Here are some indie-filmmaking tips from Director, Noah Gilbert, following the production of his first feature film, Horse Latitudes.
1. Choose your team wisely
One of the things that I love about movie-making is that it is a truly collaborative art form. You are only as good as your collaborators. With that in mind, I’m very particular about who I choose to work with. When choosing my team, a resume means little compared to someone’s dedication and how I value them as artists. Those are the things that will matter in the trenches. I know our relationships are going to have to withstand the extreme environment of a film set, so temperament is very important to me.
Challenge people to surprise you and they’ll surprise themselves, too. One of the most enjoyable parts of the job is inspiring the creativity of artists that I admire. I’m extremely lucky to get to work closely with my brother, who I also happen to admire deeply as a writer. We have a short-hand from having known each other all our lives. I cherish any shortcuts when dealing with this many moving parts.
2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
There are so many unknowns and there are very few ‘right’ answers. Don’t be afraid to look to your people and say ‘I don’t know’. Your collaborators are your best asset, use them! I wish I’d had the confidence to do this more. In retrospect, many of my favorite moments have come from collaboratively digging ourselves out of a hole. To me a part of being a good leader is being a good listener.
3. Always be experimenting
This is one I always need to be reminded of. When juggling all of the elements and high stakes of a production, it’s hard to remember to push the envelope, but I think it’s an essential part of the art form. When I experience film as an audience member, I thirst for innovative ways of storying-telling and getting at the truth of a moment/story. I’m not talking about ‘tricks’, I’m referring to the story-teller operating at the maximum of their understanding in pursuit of truth. It’s always been a thrilling part of my viewing experience. Don’t be too precious, it’s equally as dangerous as taking a risk. The worst case scenario is ending up with a boring movie. Godard said ‘It’s not about where you take things from – it’s where you take them to’ and I like that.
One challenge that my cinematographer, Todd Bell, and I came up against was how we were going to keep our wine cellar location looking fresh and unique. The space was small and could easily have felt claustrophobic. We needed to shoot five scenes, a significant page count, and needed to build a visual arc and an aesthetic that wouldn’t become stale. To keep things evolving, we came up with a fairly ambitious ‘look’ for each sequence and stretched the boundaries of the film’s range. Beyond that, Sony was generous in providing us with their new Venice camera. Despite shooting on vintage anamorphic lenses, which require a great deal of the light, the Venice’s low-light capabilities allowed us to employ only candle-light. We were ultimately very happy with the results.
For me, the biggest stress when undertaking something with as many novel ideas, tasks and unknowns as a first feature is this: I don’t know what not to worry about. So I worry about everything.
Naturally, this is inefficient and exhausting. That said, I’m not sure if there’s any other way (for me, at least). It’s part of process. Once I’ve done a thing, I know more specifically how to allocate my energy for the next time.
I knew this was going to be the case as it has been my experience many times over with different jobs and pursuits. To balance this, I tried to cover my bases; to worry in advance. I solicited advice from people close to me, people I respected, and went to work.
All the preparation saved my ass time and again. Things get chaotic on set and some days, when you’re supposed to be focused on a shot list or rehearsing with the actors, you’re forced to worry about something else entirely. Having the essentials carved out and communicated well ahead of time made my life a lot easier. I tried to make sure anything that could be decided on early was settled, even if I knew it would change when we got into the space. That way, if things got out of hand, the other creatives could essentially operate autonomously.
To that point, I’m so glad I had three weeks to rehearse with my actors. Working the material with the actors is the best way to discovering new ideas and fleshing out the story. Good actors are good story-detectives.
I learned this lesson right off the bat. We were settled in our remote town in the south of France and had finished dinner on our last night of pre-production. We had an early call time to kick off our 25-day shooting schedule. The plan was to review the schedule, my shot list and get to bed early to be well-rested and well-prepared for our first day. I was helping our AC set up a fan in his room (it was hot and humid at night and we didn’t have the luxury of air-conditioning) when my hand slipped while connecting two metal poles and I cut my finger. Deeply. As soon as it happened, I knew I was in trouble. ‘Shit. Not ideal. Where’s the nearest hospital?’. I was very lucky that my sister, a nurse, was visiting, otherwise it would have been a two hour drive to help. That’s when I learned you could crazy glue yourself shut. After a few hours of pressure and a couple applications… we got it to stop bleeding. But now it was late and I had to get to bed. No time for more prep. Thankfully, I had all the prior preparation and my people to fall back on.
5. The film will be a reflection of set culture
I can’t speak to how other films have come to be made because I haven’t witnessed the creation of many, but for me, the culture on set will in some way reflect the story you’re telling. The safer people feel to express themselves, to explore ideas and the emotional truth of the story, the better your film will be. There are tons of ways to foster a healthy community. I try to make sure people are all heard, feel equal and know they are of value. I do not think there are enough women on film crews and I always want to make a concerted effort to hire a balanced team. On Horse Latitudes, because our protagonist was a woman, it was particularly important for me to have half our team be women. I wanted to make sure they felt like they were an integral part of the storytelling and that their voice was a part of the film. I’m very proud to have had some badass women and men who worked on the movie.
6. Use all the tools at your disposal to communicate your vision
I don’t really like the word ‘vision’ in this context, it’s always seemed self-important, but nevertheless I’ll use it here. There are so many modern tools at our disposal to aggregate other art forms and I love them. I made playlists on Spotify to share with the team, collected a trove of images and videos and made them available via Google Drive, held movie nights, etc. Whenever there’s a new way to share, I try to jump on it. The more the group can be operating as one mind, the better. To this idea, we did something that was incredibly valuable on this production that I’d never done before. My dear friend and wonderful editor, Hannah Beavers, traveled with us and edited ‘string-outs’ of what we’d shot the day before. With some discretion, we would share pieces with whomever was interested form the cast and crew. It is incredible what this can do to get everyone on the same page. Not to mention, seeing their hard work breathe life into a story motivates people. It’s something a team might not be exposed to until the end of a lengthly production.
7. Have empathy!
For your characters, for your collaborators and for yourself. The process of making a movie is stressful for everyone involved. If you’re stressed out, chances are others are as well. I probably push too hard to get the most out of my collaborators at times. It’s important to remember they are also putting themselves out there and, hopefully, reaching with their craft. Make sure they know that they are appreciated and that you’re aware of their struggles. The same goes for yourself. Directing and producing a movie is hard. Push yourself but also be kind to yourself or you might just fall apart! Lastly, reserve empathy for your characters. All of them! They are people after all, even if they are fictional. I always love characters that are dynamic and for them to feel that way, they have to be nuanced and understood. And that requires empathy.
8. Keep everything active!
That’s it. It might be obvious but I need to be reminded of it constantly. All. Things. Should. Be. Active.
Noah was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. He graduated from the Los Angeles-based California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Along with his brother, Seth, he started the boutique film production company House League Films. Noah has directed several short films, commercials, music videos and a feature-length documentary. Horse Latitudes is his first narrative feature film.