The Benefits of Being a Writer/Director on Your First Feature Film
It was day 14 of our 16 day shoot of Love Magical, a wild and crazy romantic comedy. Our script was 105 pages, we were averaging seven pages a day with very little room for error. On day 14, we arrived at our location, a townhouse in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, where we were getting ready to shoot a pivotal love scene with our two main characters. The script called for two locations in the townhouse, the living room and the basement, which allowed for the development of their relationship. However, upon arriving at the location we learned that the basement was unusable – without getting into too many details, there was something about a sick cat and an overflowing septic tank – needless to say, we were in trouble. Especially since four out of the nine pages we were scheduled to shoot that day were in the basement. So, not only did we lose the location, but the way the script was written the other scenes wouldn’t make sense.
We were shortly to be inundated by the entire crew, actors, and production team and a decision had to be made. I quickly got together with Jason Sokoloff, my producer/Co-director, and Nick Fleming, my associate producer and writing partner, and we determined there was no other choice but to shoot out the living room and move forward. This was the end of the shoot and everyone was exhausted from working 20 hours a day for fourteen straight days. We were all working many other positions as well, which is not unusual on your first independent film to also be heading the wardrobe department, the art department, and just about everything else, but at the end of day 14 we knew what we needed most was a quick rewrite. Day 15 was already full and, if we were going to make up for the loss, a midnight writing session was paramount.
Thankfully during the day, my writing partner had been able to make revisions necessary for us to only lose one of our basement scenes and have their relationship still make sense, but we were still looking at a rather large problem to solve. So, after finishing the day 14 shoot late in the evening, Nick and I sat down to look over the next day, where we would be shooting, and what possibilities existed that would afford us a chance to make up the scene. We focused on the dialog and the action of the scene making sure the most important beats remained. No one knew the story better than us, so who better to solve the problem. Failure wasn’t an option and we felt that when you’re faced with a problem, it’s better not to look at it as a problem. Instead, we took it as an opportunity to be creative, enhance our story, and to keep pushing forward, no matter what. With Jason’s help, we looked at the other locations where this scene could take place and how that could enhance the scene. We decided that we would take two different scenes and combine them into one, which would actually make the action of the scene more focused and provide an overall better scene.
From scouting the area around where we were shooting the other scenes on day 15, we knew that there was a really cool, dark alley that would give us an even more interesting visual. The loss of the basement had forced us to improve the story, the characters’ motivations, and to make sure their actions were specific to each other and their arc. Ultimately, it wasn’t about the location, it was about the story and we had to be truthful to it. A lot of changes arise when you’re making an independent film but your goal should always be to tell the story you want to tell.
This was just one of the instances that occurred while filming. Having my writing partner on set meant that we we’re constantly re-writing and making changes based on everything from lost locations, changes in the weather, and adjusting dialog to better fit situations all the way to the end in order to make sure the film was the best it could be. I’ll share with you quickly something from earlier in our shoot. We had written a role for Keith Sweat in our film and were lucky enough to get the chance to work with him, but didn’t get to meet him in person until the day we were scheduled to shoot his scenes. When we finally met him, we realized that he had an innate style that wasn’t reflected in the dialog and as a result it didn’t ring true. Nick and I were able to accommodate his style and forward the story at the same time.
So much goes into making an independent film and you’ll be pulled in many different directions. The production itself has a mind of its own and half the time you’re just trying to keep up with it. The benefits of being a writer/director on your film is that you can take charge. As I said before, no one knows the story more than you. You wrote it, it came from your mind, the characters, the world it inhabits, and that gives you the edge. Yes, problems will come, but, as long as you never lose the truth of the story, you’ll make it work. In the end, the story is king. As long as you serve the story and make adjustments that enhance it, you’ll be fine.
Justin Foran, Writer/ Producer/Co-Director of Love Magical, along with Nick Fleming, Writer/Associate Producer, have recently completed a successful Kickstarter campaign, raising funds for the soundtrack of their film.