A Book Review by Mads Larsen.
If you have a few hundred thousand dollars to burn, and although you have no experience, you are obsessed with making your own film – no matter how bad it becomes – then Making Your First Feature Film by Dominick Bagnato (McFarland, 2017) could be a book for you. Dominick Bagnato has written what he wished existed before he made A Convenient Truth (2015), a $150,000 feature he shot a few years after graduating from NYU Tisch with a B.F.A. in Film and Television. He is endearingly modest in his ambition, which is “no more and no less than to document the lessons I learned while making my first feature film” (1), and with this he succeeds. The 225 pages are not without some sound advice for the inexperienced filmmaker, and Bagnato’s writing is at times amusing.
If it were indeed true that such books for novice filmmakers hardly exist – as McFarland, the publisher, repeats on the back cover – then this could have been a valuable resource. Bagnato would have found out, though, simply by strolling to the NYU library, that there are plenty – all of which are likely preferable to this one. As a young filmmaker and author, he should be commended at least for his ability to complete daunting projects, but that the publisher did not care to do a Google search on the competition confounds. From Filmmaking for Dummies (2008) to Robert Rodriguez’ classic Rebel Without a Crew (1995), there are so many options that one could be led to think perhaps one book was not enough. But if you favor a more just-do-it attitude, Bagnato agrees, since “the practical, the logistical, those are the true realms of independent filmmaking” (1).
And therein lies what at least this reviewer sees as the filmmaking guide’s fundamental flaw. Yes, the practical and logistical are crucial, but so is much else. If you are able to raise six figures for a film budget, why not choose an approach more likely to produce something watchable? Perhaps the writer, the director, and the cinematographer should at least get their own books to read; there are plenty of specialized options. One could also consider cooperating with someone experienced, but Bagnato warns against professional crews, since they are “only there for a paycheck” (6). The back cover acknowledges that there is more to filmmaking than “access to equipment and software,” but if you want to know exactly how much more, this is not the book for you.
If, on the other hand, your goal is simply to put your name on a film – and while you have the time and the money, you are only willing to flip through one book before you get started – then Making Your First Feature Film will at least encourage your approach. And Bagnato is refreshingly candid throughout, both about his mistakes and about the results of his efforts. His mockumentary can be streamed for free with Amazon Prime, and if after watching it you feel inspired to create something similar, this book breaks it down for you. And perhaps there is a market, for those whose bucket lists have “make film” on them, for “writer-director” still gives bragging rights. But even then, why not buy better (and also less expensive) books from successful filmmakers? Perhaps because so much has changed over the last few years, which is true, but Bagnato made his film in 2009 – back when headshots came in binders instead of online (9), a shortcoming which he, again, is commendably open and honest about.
In fact, the book’s strength is the story Bagnato tells about his journey from failure to failure, and his personality that emerges from it. As a protagonist, he is likable and sympathetically flawed, but as an author of a filmmaking guide he just does not have that much to offer yet. Perhaps if he makes more films – good ones – one day he will, but Making Your First Feature Film leaves far too much to be desired. There is plenty of relevant advice, like with zooming (don’t do it), and acting (don’t direct and act at the same time), but it all remains on the surface. As to the insights he offers, “It’s widely accepted that conflict is the element inherent in all drama. It should be. It’s true. What should be equally accepted is that comedy is simply drama that is funny” (76). In a tight field from Aristotle and Syd Field, such musings make it hard to recommend Bagnato’s book, even to the most eager to get started.
But what about for those who are precisely in the situation Bagnato was? All they want is to make their first film, no one will hire them, and they have friends who are willing to put in the work. Certainly, it is a way to accumulate experience and get better. If this was a book that told you how to turn $7000 into a potential festival contender, then that could make sense, but that is Rodriguez’s book. For most, $150,000 is a lot of money to spend on their bucket list, and today, novice filmmakers who want to learn by doing have more creative options. With the deluge of literature on how to make movies with smartphones and a few thousand dollars, it is hard to identify which market this book targets. That being said, together with the film, the book does give an interesting look into the process of micro-budget moviemaking and what the likely outcome is when wishful thinking is not constrained by experienced producers and qualitative goals.
Mads Larsen has an M.F.A. in Screenwriting from University of California, Los Angeles, and is currently a Ph.D. student at the same university.