About to make your first short film? Here are some things I learned the hard way.
My name is Chelsea Gonzalez. I’m an actor-turned-filmmaker. As such, when making my first short film ‘Susanne and The Man,’ I had a very good grasp of how to analyze a script and dissect my character but knew very little about what it actually takes to make a movie.
Here are some things I wish would have known:
1. People WANT to work on your film
Since I was embarking my new foray into filmmaking as a performer, I knew a plethora of actors who would jump at the chance to act in my film. Crew, however, not so much. I had no idea how to find my crew, what they might cost, or who would even be interested in working on my movie. While on the hunt, I was so grateful to find ANYONE who would agree to be a part of my crew. I could not have been more wrong on this. There is no shortage of filmmakers in this world who are dying for the chance to get on another set. You have to remember that you are giving someone a job and, therefore, an opportunity. You’re in the driver’s seat and you get to be a little picky here. Have a DP that you would just DIE to work with but assume they are ‘too good’ for your little film? It doesn’t hurt to ask. You’ll be shocked to find out who is down to work on your movie.
Pro-tip: Alumni job boards and filmmaking Facebook groups are fantastic for finding your crew, but vet them first. If you are hiring a gaffer (your lighting designer) for example, ask to see what else they have worked on. Better yet, research other short films that have been made in your area and find a way to watch them. Say you loved the lighting on a certain film, look up who worked on it. With a little digging I’m sure you can find their email address. It doesn’t hurt to reach out. And, just remember, they WANT to work for you.
2. Hire a Producing Partner
If you are currently in pre-production on your first film and don’t yet have a producing partner: Stop. Do not pass go. Do not collect 200 dollars. If you’re new to this, chances are you don’t have a strong sense yet of how to allocate your budget, who to hire, and what steps to take in what order. When I was in pre-production on Susanne and The Man, I did not have a Co-Producer. Two weeks before my shoot I had hardly hired half my crew, couldn’t get the owner of our shooting location to answer my calls, and I was, quite frankly, on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I reached out to my filmmaker friend for advice and, over the course of our conversation, realized I was WAY behind on all the prep I needed for my shoot date. At the end of our conversation, I asked if she would be willing to come on board as a producer for my film. This was a total lifesaver! Producing is not a job that you want to go at alone. In my opinion, it is the single most important part of the filmmaking process. It provides the foundation for your entire movie and having an experienced producer in your corner will make a world of difference.
Note: Shoutout to my longtime producing partners, Natalie Britton and Kate Hamilton of Queens Gambit Films. If you live in Los Angeles and are looking to hire a producing team, check them out. You won’t regret it.
3. Choose only 2: Acting, Directing, Producing
I know, I know. We want to do it all. But I find that filmmakers who decide to direct, produce, and act in their films end up sacrificing the ultimate quality of the project. There are exceptions but as a general rule of thumb, I would choose two above-the-line jobs and stick to them.
Pro-Tip: Adding writing to the mix is totally fine in my book. Most of that process is finished before you even hit pre-production so if you want to write and direct or write and act in your film, go right ahead!
4. Delegate, Delegate, Delegate
I learned this one the hard way. My films have always had a tight budget. My crew is often doing me a whole lot of favors and working for less-than-ideal rates. On my first short film, I was too embarrassed to ask for help a lot of the time. I didn’t want my crew to feel overworked, so I was the one designing last minute props the night before. I got up at 4am to get coffee for the crew so that my PA wouldn’t be burdened with the task of waking up at such an ungodly hour. I was rushing off to the grocery store to buy crafty when I should have been prepping our shoot day. In retrospect I have learned that you just HAVE to delegate responsibility to your teammates. The most wonderful part about filmmaking is the collaboration and comradery with your fellow filmmakers. Let them help you. Let your crew members do their job. Even if it means asking your PA to get up an hour early to pick up coffee for your crew.
5. You know what you’re doing more than you think you do
It’s possible that not everyone needs to learn this lesson as much as I did but, when I first started filmmaking, I felt so inexperienced that I went into prep meetings announcing, “This is my first film. I don’t know what I’m doing.” Or when it came to decision making, I would defer to anyone else declaring “I dunno, what do you think?” I lost a lot of my own power in those moments. The truth is, even though I had never made a film before, I wrote the script myself and I had a very clear idea of how I wanted it to turn out. Being open to other opinions is wonderful and speaks to the collaborative nature of this industry but, just because you’ve never made a film before, doesn’t mean that you don’t know what you’re doing. When you’re faced with a decision (which there will be many), pause, take a deep breath, and think through your vision for this film. You may find that you know what you want a whole lot more than you think you do.
Now go forth and prosper. I cannot wait to see your film!
Chelsea Gonzalez is an award winning writer / director / actress living in LA who can be seen on The Mindy Project, Criminal Minds, Castle, HBO's The Jinx as well as Franka Potente's new feature, Home, starring Kathy Bates.