Want to Know What it Takes to Make a Movie? Filmmaker Kurt Larson Shares ‘The Five Things I Needed To Make An Indiefilm’
Written by: Kurt Larson
Son of Ghostman was made with a lot of practical items, of course. But in order to get it completed, there were five vague tools I realize now I couldn’t have done without. The five tools I personally needed to make an indiefilm.
Determination. Faith. Luck. Vision. And 100% total ignorance.
Seriously, with the amount of people who tell you can’t do something like make a TRUE indiefilm, don’t underestimate the importance of ignorance. Embrace it. Nurture it. And above all else, use it to your advantage.
“We were just two idiots running around town with monster makeup and a camera.”
I have uttered this phrase, or some variation of it, dozens of times in interviews upon being asked what I mean when I say we made a TRUE indiefilm with Son of Ghostman. And while this statement is inherently true, it is a bit misleading. I did have some semblance of what I was doing, or at the very least what I was trying to do. This is where you need to apply that aforementioned vision.
In my case, I knew I couldn’t replicate the technical achievements of my colleagues, nor was I going to try. I simply didn’t have the money, the experience, or the connections needed to secure such assistance. Nonetheless, presented with the choice of possibly never making a film or getting behind the camera myself and actually making Son of Ghostman, I chose the only path I felt was an option. Determination.
It should be noted, I never intended to direct an indiefilm. 15 years ago, when I first added my dreams to the cluttered gutters of Hollywood, I wanted to be an actor. I wrote, but that was merely a means to a delusional end conclusion. Guys like Matt Damon had shown me and thousands of other hopefuls that if you wrote something air-tight, Hollywood would let you star in your own vehicle and off to the Oscar races you were. Surely this would be my future, just as it was theirs, and any other possible scenario playing out seemed unlikely. Or so I thought.
When I booked my first acting role, a small part in the Steven Spielberg directed film The Terminal, it certainly seemed like I was on my way. I was a kid from the cornfield scattered suburbs of Chicago, suddenly dropped into the middle of a giant man-made airport terminal exchanging pleasantries with Tom Hanks. What could go wrong?
My lines never made it to the screen- my first real lesson of Hollywood, never celebrate until you see the final product. Over the next decade, I bounced from audition to audition, losing out on more roles than actually booking, but getting enough small morsels of validation to keep me going. As each season turned into the next, invariably another few fellow actors who came out at the same time as me packed it up and went back to the safe-haven cubicles of the Midwest.
Truthfully, it hasn’t always been easy, and continues to be a struggle. When you’re 36 and all of your friends have moved on to other aspirations, you start to feel like that one lingering guy at the end of a really crazy party. The music ceremoniously shuts off, the lights come on, and suddenly you look around and feel incredibly alone. What was once a throng of passionate party-goers now seems reduced to you and a shady looking dude who keeps calling you by the wrong name and asking where the after-AFTER party is. Oh, and you realize the darkness of the party really did a good job of hiding those lines on your face.
During that time, I developed my writing, and came to love it. I loved it so much so that I wrote 20+ screenplays, mostly bad ones filled with some attempt at Miramax-esque young adult drama with shades of Kevin Smith humor. The thing is, you write 20 scripts and you’re bound to pick up some tricks. Those tricks start to converge with the maturation of your own life, and suddenly you start to turn heads. If you can then take that skill set and combine it with your own identifiable voice, then you’ve got a fighting chance.
I knew early on that I wanted to write dramedies, the types of films my heroes John Hughes and Cameron Crowe were known for. I loved the ways those guys blended real-life scenarios with characters just on the edge of believability, and I thought I could do the same. However, I no longer wanted to be those iconic directors, I wanted to take what I had loved and learned from them, and apply it to the oddities of life I found so interesting.
Like horror hosts.
This is where luck comes in. My writing was starting to get me some notice within the industry, so much so it was starting to look like I had a chance to make a living doing what I love. My manager Garth encouraged me to keep writing what I wanted to write, knowing that to chase trends is a fool’s game, and what I did was unique but universal enough to be just different but not too different.
Garth encouraged me to make my own film, and he happened to do it at a time when the technology made it not only affordable, but possible if I was willing to sacrifice some elements to get it done.
I had wanted to make a film honoring my childhood hero, a horror host named Son of Svengoolie, for years. Every time I pitched the idea to those with influence, they thought I was crazy. They didn’t ‘get’ it, didn’t understand the tone I wanted to go for. More often then not, they outright discarded my aspirations for a horror host screenplay. If they didn’t do that, they were pushing me into making a Burt Wonderstone-esque comedy about them. That was not going to be Son of Ghostman, not on my watch.
Now here I am, my manager encouraging me to make my own film, a script idea I’m begging to make that features a protagonist with innate crude technology as a backdrop, and the very real-life convergence of cameras that make the possibility of making a film on this level possible.
If that isn’t luck, I don’t know what is.
Now I could write pages upon pages of words describing the actual process, and perhaps I will one day, but it seems obvious to me that these five words are what you need most to make an indiefilm.
For the rest of my life, I would encourage anyone on the fence to go for it. It was, and is, the most rewarding experience of my life. It’s hard, incredibly hard, but not impossible. You have to decide you’re going to do it and then take each cobblestone on the road one step at a time. If you think about everything needed to finish, you’ll be overwhelmed and gripped with fear, paralyzed back into the mass of those who wish, but didn’t, go for it.
Once you have your determination, nothing can stop you. Start to work on your script, taking into account what you have at your disposable. I chose horror hosts because of my love for them, my understanding of their world, and knowing full well that my technical inadequacies lent themselves to the story. Maybe you have an entirely different set of positives. Use them. Start to form YOUR vision.
Luck will then start to fall into play, and perhaps it’s not luck at all. But moving forward, actively conquering the problems as they present themselves to you, will open up luck. One example- towards the end of shooting, we lost a key restaurant location. It was to serve in a pivotal scene involving Son of Ghostman meeting Ghostman for the first time. I wanted a dreary background, further emphasizing the downward lifestyle of the elder Ghostman. Bars, shot the right way, can serve this vision. But without one, we were forced to improvise. As luck would have it, our friend and co-actor Joe Lorenzo owned a home. With no alternative, we dummied-up his front porch to made it look like Ghostman had his own mini-bar outside, threw in a tattered mini-American flag out front, and shot the scene. When I see it now, I marvel at how that same scene probably wouldn’t have had as much resonance had it been shot inside the original bar. Just the image of this muted, scratched up miniature American flag flapping in the wind seemed to add so much more than a bottle of whiskey ever could have. Had we not cast our friend Joe (who coincidentally is a fantastic actor as well), we wouldn’t have had a house to use, and we’d be ever more pressed to find an answer to this particular equation. Little incidents of luck like this with happen, and your radar at accepting when they arrive will grow as the production does.
Finally, you’ll need the combination of faith and ignorance to make it through the difficult times, and they will be there, that I can assure you. The myriad of emotions you’ll go through is unparalled. There will be joy, sadness, doubt, insecurity, manic excitement, manic depression, concern, confidence, and every other adjective you could think of.
You have to have faith. Faith that this is what you want to do. Faith that this is what you should do. And most importantly, faith that your voice is something worth hearing. Be ignorant to the detractors, the cynics, and what they say are the real statistics of making a movie under seemingly insane circumstances. Remember, there’s always an exception. Be the exception.
All I can promise you is that it’ll be worth it. You have to look at it like a marathon, one where it’s not your final time that matters, but the fact that you actually completed it. That in itself is an amazing accomplishment, and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly just because you’re busy comparing your movie to the greatest movies of all-time. Don’t do that, it’s futile. Be happy with what you made, because no matter what anyone says, it is art. You took dead air space and created something in that space with color and inspiration.
You manifested your ignorance into determination. This gave you faith. A little luck came along, and now your vision is a palpable expression of who you are.
Besides, here’s the last secret of indie filmmaking…
We’re all waiting to see what you have to say.
I know I am, so all I really have to ask is, what are you waiting for?
What a terriifc, inspiring article! These principles can be applied to just about any dream. Such wisdom can only come from those who have been through it. I’m glad Mr.Larson got his film made.
It’s an AWESOME film too. We’ve got a review and a special giveaway coming VERY shortly here!
A great article with a lot of food-for-thought. Hollywood is a tough gig to break into, and it does take the five elements that Kurt listed, plus patience and perseverance. You have to believe in yourself and never give up. To give up is to die.