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How to Make a Feature Film From Scratch: Part 1

How to Make a Feature Film From Scratch: Part 1

A close up image of a film camera being held by a cameraman

One of the great film genius’ said,

It takes three things to make a film…a good script, a good script, and a good script.”

The jury is out on whether it was Billy Wilder or Alfred Hitchcock, who uttered the immortal line. Either way, it was one of those two masters and trust me, they knew!

The mystery of how to make your first feature film for next to nothing is right here! The mystery of how to make that dream come true and how to achieve something that for most people is impossible I will outline for you, because I did it, and without any funding or real money!

To start with, Hitchcock’s or Wilder’s statement is 100% true. Don’t even think about casting, locations or what to shoot on until you have spent hours, days, months or even years honing that screenplay until it really is that one in a million, mother f**king script that Quentin himself would read and say, ‘Now, that’s a movie!’ Because if you’re aiming any lower, or think your script is ready after six drafts, you’re going to fail.

Before you start with the script or anything else, you have to find within yourself monumental ambition, monumental desire and most of all monumental belief. Because without all three, you’re going to fall at the hundreds of hurdles coming your way. They’ll be like trapdoors, opening up at every step, ready to thwart your biggest dream and ambition. But if you learn how to climb out of holes, if you learn how to get through every obstacle without it stopping you, you’ll succeed.

Now the genre of film isn’t that important as long as you are sure that you would stand up in court and say to a judge with your hand on your heart, ‘My Lord, this is the best version of the script I could write’. Because if you’re lying you’re going to jail for ‘failure’, and you will never forget it.

The next salient point is that you have to think about how the hell you are going to actually make that script become real? Don’t write sci-fi or something with CGI when you know that no one is going to give you a penny, ridiculous! Don’t write the most outlandish, goriest horror movie unless your best friend is an SFX make-up genius, with enough money to use all her make-up and special effects free of charge.

Don’t write a car chase unless your best mate’s with the head of the police and the local mayor and they’re prepared to close down roads for all your stunt driving mates, tucked in the back of your pocket. It’s not going to happen. Just be smart about it, but at the same time be ‘original’.

Ask yourself this, why has the low-budget, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, which was all set in one room, been forgotten along with the Filofax, but the ‘same premise, Room, went on to be nominated for Oscars enjoying acclaim around the world? Ok, I know that they both had a budget but come on! They were all set in one room, or just about. Ask yourself what separated them?  A great script of course. And again sorry to go on but that’s what you’ll need!

At this point, I should say, from experience – stop meeting other aspiring, wannabe Scorcese’s or short filmmakers down the pub to chat about how much you want to make a feature, it’s bulls**t! Those people, which is about 90% of the aspiring filmmakers out there, will fail, and you know why? Cliché! Talk is cheap, they haven’t got the balls to just get up and do it. You can only climb a mountain once you’ve been brave enough to put on the crampons, pick up the ice axes and climb. All the beers and back slapping in the world won’t get your feature film made.

The moral of the story is, write a script that know you can film: in your house, your mum’s house, your mate’s dad’s farm, in a woods, in a warren of alleyways, a warehouse, a toilet, a coffin… they’ve all been done before, but its what you do with them that counts. If at any time you’re reading this and thinking, ‘yeah, yeah… I’ve heard this all before’. Then f**k off and read something else. Because I sold my soul to make my first feature film and I still haven’t got it back, and most people will go through the same.

Now, once you’ve got your brilliant script, in your brilliant, original location, the next most important thing is who is good enough to act in it. Who will do it for free but more importantly, who really is the part and can pull it off. Forget the cameraman or DOP or any other crew, there’ll be a dozen of them queuing up once you get these crucial parts of the jigsaw in place. You need actors that can nail it, and I know what you’re thinking, ‘I’m not an experienced Director! I’ve never done this before, so I am conning them at the same time?’ No, absolutely not. You have what it takes and what it takes to be a great Director, and that’s because you have the bollocks to step up to the plate and deliver.

Because that’s what it takes and that is YOU! Do you think Tarantino and Damien Chazelle were quivering in front of the mirror before they made Reservoir Dogs or Whiplash? Are you f**king kidding! Was Wes Anderson questioning himself when he made Bottlerocket? No, he couldn’t give a damn. Those great, first time filmmakers couldn’t wait to get out of the traps and show the world what they could do. And that’s the ambition and belief you’re going to have to tackle your first film!

Ok, once you have your script, permission to use your location(s), and one or two keys cast members, you need partners in crime. Either a producer, a co-producer or a line producer, but someone who shares your enthusiasm and passion for your script, and your desire to get it made. Now, when choosing this option, make sure they have done something before, and I mean made at least one short film because the step up from shorts to feature is akin to the step up from riding a pedalo to driving a Scarab power boat, they don’t compare!

Once you have your partner in crime, you need to set a deadline. I don’t care if it’s a made up one, but before you start approaching any crew or cast you need to know when you’re shooting this film, so you have a goal to aim for, even if you move it a little, you’ve got one. But a deadline is crucial. I can’t emphasise this enough. I am not going to go into all the details of the mechanics of how to shoot on location because you can find all that in the Guerilla Filmmakers Handbook, or Filmmaking for Dummies. I will state the obvious, check where you are getting electricity for lighting, and a flat shot or a shot with shadows is pure s**t my friend, you might as well burn your hard earned expenses before you start. All the rest of the stuff I’ll save for another issue, but I will say bad make-up is for clowns. You’re better off without any make-up than winding up with an actor who looks like Charlie Cairoli.

Now, I am going to insert a little clause here, because a lot of film books will tell you to think about which festivals you want to enter, which Distributors to aim for, and who will buy your film and how you will get it out there. Forget it! You’re making this film for nothing! It’s climbing Everest with slippers on. Everyone is going to work for free, nobody is getting paid, it’s expenses only, you’re out on a limb. So, the most important thing you have to focus on is getting to the final day of shooting. That is it.

If you can think about how you’re going to post-produce it then that’s a luxury, and I’ll give you this tip for free, don’t fucking edit it at home with one of your mates who wants to be an Editor, or worse, try and do it yourself. You’re really deluded! I don’t know one first time Writer/Director who genuinely knows how to edit. I’ve never heard of a real Director breaking through, who edited his own first film. And before you give me the, ‘Yeah, yeah, Steven Soderbergh.’ Check out his first films. It doesn’t happen. It’s ego running wild. It’s a skill unlike any other and can make or break you. I’ve got three words for you, Anne V. Coates. Never heard of her? Look her up and what she’s done. And if you’re arrogant or ignorant enough not to bother, go and get a fucking job in IT, or some ‘crawl-along’, little career!


The author of this article made his first feature film for £30,000, won three international film festivals and attracted the attention of Warner Bros and Film 4. Watch the trailer at Razor Films

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