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An Inside Look Into Writing and Directing an Indie

by ScreenCraft on December 16, 2015
Jenna Serbu is a screenwriter, director and visual artist based in Los Angeles. Before directing she was a production designer and produced 20+ short films and countless theatrical shows and events including “Drunken Spelling Bee” which wound up in the sports section of the London Guardian. Smartass is her first feature effort.

 

Development  

A billion years ago some hot shot producer read my script about hat manufacturing — or most likely, he didn’t read it — set it aside and dismissively advised me to "write what you know.” My lip curled, nostrils flared and teeth clenched.

“He’s just parroting the typical producer mantra,” I told myself.
 
But the more I thought about it, the more I knew he was right. I was a first time writer/director — for features at least — and what do I know about hat manufacturing? Or taboos for that matter as I'm an American atheist who lost her virginity at twelve years old. My real story was more interesting than my fictional narrative.
 
“Damnit”, I cursed to myself as I realized the schmuck was right.
 
Looking back I still don't necessarily agree that writing what you know is the key to success as an early stage writer but I can however say with full certainty the one film I've been able to get producers to sink their teeth (and more importantly their wallets) in to, was based on a wild night in my teenage life that had voice, vision, and unique perspective. 
 
There are many ways to shepherd your script to the screen, especially these days. With little to no funding, a big charming smile and the genetic disease that makes hearing the word "no" impossible —  you can whip up an army, driven by enthusiasm, and you’ll be shocked at what you can accomplish with a few dirty kids and an attic full of filmmaking junk (hell, today even an iPhone — see Tangerine). If you consistently deliver on your promises, this type of filmmaking can go on for years. You will reach a few festival screens, maybe even go around the world (I did), but in the pit of your gut, you know that in order to do it right, you need money! You need a budget, a team, and an infrastructure that you’ve fought hard to withstand but now need to give in and focus on the creative — not just running the streets with a GoPro.

 

Financing

“I spent ten percent of my time making movies and ninety percent of my time raising money” — Orson Welles

The all illusive financial side of the entertainment business —  particularly in independent film — is frightening, overwhelming, insert-aggressive-adjective here inducing. Going in to the fundraising process on Smartass I knew very little — and as a writer that seems to be the norm. To a writer the process often ends with the producer getting involved and the project then moving into the hectic chaos of production. Often times I’ll hear writers remark that they have no interest in the financing process or that production “isn’t for them” — I don’t blame them, but then I learned how crucially important these pieces are for the overall process during the Smartass financing round.

When I met my producers, I was working as a Production Designer on a network reality show — about the Amish lifestyle. Note to all aspiring writers — it’s hard to convince someone (especially a producer) that you are a writer when you're hanging pigs from a barn roof, building meth labs and blowing up buggies. But this is the entertainment industry after all and you’ll find a way to make it work! Hell, I was able to connect with my producer, negotiate a budget figure, and set out upon pre-production discussions within a few short months.

I got lucky, in that I was able to meet a producer who had access (direct access — not the “access” that so many film producers claim to have) to green light a production and better yet, the producer was looking for an edgy, female writer/director project to get off the ground. From my experience, both personally and from my close colleagues, the serendipitous nature of getting a film off the ground is often incredible.
 
There are long lulls of time where you wonder if the project will ever get made, will anyone take an interest and will you (as a writer) actually have something produced. And then, bang, one day later you’re in deep negotiations for ownership of the project long term and how best to situate the investment to protect the producer — what a ride.
 
Pre-Production
 
As we began these early discussions it became apparent we were making a real movie. I had made dozens of low budget projects but up until that point I’d only ever written and directed projects with roughly $5,000 budgets and below. The budget for Smartass ended up being less than a million dollars but enough to give us a big budget feel and attract the kind of talent — both in front and behind the camera — that we needed.
 
The prep period as a writer is stressful — no doubt about it. You’re working to fit your vision (literally, if you end up directing as well) into a pigeon-holed number that has little-if-any flexibility. All the while you’re being tasked with re-writes and adjustments to the script as well as the locations, cast, and shooting realities (i.e. shooting a film in 18-20 days is VERY difficult).
 
Yes, Los Angeles is the entertainment capital of the world — giving you access to a deep pool of talent but also pitting you up against the bigger guys (projects, producers, money-men, locations, etc) immediately. As the hard-prep (physically beginning the process of setting a hard shoot start date) began I realized that the Line Producer was my biggest ally — something I hadn’t heard many other writers says. Reason being was that it allowed me to not have to handle 15 jobs at once and instead focus on the creative process of getting the script picture ready, casting decision made and lead the team as I needed to as the director. 
 
Production 
 
Production itself was a whirlwind —  both good, bad, and impossible. As a writer and first time feature director, it was a challenge balancing the storytelling in a nonlinear way in addition to the general pumps that come along with principal photography.
 
 director
 
More directly — shooting a film out of order after having written it very precisely is a difficult learning curve and it taught me a lot about the writing process in terms of fully fleshing out character, structure, and overall tone — both literally on the page as well as mentally (again, with the directors hat on). 

outset

As production came to an end there were a lot of emotions — it’s true what they say, filmmaking brings people together in a crazy close way. 18 shoot days later and I learned more about union regulations, set protocol, overtime pay structures, and how to diffuse situations on my feet in real time — because let’s face it, there isn’t much time to ponder during a low budget indie film shoot.

The Aftermath
 
Heading into the edit I realized that another film cliche is dead accurate — there are three films you make: the one you write, the one you shoot and the one you edit. For me, I had the privilege of controlling each of these processes with my producers and was able to see the vision through from start to finish (literally, at every stage). 
 
Looking at the (nearly) finished film we now have in our hands I am excited to begin showing it to the world. It is a feat to bring a film to the screen, especially in a time of such a changing feature film landscape. Smartass has now been submitted to several marquee festivals, discussions with international sales agents have well begun and the premiere has been set for early 2016.
 
Lessons Learned 
 
Finding the right producer — I’ve learned — isn’t just about finding the right money-man but also about finding a partner who truly believes in the blind faith that is independent filmmaking. My producers ended being tremendous resources in regards to not only getting the project made but also now working with top tier sales agents and talent agencies to discuss how best to get the project out to the world. As a writer and director, my job has become more of the day-to-day oversight of the creative elements — branding, marketing, imagery, etc. — whereas my producers have allowed me this freedom given that they are so hands on with the process of getting the film into the world.
 
At the core of this journey I’ve recognized (and come to respect) the endless challenges that present young screenwriters, directors, and talent — the cards are stacks against you, heavily. The difficulty of finding the investor (again, I pressed on for many years until finding the producer who had direct access to the necessary production funding), the difficulty with actually getting the film made (production logistics and protocol are often at odds end with the creative process), and now the difficulty of getting the film out to the world in a market place so heavily saturated with indie films, short form content, webisodes, TV exploding as a major creative force, etc.
 
As a screenwriter the biggest take away was simple — tenacity. Tenacity at every turn enabled these real life events to become a fully fleshed out screenplay, patchable to a producer, produceable as a film and now heading out into the world for a life of its own. Tenacity — the principle I started with at the earliest stages of my screenwriting adventures proved to be the most valuable. 

Smartass was funded in participation with BondIt, a film and media fund with recent film credits including Sharknado 2, Wild Horses (James Franco and Robert Duvall), 31 (directed by Rob Zombie), By Way of Helena (starring Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth, and William Hurt), and The Invitation (SXSW winner). Three of their films, 31As You Are, and Little Men will be screened at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The company has also partnered with ScreenCraft for the Short Film Production Fund. 

 
 
 
 
 
 

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