Through my experience of working on low budget and independent films for the past 15 years, I have learned that are a few crucial and important rules that can help you survive the jungle of what is called the independent film world or better known as Guerrilla Film making.
Working on independent films where the budgets are small, grueling sets and conditions in extreme cold and heat for little and no pay, it’s easy to get lost. The important thing to always remember and tell yourself that you are doing it because you have a deep passion for learning and moving your career forward!
1. Dress your character yourself and don’t get screwed by wardrobe!
Take control of how your character is going to look and arrive on set with the right costume. Be open to the director’s opinions and ideas but have your own thoughts in case he has none and just throws you into something completely wrong, either from the lack of money or from running out of time. Finding your outfit can be as easy as taking a trip to the Salvation army or local thrift store – I have found countless of amazing costumes for auditions and film projects for less than $30. Taking control and bringing options for your director will help him, your character and how you end up looking on screen.
2. Know your lines because you will only get ONE TAKE!
Rehearse your lines over and over and know them backwards and forwards. You need to be able to say your lines in your sleep. You just don’t know how many takes you are going to get because of the inefficiency of the production and lack of time and budget. Knowing your lines ensures that your best take makes the cut.
I was working on a film scheduled to shoot at 6am in a Brooklyn bar. The bartender was running late closing the bar so we didn’t start shooting till 8am. The symphony of noise started outside, beep, beep, beep, doors slamming and delivery guys yelling which made it near to impossible to get a clean take of the scene without sound being ruined. When we did, we moved on. My lines needed to be perfect in each and every scene in case that was the one the background noise worked.
3. Bring food!
Take some of your own food to the set or shoot so that you are not forced to eat cheap granola bars, chips and or pizza which can sap your energy. It seems that many times the director remembers everything except but food for the actors. Unless you bring your own food, you could be in some small town shooting a scene and starving or eating crap. Being hungry is not the best way to get your most creative work out. Take nuts, apples and protein bars so that you always have something to eat.
4. Easy on the Caffeine.
Don’t drink caffeine all day on the set, it’s easy to do when you are just sitting around. Caffeine can have the opposite effect on you, it can sap your energy especially late at night and it makes emotional scenes more difficult. Caffeine can also make sleeping difficult – remember that in Indie films, there is no 8 hour turnaround rule and instead it is more like “when can you back to set?”, so you need to be able to sleep immediately when you have the chance. Drink water, eat apples and nuts to keep your blood sugar up and give yourself energy.
5. Tell them to hold their scripts off camera if they don’t know their lines.
If your scene partner or partners don’t know their lines, tell them to hold the script during your close up so that you and your director can focus on your take. If you don’t, you could be doing take after take until they get their lines right and then your close up is ruined because the production runs out of time, day light, or simply needs to move on in order to finish the film.
6. Listen and talk to the director.
When you are on set and the director is having trouble communicating to you what they wants out of the scene or you, a good rule is to reply to them with “O.K, I can try that.” or “Yea, I like that. Let’s give it a go.” This approach shows that you are listening to them and are wiling to try their direction. It also stops the vicious cycle of you and him trying to defend your positions, which can go on and on and lead into confrontation.
7. Give the director different takes of your scene.
After you do the scene and the director says “Great, I got it!” Simply and politely ask “Do you mind if I try something different just to give you some variety? I doubt he will say no, in fact, I have found they always appreciate you helping them have options to choose from when they cuts the film. There are no wrong choice except doing the same thing again and again exactly the same. And usually when you let the scene go and just throw it away to see what you find, that becomes the best takes in the film.
8. Be nice and focus on yourself.
Don’t talk badly about anybody on the set and respect your cast, even the jerk. Remember everyone is under a lot of pressure. Walk away from the situation and focus on yourself, work on your lines, rehearse with your scene partner while they set up the shot, think about how you want the scene to go but most importantly, be doing something to focus on the task at hand to keep yourself ready for your shot. Another option would be to ask yourself instead how you make their job easier, usually that makes your job easier. Hold yourself to a higher standard than everyone else and add to the project don’t subtract.
9. Don’t get drunk the night before your scene.
Douglas Taurel is a professional actor (SAG-AFTRA/AEA) with over 15 years of experience performing in film, TV and plays. He has two independent films about to be released on the independent film circuit, (Waystation to the Stars and LaCroix Rising). Starred and produced Siesta (SiestaMovie.com) an independent film done in English and Spanish which had a successful film festival run including premiering at the Atlanta Short Fest and New York’s Tribeca Cinemas. He has had Co-star and Guest-star appearance on Nurse Jackie, Damages, NYC 22, Person of Interest and will be appearing this season on The Americans.
Follow him on Twittter @DouglasTaurel