All successful films (independent or otherwise) start with one thing: a great story that’s worth telling. You can learn the best filming techniques, which camera best suits your needs, and how to secure the right cast. But without a great story, you won’t have a great film.
Some filmmakers approach the filmmaking process with a fixed story idea in mind: others need to workshop a collaboration of different, disparate ideas, many more still have approach the process with no fixed story idea in mind at all. According to filmmaking resource site Noam Kroll, it is important to “not overthink this process and by simply just writing down thoughts instinctually, the best ideas come out.” Start with a story arc: know your key characters, where they begin, and where you want them to end up. Fleshing out the rest of the story may be stressful and complicated, but it would be impossible without this initial starting point. Finding the starting point, finding inspiration, is more difficult, and is something that generally cannot be taught.
For more personal pieces, the best advice is to write what you know. This is the best way to achieve authenticity in your work. Autobiographical pieces can be emotionally difficult to write and film, particularly if you have a story you have never laid bare before, but at their heart is a truth that your audience will be able to connect with and relate to. If you choose an autobiographical piece then journaling your journey, or returning to old journals, is a great place to start for project inspiration. According to recovery.org, journaling is a great way “ to identify – and work through – difficult emotions” but from a filmmakers point of view, journals also provide a wealth of resources from which to extract, and construct, the emotional heart of your piece.
Autobiographical elements are often introduced into the filmmaking process, because of the truth and therefore ease of connection, that they contain. According to the Independent Magazine, there is “a fascinating tension between autobiography and journalism.” The films of independent filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin are a great example of this, and a great source of research and inspiration. Gorin does not explicitly tell his own story (which is one of exile) in his films. However, his story inspires his films to such an extent that it spills over into the narrative. The filmmaker is not hidden from the piece, and therefore his story becomes a part of it too: it’s a fascinating construct, and one that provides easy inspiration for new independent filmmakers.
Listen to Others
Often the hardest part of the process but feedback from others, particularly other people that you trust, is a critical part of honing a script. Give your story to anyone prepared to read it. Run a reading and Q&A sessions for friends, family and film enthusiasts to ensure that your plot is easy to understand, and that the concept of the film is consistent and clear. If you have the budget available, consider hiring a freelance or independent reader to run their critical eye over your script and assess the kind of market opinion and response that it will receive. Whilst the story is yours, and negative feedback can therefore be difficult to hear, listening to others and getting a more rounded view of your work is essential for both self-improvement and creative improvement.
Your Story is Never Written
Finally, it’s important to remember to keep your story fluid, as much as possible. Much like in real life, the story of a film is never really finished, so it’s important not to be too rigid and stick to an original plot and story that might not work perfectly in practice. The Pixar studio can teach us a lot about this, and is an excellent example as they always view their stories as a work in progress: according to Mary Coleman, a Pixar senior development executive, “We keep improving the story well into production, which is painful in animation. Making changes is expensive and laborious. But we’ll keep at it if the story’s not right yet. And we’ve never once gone into full production with it “locked.” In independent film making, the expense of making changes is something it’s important to bear in mind (there is almost never enough money to satisfy every aspect of your creativity or your process) but being as fluid as you can with your story is something important to bear in mind, especially during the early stages of writing and script editing. Continual rewriting and improving will help you to develop the best story you possibly can.