Writing, directing, producing, scoring, and starring in a film that was released on Amazon Prime was never the plan. I just wanted to write my first screenplay.
This post was written by Ryan Silva.
I started getting into independent film in Austin, Texas, when I went to college. There were film festivals like SXSW, Austin Film Festival, and Fantastic Fest that expanded my perception of what a film could be, as well as local video stores like I Luv Video, where I remember renting Before Sunrise, a film that served as inspiration for the kind of dialogue-driven script I would want to write one day.
This was the early 2010s before the streaming boom, so these IRL events and locations were essential in exposing me to more than the big-budget blockbuster films that filled the local theaters back in my hometown of Abilene, Texas.
When I ultimately moved to Los Angeles after graduation to pursue a music career, the desire to write a screenplay one day still hovered in the back of my mind. As I met more and more people, it seemed like everyone around me was pursuing a career in the film industry in some way. My apartment manager was an actor, my girlfriend was an actress, my neighbor was an actress, and my other neighbor was an Emmy-nominated editor…
It felt like if I was ever going to write a screenplay, this was the place to do it. Maybe they would know someone who could get it made.
Because it was my first screenplay, I knew it would be difficult to get it made, so I wrote a story that was very contained with only a few locations and not too many characters. I told myself that if I could write a page every day, I could finish in about three months. It took me six months, but in June 2018, I finished my first draft of Let Me Be Frank.
After submitting the screenplay to competitions and every literary manager I could find, I came up empty-handed. The script collected dust for a few months before my neighbor (the Emmy-nominated editor) Justin Valentine invited me over one night. I had sent him the screenplay back when I finished, but he hadn’t had time to get to it. He sat me down and said he would edit the film for free if I just went out and made it.
I said, “But how am I going to do that?”
He gave me a book called Rebel Without a Crew where Robert Rodriguez details how he made his first film El Mariachi for $7,000 on film back in the early 90s.
That’s all I needed.
Use What You Have
After reading the book, I was convinced I could make a microbudget film. My boss had a Blackmagic Production Camera 4K just lying around, so I asked him if I could use it. He asked why. I told him, and he became the film’s first financier at the same time with a $1,000 donation.
I came back to Justin days later with a camera and said it was showtime. I don’t think he expected for it all to happen so fast. He came on board as a producer at that point and helped to get the sound equipment for our first shoot, which was two Tascam DR-10L lav mics and a RØDE VideoMic.
We had a camera, and we had sound, now all we needed was actors and locations. The story was loosely based on my actual apartment manager, Freddy Andreiuci, and our apartment building. Freddy is a veteran actor who has worked on shows such as The X-Files, Charmed, Sons of Anarchy, and more, but I knew that if the script sold, there was a possibility that someone else might get that role.
Since we just made the film ourselves, we got to have the characters be played by the real-life people they were based on. So from my apartment manager to my neighbor to my barber to my girlfriend and me, all the roles are played by people I consider friends, all with varying degrees of acting experience.
Initially, I didn’t want to act or direct the film because I wanted it to be good. I asked a few people with directing experience to direct the film, but they were busy, so I had no choice. I found a talented actor by the name of Amandla Bearden who played the lead role of Reggie for the first shoot.
See What You Got
For the first shoot, I served as DP and director after watching a lot of YouTube videos. I got some lights from work (it was a talent management company who had lights to self-tape their actors). Justin was the gaffer and boom operator. Lora Overton (who plays the role of Maya) was assistant director. Freddy and Amandla are the actors. We called it a “test shoot.”
I’ve been told since then that a “test shoot” doesn’t exist. You start production and don’t stop until you finish production, but that shoot was important for us. We learned that I shouldn’t be the DP, we should upgrade the camera, and we should get a boom mic.
When I went back to work after shooting that weekend, my boss asked how it went, and I started telling everybody. People in the office who had never read my script were all of the sudden interested in the movie, since it was now more than a script.
A new intern by the name of Colton Van Til was especially excited. Colton offered to help us find more crew members and streamline production. He had made a low-budget feature himself just a year before with his production company Cloudstar Pictures, and as a film student as Loyola Marymount University, he had a network of other film students who were looking to get credits/copy from a feature film for their resumes.
All of a sudden, we had a knowledgeable DP by the name of Max Gleiser, a small crew of volunteer film students, and the equipment we needed to start filming. Justin was able to borrow his friend’s Blackmagic Pocket Cinema 4K and his Sigma lenses, so we got a camera upgrade. A Sennheiser ME66 K6 shotgun mic was purchased, along with a Tascam DR680 and a Zoom H4N to round out our sound equipment.
I was convinced to play the role of Reggie for convenience reasons. We scheduled all the scenes set inside the apartment for the first two weekends, and we were off to the races.
Take As Much Time As You Need
The first two weekends went relatively smoothly. We used the initial $1,000 to pay for gas and food for the cast and crew. But then it came time to film outdoor scenes and scenes in locations like restaurants, barbershops, and churches.
We started production without having these locations secure, because the film students only had the summer available, and we wanted to use them while we could! The rest of the shooting was sporadic. Freddy got his church to allow us to film on a random Tuesday morning when the church was available (we later saw the same church used in the final season of Shameless).
I was able to get my barber to grant us an hour in his barbershop before they opened on a Monday a few months after production started.
We all got together on a late Sunday night when everyone was available so we could film a nighttime driving scene.
As the production continued and the students went back to school, the crew slowly shrunk back into the original group of four plus a filmmaker by the name of Payam Karamooz, who moved back to town at the perfect time and helped us get to the finish line.
We started production on April 28, 2019, and the remaining four of us took our wrap photo over a year later on July 26, 2020.
Borrow As Much As You Can
I think there was a lot of luck and good fortune involved with getting this production complete, but if we could claim to have one skill, it would be resourcefulness. Everything was borrowed. Borrowed equipment, borrowed locations, borrowed time, borrowed information.
I might have been the director, but I probably knew the least about the technical elements and relied heavily on the other producers and crew. As a director, I tried to stick to what I knew, which was the story I wrote and how to tell it visually. I understand that not everyone has friends with camera equipment, relationships with film students, or friends who own an eclectic barbershop, but the only way this is possible on a microbudget scale is to use what you have, whatever that may be.
After editing the film (and being pleasantly surprised by the footage), we submitted to all the top American festivals: Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca. We didn’t get accepted into any, so we started looking into other distribution plans.
We stumbled upon Filmhub, a distribution service that requires no upfront money, but takes 20% of all earnings generated. Part of the appeal with Filmhub is that you can remove your film from their services at any time, as opposed to traditional distributors who require you to sign over all your ownership rights. Filmhub also works with many channels we were interested in like Amazon Prime, Tubi, and more.
We decided on Filmhub, and our film was streaming live on Amazon Prime about a month after submitting our film. Our film has since been selected by Tubi.
Define Your Own Success
While the film did not get into any major festivals like many of the indie films that inspired us, I think back to my original goal of writing one page a day and feel extremely proud of what everyone involved with this film was able to accomplish. Every time a goal was reached, we set a new goal, and although the final goal was not met, a hundred goals before that were completed.
Almost everyone involved from the cast and crew was making their first feature film. It’s a miracle that we completed one scene, much less an entire feature!
When we have an idea, the idea is usually followed by hundreds of reasons why that idea isn’t possible, especially in film. You need a big budget, you need an established producer to get your film into production, you need celebrity actors, you need an agent, you need the best equipment…
In my experience, you already have everything you need. Go make something with the people close to you.
So many filmmakers are afraid of making a bad movie. Guess what? People get paid millions to make bad movies all the time. Why shouldn’t you be allowed to make a bad movie? Making a bad movie will put you in the same company as some of the best filmmakers of all time.
Go for it. Tell that story you are itching to tell. Why not?