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January 14 at 8:15am

Producing Your First Feature? 5 Insights That Won’t Lead You Far Wrong…

By Alex Lightman

In June 2014, director Alex Lightman produced his first feature film, Tear Me Apart. Here he talks about the major lessons him and his team learnt along the way.

The London Screenwriters’ Festival 2011 was where my career really began. Made to talk to the person next to me by festival creative director Chris Jones, I shook hands with screenwriter Tom Kerevan. A fateful encounter.

We started working together and soon after met cinematographer Ernesto Herrmann on a short film shoot. The three of us have been working together ever since.

In May 2013 we made the somewhat snap decision to take the plunge and produce a feature film ourselves. Having never produced something of this scale, I fully admit that the undertaking was terrifying, but with that dangerous mix of confidence, arrogance and blind optimism we figured that between the three of us, we must amount to at least one competent producer…

And it turns out we weren’t entirely wrong. Nine months of raising finance, four months of pre-production and four weeks shooting on location in Cornwall we were able to shout the words, “That’s a wrap!”

Here’s 5 key things we picked up along the way:

1. The worse thing you can do is nothing at all. I’m a firm believer that the best thing you can do is the right thing, the second best thing you can do is the wrong thing, and the worse thing you can do is nothing at all. Producing is about doing. It’s about making decisions, even if they’re the wrong ones. I know it’s a cliché but every mistake you make is one step closer to success and getting more decisions right than you get wrong really just comes down to experience. You won’t get that experience if you don’t do anything.

We haven’t finished post-production yet and we are already getting meetings about what we’re up to next, as well as seeing a general increase in opportunities. These people have no idea if the film is any good or not. All they know is that we did it.

2. You’re wrong most of the time. As a producer you are going to be expected to do everything, but you are only one person and you will need help. So get out there and find an amazing team – which is easier than you think. Film is a collaborative exercise with each and every idea filtering through your team of different people with different skills and specialisations. As you are just one person amongst this team, you are bound to be wrong a lot of the time. Your job is to recognise this and listen to your team to combat it. It doesn’t always have to be your idea, but whether you like it or not it will always be your decision. Which leads us neatly into…

3. Nothing is your fault. Everything is your responsibility. I first heard this phrase at a talk with producer Stephen Follows. There isn’t really much to say on the matter: 99% of the time problems are not your fault, but 100% of the time they are your responsibility. At every stage of making a movie there are constantly countless obstacles, problems and challenges, all of which have the potential to shut you down. Stay calm, deal with them one at a time and try not to get overwhelmed – they are fixable. And as I said before, have an amazing team! 

With the light fading on our last day at a remote location, due to various problems we had an hour to shoot one of the most complicated death scenes in the film. I don’t think one single individual can take credit for what happened next, but we decided to change the scene to a quick death against the isolated and arresting landscape. We moved all the complicated elements – action, stunts, SFX – to a different scene we were shooting a couple of days later. The result didn’t just work, it works better in the overall context of the film.

Ultimately we take responsibility for that decision, but our collaborative team take the credit for a brilliant solution.

4. It’s just a film. Those of us who work in film have all been on that set where there was nothing more important than the film! But really it’s just a film and as a producer you need to understand that. People need to eat, people need to sleep, and people need to work in a safe environment. A set is one of the most challenging and rewarding places you will ever be but it is also one of the most dangerous. Keep your crew fed and keep them safe because otherwise there won’t be a film to hold sacred at all. 

For example, we decided to shoot for only 10 hours a day, a relatively small amount for a low-budget 4 week shoot. We knew the conditions would be tough: 90% outside, extreme coastal weather, and everyone living on top of each other cut off from the real world. We didn’t want to over-work the cast and crew – it’s no fun for anybody, and they wouldn’t be at their creative best, which is more important than rinsing people for every hour possible. It paid off – we finished the entire shoot 1 hour over schedule.

5. Nobody knows anything. And if they tell you they do then they’re lying and you need to get the hell out of there. If everybody in the film industry knew exactly how to make a perfect film then everyone in the film industry would be making a perfect film. If everybody in the film industry knew exactly how to make money making films then everybody in the film industry would be making money making films. But they don’t, and they’re not. We were told we couldn’t raise finance for our first movie without a script. Done. We were told we couldn’t shoot 50 external sets across 15 locations in 22 shoot days. Done. We were told we couldn’t make a profit on this movie without known actors. We don’t know if this will be the case yet, but based on other ‘truths’ it’s hard not to feel that people are giving advice based on their own experiences. Nothing wrong with that but remember that some things work for some people and not others. Listen to people, take in their advice, thank them for their time… then trust your gut. Know your limits. Know your potential.

In my experience making a film is a huge financial and emotional risk. However, and this is just my opinion, it’s one of the most worthy and rewarding risks you can ever take.

Alex Lightman is a director and producer. His debut feature film Tear Me Apart, made with Cannibal Films, was shot in June 2014 on location in North Cornwall. It is currently in post-production, scheduled for completion early 2015. See more guest blogs from the team on how they made the movie and what they learnt: www.cannibalfilms.co.uk, @CannibalFilms, Facebook.com/TearMeApartMovie.

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