festival and the Reed Media Festival, and took home a prize at the 2007 Southside Image Over Words competition. Hope recently completed her first independent short, Another First.