GUEST BLOG - Danny Stack's 10 Steps To Make A Feature

In the most recent posts on the making of DON'T. STOP. RUNNING (list here), we've been looking at the process of developing an idea for a microbudget feature.  This week, we have a guest post from Danny Stack - co-writer/co-director of children's comedy adventure feature 'Who Killed Nelson Nutmeg'.

Some of you may know Danny Stack and his work as a screenwriter, director, co-host of the UK Scriptwriters Podcast (with Tim Clague) and as a founder of the hugely important Red Planet Prize for new writers.  

So without further ado, over to Danny:

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Short films are a great way to learn and have some fun, and hey, maybe kickstart your career. However, the industry is awash with short films, and there’s no real money to be made from the format so it’s probably worth considering ditching the short and start thinking feature.

In reality, you can make a low-budget feature with just a little bit more expense and effort than it takes to make a quality short film. But even with the affordability of tech/kit nowadays, how do you go about making a feature, especially if it’s an indie project with no industry backing? Well, here’s how Tim and me got Who Killed Nelson Nutmeg in the can.

1. Pick Your Genre
Choose an idea/story you know you can do well; something that fits your profile or your previous body of work, plus how you want the industry to view you as you proceed.

2. Start Developing Your Story
With a micro-budget practicality in mind, begin brainstorming your idea from its initial concept to a rough outline, a treatment, a detailed beat sheet, or anything that fleshes out the world of the story so you have a decent grasp on the characters, plot and location(s). This is a video on how we developed the story for Nelson Nutmeg

3. No ‘I’ in Team
Start reaching out to local crew, and assemble a core team of people who can get stuff done. Explain to them what you want to achieve, why, and how it’s likely to pan out. Arrange bi-monthly meetings to update progress, tasks and challenges ahead. Hey, you’re in pre-production, no time to dilly daddle! Doesn’t matter that the script isn’t written yet, or that you have no money. Keep momentum going. Crucial at this point: SET A FILMING DATE (or a general target anyway). It’s happening!

4. Budget
Work out how much you can afford to spend and what you can reasonably expect to raise online (via Kickstarter, Indiegogo etc). Friends and family are a great early resource, just to get you started. You may also want to consider small-scale investment possibilities, or perhaps business funding options like Seedrs.

5. Minimal Locations
Still haven’t written that pesky script? It doesn’t matter! You’re a micro-budget filmmaker, you’ve got to do everything yourself or with your core team. But you’ve got your filming date, and you know where the story is set (see stage 2, above), so you can do a recce on where the ideal location is for the film. Note: micro-budget films will generally only have one or two main locations. It mahoosively keeps costs down.

6. Write The Script
Why haven’t you written the script yet? Are you nuts?! Hehe. Better get it done, then. Write that sucker.

7. Casting/Crew
The earlier you start the casting process, the more it will solidify the fact that you’re making this film, not thinking or talking about it. It all adds to the momentum. Reach out to local acting groups or have an open call casting. There’s lots of great talent around, right on your doorstep. You’ll also need to fill all your crew positions, too, if you haven’t done so by now. Sites like Mandy, Talent Circle, Shooting People, Twitter/Facebook, and recommendations/referrals are all useful.

8. Rewrite The Script
That script needs some work, doesn’t it? Well, you’ve got a core team working on your behalf picking up some production tasks, so you can spend some time rewriting the script. Get feedback if you can, bounce it back and forth with someone you trust (this is where having a co-writer helps). You could spend forever mulling over the script but get it to a place you’re happy with, and go.

9. Do A Deal
You’ve chosen/purchased/already got your camera, and sorting/sorted out your locations. Other less exciting factors like insurance, transport and catering will come into play. You can do a deal on all of the above, you just have to ask. We were told we wouldn’t be able to afford locations, transport or catering with our budget, but we did a deal, boom, done.

10. Shoot
Script? Check. Locations? Check. Budget? Check. Cast and crew? Check. Filming date? Check. Shoot your film! We started stage 1 in January 2014, and got to stage 10 by August 2014.

Ha, that was easy! OK, it’s quite a bit of focused time and planning but nowhere near as difficult as you think it might be, especially if you have a co-writer/producer and a good team helping you. It can be done. GO. FOR. IT

Danny Stack.

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Again, huge thanks to Danny for some incredibly useful tips.  Now, obviously, no two filmmakers will end up going through exactly the same obstacle course on their way to getting a film finished, but even so, our experiences on DON'T. STOP. RUNNING were broadly similar.  Here's Danny's ten points again, and a quick note on our own experiences at each stage (quick, because we'll be going through this in painstaking - and painful - detail over the coming weeks!).

1. Pick Your Genre
We chose an adventure film - we had perfect locations available to us, and also wanted to make something that would keep an audience thoroughly entertained for the duration.  As a genre it's a gamble - but hopefully it will help us stand out from the crowd.  Once you've got your idea, it's a good idea to study the nuts-and-bolts of that genre and its masterworks inside out.  We'll talk in more detail about this in another post, but that study might include storyboarding scenes from existing films, analysing story structures, etc.

2. Start Developing Your Story
We've talked (here) about really beating your story out, and having it fully plotted before you ever begin to write the script itself.  Danny's approach (as shown in the video above) was far more detailed than ours (and I'd definitely recommend it!).  If you're planning to put months (even years) into the shoot and post-production, the least you can do is spend a few weeks plotting and researching the film first.

3. No 'I' In Team
DON'T. STOP. RUNNING would never have been made without a dedicated - and local - crew.  If you're making a microbudget feature, there are crewmembers you need, crewmembers you'd like, and crewmembers that are just there to make you feel that you're doing something important.  Make sure that you get the crewmembers you need sorted - the rest are either luxury, or unnecessary.  On the DONT. STOP. RUNNING shoot, every crewmember was able to do multiple jobs - and that allowed us to keep to a very small, very mobile team.  

Setting a filming date is also hugely important.  We shot at the same time as Nelson Nutmeg (I hope they had better weather than we did).  Our shoot dates were set around 4 months before the shoot began.  This is one of the easiest things you can do, to ensure you get your film made - once you've started telling everyone a shoot date, things somehow start to come together... And also, once everyone knows you're shooting, the fear of horrendous public embarrassment at cancelling everything is a great motivator.

4. Budget
We'll be doing a detailed post on raising money, later in the series.  We didn't use crowdfunding, and instead took the route of securing SEIS relief to attract investors.  Whatever route you take, write a full business plan - synopsis, cast and crew details, budget, marketing and distribution, etc.  If nothing else, it might make you realise that claiming your film will 'definitely make $100m in the first year' is probably a bit of a fib.

5. Minimal Locations
Normally, I'd completely agree - but with DON'T. STOP. RUNNING a couple of weeks of location scouting convinced me that we could shoot at a dozen or so locations throughout the shoot, without too much fuss (and, thanks to our tiny crew, without spending too much on fuel).  This probably wouldn't be the case on most shoots, and it's wise to try and limit yourself to one central location.  Microbudget Horror movies mastered this long ago, with The Evil Dead as an obvious example.

6. Write The Script
It's definitely a good idea to get this done before you start the shoot.

7. Casting
In addition to Danny's suggestions, try the big drama schools and see if they've got any recent graduates who fit the bill.  Also, whenever you get the chance, attend fringe theatre - you might just find one of your lead actors... (More on this later).

8. Rewrite The ScriptDON'T. STOP. RUNNING went through umpteen drafts - and about 30 different readers - before it reached the final, shooting draft... And more work could certainly have been done - but as Danny says, 'get it to a place you're happy with, and go'.  Again, it's helpful if you've set a date for filming - because you know that you can't do any more tinkering beyond a certain point.  So, you've written endless drafts but your script still isn't perfect? You think another few months and it might get there..?... But in another few months, the days will be short, and you won't be able to shoot as easily, so why not put it off until next summer?...

...Or the summer after that...

At some point, you just have to go for it - make the film, and get the idea out of your system.  It might not be perfect, but it's better to have an imperfect feature under your belt, than a script that's never getting made.

9. Do A Deal
The British film industry* is full of some of the most generous people you could ever wish to meet.  If you ask nicely, many of them will help you out - whether it's a cut-price (or free) rental, or the phone number of someone who knows someone who might be able to help out... Ask nicely, show that you're passionate, and don't expect too much from any one source.  

(*I'm sure that people in the film industry are generous the world over, but as of yet I don't have enough experience to qualify that..!)

10. Shoot
Danny and Tim took their film from idea to shooting in 8 months.  That's pretty speedy.  Some filmmakers manage it in less, others take far longer (DON'T. STOP. RUNNING took around 20 months to go from idea to shoot).  If you want to get something done quickly, be prepared to put in a huge amount of work (and time), and make sure you're incredibly well-organised.  Draw up a detailed schedule, plan back from the shoot date, and give yourself deadlines.  

And then when it comes to the shoot?  Sit back and enjoy it!... Or rather, prepare yourself for a month of hell.  No sleep.  Endless rain.  Mud everywhere...  Have fun!

Alex.