Three Feature-Film Production Principles You Should Apply to Every Project

Ricky Staub and Dan Walser of Neighborhood Film Co. share how remembering the human element are key principles in any production.

Ricky Staub and Dan Walser

Ricky Staub and Dan Walser of Neighborhood Film Co. are all about giving back. In our conversations with them over the years, they’ve shared advice on how to get your first feature off of the ground. They’ve offered a blueprint for what you should concentrate on before trying to get your first feature off the ground. Now, as guests on the Musicbed Podcast, Staub and Walser generously offer a few more tips—principles, really—that they hold close to their hearts. These ideals served them well during the making of Concrete Cowboy, and you’ll find them wonderfully applicable to projects and challenges of every size, scope, and scale. Some quotes have been edited for concision and clarity. 

1. Embrace limitations 

It’s one of the biggest secrets of the trade—making the most of what you have. If you can adapt to changing circumstances while remaining undaunted, then your chances of success will improve greatly. Staub knows firsthand: 

“We had twenty days to shoot Concrete Cowboy, but we only had Idris Elba for twelve. In fact, the schedule went from thirty days to twenty, and his days actually went from twenty to twelve. It just kept going down. Dan and I said to each other—if we flashback ten years, and someone said, hey, you get to make a movie with Idris Elba, but it can only be for 12 days. I was, like, yeah, I’d write that script.“ 

As the shooting schedule shortened and Elba’s availability decreased, Staub’s team found themselves constantly revising their plans during production. If they were to succeed, they had just one option—own the situation and turn limitations into opportunities. 

“I started with maybe 105 pages, and I think our final shooting script was 88 pages. We cut out scenes. We gave scenes to other characters. During the rewrite, we thought—how do we not lose [Idris] narratively? How do we just pack scenes with more punch and emotion? Those 88 pages became a two-hour and 47-minute first cut. I’m like, how long would this have been if we’d kept those other pages? Ultimately, I think that pressing down made it stronger.” 

Adjusting on the fly can be frustrating, but it doesn’t mean sacrificing your vision. When it comes to filmmaking, rethinking things is simply part of the deal. Stay agile, stay focused, and find creative solutions. Sometimes zigging when you were expecting to zag isn’t just your only option, it’s the best one. 

2. Internalize the plan

Be the expert. Have the answers. Know the plan inside and out and enforce it—until you have to change it. Then enforce that one too. Maintaining a clear view of production realities is vital. It allows you to prove to anyone and everyone that you’re prepared to execute your vision on budget and on time. It will help build trust with the crew, ease tensions before they flare, and, ultimately, guarantee the smoothest possible operation. 

“When I worked for producer Sam Mercer, I was running second units on huge movies, which gave me a very strong understanding of production realities. Where that pays the biggest dividend is when I had to sit in front of a bond company. Their job is to insure (and ensure) the financier that a filmmaker will deliver. What they’re assessing is—he or she may have this really strong vision, but can they execute it on a budget? Can they make this film in this many days for this amount of money?” 

Keeping a vigilant watch over a production’s countless details, nuances, and needs will pay off whether you’re, like Staub mentions, pitching a massive shoot to a bond company or just wrangling a handful of local collaborators for a quick and dirty short film. No matter the project, keeping production realities top of mind and staying organized is vital. 

“I spreadsheet every shot. In fact, I always have dual spreadsheets, I have one that’s the edit as I see it in my mind. And then I have one in shooting order, like, eighty pages long on a feature. I’m meticulous about it. I sit with my AD and with the DP together. We’re like a triangle, and we go through it every single day of every week. We ask—how do we maximize time? 

In filmmaking, just like in everyday life, sometimes there’s no better tool for staying locked down, squared away, and primed to go than a good old-fashioned spreadsheet. 

3. Remember the human element 

One of the great joys of filmmaking is connection. We find common ground on set and on screen. The films we make resonate with people in ways that many art forms can’t, and the stories we tell have the power to change lives. Humanity is the key to effective filmmaking, and, as Staub explains, often the source of unexpected inspiration. 

“We founded Neighborhood with a mission to hire adults returning home from incarceration. Every year, we go to court to pitch a career-development apprenticeship to recruits going through the reentry program. Concrete Cowboy actually came out of a relationship we made with a gentleman named Eric Miller at one of these court visits. He had been home for a week. He stands up, tells the judge how he already bought a horse, and that he’s looking to buy another one.” 

Learning about the lives of those around you and staying empathetic to the plight of others is good for the creative soul, and it often reveals a story that’s been right in front of you all along. “Everyone kind of knows about Philadelphia’s cowboy culture. Eric was the first one that introduced us to the idea that they were facing extinction due to gentrification. I was, like, oh—now that’s hitting at a mission level for us. What if we could make a film that could save this intangible heritage in Philadelphia that’s being discarded?” 

We know filmmaking can have a real impact on people’s lives. It’s important to remember that people can have an even greater impact on filmmaking. Again, it’s all about the power of authentic connections. 

“I think filmmaking can do so much, and our apprenticeship is the identity of our company. It’s the DNA, an outflow of our mission while we have time on this planet. Without our apprenticeship, we would have never met Eric, and we wouldn’t have made Concrete Cowboy.” 

Go deeper with Ricky Staub and Dan Walser as they talk about why your identity beyond filmmaking matters. Stream Musicbed’s Podcast now.