What An Ex-pat Torontonian Can Teach Filmmakers About The Indie Film Scene

When Torontonian Elliot Grove left his home-town in the mid 1980’s he never thought he would be coming back a local hero of the indie film scene. By 2017 he had created Europe’s largest independent film festival, designed and launched the most innovative film school in Britain (if not the world) and founded the British Independent Film Awards.

indie film scene

Elliot Grove greets Terry Gilliam (Monty Python) in London

After completing an art degree from Toronto’s Central Tech Elliot left for Europe in the mid-1970’s armed with a certificate in cire perdu – lost wax bronze casting. He worked on stints for Henry Moore and Anthony Caro before an industrial accident damaged his eyes.

During his quarter-century at Raindance, Elliot Grove has published three industry standard texts, and produced over 150 short films and now eight features, The latest being the powerful female-empowerment dark comedy ALICE. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the pretigious SWSX in March 2019. It has won a total of six international awards as of July 2019, and we all expect it to do more. Elliot Grove is the Executive Producer and is managing the sales and marketing of the film.

What’s the indie film scene like right now in London?

Elliot: There is something about working and living in London right now that can really get on one’s nerves. Everyone is moaning about the economy and the shortage of money. Then the last coalition government abruptly shut down the UK Film Council in 2010. The howls of protest have been deafening. The BFI has bravely announced the start of their film policy which they’ve gallantly turned into a reality. Then there is BREXIT and the recent British election that Thersa May screwed up.

On top of that, the weather really sucks in London.

We hear here that the money is still there in the UK, but there are different gatekeepers

Elliot: I meet producers all over the world. In Europe. in Asia. In North America. The common complaint is not about getting the money it’s about finding the right sort of projects to fit the money that one has. But do you know what? There couldn’t be a better time to try and launch your screenwriting and filmmaking career. That’s why I spend so much time working with screenwriter and storytellers. It’s also when I draw on the storytelling traditions of my Canadian childhood.

I am guessing that Toronto’s independent filmmakers have the identical problems their British colleagues have.

What’s low budget filmmaking?

Elliot: How low is low? Doesn’t it mean you don’t have much (or any) money? What does low budget mean to the money men? I’ve worked on productions with millions in the budget, and there never ever is enough. When I worked as a scenic artist the line producer was always shouting at you to hurry up so there wouldn’t be any overtime payments. We used to dawdle at the end of the day cleaning our brushes because a few minutes over the hour was worth half hours pay. Sometimes they made us throw our brushes out because it was cheaper than paying the wages for a half hour!

Here are some low budget filmmaking tips.

How low can an indie film’s budget be?

Elliot: Nowadays, with the hi-calibre images created by cell-phones – you can make a film with practically no money. The question is, how to you write a script, or concoct a story that can be made with a very low budget. I talk about this in the Saturday Film School. You will also see the clips from over twenty low budget movies, and I will break them down scene by scene and shot-by-shot.

Like this micro budget feature I made in 2014.

What is the secret of an indie movie’s success?

Elliot: Films that sell need to be a genre. Genre helps the distributors know what kind of movie you have made and gives them a really good idea of how to market it as well. I know that this is not a popular concept in art house circles, or in the realm of the worthy where ‘drama’ is king. It’s important to realise that all stories are dramas. It’s the genre that defines the type of drama or story it is.

If you don’t buy into this theory, then remember that the indie film scene relies on marketing and publicity. It’s as simple as that.

Are there special tricks for writing for low budgets?

Elliot: The elements that cost the most time and money making a film are: moving the crew from location to location, and the number of shooting days. It stands to reason, therefore, that if you have a limited cast, with a very few locations and a shorter shoot you can keep costs down. The trick is to write a stage play for a limited cast – I’d say three or four characters. But when it’s filmed, make it look like cinema. Reservoir Dogs, Night of the Living Dead, 12 Angry Men, Rope, Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity are all examples of the “take 12 kids to a house and chop ’em up” theory of low budget screenwriting and filmmaking.

When you see these films you are far removed from a staged play experience, aren’t you?

What are your views on European film training?

Elliot: Film training everywhere seems to be descending into academia where the studies tend to be very inward looking and self-serving. The actual techniques used by filmmakers tend to be very basic. The best way to learn is by doing. Trial and error. And by watching films and reading scripts. Raindance courses are designed to give people practical information from working filmmakers. This distinguishes what we do from most other film education programmes. In addition, when someone calls up to book a course, we often suggest they take the money they are going to give us and go and make a film instead.

[But your Saturday film School course is so cheap!]

Maybe we should raise our prices!
Seriously though, there are still excellent film schools in Europe and North America.

TW: What can I learn at your Saturday Film School?

Elliot: When I started working in film, I realised that there was nothing terribly difficult about the filmmaking process. It is however hard work. The real barriers come after you have made your film – and I stress in the Saturday Film School, and in the Producers’ Foundation Certificate how important it is to develop a knack for marketing and selling your finished film.

What about social media?

Elliot: Social media has revolutionised filmmaking and distribution. There are two kinds of filmmakers who cross my path: Those who loathe and abhor social media and would never be caught dead with a Twitter account, and those who embrace it. Social media is here to stay. Deal with it or suffer!

Successful filmmakers today need to have a clear and profound grasp of social media and learn how it can assist their film and their career.

What is the biggest mistake you see filmmakers make?

Elliot: There are three basic mistakes I see over and over again:
– a terrible script
– uncleared music rights
– they don’t realise that their friends cannot act

I describe and illustrate each of these during my Saturday Film School.

What was your biggest mistake making movies?

Elliot: I hate to say it, but I have made every single mistake in the book.

What is your advice to someone wanting to make a movie?

Elliot: Get a script, get a camera. Any camera. Get some tape or film stock. Point the camera at actors and expose your film stock to those actors.

That’s really what filmmaking is all about. Come on! You can do it!

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