How to have your independent film made - Fix Bdsthanhhoavn

How to have your independent film made

The film industry is now so self-evidently commoditised that fresh off the back of receiving $159million from Netflix for The Irishman, Martin Scorsese condemned the rise of streaming and the arthouse bludgeoning force of Marvel. Whether or not this was his war to wage or even if the struggle of art vs chart is anything new matters not when it comes to getting a film made. The fact is, it is a truth universally acknowledged that bringing an independent feature to fruition is a gargantuan feat. 

Brian Petsos has not only achieved this feat, but with his debut feature-length project Big Gold Brick, he has achieved it with a film that joyously prides itself on staying firmly outside the boxes that streaming algorithms try to construct. When we caught up with him upon the release of the film, he told us how he managed to get it made, along with other expert advice accrued from the BBC’s brand-new Regional Partnership Scheme, co-funded with Northern Film + Media.

“I think the first thing is to write something that is authentic to you, and that means both personally and creatively and being pretty steadfast in wanting to see that thing bear fruit,” Petsos, the writer, director and producer began. “The backside of that coin is the logistics, and you have to scale that thing accordingly to the money you have access to.”

This is one thing that was also highlighted by Northern Film + Media’s Sherilyn Oliphant, who noted that many of the acts present at the BBC’s Comedy Festival – from Stephen Merchant to Charlie Brooker – stated that it is important to ‘have the conversation early’. If you can establish a dialogue and build a relationship with screen agencies and commissioners then it helps you avoid blind alleys and delineates your project from the get-go.

In other words, compromises are inevitable in art, particularly in something as financially dependent as cinema. There is no point fighting that inevitability. However, knowing what to compromise on and what to stand steadfast on is a skill in itself. Petsos’ Big Gold Brick achieves this seamlessly and compromises in such a way that the final film looks like no single corner was cut, and no whim of the imagination was eschewed for the sake of expense. 

Petsos also asserted that it still doesn’t have to have an overbearing influence on your screenplay. “Although I wrote this script,” he continued “when my producing partner saw the final draft for shooting, he said, ‘Well, this is exactly like the first script’ so the truth is we were probably a few million dollars short when we first came up to bat. So, to me, there are sacrifices that nobody will ever know. Writing with a producer’s hat on is probably beneficial if you want to actually make cool stuff. You have to think, ‘What do I want this to be, and what is my stepped back version’, and then push forward.”

This notion of having a clear and concise vision also came through from the advice gathered by the experts at the BBC Comedy Festival. Stephen Merchant said, with a wry acknowledgement that it’s an old cliche: “Write what you know.” However, do not despair if you’re wanting to create the next Star Wars, as long as it is truly authentic to you, then that still counts as writing what you know. After all, as masterful sci-fi writer Kurt Vonnegut opined, if you write with a sense of sincerity, then even if it’s about aliens, tapeworms, or a fleck of sirloin stuck in a nun’s teeth, you will inevitably end up writing what you know anyway.

And when it comes to writing with authenticity, it might sound paradoxical but sometimes the best way to find your own voice is by immersing yourself in other people’s. Merchant, for instance, was a self-proclaimed sitcom nerd before writing The Office with Ricky Gervais, Petsos ravenously relished Coen brothers movies, and Brooker kept his eye firmly on emerging internet trends. Producers simply call this ‘consuming the good stuff’.

What’s more, as you watch a lot of content, inherent structures will come to the fore. Adjani Salmon took this to a literal level and noted down the timings of pivotal moments within a script. This helped to build an understanding of when the audience like to see a wrench thrown in the works and when they like to see things head towards a resolution. All in all, you might have the most original wheel-reinventing screenplay of all time, but learning from others still won’t hurt.

(Credit: Blake Atienza)

Turning paper into a picture:

Once the screenplay is written and it comes down to making it into a movie, you’ll want to try and gloss over any compromises and stretch the budget to the limit. Petsos achieved this with aplomb. Part of this came down to a work rate that will have crew members wincing. “I think on a relative basis, we did okay with the budget. My thing was thinking, ‘How can we make this look triple what we have?’ The first way to do that is you don’t do a lot of takes. I had 40 days of stuff worth to shoot in 30 actual days. It was break-neck and brutal,” Petsos recalled. 

Aside from the work ethic involved in the shoot, Petsos had also developed a keen understanding of the industry given his various roles within it. Alas, this education also incorporates networking. One of his earliest writer-director-producer projects was the short film Ticky Tacky. By this point, he was lucky to have become friends with Oscar Isaac, who starred in the short. 

Ticky Tacky we shot in just eight hours. I would be lying if I didn’t say that it wasn’t hugely helpful when it came to attracting eyeballs.” This short piece was exactly what Petsos needed to raise his profile, show off his skills, and attract funding for Big Gold Brick.

This was another vital tip that producers at the BBC Comedy Festival alluded to. When Petsos wanted to make his feature film, he had something to show commissioners other than paper. As Oliphant also noted from the various talks attended: “Rather than send unsolicited scripts to production companies, send a few minutes pilot (1-10 mins). People are much more inclined to watch a clip than read a script.”

Understanding the industry and approaching things from a production point of view is vital for any would-be director to consider. “I was producing stuff before I was directing, so the producer’s hat was firmly screwed onto my head,” Petsos explains. “[Big Gold Brick] was not the easiest proposition to get off the ground. In a world where the business so wants to put things in a box, you can’t with this film which is a strength. With streaming being what it is at this point, everything is so commoditised and so transactional; it’s really disappointing to me.”

Continuing: “I can look at the business that way, I have the capacity, but I choose to work in the medium of cinema, and I want to make something that is cool. I’m personally tired of being talked down to in terms of the films that are out there so why would I want to perpetuate that for my audience?”

Aside from the advice that Petsos offered up for future filmmakers, the fact that Big Gold Brick got made, attracted an all-star cast, and proved to be a triumph worthy of the praise of being dubbed a joyously uncompromising feat, should serve as hopeful encouragement.

“It isn’t easy at all,” he concedes, “but I have faith that people can continue to be forward-thinking in their writing and filmmaking, and I have a tonne of faith that there is a tonne of people out there to eat it up. I hope that people continue to put money on the line where cool stuff is concerned.”

Below you can see all the tips in brief thanks to Brian Petsos, Northern Film + Media and BBC Comedy.

The tips in brief:

  • Have the conversation early on.
  • Open a dialogue and build a relationship with screen agencies and commissioners.
  • Send 10 pages.
  • Have a clear and concise story.
  • Figure out what ‘it’s really about’. What’s the message?
  • Try to put your point across concisely with description and in dialogue.
  • Notice what works structurally in a series. What happens and when. For instance, the spanner is usually thrown in the works between 7-9 minutes in.
  • Consume a lot of what is good.
  • Pad out your 10-page application with truth: A video to introduce a character or some photos of the people who inspired the characters.
  • Rather than send unsolicited scripts to production companies, send a few minutes pilot (1-10 mins). People are much more inclined to watch a clip than read a script.
  • Know what the industry is hungry for or missing.
  • Be an authentic voice, start writing by writing about what you know.
  • Try to keep a producer’s hat on throughout the process.
  • Don’t just write it for the sake of getting something made, make sure it’s bloody good and it’s what you wanted to make.

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