5 Tips for working on an Indie film
As a young costume designer I had to work on microbudget indie films in order to get credits and move on to the next step. I have also worked on Union films (or at least similar to them in France since we don't specifically have a Union but others structures to protect us) as costume assistant and supervisor. Having both experience helped me being more prepared and understand how to protect myself on a project.
So here some tips in order to survive your first indie film as a crew or creative member :
1/ Everything has to be written
This is the most important thing on this list : you need to have all the conditions of the job written. A conversation over the phone is not going to protect you for anything. You should have emails from the producer/director (depending who is hiring you) explaining you the conditions of your work with everything from your rate, the production dates, the hours, your pre-production deal, the costume budget, the conditions on set (meals, accommodation if needed, transportation). Then you should request a deal-memo signed by the production with the same conditions written on it.
This sounds very basic but on my last set, I was one of the only crew member to have my deal-memo signed !
2/ Budget and rate are two different things
Your costume budget should not be part of your rate and vice versa. It will be very complicated for you to declare your taxes later and you can't expect to have the costumes in a good shape after the production.
I had this producer who though we will be able to return all the costumes after 4 weeks of production... which is completely insane and shows a deep lack of experience about working with costumers.
In this case I just scared the producer about the impossibility to do retakes once we would get rid of the costumes. Also I won't be able to fit the costumes and make any alterations, which means that I can't do my job properly. I also tell them that if they want to return worn costumes they would need to find someone else to do returns as I don't want to build a bad reputation with stores I usually go to (which makes everything way more complicated if they don't have a production debit card).
3/ Costumes transportation is not your responsibility
I have transported costumes before when I was working on a short film and I had the ability to drive to set but I would never do that on a feature. It's way too much responsibility and hustle. The transportation of the costumes should be taken care of by the production manager. They can't expect you to have a car if you are working in a big city and you might not have enough space anyway. Also they should be transported in a truck where they can be hang or on the racks rolled inside the truck so they don't get damaged.
4/ Food, transportation and accommodation are important
On the last indie film I have worked on, the locations were too far from the city and we were wrapping late at night everyday. The production said they will provide accommodations. I have asked before accepting the job what type of accommodation they were planning to get for crew members. I was happy to have my conditions written on my deal-memo because part of the crew was sleeping in a RV with bed bugs, no sheets, no water. The production also provided us with only one meal per day. We wrapped at midnight everyday and it was very difficult to find stores open where we were. I knew the conditions so I brought my own food but the people I was staying with in the house expected normal conditions so they didn't have any food with them.
When someone offer you to work on a project you might be excited to accept anything because you want to work and you need the credit, but remember that you'll be working very long hours everyday and that food and sleep are very important for your well-being. Being sleep-deprived on set is the best way to injure yourself or others.
5/ Be careful with your kit
Sometimes you will be expected to provide your own material for a production. You should ask about insurance and a compensation. Normally you would have a kit fee. If this is not possible, you should negotiate something (for example you could ask to keep the costumes or other expendables they had to buy like racks, hangers, gaffer tape, etc). If your kit is damaged or broken, you need to know what you can expect in return before it happens (again, this need to be written). I have seen too many friends crying after their sewing machine has been broken during transportation from location to location !
I hope this helped. I could probably think of other tips regarding microbudget films because I have experienced very bad conditions before and have done mistakes I will never do again. You should never assume anything when you accept a job. Don't let yourself be surprised. Ask lots of questions before putting your time, abilities and effort on someone else's project. People will respect you and consider you as a professional if you establish your boundaries from the beginning.