1. WORK WITH WHAT YOU’VE GOT. Don’t write that epic crowd scene unless you know there’s a festival happening next week that you can steal as a backdrop. Play to your strengths. There’s probably something unique that you or your family have access to that you can use in your movie. If your dad has a tractor, write a movie around that. If he doesn’t, don’t.
2. YOU CAN’T BEAT HOLLYWOOD. Tempting as it may be to try to imitate the style and gloss of your favourite blockbusters, let’s face it; the game is rigged in their favour. You can try, and your failure may be unique and interesting (or at least funny) in its own right—but you can also just do your own thing, and try something that the studios wouldn’t have the balls or the imagination to do in the first place.
3. STUDY FILMS. A lot of the mistakes that young filmmakers make could be avoided if teenagers actually just paid attention to their favourite films. Pick a movie you love and watch it with the sound down; look closely at the camera angles, the editing and the lighting. Watch short films on Youtube and see how an effective story can be told in five minutes. You won’t be able to match the production value of these films—and you don’t need to, anyway—but oftentimes the craft of good filmmaking doesn’t cost any money. You just have to actually watch films.
4. PUSH YOURSELF. Every film you make should teach you something you didn’t know before, and achieve something you didn’t know you were capable of. This doesn’t mean you have to go out every time and do something that you have no idea how to do. You should draw on the skills and techniques you’ve already learned—but if you’re not building on them, if you’re not pushing yourself further in some way, you’re playing it safe. It will show.
5. KEEP IT SHORT.
6. TEST SCREEN. Showing your film to an audience is one of the most important ways of figuring out what you’re doing right or wrong as a filmmaker—but that isn’t the same as saying that you always have to try to please the audience, or make a film that you think “they” will like. A lot of the time just seeing your film with other people in the room will help you see it more objectively. And if you’re still thinking your film has to be 20 minutes long, just imagine how long that 20 minutes is going to feel when 300 people are sitting beside you watching it…
7. DON’T NEGLECT THE BASICS. Audiences will forgive a lot of technical flaws in your film if your story is compelling, your actors are engaging or your jokes are funny—but there’s still a threshold point where the technical mistakes start to get in the way. That point is usually when they’re no longer able to clearly see, hear or follow what’s going on. So get to know your equipment, and practice with it. Learn the basics of shot composition. Do your best to record quality sound, and if that’s beyond your means, make a silent movie—there’s too much talking in most movies anyway.
8. EMBRACE LIMITS. The limitations of teenage filmmaking can often be discouraging. How the hell are you supposed to make a great film when all you’ve got is this crappy camera and your stupid friends? Well, the first step is to change your attitude. There’s an old French filmmaker named Robert Bresson who said, “Someone who can work with the minimum can work with the most. One who can with the most cannot, inevitably, with the minimum.” In other words, you should be celebrating the fact that all you’ve got is a crappy camera and some stupid friends: that means all your solutions to the problems you encounter are going to have to be creative ones, and as Robert Rodriguez wrote, “that can make all the difference between something fresh and different and something processed and stale.”
9. DON’T GIVE UP. If you haven’t failed at filmmaking yet, then you probably weren’t being ambitious enough. If you have, congratulations; you’re on way to becoming a great filmmaker. Just keep at it, and as Beckett put it, “fail better” next time.
Finally, the über-rule which contradicts all the other ones:
10. DON’T LISTEN TO ANYONE. Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman famously said of the film world that “nobody knows anything”; and it’s true. That doesn’t mean you should ignore everything anyone tells you, but if you’re really passionate about a project, don’t let anyone talk you out of it. Make the film that you want to make—not the film you think people want to see, or the film your teachers or your parents want you to make. Most of all, don’t listen to people who say that you can’t do something, or that what you’re aiming for isn’t possible. I’ve argued above that limitations are your friend, but the types of restrictions that really get in the way are the ones that you let get stuck inside your own head. Who says films have to cost a certain amount, look a certain way, be made a certain way, or contain this element or that one?
Hint: they don’t.