As many of you know, I recently wrote and directed an original web series called, “Dumbass Filmmakers!” The show runs 68 minutes over 12 episodes, so for all practical purposes, I got a great crash course in what it’s like to write and direct a feature film. “Inside-Out, Outside-In” is now scheduled for a mid-January start, so the time is right to look at what I did right…and what I learned…in the process of making my first long-form film project. Let’s start with the good decisions I made.
1. Investing in Rehearsals. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard directors say that the first time they heard the actors say the lines to each other, they were on set rolling the first take. The magic of the “first take – unrehearsed” has a sort of legendary history with some directors, but I made a far different choice with “Dumbass Filmmakers!” and I’m glad I did. All too often, those directors have the luxury of a more relaxed shooting schedule. On this project, we had 10 days of production, plus an additional three days of reshoots that were added. My committed team of actors spent weeks rehearsing the material in my apartment and on set before the camera crew showed up. And I’m glad they did. We needed to work out the beats of the material, the blocking and some natural acting challenges that come up AHEAD of time. Once it came time for production, we were much, much more efficient on set because we had rehearsed and people knew their blocking and business ahead of time. If other first-time directors want to try the magic of the “first take – unrehearsed,” I’m all for it. But in this case, our shooting schedule didn’t provide for a risk like that and I’m glad I made the call to invest in preparation. And, yes, my pug Romeo saw all the rehearsals go down.
2. Writing three-dimensional characters and demanding that actors play them that way, even though the show is “comedy.” The biggest trap I see with actors in comedy is that they start judging their characters as fools or losers and make fun of their own character while they’re playing the part. Any actor who auditioned for the show with this mentality didn’t get very far. I’m not interested in Saturday Night Live, sketch-style acting. More than once, actors were in tears sobbing dealing with demons that I wanted to exist for the character. On the whole, I’m satisfied with our results and many people have said they not only found the characters funny, but also recognized them as real people that exist in Los Angeles. I’m proud that we steered towards a more humanistic brand of comedy than a shallow, sketch brand of comedy.
3. Crowdfunding. This may relate more to producing than directing, but the decision to crowdfund part of our budget (made with my producing partner Elizabeth Gordon) was a good one. Most of the nearly $5,000 we raised came from members of my own family, with the largest donation by far coming from my brother Parker. (Special note: It’s pretty cool that my brother – an officer in the Army who just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan gave a big chunk of change for his brother to make an LGBT web show). While $5,000 didn’t cover the majority of our expenses, it sure didn’t hurt. And we wouldn’t have gotten any of that money if we didn’t ask. It gave me a heightened sense of confidence to know that my family took the step to write checks to support my creative endeavor, a first for me. Big credit also to Elizabeth for securing some donations from her circle as well. It is not comfortable for most artists to ask for support, but sometimes it pays off.
4. Creating an amazing post-production team. I call special attention to the post-production team because, as a director, these people are most closely aligned with you as you take a raw product and refine it towards your vision until a finished piece exists. So it’s extremely important to find amazing people to help you with this part of the process. I lucked out across the board with our two editors Chris Friend and James Lee Hernandez, our composer Sergio Jiminez Lacima, our post-audio supervisor David J. Kruk and our colorist Sam Mestman. All these guys not only expertly did their specific job, but also supported my vision of the piece by listening to what I wanted and then finding a way to translate that into how the show sounded, its editing rhythm, its look. And because they could see so many individual pieces of the project, they all had an understanding of the scope of “Dumbass Filmmakers!” and the difficulty of its development in post. That empathy was key for me in surviving the post-production process, because by then, you’re so tired and so overwhelmed that you’re not sure you can keep moving forward on the project. Then you show up at someone’s studio or an apartment with blinged-out computers. A techie geek or hipster dude (or both) brings you a cup of coffee and you get to work. That unspoken camaraderie was key to the success of the show and I gratefully acknowledge it here. You’ll be working with your post-production team a whole lot more than the crew on production, so be sure they are people that you respect, trust and, yes, like (and vice versa). It’s very important.
5. Putting my life on hold to finish the project. There came a time in the last 120 days of post-production that I had to put my entire life on hold to finish the project. No more dates. No meditation. No day jobs. No meetings. Just at least 80-90 hours of work every single week without a day off until it’s done. While it’s true that sometimes balance is necessary, some of the people who spout that off have never finished a project of any scope. I offer a different point of view. There comes a time with your project when it’s like a wild animal or bear that you must either wrestle down to the ground or let it go free. Quit Facebook. Quit working out. Quit your day job if you have to. Run the risk that you’ll piss off your girlfriend/boyfriend/family/friends and just FINISH THE F’ING THING. Once you do, you will emerge a new man (or woman) and feel proud of yourself. Somehow, the other stuff will come back into balance eventually. Hollywood is not for wimps. So don’t be one. I’m extremely proud that – whatever its flaws – my 68-minute project has been completed. And yeah, willpower, endurance and a conscious decision to forgo everything else were a big part of the reason why.
Five Things I Could’ve Handled Better
1. Anxiety over Technical Issues – I’m the guy that panics when it looks like a drive is failing to fire up or a media file shows up offline in Final Cut Pro. But remembering that even technology is imperfect is key to managing your stress in production and post-production. Sometimes, tech stuff goes wonky. Deal. By the end of post-production, I learned that 99% of the time if a drive doesn’t show up when you turn on the computer, let’s just unplug it and restart and it’ll probably be fine. Bringing that stress to yourself and others doesn’t help anyone.
2. Cutting too early. On set, you get so caught up in the rush of trying to finish shots that all too often, you cut too early. With digital cameras, it really doesn’t cost you anything to let the camera run a few extra moments. And sometimes it’s those moments after an actor thinks they’ve “finished” their business that things actually get interesting. More than once, my editor yelled at the monitor, “Why did you cut? Why did you cut? What happens right after this? It’s getting so interesting!” I cut because, on set, you’re in an adrenaline mode, so subtle moments of humanity that occur are sometimes lost to you. Next time, for safety’s sake, I’ll let the camera roll a little bit longer than you think you need to.
3. Not Structuring the Show Properly. The biggest flaw in “Dumbass Filmmakers!” is the structure. I originally wrote the series as four discrete 22-minute episodes. We decided to basically shoot two-and-a-half of those episodes then “worry about it in post” to break it up into webisodes. This decision caused me the single most amount of pain than any other decision associated with the show. Learn from my dumbass-ness!!! Write for the medium you’re in. If you’re making webisodes, write a five-minute webisode. Now, I’m satisfied we did the best we could to make something interesting out of the structure. But on the feature film, I’m so grateful that it’s been written as a feature, will be shot as a feature and edited as a feature. This was the biggest pain in the ass and remains the biggest flaw in the show.
4. Not playing with all the tools available ahead of time. In my defense, we had a compact schedule rolling from our short film “Winner Takes All” to this project. But I wish I’d taken more time to just play with all the tools available to me as a director ahead of time. From the Canon 5D to the Gorilla software to MindNode to Final Cut Studio, I wish I’d spent more time fooling around with these valuable creative tools so that learning would take place before the stressful schedule of making a film project.
5. Being Daddy. (It’s a boy! It’s a girl! It’s twins! It’s everybody!) Anthony Hopkins famously said, “Most actors are damaged goods.” Nina Foch, the famed acting coach whose pupils included Sean Penn, theorized that the only reason someone becomes an actor is because they are convinced that at least one of their two parents didn’t love them. Without insulting any of my amazing actors, I want to say I agree with both Hopkins and Foch. What’s more, many other creative artists in other fields related to filmmaking are similarly damaged. And when you strap on that title of “Director,” guess who is the authority figure? Guess who, consciously or unconsciously, becomes their Daddy (or Mommy as the case may be) that didn’t love them? YOU DO. And what’s more, most artists are completely unconscious of the fact that they’re playing out their unresolved parental issues (on top of their stress of juggling day jobs, acting class, friends and family). And here’s the kicker…guess what? I’m an actor, too. So I’m doing the same thing! Projecting my unresolved pain and needs onto others and wanting attention and love to fix it. However, with tight schedules, there’s really not a lot of time for a director to get caught up in being triggered but it is also, for better or worse, inevitable. So think of ‘Being Daddy’ as part of the collateral damage of ‘Being Director.’ Sometimes I was able to channel it into my own work. Sometimes I let it throw me. But on this project, there was a sense of shock that this type of projection was even happening. My head kept saying, “It SHOULDN’T be this way. It DOESN’T HAVE to be this way.” Wrong. It does have to be this way. Artists are vulnerable, damaged people and when you come together to make a movie, that’s a lot of vulnerable, damaged people in the same space (including you!). So expect yourself and others to act like triggered teenagers from time to time and roll with it the best you can. It will be this way on EVERY SINGLE PROJECT THAT YOU MAKE (that’s in any way based in the truth, at least). If you handle it properly, you and your cast may even get some healing out of it. With “Dumbass Filmmakers!” I believe we emerged from the process as better human beings (and I say again, I really do love all my actors on the show and think they’re talented and amazing), but next time it won’t be such a shock that when you deal with emotional terrain, emotions come out…one way or another. It’s normal and to be expected.
Now that I’ve learned some valuable lessons and can build on the momentum of “Dumbass Filmmakers!,” this blog will be shifting pretty much full-time to the making of “Inside-Out, Outside-In.” Hope you will enjoy the ride! And in case you’re curious, here is a peak at the first episode of “Dumbass Filmmakers!”
Hunter Lee Hughes is a filmmaker and actor living and working in Los Angeles and the founder of Fatelink. His current feature film Guys Reading Poems is touring film festivals and this blog is dedicated to the process of making his second feature film, “Inside-Out, Outside-In.” If you enjoy the blog, please support our team by following us on Facebook, Twitter (@Fatelink) or Instagram (@Fatelink).