How to Produce Your First Film with Zero Film School

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How do you produce a movie with zero film school experience? It's not a huge secret, you just do.

You all know the phrase, “This isn’t my first rodeo.”

Well…it was. He asked me to produce a feature film and I didn’t know WTF I was doing! At least, that’s what I thought. 

But let’s backup for a minute to figure out how I got in a position where someone would even ASK me to produce their feature. 

I decided that when I moved to L.A. I didn’t want to be the actor-who-is-actually-a-waitress career. No offense to those that choose this path, (because I actually think waitressing is excellent training for becoming a producer,) but I wanted to use my brain and be challenged in my field. 

So I started looking for internships anywhere that would take me. I was beyond the “interning age” of a college student and that means many companies wouldn’t take me because they don’t pay, but instead, exchange hours for college credit. Let me say that again…these were unpaid internships. So all youze out there complaining, check yourself and woman-up to the opportunities! 

I went to good ole Craigslist and started interning at a woman’s house who was an Executive Producer for a couple of successful reality shows. From her, I learned what a “deck” was and how to transcribe footage. At the same time, I also got an internship working on the Paramount lot for a financier, reading scripts and doing coverage. AND at the same time, I got a job working on the Disney lot for a company called Mandeville Films who was in the middle of their Oscar campaign for The Fighter and producing The Muppets. 

I learned a shit ton from all of these places like: don’t interrupt the president of the company who’s on a phone call with an incredibly important someone to tell him that another incredibly important someone is on the other line. David Hoberman, if you’re reading this…I’m really sorry about that. And also, thank you SOOO much for not cussing me out and for being so gracious to me while I sat at your desk for a week while your long time assistant was on vacation. 

The most valuable thing I learned from these internships was how to learn, and learn fast!

If I didn’t know something, to ask someone or ask Google or fake it til I figured it out. One of those three options was usually right. After about three months with these companies, I got a paid job working for a ginormous production company that produces at least one of your favorite reality shows. THIS is where I really got my film school education.  Most producers tell you that they learned on the job. YUP! I was learning on the job. 

My boss was amazing and would take me to breakfast at Bob’s Big Boy diner (the original) and we would talk about budgets over coffee and buttered toast. I soaked all this in every.single.day. About halfway through my time working there, I headed to night school at the UCLA Professional Producer’s program to learn even more about this “producing” thing. I was hungry and hustling. 

At night, I would head to night school. Early mornings and lunches, I would book industry networking meals with writers, agents and producers. On the weekends, I started producing web series sizzles, pilots and short films. 

P.S. I was still acting during all of this. I would bust out during a lunchtime to go to an audition. I would change clothes in my car on the way to Santa Monica (you’re welcome pervs and moms on the highway that saw my boobs).

It wasn’t long before I felt the itch to move away from reality TV. After lots of interviews, I got a job at one of the most elite management companies in the world. It’s funny how life gives you the greatest gift when you think that you’re failing. I thought I wanted SO many of the jobs I was interviewing for, but when I landed this job, it was the epitome of perfect. 

I worked for another absolutely amazing man. He called me his “partner” and knew that I brought more value than the typical recently-graduated-from-college assistant. He knew I had drive, ambition an work ethic (thanks to those small town Michigan roots). 

At the production company, I learned about developing shows and what a buyer looks for. I learned how the industry operates day to day, including budgets, schedules, development and business affairs. At the management company, I learned about selling and how to always be top of mind. It was invaluable. 

My acting career was taking a turn at this time and I was auditioning and booking more than ever! My agent at the time was the one who finally convinced me to quit. He was right. I finally told my boss that I couldn’t give 100% to both careers anymore and when I left, I had two national commercials running, two pilots in the can, a Youtube channel and a documentary airing on NatGeo and the BBC. 

I was in an unfamiliar place of not having a job to go to. And then, in less than 6 months, I had the biggest surprise of all: a surprise pregnancy. Whoopsies! (I definitely used more curse words when I first got the news.) 

I found out I was pregnant after making the most risky decision of my life and now, my work as an actor would surely slow down because of the pregnancy. I was taking myself off the market for 9 months or more. Taking a break as an actor can sometimes mean starting all over again with casting directors and agents. 

And then something magical happened.

My acting coach at the time was also a writer and director. He had written several films that the acting students, including myself, had helped him make. He was a big proponent of making your own work. Well, it just so happened that he had secured a financier to make a film. And when I was 3 months pregnant and just starting to show, he sat me down asked me if I wanted to produce this movie with him. My eyes welled up. Me??? Produce a movie??? Like, a real movie??? Lots of things were going through my head like: Why me? I’m totally not qualified for this. Can I do this? How do I do this? Does he think I can do this?

And then, I just jumped in. YES! YES! YES! 

That night, I got on Amazon and ordered The Complete Film Production Handbook. I had an “idea” of how to make stuff, but I had never done a feature. I’d also never made anything the “correct way.” I had used my free resources for everything from talent to locations to props. And now, I had to pay people. I had calculate FUI/SUI and I had to deal with Unions. I couldn’t just make mac n cheese in a crockpot for everybody. 

I wanted to make sure I was doing it “right,” so I started reading this book. And then, about a week in, I just threw that shit to the side and started winging it. I didn’t have time to read anyway. Whatever came up, I handled it immediately. I didn’t have time to think twice and I definitely wasn’t thinking “holy shit I don’t know anything about making a movie.” I was literally just thinking of the 79 things that need to happen next and handling them 13 at a time. 

I just DID it. I took action. I figured it out.

My first experience as a producer was learning how to be anything and everything on any given day to any given person. I was the location manager, the production manager, the line producer, the assistant director, the production coordinator, the travel coordinator and the PA.

I didn’t have an A.D. doing our schedule until the week before the shoot. I was doing the schedule and took over the budget with the TWO days of Movie Magic Budgeting and Scheduling classes I had taken at UCLA. Two days!! I googled the rest. God bless Youtube and our accountant because he was very helpful to me. We didn’t have a production office because we couldn’t afford one. We even had all of our actors staying in one ginormously ugly Airbnb, which we also used for 50% of our shooting locations. 

I was flying by the seat of my pants. (Or very pregnant belly.)

I was never EVER EVER EVER EVER too good or too “high-up” to do ANY job on this film, including the role that was written for me in the script: “Very Pregnant Woman.” (Although, I never ended up shooting that role because I had to leave to go deliver a baby.)

And in the end, that’s really what it’s all about. What I learned from this movie, is that producing IS just figuring it out. 

You have one goal: to build this movie, one day at a time.

Every movie is different and different “fires” will pop up and it’s your job to handle them. It helps to know how to prioritize and keep the momentum going. It also helps to know a little about every position. You might be picking up kombucha for actors one day, or giving a therapy session to the Prop Master the next. Testing out the cocaine props with the Production Designer or wrangling chickens. 

Looking back, I realized that I was ready. I had been training for years because of my experience learning how to learn on all my previous jobs. And the parts that I didn’t know, I just figured it out, fast

Being a producer, the producer I am, the only producing that I have ever known, is being in the moment and figuring it out.

Years after making this movie, after I had given birth to my beautiful boy and started producing another multi-million dollar movie with the same company, I asked Paul why he approached me for this job even though I had never made a movie before. He paused, thought about it and said, “In crisis and under pressure some people collapse but others rise up and flourish.” 

I was the rising up kind. 

So how about you? Is there something that you’ve been wanting to make? Are you nervous that you don’t know what you’re doing? Here’s my advice: Just start DOING. 

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