Lessons From the Frontline: How We Made a Successful Independent Movie

Lessons I learned from the production and distribution release of “Cheesecake Casserole”


Last year, I co-wrote and produced a feature-length independent movie called Cheesecake Casserole.

This past week, Cheesecake Casserole was released in 50 million homes across America via i*Tunes, amazon.com, and on-demand cable channels.

Cheesecake Casserole definitely feels like a personal accomplishment. We were a pair of first-time writers, directors and producers, and we managed to assemble a cast of working actors, to successfully shoot the film in two weeks and, most importantly, to get picked up for video/online distribution at the highest price point possible.

To celebrate the release of our little movie, I thought I’d use this week’s blog to look back on the process of getting it made, and highlight a few of the finer points and strategies that helped us get it off the ground.

1. We Hired a Casting Director

We didn’t know it at the time, but hiring a reputable casting director served several purposes.

First, it gave us access to talent that we would have never otherwise had the chance to audition. When you do casting on your own, you tend to either reach for the big name actors who will most likely pass on your indie or you’re working with unknowns. Hiring a casting director, however, introduces you to a wide middle-ground of professional, working actors who both have name recognition and also a willingness to build their body of work by taking a chance on independent features.

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Some Tips in Defining the Point of Your Movie

“Little Miss Sunshine” has a clear point to make – and makes it.

Last week, we took a look at how the question “What is the Point of Your Movie?” can help shift you into the kind of active, feeling relationship with your script that is necessary when writing from the heart.

We discussed how determining the point of your movie is ultimately an intuitive process that relies more on a deeper knowing than intellectual calculation.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t practical tools that can help give shape and guidance to what can often seem like a daunting process.

Here is a breakdown of the pointers I provide for my clients to empower them in discovering their authentic story.

A Case Study: Little Miss Sunshine

When doing script consultations on feature-length screenplays, I sometimes watch comparable movies to help initiate the creative process with my client. For one particular project, I re-watched Little Miss Sunshine, and found myself moved to do some free-form exploration of its basic point. I simply asked myself, “What is the point of what I’m watching?,” and this is what came tumbling out: Continue reading

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How the Simple Question, “What is the Point?” Can Breathe True Heart & Soul Into Your Script

Pop quiz: if I asked you, “What is the point of Thelma & Louise,” what would you say?

You hear a lot about needing to know the theme or thematic point of your movie. But a lot of times, we retreat so far inside our heads trying to figure out all the mechanics of good screenwriting in terms of act breaks, page numbers, character arcs and other schematics, that we lose sight of  simply holding the “big picture” of what’s truly going on underneath the surface of the film.

What should be an intuitive, feeling, personal process often becomes just one of many mental guessing games all geared toward answering the question, “But how do I get it right?” In this anxious place, the thematic point becomes just another thing to “figure out” with the head rather than to feel with the heart.

And yet it is the point of the movie that possesses its true life force. “The point” is the underlying moral, message or emotional point-of-view that holds all of the disparate elements together. It’s the glue that actually makes sense of all those act breaks, page number events and character arcs.

We don’t respond to a movie like Lord of The Rings because of its separate, well-timed plot complications – we respond to it because all of those plot complications work in service to a larger point about the necessity of humbly laying down your life for the cause of the greater good. Continue reading

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How “Warrior” Works as a Melodrama and What We Can All Learn From It:

There are two key conflicts that play out in every movie:

The external conflict – this is what makes up the bulk of the plot; the literal, physical battle that is playing out between our protagonists and antagonists.

The internal conflict – this is what’s at stake for our characters on an emotional level, it’s the psychological/spiritual/emotional issues that compel our protagonists to partake in this deadly war; the internal conflict is what the external war means to our heroes on personal, philosophical level.

I find in my script consultation work that writers will be enthusiastically rigorous when it comes to the external conflict – oftentimes mapping out little every dramatic beat of every scene of the movie – but asking them to explore the emotional thrust of the movie with the same tenacity tends to invoke a lot of anxiety, uncertainty and vagueness. Continue reading

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What We Can Learn From “The Hurt Locker” and “Tree of Life”

"Tree of Life" proves that all you really need is a clearly drawn dramatic idea to sustain a powerful motion picture.

All you need to write an effective screenplay is a clearly laid-out dramatic idea. The success of movies like Hurt Locker and Tree of Life confirm this. Neither of these movies conform to much of what you’ll find in the traditional screenwriting paradigms: there is no big “end of Act I” reversal, there is no standard antagonist, there is no climactic final battle. These movies have certain loose elements of structure, but they’re ultimately sustained by the clarity and simplicity of their respective central ideas. In the case of The Hurt Locker, the central idea would read something like, “A soldier’s addiction to death-defying battle both saves and destroys the life around him.” Here “life” means everything from the welfare of his fellow soldiers to the family members who need him back at home. In Tree of Life, the central idea would read something like, “Our natural desire to control the world around us keeps us from the grace that can actually free us.” We see this play out through the characters who struggle in vain to navigate their life wounds with self-protection and willful control rather than simply surrender to the force of God that forgives and unites us all. So, what constitutes an effective idea? In both movies, the central idea outlines a clear conflict that is then dramatized through fully embodied characters. There isn’t a single moment in The Hurt Locker that doesn’t trace back to the core battle between Sergeant William James’ addiction to battle and the ripple effect of destruction left in its wake; likewise, there isn’t a single moment in Tree of Life that doesn’t relate back to the struggle between resistance to surrender and the legacy of pain created by that resistance. In both cases, we have leading characters who activate this struggle through committed dramatic action: James (Jeremy Renner) goes for the adrenaline rush no matter the cost, Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and his son Jack (Hunter McCracken/Sean Penn) drive their happiness into the ground attempting to rebound from the world that so wounded them. We, the viewers, become engaged in the deepening war between the two sides of the central battle – it’s the spine that sustains a movie’s power. Here, “power” means something much deeper and much profounder than the outward mechanics of predetermined “structure” – a concise, well-developed internal idea will always trump the movie that plays by the rules for the simple sake of playing by the rules. The lesson here for any writer is to know your story’s underlying idea in terms of the most fundamental conflict that will play out from beginning to end. What is the central struggle here? How does your hero embody it? How does this struggle deepen from start to finish?


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A Word on Dramatic Danger: Crazy Heart

Crazy Heart gets its quiet drama going with quiet danger.

I finally got around to seeing Crazy Heart – it is a perfect example of how even a slower-paced, more meditative character study uses life-or-death danger to generate dramatic traction. Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) isn’t just your garden-variety alcoholic, he’s an alcoholic on the verge of literally killing himself – if he doesn’t clean up his act in the near future, he will surely die. This is a man who has thrown his entire life away to the bottle: over the years, he has sacrificed a lucrative music career, a meaningful relationship with his son, and his basic physical/spiritual wellbeing. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that intimate, lower-key stories get a free pass from having to sufficiently raise the dramatic stakes – movies like Crazy Heart, Sideways, Brokeback Mountain, Ordinary People and so many others might appear quiet on the outside but they nonetheless throw everything on the line for their heroes. In point of fact, that is precisely how these stories get away with their slower paces – we remain invested in the flow of information because there is a quietly strong pull towards some kind of day-of-reckoning that means everything to the main character. These movies may not be loud, showy, blazing-guns adventures but the world is nonetheless coming to a possible end – maybe not the literal end of the world (like, say, in The Lord of the Rings) but a figurative end of the world.


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A History of Violence

A History of Violence never takes full responsibility for Viggo's deep psychological split.

My problem with A History of Violence is that it never really deals with the psychological/emotional split that is at the heart of its premise. According to the world of the story, Tom Stall (Viggo Mortenson) was not just a gangster, but a reckless, deranged and especially lethal gangster – then, somewhere along the way, he made a decision to leave that all behind him and start anew. And it leaves the viewer to wonder: Why? The script totally sidesteps its own underlying central question: What causes a seemingly unrepentant assassin to want to make a break with his life of crime and rebirth himself into a small-town family man? Which leads to an even more important follow-up question: Can it be done? And at what emotional cost to himself and those around him? Are we supposed to just accept that someone who was by all definitions a sociopath could just reinvent himself with no lingering trace of his old identity? Are we to believe that a marriage built on such profound lies can exist unblemished? Or that a man with such a deep psychological split can really be a stand-up husband and father? A History of Violence seems to suggest that Tom has been able to create and maintain a perfect family with no real regard for the powerful secret he has been keeping from them. This is ultimately where the movie fails on a certain level – the revelation of Tom’s dual-identity never illuminates a deeper issue regarding his relationship with his most cherished loved ones. In other words, there is a much deeper, much more powerful conflict at the heart of this movie than a man who simply needs to kill his old mob ties – it’s the conflict of a man who has done horrible things and makes a decision to just “leave it all behind,” the conflict of a man who creates “the perfect family” under very false pretenses, the conflict of a man who has been lying to the love of his life since the moment he met her. If the movie dealt with the part of Tom that made this decision so many years ago, if it dealt with the repercussions of him simply disowning his past, it would have the opportunity to create a deep internal journey that affects those around him: Tom’s secrecy would function as a silent killer in his household, and its integration would be the thing that ultimately heals the household. This is how director David Cronenberg could have married Tom’s external crisis with a deeper, more sustaining internal crisis. Instead, this otherwise smart, capable and accomplished movie settles for the most basic, literal conflict possible – a dad who has to kill his gangster brother so his family can be safe – and, in doing so, fails to take responsibility for the flawed, compelling choice made by its hero so many years ago.

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Dramatic Clarity

With dramatic clarity comes dramatic ease.

Clarity creates ease.

You see this all the time in life.

Take money, for example. If you’re vague about your financial affairs (how much you have, how much you earn, how much you owe), then you create a baseline level of stress (you’re late paying your bills, you overdraw your account, you’re working too hard for your paycheck), and you impede your overall life energy.

If, on the other hand, you get clear on the numbers you have, the numbers you need, and the numbers you actually get paid, you can orchestrate your life in a way that makes total, organic sense. You will get paid, your bills will get paid, and money will accumulate. Financial clarity empowers you to step into financial flow.

Likewise, clear boundaries create an equally strong container for personal relationships. Vague, unspoken or disowned emotions lead to strained relationships built on silent resentments and unmet needs.

When you’re willing to get clear on what it is you want, what you need, and what you expect out of relationships, then you’re well on your way to creating the kind of interpersonal connections that will best serve you. Emotional clarity empowers you to step into emotional flow.

And so it is with screenwriting: clarity creates ease.

Most writers start scripts from a place of vagueness. Ask them to state the point of their movie in a single sentence, or to articulate their movie’s central question, or to succinctly explain how their hero embodies their intended theme, and you’ll often get a confused, flustered or puzzled response. It should be easy to articulate these things. If it’s not easy, you’re not dramatically clear and it will be evident in your screenplay.

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What We Can Learn About Character Transformation From “The Godfather”

Spikes of pressing, specific conflict facilitate Al Pacino's transformation from warm civilian to guarded Godfather.

The Godfather works so well because of the severe nature of Michael’s transformation: he starts the movie as the family outsider, the Ivy League soldier who insists that he is not a part of the family business (“That’s my family, Kay,” he tell his fiancee, “it’s not me”) – and he ends the movie as the emotionally remote Godfather who has sacrificed a piece of his soul for the sake of the family, now condemned to live out the very precarious quest for power and preservation that his father had tried to protect him from in the first place. If Michael started the movie in any way a part of the criminal racket, then his ultimate transformation would lack real punch, it would be more of a “So, what?,” since he was already on that track from the get-go. No, it’s in the stark contrast between how fully Michael embodies “the openhearted civilian” at the beginning and how fully he embodies “the guarded crime boss” at the end that imbues The Godfather with its poignant message regarding the inescapable cycle of violence perpetuated by the mafia. It basically says to us, “Even the well to-do, moralistic family outsider gets pulled into the family business,” and thereby lets us know that there is no real chance for escape. The question then becomes how Francis Ford Coppola executes this dramatic turnaround in such a seamless fashion. And the answer lies in spikes of specific, pressing conflict that force Michael into taking action that he would never otherwise take. The first spike of conflict comes when Michael realizes that his comatose father’s life hangs under imminent attack from rival Sollozzo and his crooked cop underling. It’s incredibly clear that if someone doesn’t act fast, Don Corleone will be executed. It’s also clear that only one person could conceivably enlist the trust necessary to get the family’s adversaries in a vulnerable enough position to be effectively killed: the civilized, Ivy League son who has stayed outside the family business. Micheal pretty much has no other choice – if he fails to make the hit, his father will his die. It’s an inescapable dilemma that singlehandedly hurls him into the criminal world he has been avoiding for so long. The second spike of conflict once against centers on the issue of Don Corleone’s death – in the wake of his father’s passing, Michael faces imminent treachery and assault from all sides. It is, once again, a matter of total survival, and one that affects the entire family’s preservation. Left with no other recourse other than to strike back in a big way, Michael effectively orchestrates a merciless, preemptive bloodbath that includes the eradication of mutinous members of his own clan. It’s Michael’s final, firm step into the leader of this crime family – one that requires lying to his own wife’s face and sacrificing the humanity that once made him so different. Look closely at any successful character transformation and you’ll no doubt find two or three spikes of pressing conflict that force the hero into new territory – it’s a brilliant tool for structure because it automatically creates a current of mounting danger in your script and it also provides specific hurdles that force your hero to take the kind of immediate, resourceful action that makes for great drama.

  • In thinking about your hero’s transformation, does it begin and end at polarized opposites – does your hero embody something completely different at the end of the movie than he does at the beginning? In the final scenes, is your hero someone that he could never have imagined being in the beginning scenes?
  • What are two or three spikes of specific conflict that back your hero into an inescapable corner and thereby force him into immediate action that radically changes his character?
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Joseph H. Lewis’ “Gun Crazy”

They may not know why they do what they do, but Bart and Annie do it with total dramatic conviction.

There is such a deep existential power to Gun Crazy, chiefly because there really is no rhyme or reason to what our heroes do. When asked by her partner-in-crime why Annie feels the need to kill innocent bystanders during their crime heists, she launches into a litany of reasons, “Because I had to. Because I was afraid. Because they would have killed you. Because you’re the only thing I’ve got in the whole world. Because I love you,” and yet none of them seem to carry much conviction. The fact remains that when it comes to the scene of the actual crime, there’s a lust in Annie’s eyes as she brandishes a gun and unleashes hellfire with it, there’s a thirst for violence simply for the sake of violence. In other words, Annie kills simply because she wants to to kill. And she’ll keep killing, even when she knows it’s gotten them into an inescapable corner, even when she knows their time has come to an end, even when she knows the moral price it costs her. She just has to do it. And it’s a similar road for our conflicted antihero Bart. A genuine guy, an upstanding citizen, a man who respects life and the right to live, he nonetheless has to own a gun and he has to shoot that gun. If it means breaking a storefront window to steal the gun, he’ll do it. If it means going to reform school for it, he’ll do it. He’ll feel guilty about it, he’ll beat himself up for it – but he’ll do it. And when Bart meets a soulmate in gun-loving Annie, he goes along with her thirst for excitement simply because he has no other choice. In some scenes, they’re motivated by love, in other scenes they’re motivated by the fancy “things” money can buy, in other scenes they’re motivated by the sheer thrill of violence, and in other scenes they’re motivated by a shared reverence for the gun: the target of their lust always changes, what remains constant is the frenzied rush to follow that destructive impulse. Gun Crazy may just be the most successful cinematic translation of compulsive behavior ever – it’s a hyperkinetic, energized, fast-paced road to nowhere, propelled forward by characters with no real understanding of what drives them to destructive ends, just the simple innate knowing that they must have it, whatever “it” is. The movie works because Bart and Annie are committed to their compulsions with everything they’ve got, and they ride that wave all the way to the end of the line where they have nowhere else to go; the movie works because it so clearly lays out its core battle: the thrill of compulsive excitement versus the destructive price you pay for that compulsion. There is a linear clarity here that pulls us deeper into the pounding hearts of these confused, tormented individuals. One of my absolute favorites.


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