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4 Filmmaking 'Rabbit Holes' To Avoid

By Brian O'Malley  |  07-Mar-2018

Whenever a filmmaker stands in front of a screen at their film festival Q&A and says "Filmmaking is war," I can't help but see the ghosts of a thousand soldiers and napalmed civilians surrounding him, shaking their spectral heads in scorn.

Sure, filmmaking isn't easy. But "war?" Far from it. It's a struggle, sure, but it's nowhere near war. I mean, in war, people are generally trying to murder you for no reason. In filmmaking, the only real stakes are the filmmakers' reputations and the investors' bankroll.

That being said, filmmaking does have its share of snafus, sorta like war. You know, things to avoid. Rabbit holes one shouldn't go down unless one wants to napalm her own film into cinematic and creative oblivion.

Take it from me. I happen to be quite the expert in those rabbit holes, as I've made several feature films over the last 3 decades, and on each, I've dug those rabbit holes personally. And the stench of the napalm has yet to wash out of my favorite filmmaking pants.

Allow me to enumerate just a few filmmaker "rabbit holes," for filmmakers of all stripes to avoid. Whether you're a newbie filmmaker, a journeyman lenser, or a salty film dog, perhaps my caveats below will save you some time or headache on your own film.

Filmmaker Rabbit Hole #1 - The Fresh Hell of Meetings
In 2003, two producers and I started up a film company to produce two features back-to-back. We set up shop in an apartment in Los Feliz, made business cards, printed out scripts, and even brought aboard interns.

The core mission was to bring aboard name talent that we could package with our two scripts, and parlay that name talent package into a $1-3 million budget package for both films.

For a while, we were on track, focused like lasers on that goal. But then we started doing...

Meetings.

Sure, we had meetings with potential investors, meetings with agents and assistants, meetings with tv actors' managers, meetings with people-who-knew-people, etc. All those meetings served the goal.

The meetings we got bogged down on were the ones... with ourselves.

The meetings started innocently and productively enough. We'd sit around for the better part of 2 hours, "brainstorming" on what strategy we'd pursue next. What actor we should go after and how to pursue 'em.

But then little agenda items started bubbling up in these meetings. Agenda items which had little, or nothing, to do with the goal of getting the films made.

Agenda items like "Hey, what should our new business cards look like?"

And "Let's all talk about how best to meet with so-and-so who we've already met with and turned out to be a dead end, but he wants to talk to us about our website."

And "We all need to be here to interview the new candidates for interns en masse."

That is, we got sucked into mind-blowingly dumb stuff. And that took us far, far away from our goal, to the point where the principals started not even showing up at the office anymore, choosing to work from home, because they didn't want to spend time in these dumbass meetings.

That killed our momentum and led to the unraveling of our first big push to get these two films made. Meetings — with ourselves — killed our films. It sounds perhaps too simplistic, and extremely stupid, but it's absolutely true.

Solution: If you have meetings with your team in the fundraising/packaging stage, keep them brief and keep them focused on the goal of, you know, fundraising and packaging.

Filmmaker Rabbit Hole #2 — Waiting for the No
The old maxim is: "At least they gave us a no quickly." And the old maxim is right. In the film industry, there exists a specific, weird kind of gravity which tends to pull people towards never saying no to your face, but by letting a long period of time pass, the idea of which is to force you into giving yourself the no. Or something.

Nobody wants to say no, but they're saying no if they're not on your project immediately. That's been my experience. If they're not aboard immediately, or within the next two days, they're not aboard, and you should stop waiting.

We had word out to a ton of actors for one of the two films mentioned above. Some would say "Get so-and-so and my client will do your picture," so we'd go pursue so-and-so, but then we'd messenger the script immediately (the scripts were printed because this all went down, PDFs were nowhere near universal yet) only to find ourselves in this weird holding pattern for weeks while we waited for a respond.

That caused us to put other pursuits of other actors on hold. Which led to putting a bunch of other actors on hold. And so on and so on.

Packaging takes time, yes, but we just did it way too slowly because we were too polite. We went out to maybe 2 or 3 actors at once, but what we should've done is gone out to 10-12 actors at once.

Instead, we got gummed up waiting for answers 1, 2 at a time, instead of 10 at a time.

Solution: Get your no's fast. That means getting out to as many name actors, or investors, or whoever you're going after, as quickly as possible. Even if that means you risk miffing some managers, or money folks, or ruffling some agent feathers.

Filmmaker Rabbit Hole #3 — The Mediocre DP With The Great Gear
While we were focused raising money by packaging our film, we also had a contingency plan:

If we couldn't successfully package and fund our two features by such-and-such date, we'd shoot the two films anyway, but on a shoestring budget.

That is, for 2003, on DV. (If you're keeping track, that would've been on TAPE.)

It was our way of "burning our ships," and telling ourselves that these two feature films were going to happen no matter what.

But alas, because we'd be shooting for no money, we needed a very cheap, or preferably free, camera package. Which meant we took a lot of meetings with cinematographers who really weren't right for the films, but all promised to bring their great camera packages with them, should they be hired.

The kicker?

The pursuit of this specific class of DP — one that comes bundled with her own camera package — ended up costing us more in time and man-hours than it would've cost us to pick the DP we liked and then simply rent a decent camera package off the shelf of any gear rental house.

Zoom ahead a decade and these worries aren't so paramount for most filmmakers, because fIlmmaking gear is getting better, and more readily available, by the hour.

Solution: If you're thinking of bringing anybody aboard just because of their gear, stop and make sure that

(A) You're not making a compromise, either regarding your film's ultimate quality or sellability

and

(B) You're not making a compromise that's going to make the shoot harder, due to personality conflicts,

and

(C) You're not "stepping on a dollar to pick up a dime" by wasting time and money searching for some "unicorn" DP with all the gear who's going to, theoretically, save your production a load of cash.

Filmmaker Rabbit Hole #4 — The Problematic Star

Alas, there's a happy ending to this filmmaking Watership Down. And that's that our two features got made. One of the two features got funded and made and the second feature got made a few years later.

On that second film, the one that I wrote and directed, we'd actually managed to package a small star who'd been in multiple indie films such as Slums of Beverly Hills. That star was to be one of our leads.

The problem was, the star wouldn't fully commit, even after we started preproduction in earnest. Schedules were getting made, money was being spent, locations were being prepped, but this star still kept jerking us around — or at least the star's manager did. We had a handshake deal, but nothing on paper.

As a result, we spent an inordinate amount of time in prep auditioning for that star's part, just in case they weren't ultimately coming aboard. That time could've been spent in a variety of useful ways, but instead went down, you guessed it, a rabbit hole.

The good news? The star showed up on day one. The bad news? The star was late. And took 4 hours to get them out of their dressing room. We were already half a day behind on a production we couldn't afford to be half a day behind on. The budget was extremely tight.

Now by that time, the other producers and I had had three solid months of non-commitment from this star, waiting for calls to be returned, waiting for this, waiting for that. So this behavior on set, which was royally muffing our budget and schedule on day one, was a bit of the final straw for us.

The solution: We fired the star then and there. We just didn't have the money to fall any further behind than they'd already made us. If we went another day like that, the plug would've been pulled and there would've been no movie.

We all figured: better to have a movie without a star than no movie if we keep going.

Was firing the star the right solution? Some Monday-morning quarterbacks say no. They say had we finished anything with that star's name on it, the film would've gotten more traction than what it ultimately ended up with.

Others are convinced we'd have nothing had we kept that aboard.

I'm in the middle camp. I'm convinced that had we kept going, we would've ended up with, not a feature film that made sense, but a nice little surreal short with a star in it that made zero sense. And sure, that could've helped, I guess. But I'm still convinced we did the right thing.

Bottom line: Every situation is different, so if a star sends your production down a rabbit hole, you'll have to decide what the best course of action is for yourself. But at least do this:

At least recognize a filmmaking rabbit hole for what it is, and steer clear!

After all, you don't want to be in a rabbit hole — you want to be in a foxhole.

Because filmmaking is war, right?

B. O'Malley started his script reading career in 1994, reading and covering scripts for the literary agency Media Artists Group. In 1997, he went to work as a script reader and script coordinator for legendary B-movie maverick Roger Corman (Little Shop of Horrors, Death Race 2000), then in 1999 assembled a team of top-notch script readers and filmmakers to launch the script coverage service SCREENPLAY READERS.

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