5 Tips to Make Your Debut Feature

Guest Post by Michael O’Connor, writer/director of Caring And Killing


The opportunity to make my first feature came when Ulrich Wehner (co-producer) found out he had a house free for a summer in the middle of London (his brother was away, working for a year). So we thought that would be our base of operations and main shooting location!

The idea for ‘Caring And Killing’ came about from an old short story I had written. The premise was of an un-hinged boxer who was finding success but through a series of emotionally scarring fights, while also in the middle of a self-destructive drug addiction. With prospective dates set for the first block of shooting I quickly began to adapt the story into a screenplay, with around 3-4 months to develop it.

Here are 5 tips I’ve learned for making my debut feature…!

1. Developing Your Script

When I started developing the script for ‘Caring And Killing’ I had a good idea of what our budget would be and it helped me format the story to what was realistic within the production values we could achieve. It gave me a real framework for the script, not just of what my limitations were but how I could subvert them at certain points in the film. For example, we had agreed beforehand that at least two fight sequences needed to be in the film (we actually did three) and that these scenes were going to draw a considerable amount more of our resources. Therefore I really tried to script as much story content as possible into those sequences to capitalize on those shooting sequences.

Adapt and be flexible, work with what you have. While the constraints of your budget limit you in production remember that a script session costs nothing. Putting in the extra time to hone your script can really bring the quality you might be afraid of losing in low-budget production values.

Time is just as an important commodity in your budget and being able to adapt is what will get you the most out of it. In my case we shot ‘Caring And Killing’ in a multi-block schedule over a year (A week here and there) so there was numerous cases of re-writing the script between shoots, redeveloping scenes based on scenes we had shot so far, re-working elements of the story, writing additional scenes based on edit feedback. Using time wisely in development wherever I could was my method of making up for the budget rather than letting it constrain me.

2. Structuring Your Budget

The main problem I faced when deciding to take the leap at a feature film was simply how to financially sustain a shoot for long enough to make the film within a reasonable timeframe (at least two weeks). Quite simply we couldn’t afford to finance a straight two-weeks block of filming off our day job wages and savings. After some research we decided that the only it could happen was to spread the schedule out of a longer time. In the end we ended up shooting for a week in September, a half week just before Christmas, another the following April and then finally one last day in September.

Though it took a full year it allowed us to finance and schedule each block of filming in the most cost-effective way. It also allowed us to be flexible with our locations (half the film was shot in South London, the other half al around Wales) and the travel arrangements (which all-too often eat up your budget), while also keeping the shoot focused on one part of the script (One block focused on present day story scenes, another on flashbacks, etc).

The biggest decision in making your budget work will probably be the structure of the shoot. It’s a balancing act between the finance and time against keeping your production focused and engaged during the breaks but make sure to explore every option, it will be the defining factor of your budgeting.

3. Crew

Fostering a great relationship with your crew is all about give and take. Around the time of finishing the first full draft of the script we had secured most of our Heads Of Departments. I brought my HOD’s into the development of the script early on for two main reasons why I would recommend this…

If you don’t have a technical background in filmmaking and are working in the confines of no-budget then your Production Designer or Editor may well have the solution to various problems you may be facing. giving you creative license through simple technical methods to express your story. At that point in time my background in filmmaking was mostly based around Sound and Post-Production. In my case, I found developing several drafts of the script along with the Director Of Photography (Jon Ratigan) to really open my eyes to what we could do in terms of how we visually perceived the Protagonist.

In all likelihood you won’t be able to pay people on your first production and while deferred payments / production points sound nice they’ll likely not amount to anything. Getting your crew involved in the early stages and taking their input gives them a creative connection to your work. It may not pay the bills but it’s surprising how motivating it can be to feel you have a creative input on a project you are working on besides the logistical and technical side of things.

4. Cast
Much like the above point, aside from the acting quality of your cast to really get the best out of them it’s all about getting them ingrained in the project.By the time we came to auditions it was quite a nerve-wracking to process to see a selection of actors read through the script and get a glimpse of those characters starting to grow.In the UK I would always recommend setting up auditions in London. You’ll have more applicants there and the competition tends to raise the bar in terms of acting talent. It may cost a bit more to set up but the result will be worth it.We were looking for actors who had some sort of background in stage combat, boxing or martial arts experience which narrowed things down a little bit I really couldn’t have been happier with the cast we ended up assembling. It also provided me with a very important lesson about the impact of casting would have on my script…I found it to be a great experience to develop the characters with the actors during the later drafts of the script, when it came to fine-tuning the characters. For example, we cast Cengiz Dervis as the Protagonists coach. Cengiz was a professional Kick Boxer and Trainer in his past so his input into that relationship and getting him to actually train with the other actors really pushed the detail, performances and script to the next level.Much like the above point regarding your crew, getting your cast involved with script development can give you further insight into the characters as well engaging the cast and drawing them deeper into the production.

5. Location

In my experience this can be the basis for most no-budget films coming to fruition. Most of these films use one location as a base of the film and narrative and then branch out from there. Even a road movie, when you think about it, is based around two or three crew cars.

In our case we had a house free so I decided to base the story around the Protagonists bedroom. The scenario being that he was locked in the room in an attempt to go cold turkey to get over his addition to pain killers. Writing with this in mind gave me my structure for how the spine of the film should progress while making it viable within the constraints of out budget.

Of course, the risk is that a film set in one room, no matter how good the performance or the dramatic writing is going to get boring after a while. This is where I took the opportunity to branch out and add different locations and scenarios (through flashbacks and fantasies in this films narrative) with the intention of trying to break-up the sequences in the main location and focus on trying to boost the production values of the film by throwing in as much variety as I could in small doses.

Building your script around one main location will really give you a core of a film that’s workable with your budget. Once you’ve got that down you can look at adding things on as they become viable to you to add variety.

Thanks for the guest post Michael! Everyone be sure to check out the website for Caring And Killing for more details, and visit/like the Facebook page.

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