The Fundamentals of Our Favorite Independent Films

Phil Rossi

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Indie FilmmakerKyle Loftus/Pexels

Every decade has its list of favorite and fantastic independent movies. As fans, we marvel at the filmmakers who seem to get optimum mileage out of their efforts.

We know the stories of these determined artists trying to make their films. They’ve become folklore — as much as the films themselves, their legacy of an insurmountable journey.

The phenomenon is that these maverick movies come in all genres. There may or may not be an elixir for the hits and misses. Yet, many have more gravitas than the luck of the draw and expanding a shoestring budget.

It’s easy to look at a film’s popularity through our modern-day lens of virality. Some of this might ring true when timing comes to mind. In the late 80s and early 90s, a handful of independent filmmakers began breaking out.

The public’s hunger for intimate and real stories created this demand. Everyday characters that they could relate to and root for. Coupled with the popularity of the Sundance Film Festival and a handful of others. Expanded opportunities for the indie filmmaker spawned a cultural and artistic movement.

At a time when digital tools were years away, indie filmmakers took to the streets, armed with skeleton crews, lighting kits, and a 16mm camera. Shooting their scenes on the fly with unknown actors and the inability to see their footage on the spot since their film needed to be developed by a lab. Imagine that?

The norm was to shoot and pray. That the lighting was good enough, and the sound team captured the script’s dialogue. If not, the scenes needed to be reshot.

Busy streets, off-limits subway trains, and terminals. Production assistants acting as security, on the lookout for the police since most didn’t have the permits and insurance allocated in their micro-budgets. Yet, they did it. Many persisted and delivered the treasures.

We could sit here until the cows come home listing our favorites. For the crime buffs, there’s Reservoir Dogs and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. For the thriller audience, Paranormal Activity and Open Water come to mind.

Classic horror, such as Night of the Living Dead that continues to inspire successive generations of filmmakers — 50+ years later. The Blair Witch Project managed to break new ground in a populated and saturated field.

What continues to fascinate me is the wide spectrum of films and genres. From family dramas to experimental. Period pieces to dystopian futures. The craft of directing, all though paramount, is not first and foremost.

Indie filmmakers who reach the studio system become better directors as they gain experience. The studio system provides extensive collaboration, talent, and money — the tools that better support and nurture the movie director. With fewer hats to wear, these filmmakers get to spend more time and energy honing their craft.

The game-changers for the indie film director are not always found in the execution of the craft itself. Not on the surface. It’s more on the overall production value of their films.

As moviegoers, we expect and demand certain standards of all the films we watch: The sound must be crisp and clear. In-focus shots take precedent over camera angles and camera position. When it comes to indie productions, we expect and welcome the crude. Rough-around-the-edges add to the film’s charm, scope, and ambition. We applaud the production as long as we can see, hear, and follow the story.

Like anyone grinding away until their overnight success, countless things are being practiced. Aspects that, collectively, define these films and the process behind them.

Despite a low or no-budget production, audience expectations remain. Whether it’s the mega box office production full of CGI and Hollywood stars, or the micro-budget indie at our regional film festival or streaming platforms, the things that encompass our experience must be present. Not here and there, and in small doses. The right stuff has to be present from the opening shot to the closing credits.

We all watch movies to be entertained, transported, and emotionally charged. We don’t always experience this. When we do, we could care less about the budgets, camera placements, and other technical stuff.

The indie films among our favorites are the ones that cover the same bases as the studio productions. Indie films must contain elements to break away from the pack of a crowded and, sometimes, mediocre field.

I hate to imply mediocre, since making a feature-length film, even a short film, is a major achievement. I know firsthand, being in this business for some time. I’ve been on those run-and-shoot teams as well as on TV and major production sets.

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Indie Production SetVictoria Borodinova/Pixabay

Despite the liberal and lenient expectations of production value, audiences demand certain criteria. There are a variety of reasons many indie films get lost and left behind. The most important is found in the results—the process of executing the fundies and delivering the goods.

I prefer favorite and best over successful. Since films are an art form, it’s entirely subjective. One person’s success might be a Sundance screening, an award, or a cult following. Another might be wider distribution and box office returns. Favorite is more aligned with you, the reader. The films that you love and love to watch on a regular if not repetitive basis.

The indie film business has evolved. Many feel it has been hijacked by the major studios. In the more prestigious festivals, it has. Once major studios joined the game, they began investing millions and adding stars to their independent projects. These actions alone bumped the traditional indies from the rotations of such festivals.

That said, there remains an underground market with eager audiences hungry for indie films. The unknown and no-budget filmmakers looking to spread their work and find an audience.

Sure, the competition is brisk. There are many, if not countless, platforms. Direct to YouTube is not a failure or a badge of shame. For those that practice the best, play the best.

Story

The screenplay will always be the reason the film collects eyeballs. It’s king and carries the old axioms: Your film is only as good as its screenplay, and A good script is not good enough — it has to be better.

There is a bevy of indie filmmakers who broke out by writing their scripts. Many continue to this day, producing films from their original screenplays. Others have joined the studio process by adapting novels and other sources of material.

For the indie filmmakers who can’t seem to write or believe they could write a superior and original screenplay, they could still make their films. The bigger skill is to recognize exceptional stories. There’s no need to be intimidated and allow this resistance to stunt their process and block their opportunity.

This advice won’t be found on the Writing Cooperative: the best route for the story-strapped artist is to be on the lookout for doable and obtainable stories. Stories that are already written and are available for adaptation.

Stage plays are a great place to start. By nature, they are tightly written, well-performed, and furnished with a built-in audience. Stage plays are often a work in process. Multiple production phases by seasoned writers, directors, and actors — even on the stock and local theater circuit.

Many independent productions carry stage presence and artistic value. Most would be happy to see their work adapted to film. A passion for a stage play could be a boon for the indie filmmaker looking to make their movie.

Stage plays are also tailor-made for independent film production. Most have limited characters, locations and are dialogue-heavy. Yet again, the dialogue, story, and structure might have been revised, refined, and performed various times.

Acting

Another caveat that can’t be overlooked. We might disagree on favorite and best, but we know a subpar acting performance when we see it. The wrong actors could derail a film.

On the flip, the dedicated ones lift the project to newer and greater heights. Of course, we all know of the indie films with so and so before they broke out themselves.

Acting is key. The indie filmmakers who prioritize casting make better films. They understand it’s a collaborative process. They also know, with limited funds, they need to get actors who are all in with a depth of commitment to their craft and this indie production.

The producers who think that actors are only around to memorize their lines and hit their marks are all they get. If they’re that fortunate. Others think they’re all the same and settle for availability. I’ve seen indie filmmakers push back production to accommodate actors’ schedules. It paid off since their films were screened, purchased, and distributed.

Originality

Easier said than done —for sure. What audiences don’t want to see is the indie filmmaker’s version of what’s come before. Indie filmmakers are known to get cute with lifting from the masters.

Even if their premise is unoriginal, the way it is shot and performed is enough to separate it. The director’s voice and vision need to be true. I’ve seen it on sets where scripts lagged, and presto — the director decides to ape a Scorcese scene instead of taking a breath to write something more original.

Ego, pride, lack of confidence, whatever. It never works. Oscar-winning directors are known to take a pause when things aren’t working. Look at all they’ve put into it, and for whatever reason, the scene falls flat.

They know better. They trust their talent and process to find the best way. As a result, the indie filmmakers who practice humility and prudent decision-making make the best films.

Location

In terms of indie moviemaking, this boils down to less is more. It’s no different from the horror genre’s template. Get a house in the woods, a bunch of college kids, and an ax-wielding lunatic lurking in those woods. That’s your movie — and your location.

No running around. No disrupting the shooting schedules. The house doubles as a production office and mess hall. There’s plenty of room for hair, makeup, and wardrobe as well.

When it rains, they shoot interiors. When it clears up, they move outside—all on the property.

Limited locations are huge and, if used correctly, don’t allow the audience to feel a been there, done that vibe. For example, a big chunk of Reservoir Dogs uses a warehouse. The list goes on where indie filmmakers saved money on location fees by putting that found money back on the screen.

Production Value

In indie terms, we mean knowing who you are and staying in your lane. It’s the more bang for your buck theory. The opposite of Hollywood budgets, where less is more.

I’ve spent time on indie sets where the ambition and scope of the film were bloated. Then, when continuity issues fester, it pulls the audience away from the film altogether.

As a film school graduate eager for experience, I worked on movies headed for the heap. Things production teams took for granted — like the I.Q. of its projected audience. I hate to say it, but it’s the truth — all of the recent film grads working as PAs knew these projects were doomed.

The audience wants real. When filmmakers start over-reaching their boundaries, it shows. Unfortunately, in film, it’s always in the finished product. Once the film devolves into cheesy, it’s over because it’s too late. No festival curator will screen this stuff.

The indie films that embrace the low and no-budget don’t hide it — they incorporate it. They stretch the limited funds to get the best scenes and performances. It’s intimate, and it pays off. As audience members, we’re drawn into these moments.

We’re grateful for the fuzzy inuendos that make us think. Too engaged with the characters to care about camera placement. The hand-held and shaky movements in a foot chase. It’s the fun, small, and no-frills stuff that continues to dazzle and charm. It provides identity and texture in its own right. As fans, we love it.

It’s refreshing and encouraging that indie filmmaking continues to evolve and be present. Available to us on various platforms and channels.

As audience members, we’re always on the lookout for an intriguing story. Something fresh, new, and original. We’re rooting for that indie filmmaker to turn us on. To bring and spread their magic. Long live the mavericks!

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Phil is a blogger interested in sports, culture, politics, and the art scene.

Hackensack, NJ
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