The Declaration of Independent Filmmaking

THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENT FILMMAKING cover

Front Cover of DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENT FILMMAKING — image source: Goodreads

Although The Declaration of Independent Filmmaking (2005) has been available for almost ten years, its worth has not diminished over the course of that period. It is valuable as the story of how the Polish brothers (its authors, along with Jonathan Sheldon) started their careers as indie filmmakers. It is also useful as a manual of indie film-making, particularly for those who are just starting out to make their own films. Although some of the information is somewhat dated, especially where it touches on digital video and the Internet as a marketing venue, the book’s authors were nevertheless prescient in their predictions that both would become very important to indie filmmakers in the near future.

Authors, filmmakers, and twin brothers Mark Polish and Michael Polish (assisted by Jonathan Sheldon) use the history of their first three films — “Twin Falls Idaho” (1999), “Jackpot” (2001), and “Northfork” (2004) — to describe the process of making an independent film. They start with an explanation of what makes a film independent. The chapters that follow cover everything involved in film-making, from writing the script to making it into a film and beyond. The authors explain pre-production, production, post-production, distribution, and marketing in enough detail to give the newbie filmmaker a basic familiarity with these daunting tasks.

Particularly helpful is the glossary of film-making terms, which can serve as a useful reference that will help with “talking the talk” during the early stages of a film career “Walking the walk,” however, comes only from hard experience gained while you “fake it ’til you make it.” As the authors state, “The only one you can count on to get your film made is you” (p. 4).

Part of the value of this book is that it doesn’t just give information. It also paints a picture of how the Polish brothers’ expertise grew with each successive film project they undertook, as well as with each chance they had to take. “I risked it all to make this film” is apparently a line that many indie filmmakers can claim as their own.

“I did it all by myself” is also a characteristic of the experience, since indies start out as multi-hyphenates by necessity, as opposed to their Hollywood-bred counterparts, who do it by choice later in their careers. There will not be enough money or connections early in one’s career to hire all of the artisans whose names scroll down the screen during the end credits of a major motion picture.

Obviously, then, there is a steep learning curve at the beginning of this process. By using the knowledge and vicarious experience gleaned from this book, I was able to go from a movie buff to someone with a beginner’s “head knowledge” of how to make a film. While this certainly helps me to understand what experienced filmmakers are talking about (which is particularly useful for blogging purposes), I realize that it is not enough to enable me to make the jump to making my own movies, even though I have assembled the basic gear and am writing my own screenplays.

Recommended next steps (which I am in the process of taking) after reading this volume include working on the set of a local indie film (usually as a volunteer — even getting coffee for the crew gets you access to the set) to start learning the ropes. There are also local, regional, and national independent film groups one can join that provide opportunities to learn more about the “grind” of movie-making. There are many other books to read (such as The Filmmaker’s Handbook by Steven Ascher and Edward Pincus), as well as a myriad of websites, videos, and classes that one can explore.

In the end, though, there is no substitute for the experience of making one’s own film or video — and making mistakes, then trying to fix them. There is also the luck of being in the right place at the right time, or knowing the right people, who know the people you need for your film. I might not get Nick Nolte, James Woods, Darryl Hannah, Garrett Morris, or other acting talent of their caliber to star in my second and third films like the Polish brothers did, but you never know . . . .

This process of self-education through experience is what The Declaration of Independent Filmmaking is designed to walk its reader through. The Polish brothers reveal their own history, warts and all, in order to do this. The result is a very helpful book that is still relevant in its major points (and much of its detail) today. Given the changes and developments that have occurred in the indie film world since this volume was published, an updated and revised edition would be even more of an aid to those whose ambition is to tell original stories through independently produced movies. Perhaps the Polish brothers will be able to find time in their busy schedules to revisit their book and do just that.

Read any other great books on how to kickstart your filmmaking career? Already a filmmaker and want to share your own advice? Comment below or tweet @LoudGreenBird with #declaration as the hashtag.