How To Make A Movie

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This newsletter is my process of writing a self-help book, tentatively titled How To Make Money: Financial Advice For Poets. To see previous letters on topics such as collaboration, micromarketing, and passive incomeclick here. I promise they’re all equally valid.


How To Make A Movie:

When James Franco bought the rights to my memoir, The Adderall Diaries, I was excited, but also impatient. I spent the next month or two writing the script I thought he wanted. He said he loved it. His manager loved it. And then I waited.

On a roll I wrote another script about a young woman that moves to San Francisco and gets involved in alternative porn. I looked for directors but wasn’t convinced by anyone.

If I knew then what I know now I might have tried to attach a more famous director and left it up to them to raise the money. But that’s all of life: knowing then what you know now. One of the things I didn’t know then is that I’m not good at getting along with people. Instead I figured I would just direct it myself. How hard could it be? Also, 6 months had passed and nothing had happened with The Adderall Diaries. I thought I could show them how to get things done.

The number of mistakes I made were remarkable. I’ve made more mistakes in my life then anybody I’ve ever known, and I can prove it because I’ve kept notes, many of them published. So taking advice from me is ludicrous, non-the-less it’s what this newsletter is about.  And I did end up making a pretty good movie in the end. The movie even turned a profit.

There is a tradeoff, sometimes, between doing things the wrong way and not doing things at all. I always choose the former. I’m not saying that’s a good tradeoff to make, in fact it’s often a terrible tradeoff, and it fails to take into account the possibility of doing something the right way, but my die is cast. Some of the choices we make are simply a reflection of who we are, and in that way they’re not really choices at all. There’s no version of me that does it differently.

I went to Sundance that year and Franco’s manager invited me to a party. At the party I met the manager’s wife who said, “Oh my god, you wrote The Adderall Diaries, you’re a genius!” Then someone else came along and she said, “You have to meet _, she’s a genius!” Then another genius, and then another genius. I started to feel like being a genius doesn’t mean too much. And that’s true.

At the party I told James about the movie. There was a part I wanted him to play; the boyfriend who is not thrilled with his girlfriend doing porn. We talked for 20 minutes and he said he would do it. I realized later that he hadn’t heard anything I said and had no idea what the movie was about, which actually suited the character he would be playing. The next day, while snowboarding, I sent him a note thanking him and he responded, “Let’s make them all!” So I was on top of the mountain, on top of the mountain.

But I did not understand a lot of things. I had this idea that my time was as valuable as Franco’s, and that wasn’t true. His agent was a liar, everybody in Los Angeles was a liar, really, except for the actors and the crews.

But here are the lessons maybe, and that’s what this newsletter is supposed to be about. It’s not memoir, it’s How To. And this is the first part of how to make a movie. I’m going to write more on this topic, but here are some tips.

First, nobody really knows anything. If you think you don’t know how to make a movie you have that in common with everybody.

Second, in my experience, every actor is an artist, and by that I mean every actor wants to make something good. Not every actor is a good artist or knows what good art is, but every actor I’ve ever met, including some very famous ones, are more interested in doing good work than making money. When it comes to making movies actors are my absolute favorite people. Which was surprising. I did not think I would like actors. Editors and cinematographers are pretty great too, but the actors are really out there on the emotional edge, living in a place writers struggle to visit. I think actors are amazing.

What I’m saying is, if you have a good script, and you can get an actor to read the script, and the actor likes the script, then the actor will be in your movie even if you can’t pay them. That’s why famous actors are surrounded by people trying to talk them out of making bad financial decisions.

Nothing an actor’s agent or manager tells you means anything at all.

Stars are the biggest starfuckers. The best way to get famous people interested in being in your movie is to already have famous people in your movie.

Raising money is a lot easier when you have famous people, but it still isn’t easy. Out of everything, money is the hardest thing to get from people. And when you don’t appreciate money, as I never have, that’s hard to understand.

Despite the assurances Franco’s agents and managers were telling everyone else that he wasn’t actually going to be in my movie. It would have been easier for them to tell me in the beginning but that’s not how those people communicate. I want to mention here that I really like James Franco. A lot. So none of this is about my affection for James. I was not always easy on him, and he did a lot more for me than I did for him. He owes me absolutely nothing.

When making a movie, any and every movie, especially in the final month or two before shooting, something so terrible and unexpected will happen that no one would blame you for walking away. This thing that will happen is not the kind of thing you can insure against or prepare for. It’s like coming home and seeing your entire house has been swallowed by a sinkhole. And also someone has stolen your identity. And you’re being deported. That level of unpredictable. In that moment you can walk away and anybody seeing what was going on would say, Well, of course they walked away, there was no chance they could be prepared for this miraculous insane thing that just happened.

You will be handed the perfect excuse, your own little Black Swan.

Something like that will happen more than once.

The main reason Cherry got made was because once we agreed on our start date I refused to change it. The money kept going away and coming back. The agents kept trying to get their actors out of their commitments. My producer was not on my side; in fairness I wasn’t on her side either. But I refused to budge on the date. I thought if I let them push the date even one time it would never happen. And I was right about that. I told them I didn’t care about the money. I said I would shoot it on my fucking phone.

And I meant it.

We made that movie for $750,000. So that’s what one day of James Franco’s time is worth, probably more than I’ve made in my entire life. Most of that money was wasted. I made my next movie, Happy Baby, for a little over $100,000, and that wasn’t enough. I made my third, and best movie, After Adderall, for about $8,000, which is essentially no money at all for a feature. The lesson of After Adderall was that it’s better to make a movie with no money than not enough money.

After Adderall was so cheap because nobody had any chance of making any money, and every creative person wants to be part of something like that. When you don’t have enough money people fight over who gets what and nobody feels appreciated enough. When you don’t have any money everyone is happy. On After Adderall when an agent would call I was happy to talk to them because the answer was no. There was nothing to negotiate. It was great.

The downside was that even though there was interest from distributors after closing Slamdance I couldn’t sell them the movie as I didn’t have any contracts with anyone. You can’t make a movie that cheap, especially with famous people, if you have contracts.

But hey, you can watch the entire film for free at

So that’s how you make a movie. Get big stars if you can, because then you can raise money. But remember that you don’t actually need the money.

Spend any money you do have on your sound guy and sound equipment, pay the sound guy first, then whoever’s making the food.

Create an environment where the actors are comfortable, because the acting is more important than the script and what you really want is authenticity. That’s all anybody wants in life. Authenticity is what enables us to believe in meaning, the big lie.

Also, a neat trick, let the actor just do whatever they want and then say, “that’s great! We got it. Now let’s just get one take this other way.” You’ll almost certainly use the one the actor’s way, but you’ll have it as you wrote it just in case.

Always shoot with two cameras, because there is no reason not to and your editor will love you. If you’re the editor you will love yourself.

The best cinematographer in the world is Adrian Correia.

Film festivals are a swindle and getting into film festivals has more to do with connections, money, and celebrity than anything you put on the screen.

I don’t know how you draw audience for an independent film. That’s not what this newsletter is about. But it helps if you’re popular. Southwest Airline points are worth $.016, one day with James Franco is worth $750,000. There’s no NASDAQ for social capital, but it’s probably worth more than you realize.

It’s worth more than I realized.




p.s. If you’re a paid subscriber, and you’re trying to make a movie and you want to talk about it, I’m here for you.

p.s.2 Remember, all advice is autobiographical. I know nothing beyond my own experience which is basically the experience of someone who was raised by wolves and not taught how to do things the right way.

p.s.3 I’ll write another post soon with tips for making a movie with no money.

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