How to Make an Indie Movie

Seeing as I am a recently graduated film student, it is only fitting that I put my newly found free time to good use by writing a screenplay. This is a standard cliche that all jobless young adults do once they have earned their degree in Production, and I figure now is as good a time as ever to get crackin’ on it.  Alas, knowing full well that I have zero connections in the industry and a negative income, the production value of said film will be next to nothing if it ever is going to be produced, and would undoubtably be an independent film with next to no budget.

Now, I have done my fair share of indie-movie watching in order to master my knowledge on the subject, and I have come to the conclusion that there are 15 things that every indie film needs in order to be successful…

1. Americana Suburbs:

Seemingly every indie-movie takes place in Middle-America in a predominantly white suburb, with medium-income residents and virtually no unique features.  The houses all tend to be carbon copies of one another on a very flat piece of land that almost resembles something out of Edward Scissor Hands.

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2. Witty vernacular:

No indie movie would be successful without ingenious, quippy dialogue.  Often, these intelligent one liners are delivered by characters you would not suspect of being able to craft such eloquent verbal puzzles  (ie; children or young adults).  Sure, their dialogue is extremely unrealistic, but it also makes these characters far more quirky than you, making them totally likable.

3. Lovable dorks

All great stories need a relatable protagonist– and in every indie film ever made, that role would fall on a quirky, geeky teenage boy.  These characters are generally always shy around new people, but incredibly genuine and heartfelt to their small group of confidants. He will most definitely fall in love with a Zooey Deschanel type of ingenue who will pull him out of his shell and give him confidence to do things he’s never done before. Also, these characters are written as if they are the worlds biggest dweebs, however they are generally played by attractive, talented men in their late twenties.

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4. Vague time periods

Most successful indie movies are very ambiguous as to when they take place, leaving the audience questioning “what the hell am I actually watching?”  This takes an incredible design team who is able to completely turn the world of the film into a bizarre, questionable existence. Wes Anderson and his team have mastered the technique of keeping the time period of their films unknown by mixing bizarre retro props, costumes and set decorations with contemporary ones. When all of his characters neglect all modern technology, to carry around cassette players and type writers, I am constantly left wondering if this story is supposed to be a blast from the past, or if these are just the trendiest friggin people I’ve ever seen?

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5. Lengthy road trips in dated vehicles

As with all coming of age tales, a road trip is most definitely inevitable. No indie film would be complete without a seemingly endless driving montage, where the gang is stuck in a shit wreck of a car, and the character sitting in the passenger seat either leans their head against the window pensively or casually hangs their hand out to snake it through the wind– of course with deep music playing.
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6. Indulgent use of Wide Shots

Directors of independent films love the artsy look of a good wide shot.  I’m not quite sure why, but without fail, you can guarantee that at some point, an important piece of the plot will take place while the subjects are virtually out of sight or far far far to one side of the frame.  But after all, the rule of thirds is trendy… right?

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7. Catchy alt-rock soundtrack

Garden State basically made it a mandatory practice to set aside a large chunk of the budget to get music rights for independent productions.  Now, any film will pretty much be unsuccessful if the soundtrack isn’t complete with pensive, deep, and relevant-to-the-plot tunes.

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8. Unexpected celebrity cameos

The draw of indie movies is that they are quirky, heartfelt, and can seemingly give you everything that big hollywood blockbusters can’t.  However, a new trend has hit the independent scene and now they are casting A-list celebrities to make bizarre one-scene cameos just to prove “yeah, we had the budget for that but we still stayed true to our guns and made this film gritty and raw anyway.”  One of the most notable celebrity cameos in an indie flick was Bill Murray as a zombie in Zombieland–definitely a crowd pleaser.  And what about Mary Kate Olsen popping up in The Wackness as a drugged out, hippie (ie; herself)? But to me, the greatest of ALL celebrity cameos was none other than Method Man showing up out of NOWHERE in Garden State as a bellhop, and then AGAIN in The Wackness as a drug lord.  Who would’ve thunk that such a “hard” rapper would have a soft spot for artsy films?

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9. Go Green

Indie movies these days have all decided that a green world, is a better world… and no, I don’t mean environmentally green, I mean literally… green.  Apparently color correction plays a huge role in whether or not your indie flick will make it big, and it seems that the greener your tones, the more accepting people are of your movie.  Maybe its artsty? Maybe it’s off-beat? Who knows…. just make sure you shoot that sucker with a ton of green gels or edit the heck out of it in post-production and you’ll have a sure-to-be-hit on your hands.

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10. Fonts drawn by children

As if the clever young protagonists, and beautiful driving montage scenes didn’t scream “Coming-of-Age-Tale” enough for you, indie movies like to beat you over the head with the fact that yes, these characters are merely-adolescents by having all of their fonts appear as if they were written by degenerate children.  “DON’T YOU SEE QUIRKY WE ARE!?!?”

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11. Blank stares = This part is important

Every actor knows that all indie characters are meant to be withdrawn, deep, over thinkers.  In order to give a performance of a lifetime, they must do everything in their power to seem as emotionless as possible.  Because we all know that the less you look like you care, the more talented you look.  To do this, actors must simply stare into space. Yep. Just… stare.  This will inevitably trick the audience into thinking that lack of emotion really means SO-MUCH-EMOTIONNNN, making this film “impeccably performed.”

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12. Artsy time lapses

Sure, time lapses are used in many genres of filmmaking, but no other genre has utilized it as liberally as independents.  To truly give the impression that a character is trapped in a bubble of their own emotion (totally raw, man), simply make every person around him/her move super-duper fast, showing the audience that even with such a small budget, you were able to pull off a totally artsy maneuver. “Look at that sick time lapse. They must be like, super talented film makers.”

13. Jumping into a pool fully clothed.

Artsy flicks love to put their protagonists in positions that most realistic humans never put themselves in, just to add to the uniqueness of it all.  For some reason, one character in every indie movie MUST launch themselves into a body of water while they’re completely clothed… don’t ask me why?  Somewhere between their witty dialogue and blank stares at nothing, someone will inevitably be goin’ for a swim– for bonus points, get some sick footage of them screaming underwater like a maniac just to show how introspective this person must be.

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14. The greatest parents ever

Every witty, adolescent protagonist must have a pair of awesome parents to add to the humor of an indie film.  Generally, these characters are solely there to embarrass the hell out of their child and inevitably push them away to some sort of rebellious stage. This will undoubtably lead the main character to some grand revelation where they will realize how rad their parents truly are, and come back home.

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15. Jena Malone, Allison Janney, Chris Messina, and Ari Graynor

No indie movie is complete without one of these actors.  Is there anything these people aren’t in? Malone, Janney, Messina and Graynor are collectively in basically every indie flick produced in the last 8 years.  Pop in anything you can think of and BAM!- there’s one of them making a cameo as a yoga instructor or a grocery bagger. And you can bet your bottom dollar one of them will most likely end up sleeping with the protagonist just to shake things up a bit… well maybe not Allison Janney.

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While these 15 cliches pretty frequently pop up in every indie movie ever, they don’t make them any less amazing or take away from the fact that independent films really are fantastic. So grab some friends, find a theatre that shows independent features, and see how many of these you can find in any given film.  You can even make a drinking game out of it… 3, 2, 1 GO.

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107 thoughts on “How to Make an Indie Movie

  1. I appreciate the whimsy in your choices for the list, and the things on it are clever restatements of what’s required for any good story. The sole choice I would disagree with is #1, and only because my favorite indie movies are horror films. Everyone knows the suburbs aren’t scary. The deep South, big cities and anonymous wooded areas (standing in for obscure foreign countries) are scary.

  2. As a fellow film student, an amusing post, with some hint of truth I suppose. Either way, I enjoyed it. Thanks.

  3. I love indie films. Because they lack an extensive production budget and publicity from the media, the writers, directors, and actors can really, truly delve into what they are all creating.

  4. This was an amazing perspective. As an undergraduate production student I see myself developing these same themes in my own screen plays. Although I like to think I’m unique, I highly doubt many of my ideas are original. Do you have any work that you could share?

    • A fellow production student! I love it! Where are you studying/what’re your plans post-grad? As for your screenplay, who cares if your ideas are original or not? Clearly these staple themes are working and people enjoy them, so keep it up! I love a good indie flick 🙂 As for my screenplay; it’s super rough right now and in the bare bones, but as soon as I get it tweaked I’ll share some things! Keep checking in.

      • Thanks Ginge,

        I’m a senior, at Georgia Southern University but I’m originally from the Atlanta, Ga area. Currently, Im researching a few internship positions but my goal would be to make some noise in the film festival short circuit until getting an opportunity to make a feature(but I guess thats everyones dream lol). Outside of that my eyes and ears are open to a lot of things, I’ve had a small taste of success at my local film festival and I would like to keep that going on a larger scale. Thanks for the advice on my screenplay, I will continue doing what comes natural and hopefully that will be enough to draw in an audience. How have your post graduate endeavors been going, how have you been applying your skills? Where did you study? I’m anxious to hear from you and I will continue to follow your blog, it’s very interesting!

        Best,

        CW

      • Georgia, huh? I spent a lot of my childhood in Sandy Springs! Small world. Congrats on the local successes- only bigger things to come I’m sure! As for the screenplay, all you can really do is write what comes naturally and hope people are receptive of it! As for my postgraduate endeavors: I am hoping to move down to Austin in the Fall (just voted the #1 city in the US to be a filmmaker 😉 ) just to try my hands at the market down there. To be honest, I have no real plan whatsoever but I am hoping that everything works out and that my spontaneous decision pays off! Ideally, I want to end up as a DP (don’t we all?) so we’ll see what happens!

        Thanks again for checking in, I’m happy you enjoy the blog!
        JM

      • I studied in Manchester, England. After uni I went travelling for a while, and then arrived in Mexico to edit books, which is interesting but unrelated. I’m hoping I can get a short 15/20 min done this year over the weekends and take it from there!

      • Yeah I plan on doing it all here in Mexico. There’s so many amazing places and different types of places to chose from and everything is MUCH cheaper than back home.

  5. I don’t know much about indie films, but I doubt most of these apply to indie horror films. And if you decide to make one of those, then here’s the first rule: ACTUALLY THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU ARE USING TO SCARE PEOPLE! You would not believe how many writers don’t know a thing about making a scary antagonist.
    Also, one of these points in your list gave me an idea for a short story. Thank you .

  6. I love this post.

    So, you probably know–is it possible to make time-lapse *slower* than the still person, rather than sped-up? Because if the novel I’ve never finished ever gets made into a movie, I will need this effect.

    • Time lapses are essentially hundreds of still frame photos that are edited together at a specific frame rate to make the fluid motion of lapsed time come to life. Were you going with the idea that the subject will be typical speed and the other people around would move slowly? Or simply just slow down the time lapse all together? If you are referring to the latter, you would just adjust the frame rate of playback accordingly. And editor would be able to help you out more, or you can read all about them on How-To blogs!

      Thanks for reading. Let me know how the novel goes!

  7. hahaha. no wonder you got this one freshly pressed. I too can make an awesome indie flick with little talent??? SWEET!!!! great suggestions for certain indie rock songs as well 😉 enjoyed it!!!!

  8. Loved this. Very creative. I had a freshly pressed post that was similar to yours except it was common oscar winning role themes.
    Congrats on being FP’d! 😀

  9. I love the parents in Easy A. Though I’m not sure if this is classified as an Indie film or not :S
    I’m still waiting for the day I meet an indie film child in real life. I have a feeling they would be incredibly annoying in reality though haha.

  10. This is an amazing post that’s funnily true! I have seen a few indie films, and my gut was right that they had something in common. Especially with the titles, main characters, and greens! These film makers put a lot of “youth” into their works, I think.

  11. Nicely written. I take it you really wanted to be a “Writer” when you grew up? Sounds like #16 should be:
    16. Write a quirky and ironic blog until you make your 1st indie film.

  12. Two things: is Zombieland really an indie movie? Secondly, I love this post. The only thing I disagree with is the very last part; independent films are not necessarily fantastic. I find, as with all genres, there is the 5% that are gems which really stand out, and then there is the other 95% of pure mediocrity. Very witty and observant post otherwise however, keep up the good work!

  13. This is a great post. Is it fair to say that “indie” has become its own genre? I have some opinions, but I’m curious if you have thoughts about why its more popular examples share these characteristics?

  14. This was brilliant! And very true. You should have thrown in the fact that there will always be a manic pixie elf girl who everybody is inexplicably in love with. Case in point every role Nathalie Portman has ever played.

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  16. Thanks for this post. It was a lot of fun, and it made me want to go back and rewatch some of my favorites (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Little Miss Sunshine, wait, am I detecting another pattern? Sorry, I don’t have time to finish this comment. I’ve got googling to do…).

  17. Had to laugh at the vague time period. I really enjoy Wes anderson, and this is one of my favorite tropes of his. They must agonize over every prop, but it’s worth it, to me, because they do manage to create an intriguing world.

  18. Great observations. I’d been aware of a couple of these, particularly the blank stare, the ‘timeless’ setting, and, to some extent, the green haze – though I had thought of it as more of a faded polaroid look. I am particularly interested in the functions of these ‘devices’. For me they allow for a degree of detachment, so the viewer doesn’t feel too emotionally close to the action. I don’t know about you, but I found identifying with Zach Braff’s numb character in Garden State incredibly therapeutic. The polaroid look and the vague retro feel of these films do a similar thing: they make for a necessary (temporal) distance between us and the story. (Also, consider the short shelf-life of movies that make too much of the contemporary.) The wide shots you observe no doubt serve the same function in space. And to our labor-saving heuristic brains, temporal and spatial distance equals emotional distance.

    You probably know that some emotional distance is a principal factor in myth – think ‘once upon a time’ or ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’.

    The smart film-maker (perhaps this is you) will find new ways to create this distance without falling into cliche. All the best with it. Nice post.

  19. Astute, amusing, and deadly post! And precisely why we created our Fugitive Cinema blog about boundary-pushing indie film–to differentiate those films and filmmakers who are, in terms of means and mode of production, “indie” yet who avoid all the preciousness of hipster indie that you lampoon so effectively above.

  20. Thank goodness John Waters didn’t have the ability to utilize any of these cliches in the early days. I wonder, do the early films of Waters get taught in film school these days. ‘Pink Flamingos’ could be a semester unto itself.

      • Hi Jamie,
        Thanks for checking back with us. We’re interested in highlighting writers who we find insightful and entertaining– it’s a great way to cross-promote your blog and to get your name out there. Thus far we have a small but nice following– over 4,000 likes on facebook and a similar amount on twitter. If you’re interested in writing for us it would be completely based on how much you’d like to offer. As far as content– if there’s something you’re interested in investigating, send us an e-mail and we’ll let you know if we’re interested in sharing it on our site. We want to hear a wide range of voices from real women all over the country.

        We look forward to hearing back from you soon.

        Sincerely,

        Ally

  21. In a world of sarcastic tweens on the Disney Channel, I am grateful for the positive – though screwball – parents of the Indie world.
    Also, I think more movies need children to write their titles. It’s much more fun.

  22. Hahaha wonderful post. They’re all painfully true and I love indie films for all of these reasons. I find myself including some of these elements into my own writing. This is also my first time reading your blog ever and I’m totally following you from now on 🙂

  23. Brilliant post 🙂 I love pretty much all those films you’ve put pictures up of! Wes Anderson is my favourite director and I’ve always wondered how he acheives such a strong and instantly recognisable feel to his films. Can’t wait for The Grand Budapest Hotel to come out next year !

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