the uphill struggle of the indie filmmaker

– . – The uphill struggle of the indie filmmaker

The uphill struggle of the indie filmmaker

A couple of years ago, I was sent a film called ROAD TO VICTORY by first-time director Mike Reilly. The film, which centres on a top college athlete and his struggle to maintain a relationship after becoming impotent, did brilliantly well on the festival circuit and recently sealed the deal by securing distribution.

Here, Mike Reilly writes exclusively for movieScope on his struggle to get the film made and seen and why he never gave up…


Horror and success stories alike, there is always something that drives the independent moviemaker.

My name is Mike Reilly, and my first independent feature film ROAD TO VICTORY has just been released on DVD. And while the next phase of the process, marketing the film after it’s release, is just beginning, I’ve finally been afforded a few moments to reflect on what it took to take a feature film from inception to completion. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but I think more than anything, the hardest lesson for me has been learning the mentality required to survive in this unforgiving business of ours.

I wish someone had taken the time to teach me the mentality required to be an independent moviemaker before I devoted the last 5 years of my life to it. Moviemaking requires a specific personality. Especially the independent kind, because you are your own boss, and when you fail, there is no one to blame but yourself.

You must be intolerant with anything less than optimal quality, but patient enough to get it done right.

You must be naïve enough to believe that it can be done, but wise enough to know when to compromise.

You must be sensitive to the needs of the cast and crew, but tough enough to realize that this sensitivity will never be extended to you.

It requires an odd combination of fear and arrogance, and I say arrogance because most of us haven’t been successful enough yet to be confident.

Some would argue that these are lessons that can only be learned by doing it.

In Film School, it’s all about learning the technique of filmmaking. At seminars, it’s all about new and improved ways to implement those techniques. Which leaves the fellow filmmaker to share this insight, although the opportunities to receive it are rare.

Sometimes I am asked by the next generation of eager filmmakers, or the parents of the next generation, “how” to go about being a filmmaker. My response to them is this:

“How?’ is the wrong question. There is no single best answer. Before you, or your son/daughter decides to begin this journey, the only way to know if you even have a chance of making it, is to sit down, and ask yourself ‘Why?;”

Over the years, I have been prepared by a few people to tackle a project much bigger than myself. The essence of the best of these lessons was always the same: you cannot be afraid to fail.

Seven years ago I was fortunate enough to hear this lesson spoken with utmost eloquence. The speaker was Jamie Clarke, the 9th Canadian to summit Mt. Everest. It took him and his team 3 attempts over 3 different years to finally reach the summit. His words have been on my wall ever since I heard him speak, and I will share them with you today, as they relate to what I have learned about what it takes to be an independent moviemaker.

“Failure and rejection are the essence of success. You can’t conquer a mountain. Your job is to tap into the rhythm of it.”

This moviemaking industry is what it is, which is weird, unpredictable, constantly changing, and often times illogical. Most of us would prefer to just make the movies. It is for the creative love of making them that we do it, but the reality is that you are not a true moviemaker until you complete your film, and sell it. It is the phase of the project that separates the men from the boys.

Unfortunately, it is the phase of the project that film schools just don’t teach, at least not well. We all made at least a short film in film school, but who ever sold a film to a distributor in film school?

Once we hit the real world, that leaves it up to us to continuously butt our heads up against a brick wall, until we make enough mistakes to learn how to do it right.

It is so tough, that you begin to doubt the power of a single step. But, remember that one effort unto itself is useless. It’s the steps everyday that count.”

One of the hardest things about putting your movie out into the world is the wide range of feedback you have to endure. We’ve all seen a movie only to want that two hours of our life back. When that movie has laurel leafs o’ plenty and critical acclaim that compares it to CITIZEN KANE, you know it’s still a poorly made film, but that director was lucky enough to have a producer who knew the tricks of the trade.

For those of us who aren’t as lucky, it is one step at time. It is screener copy after screener copy, individually labeled and mailed out to festivals, producer’s reps, and critics. Sometimes the feedback is incredibly rewarding, and other times you are left wondering if the person who watched your film was born and raised under power lines.

The most difficult thing about making your first movie, is the pace at which things happen. Sometimes so much happens so fast, you may not sleep for 2-3 days straight. Other times, an entire ice age may pass before the next step in the process. It is the uncertain, slogging, day-in, day-out pace that chips away at you. You might go so long without some action that you’ve forgotten the incredible achievement of actually making a feature length movie.

“Sometimes on the way to the top, people die. Many had to turn back with water in their lungs and brain, and their retinas hemorrhaging. On the third and final trek, we buried my friend’s body in the snow. Passion is admirable, but obsession is deadly.”

There are intense times when making a movie, especially principle photography and post-production. The line between passion and obsession is a fine line to walk indeed. Many people have come and gone as I have chased my own obsession over the last three years. People that I have loved, lived with, grown up with… they walked away when it got too tough; when I teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, when the movie failed to be accepted to it’s first round of festivals, when the amount of work, the quality of work demanded, and the indefinite time-table refused to bend for us, the people that I counted on the most simply found it easier to live another life.

“And it is at time like these, when you pick the frozen tears off of your face, that you forge the essence of who you are.”

It is at times like this that we do what every human being since the beginning of time has done, and that is turn to the gods. In movie-making, there is no greater god than Joseph Campbell, whose work on comparative myth and religion has shaped the nature of the contemporary screenplay, and the manner in which directors shoot those screenplays. If Joe were here now, he would likely argue that all things die in order to be reborn. That the ideals of the first-time filmmaker, must be let go of, if they are ever to be replaced by better ones.

For us, that means learning from bitter mistakes; getting smarter so that we can differentiate between the shysters, and those with legitimate work ethic and skill (it’s called integrity, a word not used very often in this business of ours) and developing some type of tolerance for an industry that continues to reward less than quality work (film festivals and studios alike), and asking ourselves two very personal questions:

• Why am I a filmmaker? What am I so passionately convinced that I have to share with humanity?

• How strong am I? What am I willing to risk, and how hard and how long am I willing to work to share that?

Many people constantly ask themselves “how?” “How I am supposed to do this? How can that possibly be done given our lack of resources?”

And the reality of the difficulty defeats them.

Understand “why?” and sooner or later, the cosmos can and do align, because “how” doesn’t really matter.

“Why do I do this? If I could answer that question, then I wouldn’t have to do it any more.”

For some of us, the answer to this question truly is that primal. That we just could not imagine ourselves doing anything else. We don’t feel right about ourselves unless we’re doing it. But underneath that, we also realize that it’s something more…

“For five minutes I stood alone upon the summit, and realized that for the first time in my life there was no more up, no more struggle. Just peace and bliss. There was no sense of conquer, only gratitude. It was the greatest feeling of my life. And there hasn’t been a day in my life since then that I haven’t indulged myself by thinking about that day, and felt the same feeling all over again.”

Those of us who are honest with ourselves know that the journey is only partially about the road traveled. That while we will be shaped by it’s experiences, and wizened by what we learn, it is still the lure of the destination, which is to someday earn the privilege to create and share for a living, that keeps us climbing.

“I needed a success to snap out of it. I wish I had realized that I had the strength before I had the success.”

All of us feel the fear of being the independent moviemaker. Anyone who says differently has become just another Hollywood liar. We face it and deal with it to some degree on a daily basis. Maybe it’s whether or not the movie will be completed (at whatever phase it’s in), maybe it’s the fear of whether or not it will be accepted or rejected by a film festival, producer’s rep, critic, or distributor. The worst fear of course, is the one that permeates your day to day life, the fear that this project will fail, that there will not be another one, and that we will be stuck selling out, settling for a life at a 9-5 somewhere, miserable in the notion that we are living a life less than what we know we’re happiest doing.

You can’t change the forces that act upon us, but you can change the way that you react to them. You make a choice each and every day. My choice was to face my fear and break free from the shackles that held me bound.”

If I were to sum up the characteristics required to be an independent moviemaker, I would recommend that you watch the movie, COOL HAND LUKE. Watch the scene with Paul Newman and George Kennedy boxing. How many times did Luke have to get knocked down and get up again before not only did the entire prison (which all wanted to see him knocked out) and even George Kennedy learned to respect him? Once he earned it, he could do no wrong among the inmates, and such is the challenge issued to us, the independent moviemaker; are we tough enough to repeatedly get knocked down, and get back up again until we make it?

It took Jamie Clarke three different summit attempts, spaced apart by the years required to fund-raise over a million dollars for each reattempt, to finally reach the top of his mountain. When I think back on the times in my life that I have failed, I have enough perspective now to realize that it was not circumstance that defeated me, but simply that I either did not have the strength, or could not think of a way to keep going. It would be wonderful if I could know and share with you the magical number of attempts we must make as moviemakers to reach our goals, but, unfortunately, I don’t have these answers. I know only that I must keep going, which brings me back to Jamie’s first quote:

“Failure and rejection are the essence of success. You can’t conquer a mountain. Your job is to tap into the rhythm of it. It is so tough, that you begin to doubt the power of a single step. But, remember that one effort unto itself is useless. It’s the steps everyday that count. The summit simply awaits those who are willing to climb it, and that is where your destiny lies. Go there now.”

You can learn more about ROAD TO VICTORY here




Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *