6 things you need to know about making an independent film

Native and The Borderlands producer Jennifer Handorf’s essential filmmaking tips

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With on demand streaming services offering pretty much everything you can think of at the click of a button, there’s never been so much choice for audiences hunting for a film they fancy, but what about the filmmakers? Is making an indie movie the same struggle it’s always been?

Producer Jennifer Handorf has worked on some of the best British genre movies of the last few years, including The Borderlands, The Forgotten and The Devil’s Business, with Alice Lowe’s pre-natal revenge movie Prevenge in post-production and Daniel Fitzsimmons’ sci-fi Native on the way.

Native stars Rupert Graves (Sherlock) and Ellie Kendrick (Game Of Thrones) and makes its European debut at the East End Film Festival tonight.

“When a signal is received from the other side of the universe, Cane and Eva are dispatched to colonise a distant world. So begins Native, a stylish and cannily directed slice of science fiction. Featuring a powerful turn from Rupert Graves, and with much of the film being shot in East London, Native is a gripping vision of a future hive-mind society, and enduring questions of what it means to be human, and whether we should serve our masters.”

We spoke to Handorf about the role of a producer and what you need to know about working on an independent film.

1. The producer needs to be ready for anything

“I always describe being a producer like being a wedding planner. It’s your job to find the venue, it’s your job to find the orchestra, it’s your job to make sure that the catering’s there, that the cake is great, that the bride, being the director, has whatever they want for the day. And if you’re not able to find somebody to bake the cake or bring the flowers, then you’d better be able to do it yourself, because it’s your responsibility to have everything the bride wants there on the day!”

2. Work with people you know

“There’s two reasons for that. One is in the plainest possible way laziness, it’s always easier to go through your Rolodex and find a name and a number than it is to hunt one down for someone else. Obviously we will often have collaborators in mind that we haven’t worked with yet that we want to attach to something, that happens as well. But then the other side of it is that it’s better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

Even if someone has a fantastic CV and their work is really strong, you’re going to spending a minimum of six weeks with these people, and you want someone who is going to do a good job as well as not drive you completely crazy. It’s nice to work with people you can trust, and really that trust comes from experience, so you do gravitate towards people you have experience with. But that doesn’t mean you don’t seek out other people to bring into the fold.”

Jennifer Handorf on set (photo credit Colin Smith)
Jennifer Handorf on set (photo credit Colin Smith)

3. Communication is everything

“There’s a lot of unnecessary secrecy and playing your cards close to your chest in production. Once someone’s in your production team you need to have a hive brain. Your brains need to be a mutual drop box at that point. And people think ‘Oh, why does the costume designer need to know what the visual effects artist is doing?’ but it’s absolutely vital. Communication will often make or break the day.

If everyone’s on the same page going into the day then you can make the most out of it, but if you’ve got five people coming from five different directions and each one of them only has one piece of the puzzle, then you’re going to spend so much time getting everyone on the same page that you’re going to miss out on those vital shots.

Communicate early and communicate thoroughly. Preparation time is golden, so the earlier you can get everyone on the same page the better. You’re not getting the most out of your collaborators if they don’t have the whole picture. Communication is something that everyone can improve on that will get the most out of their production, and again it’s just that most people don’t think to do it.”

4. Don’t forget: You only have what you shoot

“The lower the budget, the more stressful that period of time! If you’re going back to the wedding planner analogy, if it’s the wedding day and the cake suddenly is wrong, and the minister’s late and the flowers are pink instead of purple, that’s an incredibly stressful time and you’ve only got that day to fix it.

You’ve got a set amount of time with which you’re going to be creating the material that you then push to its absolute in the edit. So, no matter how good your pre-producing team are or how good your editor is, whatever you shoot is what you shoot, and that’s the tools in your toolbox, so those days represent a limited amount of time and a limited amount of resources that you absolutely must make the best of, and there’s the most opportunity for chaos in those days, obviously.

The worst thing that can happen in post-production is that you didn’t get enough footage or that you didn’t have the right footage.”

Handorf on set with Neil Maskell (photo credit Colin Smith)
Handorf on set with Neil Maskell (photo credit Colin Smith)

5. Look after yourself, filmmakers

“Production, the 2-6 weeks of shooting, is the most intense period of time! One of the big notes that I give young filmmakers is: make sure you are as healthy as you can be going into that period of time because you’re not going to be good to yourself during that period of time. You’re going to be eating poorly, or not enough, you’re going to be staying up late, and let’s be honest, you’re going to be drinking too much when you have the opportunity for downtime.

So what I always tell people is: get on a gentle exercise regime, eat some fruit and veg, take some vitamins before you go into that period of time because by the end of it you’re a wrung-out cloth. You’re just a shadow of your former self! And if you can have fortitude going into that you’ll be grateful by the end of the process!”

6. Get out and get experience

“The best way to become a filmmaker is to start making films. And whether that’s working on someone else’s projects or grass rooting your own, the only way to do it, is to do it. There’s loads of opportunities, loads of people who need help. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be paid on your first job, but unless you’re brilliant and you’ve trained for years at it, then you’re getting the training from that job.

Really, honestly, it’s just about doing it. It’s about putting the graft in and the more favours you do for people, the more favours you have in your favour bank. I always recommend that people try and work in every department before they make their own film because that’s the fastest, best education for figuring out how a production runs. I think it’s a real shame when people go into their first feature not having that experience, because obviously they’re going to have to learn their lessons on that set, and wouldn’t you much rather learn your lessons on someone else’s precious baby rather than yours?

So go out there and work. Don’t let yourself be taken advantage of, obviously if everyone else is being paid, make sure you get paid, but there’s a lot of small student shorts, or independent short films, or even micro budget features that need someone who’s willing to do the work, who’s willing to participate and the compensation might be educational rather than financial, it’s worth considering taking those positions on if you’re looking to educate yourself on how you’re going to make your films.”

See Native with a filmmaker Q&A at the Genesis Cinema tonight (1 July) at 9:00pm as part of the East End Film Festival, get tickets here. Read our full interview with Jennifer Handorf in the new issue of SciFiNow.