Experts’ Advice for Aspiring Filmmakers

Darren Aronofsky, Danny Boyle, Neil LaBute, more weigh in.

Director, “Slumdog Millionaire”
“After we made ’28 Days Later,’ people would come up and ask, ‘How do you scare people in a movie? Give me three ways.’ And I would say ‘Sound, sound, and sound.’ Sound is the thing that really ‘sells the blow’ every time. Sometimes in the edit or in a screening you raise the sound up a bit in the mix and certain scenes are unwatchable. People will turn away because the sound amplifies the reality of the image. But if you watch it with the sound off, it’s no problem and they’re not fazed by whatever you show them.
“So the two bits of advice I give all aspiring filmmakers are to make sure you work in a team and to save more money than you think you need for sound. The temptation — especially if you’re working with limited budgets like our early films — is to spend your money up front while you’re shooting and solve things later. But the aural, audio impact of our films is on the same level as the visual impact.”
Director, “In the Company of Men,” Lakeview Terrace”
“Marketing is the place where one has to be tenacious. You do have a voice, and you have to keep that voice active by letting [marketing executives] know that you’re either happy or displeased. Although you may not be able to make the final decision, ultimately, you can be involved in shaping it. … Some filmmakers say, “Hey, man, it’s not about the box office. I’ve even said that, too. But the truth is you’re not making films so you can show them in your basement to a few friends. You’re putting your film out there as popular entertainment and hoping there’s going to be a great audience for them.”
Director, “Sideways,” “About Schmidt,” HBO’s “Hung”
“It’s very important for young filmmakers — actually for filmmakers of any age — to know when to capitalize on those small windows of notoriety, on those windows of success, in order to facilitate getting their first project or their next project made. You get out in the filmmaking world and you see what offers are coming in, you see what material is striking you, what themes, what movies you already like that you want to emulate. All these things come into play, and you just feel it out because you don’t always know how you’re going to get there.
“Am I going to need independent sources of financing or am I going to need foreign financing that I put together and later find a U.S. distributor. Am I going to shoot it off credit cards like Robert Townsend or Kevin Smith for $50,000? Am I going to get a studio assignment, and if it is a studio thing, what are the prices there? How much control will I lose? Who am I getting involved with? Today young filmmakers come up to me and say, ‘You know, I’ve been trying to get my film made for eight months … or 16 months … can you help me out?’ And I tell them I understand their frustration and I know that agony, but I can’t give them pity. That’s simply the process. As Hyman Roth says in ‘The Godfather: Part II,’ ‘This is the business we’ve chosen.’”
Producer, “Inglourious Basterds,” Pulp Fiction”
“If I were making a small movie I would not use ‘Pulp Fiction as a business model or ever pitch people the ‘Pulp Fiction model. ‘Pulp Fiction’ honestly, was one of those movies that was good and bad for independent cinema. It was great because it was a big success and that encouraged a lot of people in the business and made them realize you could make money with independent movies. All the studios began creating their own independent or specialized divisions.
“But on the other hand, everybody also began looking for their own grand slam on an independent movie and looking for huge upside from small films. It used to be that if you made an independent movie and it grossed more than 10 million bucks, you were in amazing shape. But today, people are looking for much more than that. Even though I happen to have made that one-in-a-million film, that doesn’t mean it happens very often — or even a second time.”
Director, “Swingers,” “The Bourne Identity”
“The reality is that ‘Swingers’ was a much better movie because we weren’t able to raise the $1.5 million we were originally shooting for. I’m a big believer that for most filmmakers, including myself, you need some limitations in order to force your creativity. That’s why I advise people to just go for it with what they’ve got. With ‘Swingers’, all we were able to raise was $200,000. Most sane people would be emboldened by the fact that they were able to raise the first $200,000 and so they keep going with the fundraising to try to get more money. If I had waited to get the rest I’d probably still be waiting, trying to raise the other $1.3 million.”
Director, “Precious: Based on the Novel by Sapphire”
“My advice is filmmakers who are trying to make really challenging flims is to embrace the struggle required to make them. All great films come from struggle. People said ‘Monster’s Ball’ shouldn’t be made and even asked why I was working on such a film. But struggle puts hair on your chest. You fight so hard for these little movies that sometimes you feel like you must be crazy. Sometimes I think, ‘Why don’t I just buy into the system? Get myself a house and a decent car?’ But when I see the result like ‘The Woodsman’ and the effect the films have on people, it makes me feel like I’m not crazy, that I’m not alone, and that people do appreciate them.”
Co-President, Fox Searchlight
“When it comes to marketing, a really good film can be its own best asset. But an independent film always has to have at least some marketable elements: brilliant reviews, great word-of-mouth, or its cast, but ‘playability’ can also be a film’s strongest marketing element. For example, a film like ‘Waitress’ succeeds because audiences respond to it emotionally and tell their friends how much they enjoyed it. The thing is, it’s hard enough to make a great movie, and it’s also hard to start thinking about marketing materials while you’re on set, but it does help the cause later on.
“When you’re trying to explain a film to audiences it’s important to have usable ‘trailer moments,’ where a character says something memorable or where a character explains what the movie is about to someone in a coherent way, so that you don’t have to use extensive or artificial voiceover when you get to trailering. It’s always much better if you can use something organic to the film itself so you don’t have to have that Voice of God saying: ‘In a world where this or that can happen …’ or a trailer voiceover that says: ‘So-and-so didn’t know he was going to get into such-and-such … but guess what happened.’”
Co-President, Sony Pictures Classics
“There was a rumor going around Sundance years ago about an independent film with $700,000 in uncleared music rights. That’s $700,000 on top of what they wanted distributors to pay for the movie. Then when we went to the screening and heard all the songs, we realized that the rumors had to be true. But if we hadn’t hard about it, we might not have discovered the extent of the music-rights issue until we were deep into the negotiation process to buy the film, which could have derailed our interest.
“Music creates all sorts of headaches. For example, many filmmakers secure festival rights for music but then don’t or can’t get clearances for the trailer, for broadcast television or for overseas theatrical exhibition, or even for domestic home video. So essentially, we’re often asked to buy a movie that can’t be show on television or home video as long as the songs are still in the film. Once we find out the music has only been cleared for festivals or only for domestic theatrical, it’s a big problem and it can potentially undo a distribution deal.”
President, Miramax Films
’The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ was a very difficult film to get made. If you were looking at it in a very hard-hearted, actual way, there were many things about it that made it impossible to make, and then impossible to make into a commercial success. But what literally gave ’The Diving Bell’ its lifeblood was that it was about a man who despite everything discovered a joie de vivre, the desire to live, and everything about the human existence that he still wanted to experience. What really connected to people was that someone even in that devastating moment still had this incredible soul and this incredible heart and the will to live, which is very different from being in that position and wanting to die.
“Jean-Dominique Bauby didn’t want to die. He thought he did and then he realized he really didn’t. We screened ’The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ for French groups, literary groups, and cinema groups, and for the medical community because I think it had such a hopeful message for people treating serious illnesses. And by doing that you’re taking the movie out of the core audience and showing it to a different group that maybe doesn’t usually see a subtitled movie, and then suddenly you’re breaking through a barrier. If you have a movie that can cross over or break through or go beyond the borders that you would normally see, then you should definitely think of that secondary audience.”
Director, “The Wrestler,” “Requiem for a Dream”
“I think YouTube and similar streaming sites represent a great opportunity for aspiring filmmakers to distribute their films. Filmmakers used to have to follow the festival cycle and wait for their applications and films to be approved, but today, you can create something and get it out there immediately, and if it’s good, people will watch it and tell their friends to watch it. And every once in a while you see something really clever and cool that breaks out, like the music video with the guys walking on the treadmills, and it’s great.
“There are things online that might have never gotten that much exposure and now a creative filmmaker has created a viable band through OK Go’s ‘Here It Goes Again,’ and the song’s online popularity. Videos like that are going to be seen by a much larger online audience than if they only get a few screenings at a film festival that not everybody can attend. You’re still going to get independent films coming out of Sundance and kids whose careers are launched because they got some attention or buzz at a major festival. And feature-length film is still probably the premier way that people enjoy narrative entertainment.
“But over the next few years I think we’ll continue to see a number of exciting developments for filmmakers as a result of opportunities emerging from online distribution.”
Adapted from the Book, “The Reel Truth: Everything You Didn’t Know You Need to Know About Making an Independent Film,” published by Macmillan; now available on