If you’re planning on directing a low-budget independent film, chances are you’ve at least considered being your own producer on it. These days it’s hard enough to get your movie made in the first place, so once you’ve put together a great script, budget and crew, you may be so eager to get to production that you decide to produce it yourself. Or maybe you just don’t want a ‘producer’ interfering with your vision of the film and ultimately decide that you’re going to go at it alone and produce the film yourself. So can it be done? Is it possible to produce and direct your own low-budget indie at the same time? Well yes, it is. And it’s also possible to take on every other role on set yourself, but I’m here to advise you not to go down this path.
It’s also important to note that while I may advise against being your own producer, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be one of the producers on your film. All I’m suggesting is that you aren’t the one and only producer on your own project, and here’s my explanation why, based on the various stages of creating your film –
At this stage, it is extremely crucial for you (as the director) to focus heavily on the creative elements of your script, locations, production design, casting, and other pre-production tasks. It is your job as the director first and foremost to make sure all the creative elements are lining up in a way that is congruent with your vision, and unless you’re willing to sacrifice time you could be spending on creative work to take on producing duties, you’re going to need a dedicated producer on board to handle the logistics of your production. By logistics I’m referring to – securing locations, dealing with union paperwork, insurance, crewing up, budgeting, etc. etc. etc.
While it may be possible for you to do all of this while also focusing on the creative elements (I know I have done it many times myself), the fact of the matter is, you only have a finite amount of time between development and production and you must spend your time wisely. The producers duties that I outlined above are extremely time consuming and if you expect to take on that work yourself, than be aware that it will severely cut into the amount of time that you have to work on your script, casting, and other critical tasks that you really should be focusing on more heavily. The point is you can’t skimp out on either side of things. Producing tasks need to be taken care of in a timely manner to ensure that your creative vision has a vehicle for actually getting made, and the directing tasks need to be thoroughly developed to make sure that the producing work doesn’t go to waste. Without a balance of these two elements, it’s going to be impossible to get a strong final product. It will be lacking in one way or the other, and when any single piece isn’t in place on a production, the entire film can go down the toilet.
You may be thinking that if you simply give yourself more time for pre-production, then you will be able to take on more work yourself. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The reason being that there is a certain momentum that occurs when you start producing a film (that you need to maintain), and by trying to juggle everything yourself, you will lose that momentum and risk your project never coming to life. Another issue that may occur is that you’ll be so immersed in the film so early on that you’ll burn out on it and by the time you get to production, it will start to feel like a chore.
This is arguable the single most important time to have a dedicated producer on board with your project. When you get on set on the first day, and you’re ready to start doing some blocking or rehearsing with the actors, the last thing you want is to have to figure out where the release forms are, or how you’re going to order lunch. These small tasks may seem like they will be easy to manage on set, but no matter how organized you may be, they will be a constant drain on your production. Planning is of course the key to a successful day on set, but no matter how much you plan, something will always go wrong. There will always be problems to solve and issues to find solutions for, and if you are the only one that is present and able to make those decisions, than you’re in a really bad position.
A good producer will handle problems on set while allowing you to do what you’re supposed to be there for – directing the film. And not only will they keep people from bugging you while you’re trying to direct, but they will also keep the day moving. It’s literally impossible to keep track of all of the moving elements on a film production yourself, and when you have a great producer on board, they will ensure that the train keeps moving and gets to where it needs to be on time. If things are running late, they’ll tell you, and even if you don’t like it at the time you’ll be happy at the end of the day when you get every last scene in the can and don’t have to do any re-shoots. Not to mention, it will also add a sense of legitimacy to your set, allowing the cast and crew to feel comfortable working in an environment where there is a dedicated producer on set who is assisting them throughout the process.
From personal experience, I can tell you that some of the most stressful experiences I have ever had, occurred while simultaneously directing and producing. Trying to use your left brain and right brain at the same time is not an easy thing to do, and in the context of a film set it will translate to missing important shots, becoming frustrated, and generally having a bad shoot. The proof is always in the footage, and I can assure you that no matter how well you think you may be able to balance directing and producing, when you start looking at your dailies from a shoot that you had a dedicated producer on, you’ll quickly realize you made the right decision.
Just because you’re done with production doesn’t mean you can now go solo and abandon your producer. The producer is just as important at this stage as they are at any other for a lot of reasons.
First off, let’s talk about the creative aspects of this stage, namely the picture edit. When editing your film (whether your cutting yourself or with a dedicated editor), it is extremely important to have another set of eyes on it. I’m more guilty than anyone of wanting to keep my edits a secret until they’re starting to look polished, but there is something to be said about having a critical and objective eye on the edit throughout the process. Even when working with a dedicated editor, that person is still looking at is as an editor, not as a producer. And you are still looking at is as a director who has probably spent months and months on this project and may be starting to get lost in it. The producer has the luxury of giving feedback and notes from a more objective point of view that will provide you with much needed insight into how to strengthen your film from a whole new perspective. Whether or not you take that advice is of course up to you as the director, but having it there in the first place is immensely valuable.
If you’re anything like me, by the time it gets to selling/distributing your film, you may be getting pretty sick of looking at it. Let’s face it, months of writing/pre-production followed by weeks and weeks of challenging days on set, and finally a lengthy post-process isn’t easy. By the time the film is done you want to feel like you can step back and celebrate the accomplishment, but when you realize that you’re really only 50% of the way there, it can be a very daunting thought. This is where your producer can step in and really help you get through that final push. A good producer will do everything they can to get it seen and sold, which may mean organizing a festival plan, contacting distributors, attending markets, handling publicity, and more.
No matter which particular stage of the process you may be in, having a talented producer on board is absolutely essential if you want to ensure that your film gets the best possible result. With that said, there are certain things you need to look for when teaming up with a producer, as having a bad producer on board can leave you worse off than if you had opted to produce it yourself. You need to make sure your producer legitimately is passionate about the project on a creative level first and foremost. They need to accept your vision and your role as the director and be a producer that will not step on your toes creatively. I’ve worked with some producers that really just wanted to direct, and I can tell you that it is nearly impossible to work with someone that falls into this category. Your producer should not only allow you to have the creative freedom that you want, but also needs to excel at what they do. A good producer is highly organized, detail oriented, great with people, and able to handle high pressure situations. You may find a producer that meets all of the criteria I just mentioned but isn’t that experienced, and that is okay. I would take an inexperienced hard working producer that is willing to learn, over an experienced producer that couldn’t care less about my project any day.
There may be some situations where it is okay to be your own producer, or where it is simply the only way that you’ll get your project done. In those cases, make an informed decision and approach your project with the knowledge that it will be a challenge to take on both roles. But if you must do it, than go for it – I myself, to this day still produce some of the content that I direct, but I only do so in situations where the budget or other constraints of the project don’t allow for me to bring on a dedicated creative producer.
For those of you directors that also write, be sure to check out my recent article – 5 Tips For Writing Better Characters Into Your Screenplay.