TRANSCRIPT EP 26 - An Indie Filmmaking Conversation with Producer Damien Swaby
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Intro: All right, welcome to the successful screenwriter podcast, where we are dedicated to anything and everything screenwriting. Here, we interview successful screenwriters and filmmakers to discover just what it takes to make it in the industry.
Geoffrey: Welcome to the podcast, we have on a very special guest, Damien Swaby.
Damien, thank you for being on with us today.
Damien: Thank you for inviting me on, I really appreciated it!
Geoffrey: You run a podcast, Filmmaking Conversations, and you have a really cool perspective on being a producer. With me being an screenwriter in the indie film industry, as well, I thought we should get together and chat about this stuff.
Geoffrey: I need to get Damien’s origin story.
Damien: Ah, Damien’s origin story. I started as an actor, and little by little I wasn’t getting the kind of roles I wanted, because I wasn’t getting the auditions I wanted. That’s the big thing, I wasn’t getting the auditions I wanted. After the ’08 crash, I had to really start again. I did some really fun commercials, but other than that it was just bits and bobs, here and there. I injured my knee in one show where I was doing a lot of physical theatre…People say ‘the show must go on,’ but now it’s like, ‘the bills must be paid.’ I really messed up my knee, so I decided to go in another direction, so I started to write again. I should’ve contacted you before I started writing. But I started to write and make short films that I could use as showroom material, as an actor. I was writing and directing these things, and really enjoying it. The buzz of that last shooting day is something else. I was enjoying that without knowing that the work really gets going after you finish, because you have to do all the editing and get rid of the mistakes. But I really enjoyed that process so much, so I thought, “why am I still trying to act in things I don’t really like?” I can take this journey that I’m more passionate about, that I’m getting more enjoyment out of, because it’s leading me in a different direction. The thing I loved so much about filmmaking is; once I bought my first camera, which as an entry level SLR camera; I could just go out and make stuff. I had a free editing software on my laptop, Windows Movie Maker.
Geoffrey: That’s bare budget, everybody starts out with that software…You’re centered more on the producer aspect of things, and you also dip into cinematography and stuff like that. As a producer, what have you found that educated you on the process of screenwriting? I know you’ve done some documentaries, I’ve written documentaries with Darcy Weir, who is a talented documentarian. I’ve been pulled into that world, and it’s a whole different type of filmmaking. Are you going out and hunting for scripts or are scripts coming to you? What is your angle?
Damien: My angle with the script writing element is that the scripts are the center of the film universe; it all starts with the script…When a writer’s script comes on my desk, I know it’s from a writer. When a cinematographer’s script comes on my desk, I know it’s from a cinematographer.
Geoffrey: You can see a difference.
Damien: You can see a big difference. I’m the type of person who likes to work with real screenwriters who really appreciate the art and craft of it. Admittedly, I’ve shot some [scripts] that were not from proper screenwriters, but you live and learn. Amazingly now, it’s a global process; I’m here in London, you’re there in…where are you?
Geoffrey: I’m in Detroit. I’ve worked with people from all over the world, so I get it.
Damien: That’s the great thing, I can look across the globe to get scripts or work with people who have actor friends who write scripts. There’s a funny trait in actors who write scripts, because they’re usually not the best, not to knock actors who write, but there is a difference. Wesley Chambers, who I’m [currently working with on a film], his stuff comes across as [being from] a writer.
Geoffrey: That’s interesting that you say that. I have to sneak this in there because I think you’ll get a kick out of it. One, I’ve notices directors and producers in the UK love to work with Americans because your money is worth more, [so Americans will usually] work for a cheaper discounted rate. I’ve interviewed actors and they definitely have a different perspective on it, you can even look at table reads, where every actor thinks their part is the most important part of the script. You get notes where they’ll say there needs to be more of their character. You can obviously tell the difference between whether a director, writer, or actor is writing the script, which I’ve never considered before. But they would have different voices now that I think about it. What are you looking for in a script? If a script comes to you, what do you want to see?
Damien: Without a shadow of a doubt, I want to see a script knowing that [the writer] has a voice. There’s a lot of things out there that might be a bit generic or a bit much, but even if something is not particularly to my taste, I want to be excited by writers with a voice. I don’t want a script that is similar to something that came out last year that was a hit.
Geoffrey: That’s a really good point, let’s talk about that.
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Geoffrey: We have to find our voice as a writer, which comes with time and development. You’ve done some writing, what kind of influences did you find that helped develop your voice as a writer/director/producer?
Damien: The world around me. Or do you mean more so specific writers that influenced me?
Geoffrey: For me, no one knows this, Christopher McQuarrie was a big influence on me. He’s still working today, he mostly does a lot of stuff with Tom Cruise, like Mission Impossible. I read his scripts while I was writing, and it was the first time I read a voice from a writer and noticed
that [my writing] sounded a bit like him. Then I started stealing and putting things in my toolbox, but not emulating. That’s the difference, it’s okay to steal a style or technique, but don’t emulate it to the point that you’re not original. What kind of influences have you found?
Damien: I know earlier I said writers are writers and DPs are DPs, but director/writers are slightly different. Richard Linklater is [a writer] whose voice I really like; Before Sunset, Before Sunrise, and Slackers; those types of dialogue driven [movies], along with the themes and questions they raise are very entertaining. [Themes of] relationships or growing into/out of a relationship.
Geoffrey: Have you developed any scripts, as a producer, that [have made you say], “this is something I can learn from.”
Damien: Yes, there’s one project…about a young girl who suffered from cancer, and I’ve not come across cancer very often in my life, especially in terms of creative stuff. It’s all about doing the research and thinking about this character’s journey and what she’s going to have to go through. Ironically, as you read the script, you learn that it’s her journey but the person whose film this is really about is her brother. We’re literally watching a film about her brother dealing with this situation harder than her. I started to think about the film while I was reading the script and it became quite apparent as we got into the shooting process. I certainly learned from that. There are other ways you can learn because I’ve shot certain things where I’m from this situation and it doesn’t quite work. People feel the need to write something like this because they think this is now and this is the money. That’s a learning process where, if you’re going to shoot something like that, try and realize that [producers] might jump on because they think this is the money but they’re not doing the research or have the skill/talent to compose a script.
Geoffrey: The thing I’ve found interesting about projects like that, where people are just getting on the bandwagon of a popular genre; for example, zombies; the problem is that you’re getting on too late because it’s not original. You’re coming on and making derivative work, [and it comes off] as a cash grab. Everybody wants to get paid, right? But I like to think we all take this craft a little bit more seriously, where we ask ourselves, “What am I creating? What am I doing that is going to open up doors for the next gig I might get?” I worked on a gig where I got approached by a director to do this script. He had this vision for it, he sat me down in a Starbucks and I thought, “I don’t know if I can do it.” I think I’m a pretty good screenwriter, but [I didn’t know how to approach the project], so I had to spend a week and try to figure out how to tell this story and this director’s vision. This was a really cool idea that I was finally able to break. I then had a conversation with Harley at Starbucks again and told him, “I think this is how I can do it.” It’s funny how all these big moments happen at either Starbucks or Panera. He told me, “That’s exactly what I want,” and I knew I could write it. It’s getting produced next year, and I became a better writer for it by seeking out a challenge. Are you finding yourself seeking out challenges? You started a podcast, you have over 2 million episodes produced, you’re extremely prolific, so obviously you like a challenge. Are you actively seeking out challenges in filmmaking?
Damien: What I’m actively seeking out is a good script. The challenge for me is to stay patient, active, and focused. There are moments of doubt where you think it’s not going to happen. Someone may send me a script and I’ll think, “Okay, I’ll do it,” whereas that’s out the window because now I’m like a producer on steroids. That was the challenge, now it’s all about getting good scripts where you know someone has put the work in. I don’t want to see a first draft.
Geoffrey: It’s unfortunate that you’re getting first drafts, because it’s underdeveloped work. I get first drafts…one time I got a draft from a guy that came in with no punctuation. It was obviously a first draft that he just whipped out and sent out. You can’t do that, I tell people you should have at least twelve drafts before you send it out, personally.
Damien: That guy who sent you that script, if you see his name again, what will you think?
Geoffrey: I probably won’t remember, even if he sends me another one. I have a terrible memory, but you’re right, reputation wise, you don’t want to be known as that guy. This is a big screenwriter sin I’ve seen, a writer has an opportunity to send a script to someone like Damien [who accepts unsolicited scripts], they get so excited, jump the gun, and send you the script. Then [the writer] will get insecure, go back through the script, and find a bunch of typos. Then they fix all the typos and send you the script again saying, “I sent you the wrong draft.” You’ve already shot yourself in the foot because you already look like an amateur.
Damien: People need to be aware.
Geoffrey: Make sure that if you’re sending something out there, it’s the right thing to be sending out. Let’s say you find something you like and want to get behind, what’s the next step?
Damien: Next step, I reach out to the person, see where they are professionally and personally, because making films is not easy. Especially a feature because it takes so much of your time and energy. If they’re an indie filmmaker, we talk about what they’ve got to make this story happen. If you have scenes set in a Chinese restaurant in London or Paddington Station, [do you have those locations secured]? [If you can get any location] for free, that’s perfect because we can spend more of the budget lighting the scene than on the location. It’s about how much they have already in terms of money, location, or actor friends. I’m a former actor and if I was going to make something I have people I can call to see if they want to be involved. We’ll focus on the development stages before we even consider any postproduction. In my opinion, a lot of films die in development. In pre-production, you might be able to save things if people work really hard. But in development, if you’re going around saying “oh, it will be alright,” no it won’t be! It never is!
Geoffrey: Filmmaking is about putting out fires left and right.
Damien: It’s also about time, how much time will it take to shoot this script?
Geoffrey: You start breaking it down.
Damien: Yeah, you break it down page by page, because you don’t want to be in a situation where you’re in a hospital and there’s five actors that need to say their lines in a scene, there’s three lab mics, and the first AD says, “you’ve got ten minutes.” That’s not a film I produced, but as a director, I’ve been in that situation.
Geoffrey: Pressure’s on! That sounds incredibly stressful. Crowdfunding nowadays I don’t feel is as strong as it once was. What do you think?
Damien: I’m not sure. With crowdfunding, if you have a certain audience/niche, it can work for you. If someone wanted to do a documentary about COVID within the Eskimo community…
Geoffrey: Use the community, that makes sense.
Damien: Yeah, in that case, it could work. But if someone wants [$250K to make a zombie movie] …
Geoffrey: Where’s my checkbook? If you’re going to hyper-target a community that you’re going to make a film about, that makes a lot of sense to me. Now, crowdfunding has run its course when it comes to giving everybody money [for vague projects], so I think trying to take advantage of the community that you’re creating a campaign for makes a lot of sense. It’s actually a great tip. What’s the next step?
Damien: Next step would be pre-production. We start to look at crew, cast, locations, and the tech side of things. It depends on who’s directing and what their vision is. The writer, 9/10 times in indie projects, wants to direct it themselves. We look into those departments to see what [writer/directors] we know. Do we want to go to a company like Soho Editors and get someone there who’s going to want his day-rate? Because that might not be feasible. Or do we look at a film student or someone who worked on my last film who was a good editor? We go down that indie route of how we’re gonna do this, and what for. That’s a thing you don’t often consider, “why are you making this film?” Is it a personal passion project? Is this your “calling card?”
Geoffrey: Why are you doing it?
Damien: Are you going to put it in film festivals? That’s another thing people don’t consider, they [have this preconceived] idea of, “once I film this, I’m going to submit it to Sundance.” That might not work out the way you hope. It’s a great goal but you have to have a strategy. Or “what festivals will accept a breakout film with it’s own certain voice?” We have to have those answers nailed in before we start shooting.
Geoffrey: I like the strategy. Do you strategize for distribution?
Damien: If we’re going through film festivals, we ask ourselves what we’re doing it for. What type of distribution do you want? There’s a lot of companies out there where you just send the film to them and that’s that.
Geoffrey: There’s predatory distributors out there that you’ll never see a dime from and they’ll own your film.
Damien: Which is so crazy and unfair. They also don’t market your film. What’s the point of going to a distributor that won’t market your film? You may as well put it on your own website and spend all the marketing budget on getting people to visit your site. Then you can sell the film from your site, as well as other things you want to sell.
Geoffrey: That’s a viable strategy. Alex Ferrari mentioned it in his book, Filmtrepeneur, where he talked about creating a brand around your film. What else can you sell with it? It’s good to see that you strategize with that [in mind]. I think a lot of indie writers want to get the script made just so they can get it made, they want that producer credit. I understand that, but if you’re going to do that, [like you said] you have to ask why you are doing it. It has to be more than just getting it made. What is the goal and what is the strategy? I love that you come up with the strategy, because I can understand being a struggling writer who thought, “nobody’s ever going to make my stuff.” I was at that point where I just wanted something made. How much can I use my credit cards? I got that desperate. If you’re going to do it, why are you making it? Don’t just do it to make it. Do you ever have to deal with vanity projects?
Damien: No. The reason why I don’t is because most of my work is as a corporate media producer. I do a lot of corporate gigs. I’ve done ones involving actors’ show reels and fashion videos. I’ve seen how some of those turn out where the model is directing herself and five other models, just the vanity involved in that. Not that all models are, but in this one particular scenario, I just don’t like it.
Geoffrey: It’s tough, I’ve had to work with it. When you work on a vanity project, which tend to be indie projects, where the writer/director/producer stars in it as well. It could be their life story, and you have to respect that…but when it comes to having to compromise what would make a great script to appease the person running the project, that’s where you have a big problem.
Damien: As an actor, I was in one project with a writer/director/producer/actor, and I was just concentrating on my own role. But looking back now, I see that was a complete vanity project. He could’ve cast someone else in the lead role and I don’t know why he didn’t.
Geoffrey: There’s writer/directors out there that act in their films, which is no big deal…. But if you’re doing all of it, how open are you to suggestion if you can’t trust anybody else to work on your project but you? That’s where a lot of things fail; if you are doing this because you want your life story told, because you feel there’s something about it that can help other people, that’s the right motivation, but you then need to bring in professionals to help you.
Damien: I agree.
Geoffrey: You had mentioned earlier writer/directors, who are their own beast. When I get scripts from writer/directors, I can tell right away because they don’t even write the way a writer would. It’s always full of camera directions and is overly written because they’re seeing it as they write it, which I totally get. You can get away with that as a writer/director because you’re making it, but as a writer it’s bad. It’s a double-edged sword. I find that young writers that are reading professional scripts by writer/directors think that’s how they should write. When I get new students, I have to deprogram them.
Damien: Is it hard?
Geoffrey: It’s hard on them…I try to be gentle about it, because they can’t get away with it. Eventually, they come to understand the rules of the game. What tips do you have for our listeners that want to approach an indie producer to get their script going in the right direction?
Damien: The biggest tip is, once you think it’s right, write another draft.
Geoffrey: I like that tip!
Damien: Make sure it’s polished. Share it around with friends who won’t just say “well done!” Ship it around to people who will give you constructive criticism…Build up relationships with people who write, produce, and direct. A guy named Tyrone on Twitter sent me his script, who used to be in the army, and he’s taken years to concentrate on the craft of his script. He sent me a script and said, “I’m not a writer, I produce and shoot.” I’m a writer so I was glad to take a look at it for him. I gave him some tips and he thanked me because he wanted to polish his script before sending it to the network. He’s built relationships with filmmakers who can give him honest feedback on a script before he sends it out.
Geoffrey: He built the relationship.
Damien: If you’re not part of that crowd, or you went to film school and are just sending scripts to other film school friends, that won’t serve you well. You need to be able to send it to someone who understands the process, who might not know you or be from another country. A guy in Argentina who reads my script is going to have [very different notes], because Argentina and England are two very different places. It’s important to hear different voices when it comes to constructive criticism.
Geoffrey: I dealt with this today. I get daily messages from writers who slide into my DMs.
Damien: And you slide them right out?
Geoffrey: I get the typical, “Hi, I’m ___, from ____ will you read my script?” It doesn’t work that way; I don’t know who you are. One time I tried it and realized the script was a mess. I appreciate what they’re trying to do; they’re trying to better themselves as writers and improve their script. I appreciate and applaud that, but the application of that is flawed. You can’t just approach a stranger and say, “read my script.” I would never just run up to someone and say, “Hey! Read my script!” Build the relationship, which is exactly what you’re doing. If Damien Swaby sent me a script, I’d read it because we’ve talked, and I know you. If you were just the dude from Filmmaking Conversations and I didn’t know you, I don’t think I would read your stuff. And I would expect the same. Be patient and slowly build those relationships over time.
Damien: There’s other things, like the human nature side of things, where it’s not just connecting over film, it could be soccer, or the jazz musician Shaun Martin, etc.
Geoffrey: You slowly get to know each other, like pen pals.
Damien: There you go, new-age digital media pen pals. Don’t do the [typical DM introduction].
Geoffrey: It’s generic. I’ve gotten them threatening before. I’ve been queried before and told them that I have produced in the past, but I’m known as a writer so I can’t bring anything to this project. I responded to it because it was a proper query, and they said, “You don’t know what you’re missing! This is gonna be great! It’ll be the biggest thing since Rocky met Armageddon.” I told them good luck,
Damien: What can you say to that? It sounds like the guys who when their films don’t qualify for film festivals, they think it’s crazy.
Geoffrey: You’ve got to humble yourself. I appreciate our conversation; this was pretty much a filmmaking conversation on screenwriting.
Damien: Lovely stuff, I enjoyed it!
Geoffrey: Damien’s Podcast: Do you have a production company?
Damien: Yes, it’s called Dialogue Driven Films: I’m on Twitter, @DamienSwaby. We’re currently in development for a film, which is making my head hurt just thinking about it. I’ve recently just finished a short film called Betty and Sallyanne. That will hopefully be out soon.
Geoffrey: Awesome, keep doing the indie filmmaking work, I love all the stuff you’re doing and I appreciate you coming on. Thank you!
Damien: Thank you too!
Geoffrey: Thanks for listening, if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, and share in your social media, where you can tag us @thesuccessfulscreenwriter.
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