If there is one goal in this placement at Killer Films, it is to understand the mechanics of the American Independent Film industry so I (and you) can find a way to make the films we want to make and to have them reach the largest audience. So, I hope these blogs will open a few of the trap doors to what I can find out about this indie industry here.

But of course, firstly, I’m going to just skim over how awesome NYC is. I’ve been here for four weeks, and yes, it’s everything they say it is. Summer heat waves; water hydrants with spraying water. Biking over the Williamsburg Bridge in the mornings is absolute bliss and there is no shortage of eye candy. The people of New York are very friendly, and everyone I meet have highly impressive lives and think nothing of it – living in amazing loft apartments, assisting for Terry Richardson, designing for the Olsen twins’ high end fashion label and being an MTV host with an all-you-can-drive car. Road Trip to Baltimore! What have I been doing with my life?

Back to my reality.

Investors are interested in financing independent films mainly for one reason … to make money. Full stop. That’s just the business of filmmaking, independent or not. Investors are looking for the ingredients to a successful film – successful being, to make money: a good script, good execution, which means a good director and producers, but, the bottom-line is… Cast.

Projects must attach an A-list cast before they can secure financing. A Killer film in development, Still Alice, is based on a successful novel written by Lisa Genova about a 50-year-old woman’s sudden descent into early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The potential cast for Alice will make you say ‘ahhhhh’ out loud and will hook in the financiers I’m certain. It hooked me. Her daughter will be played by a young box-office draw from a major franchise. ‘Ohhhh’. It’s all very impressive. But not for the investors. There is one character in the script that is yet to be cast, the father, a supporting role. It’s hard to cast to an A-list actor because of how small the role is, so financiers won’t commit until someone ‘suitable’ is cast.

Which leads to: How can I/we play this indie game?

Script, Cast, Finance, then Make. That’s the formula for Independent films in America. A good film does not need a named casts, but as far as getting your film financed, it’s mandatory to attached that A-list, and that’s how you raise money to make your film, and stay in business.

Good films like Boy, which blew box office records in NZ, and Paranormal Activity which made waves worldwide didn’t rely on A-list cast. But if you want to play the ‘indie game in America’ you have to get your script, (good or not) and attach those A-list actors to get financing.

However, with the forever changing ways of filmmaking, accessibility, digital technology, social media, we as ‘independent’ filmmakers should not rely on getting money the traditional way or even presenting our work in the traditional way. We have more choices now.

Of course every filmmaker is different, the traditional way may be the right way for you. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But for me, I’m not fixing… I’m building. I’m not a single-role filmmaker. The lines of the roles are blurred. We’re producer/director, director/writer, writer/actor, sound designers/composers – because of restrictions, or because we have the skills. I don’t just direct, or just production design. I’m a filmmaker.

After being lucky enough to spend the last seven months focusing on my professional development by going to the Berlinale, Viet Nam and now New York, I’m now looking at each of my projects like a business. I need to look at myself as business person as much as a creative. That is what an entrepreneur is, and filmmakers need to think like this. And business doesn’t necessarily mean making loads of money. But finding a way to finance films, and to continue making films outside the traditional methods.

We are in an era where we need to take risks and see what works. Nothing will change if we don’t try new things. The films I make usually have an unconventional process in some way. And I am thinking about unconventional ways I want to present my films to its audience. My current film, Timeslow is theatre inspired film; shot like a theatre show – long shots, staged choreography, and in-camera visual techniques. And that is how I want to present it, in a theatre (not a cinema). I want to show the film on a live stage adding a live performance aspect with music and moving props. I like to take risks, and it may fail, but I’m up for the challenge and the criticism.

Killer has been having success with unconventional ways of making films too. And it’s producing them cheaper and faster.

Hot-right-now writer/director/actor/producer Sebastian Silva, a Chilean filmmaker who’s hit film The Maid got him noticed in 2009 has two scripts in development with Killer. And he’s absolutely killing it with two features at Sundance this year; Crystal Fairy and Magic Magic.

Magic Magic is an independent film by all means, a traditional script, attached A-list cast, including the amazing Juno Temple; produced by Killer Films, and distributed by Sony. Michael Cera stars in both of Silva’s Sundance films where he speaks a little bit of Spanish in both. Cera lived in Chile with Silva’s family for a few months learning their native tongue specifically for the film Magic Magic, while they were waiting for the green light – longer than anticipated. Pessimistic that financing would pull through, they decided to make a low budget film and the Crystal Fairy script was born based on Silva’s experience meeting a woman called Crystal Fairy in his youth. He shipped over Gabby Hoffman from the US to Chile to play this character and they shot this film in 11 days.

The script Silva wrote wasn’t your traditional 90-pager. Because it was a low budget film he wasn’t pitching it to anyone, so it didn’t matter how it was written or presented so long as Silva could understand it and work with it. His script was a scene break down/treatment, a beat sheet in a way, with clear scene descriptions with details of emotions. The actors he worked with; Cera, Hoffman and his brother, improvised their way through the film while being on location. In doing things this way he was able to make his film quickly and cheaply. He doubled his output as a filmmaker and is moving onto his new project.

Silva is teaming up with Killer again and is developing many new works. This guy is prolific. With the success of his improv style he’s been writing a new 26 page script, which is a break down, no dialogue, but a skeleton of the movement of the story and pace, scenes detail and characters motivations and conflicts. What’s awesome is, because the power of the director and the prowess of Killer, he’s able to get the financing needed for the film, just on the treatment/script.

Another example of change where ‘Improv is the new script’ is Killer’s latest film to hit the theatres Dealing with Idiots, a Jeff Garland film. A comedian/actor who has just ‘slash’ directed his first feature. Jeff spent longer than he expected shopping his idea around and the reason it didn’t get picked up immediately was because there was no script. It was, again like Silva, a script with a clear outline, a treatment where the actors would improv their way through the scenes. The reaction to it from financiers was, ‘where is the script?  There is no film to fund if there is no script’. After two years of Christine convincing financers she raised $750,000 and they were able to shoot it in L.A over 14 days with Geoff’s choice of comedy improv actors.

This is not a new way of making films; it just seems to be a trend. Many directors including New Zealand/Korean filmmaker Steven Kang has used this technique, the result being the wonderful drama Desert produced by Leanne Saunders.

The two films, Crystal Fairy and Dealing with Idiots are worlds apart in genre and tone, but how they were made are similar. If you are interested in improv, or how films are made with treatments, then watch these two films and make comparisons, and of course, watch Desert. With improv, there’s no right or wrong, but there is good and bad. Working with the best comedy actors won’t necessarily make your film funny. You still need a good story, good producers, and just as importantly, if not most importantly, (bias) you need a good director – to lead the way as it will come down to how the film is executed.

I would like to thank Script to Screen, the NZFC and Thick as Thieves, for getting me here. Stay tuned.

Sally Tran is the 2013 recipient of the Killer Films Internship Scholarship. This scholarship is made possible with the support of the NZ Film Commission and Thick as Thieves.


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We are so excited to bring the eight exceptional advisors from New Zealand, Australia, Denmark and United States who will work with the eight teams selected for Episodic Lab Aotearoa to develop their skills and to projects across the five day immersive lab.... Read more