This article started as a list of 5 indie film clichés you should absolutely avoid. We were going to help save your film by explaining how being mindful of a few tired tropes could make a world of difference. However, in the process of researching and thinking on the topic, it occurred to us how counterintuitive it is to the heart of indie filmmaking to tell someone what they should or shouldn’t do in their films. We decided to skip the best known movie cliches that have almost become clichés themselves.
Filmmaking is about telling a story that you feel needs to be seen and heard. At the end of the day, if a handful of people don’t like what you’ve created, who cares? We guarantee there’s an even larger group of people who are going to love what you create, and THAT is your audience.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be conscious about what you’re putting in your film; obviously, care needs to be taken. But, instead of us telling you what you should avoid, we’re going to outline 5 clichés about indie filmmaking so you’re aware of them and can choose to use them if and when they truly work for your story. As Mark Duplass talks about in this interview from Off Camera with Sam Jones, it’s all about trusting your gut. What Mark discusses actually leads us perfectly into our first cliché.
Black and White
This may be the ultimate in indie film clichés. It never takes long for someone to pile on a movie shot in black and white and explain why that choice was pretentious or felt too much like an art film. While this can sometimes be true, there are many reasons why someone may have opted to ditch the color for a more monochromatic look.
A very solid reason is explored in this article from No Film School. When shooting black and white it’s much easier to match one shot to the next, as opposed to shooting color. This can save you much needed time on set. It can also save you a lot of time in post where you would normally agonize over color grading. In indie filmmaking, you’re looking to cut every corner you can without sacrificing the quality of your content. That being said, it’s important to remember that shooting black and white isn’t necessarily a blanket shortcut that allows you to ignore basic elements like lighting. In fact, you almost have to be more mindful of how lighting impacts your shots since light and shadows are now what’s giving your image depth.
If shooting in black and white is going to save you a couple hundred to a few thousand dollars and you can still get your message across then clichés be damned! Shoot that film in black and white! If you’re doing it because you think it’ll guarantee you a spot in Sundance, that may be a bit pretentious.
Heavy Subjects For The Sake Of Being Heavy
Everyone knows a person who is dramatic for the purpose of being dramatic. Typically that person is very hard to be around for an extended period of time. Now imagine being forced to sit in silence, in a dark room, and listen to that person go on and on for an hour or more. Sounds miserable. The same goes for your movie. If you’re trying to make a film about a very heavy topic just because you think it will lend a sense of gravitas you’re going to turn your audience off.
This particular movie cliche could leave your film feeling forced. Most viewers can sniff out cliche movie plots right away when a film seems edgy simply for the shock value. MasterClass has a very simple article that talks about writing what you know.
To use a personal example, we’re wrapping up post-production on a short film about suicide. We have a very intimate connection with the subject. We felt it was not only a story that needed to be told but one we knew we could tell honestly. We didn’t make this film simply to capitalize on the subject matter. When you write from experience, your audience will connect with your story in a much deeper way.
Indie Rock Or Indie Folk Soundtrack
A true staple of indie movie clichés is a soundtrack that heavily features indie rock or indie folk music. The film Garden State is a prime example of this. While that film’s soundtrack is actually amazing, it unintentionally helped solidify this cliché by making every indie filmmaker that followed attempt to capture the same lightning in a bottle.
When selecting music for your film, the biggest thing to keep in mind is the music should not pull focus from the movie. The music is there to round out your film, your film isn’t there to be a music video for the songs. The music needs to add without taking away. It should feel like part of the world you’ve created.
To that end, there is nothing wrong with finding an up and coming indie musician to collaborate with. That’s one of the best parts of working in the creative realm! If you find someone who has a sound that you really dig then go all in. Just make sure your story is still the star.
As much as we love the mumblecore movement, and we really do love it, the idea of improvised dialogue that this genre made popular has definitely become a cliché of indie film. While it may seem like a great idea to gather friends you think are funny, point a camera at them, and call “action!”, it probably isn’t going to turn out as well you hope.
The filmmakers who flawlessly produce mumblecore films are industry professionals and have spent years figuring out the style. They also work with extremely talented actors and, in reality, a lot of the dialogue is actually scripted or at least talked through extensively before they start rolling.
If you find yourself drawn to this type of filmmaking, make sure you cast great actors who are also comfortable with improv and spend a good amount of time talking through every angle of the story with them. It often helps to write out story beats for the important, emotional points you want to make sure they’re hitting. Great filmmaking comes from planning. Speaking of planning…
There’s a reason you can always pick out a Wes Anderson movie. He is the king of planning out a shot and too many indie filmmakers, especially those just starting out, his sense of style is something to aspire to. The problem with trying to copy his style is exactly that…it’s his style.
A lot of indie filmmakers who are just starting are still trying to figure out their unique voice. It’s much easier to copy the style of an established filmmaker who you’re a fan of. Unfortunately, the end product usually looks like a knockoff version of whatever you’re trying to copy. That’s because the filmmaker you look up to has spent an entire career working to understand their unique style, and no one does their style quite like they can.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with studying someone who has a style that resonates with you. Figure out why you like their style and then take that element and make it your own. Once you understand your unique voice then you can start to borrow, or even steal, from other filmmakers…much like Quentin Tarantino proudly admits to doing. The reason he can get away with it is that he knows his style so well he can take an element from someone else’s film and make it feel like his own.
Your style is one of the reasons your audience is going to fall in love with your films and why they’re going to keep coming back! Remember, be yourself…don’t be Wes Anderson.
Are Indie Film Clichés Necessarily Bad?
While there are definitely best practices in filmmaking, there are no hard and fast rules. The most important element to filmmaking is telling a story that you feel needs to be seen and heard and telling that story as honestly as possible. If that happens to be in black and white or with an indie-folk soundtrack underneath it, then so be it! Find your passion, listen to your gut, and have fun! Just promise us you won’t make another movie like this…please.