It’s an old film cliché, but no matter the scale of your production, this little aphorism has a ring of truth that any seasoned producer will relate to.
Money is they word here, as with more money you could theoretically buy more time and light. But with more light, will come more crew, which will in turn mean more time, more paperwork, more transport, more food, which will of course mean more money. It’s an exponential equation that all producers need to manage in order to stay on budget and schedule. And budget and schedule are sacred boundaries that should never, except in exceptional circumstances, never be traversed.
So what is the best way to squeeze as much bang out of every buck? It’s part philosophical, part practical and part creative. The philosophical stuff – we have very little money – creates practical rules – we can only shoot for nineteen days, not twenty – which will impact upon the creativity of the film maker – we gotta cut six pages of script! In an ideal world, everyone would understand this and therefore work their respective departments within sensible and well judged financial boundaries, with a small margin for error for unforseen problems.
Indie film making is almost always about compromise, you just need to know how far you can compromise and when not to compromise. We have all seen bad horror movies where the big compromise is the monster – you wait all the way through the movie only for the monster to be partly revealed (a good compromise if your monster is rubbish), the monster to be fully revealed (a bad choice if your monster is rubbish), or the plot twists to reveal there is no monster at all (a bad compromise as the audience has just spent 90 minutes waiting to the goddamn thing!) So what’s the answer – don’t compromise when it matters, in this case, on the monster. It’s about choosing your battles in order to win the war. And the war is one of getting enough useable, credible and at best, excellent coverage. You need to get the script, the whole script, shot in the best possible way, utilizing whatever cash you have to the very maximum.
Before we get into this, just let emphasise, it just simply isn’t worth your time, money and energy to make a film unless the screenplay is as good as it can be, and unless the level of cast is as good as you can achieve. No matter where you have set your sights, I say RAISE THEM HIGHER!
So in no particular order, here come a number of commandments for indie film makers, in order that they complete their movie on budget and on schedule. Remember, wasted money equals shots you won’t get later.
- 1. Start from a winning position
Unless you want to make an expensive Christmas present for all your relatives, who will of course be delighted to receive your movie on DVD as a gift, and quietly impressed that you made it, you MUST know why you are making your film. Is it a calling card for Hollywood? Is it a personal film that will do well on the festival circuit? Is it a straight commercial proposition? Most film makers say ‘yes’ to all three of those questions, but rarely can all three be satisfied by a single project. Rather than trying to be a ‘jack of all stories’, be a master of one and embrace the financial implications of each choice.
- 2. Make what you can
It seems so obvious when you are outside of making a movie, but the best way to save money is to chose to make a movie that you can make, without having to spend money. Clearly that means your film is set ‘now’, so you need never consider if anything in front of the camera is inappropriate for the current day setting. Second is choice of story location. Ideally your story should be set in a location that you know you can get for little money or for free. So if Uncle Dick runs a meat packing company, guess where your movie should be set. And then there are the practicalities of that location to consider. Money can easily be blown if you don’t ask questions like, does it have bathrooms and places for cast and crew to relax, what about access and parking, power and sound issues? Often, you can increase the quantity of locations by writing scenes that can be shot in micro sets – that is, a set that is no more than a couple of walls and a few props for dressing. These micro sets can be shot in quick succession without having to move cast or crew from your prime location. Build these in or around your primary location. The rule here is NEVER MOVE YOUR CAST AND CREW. Don’t ask me why, but to move a film crew 200 yards to the left will take you an hour! You don’t have that hour. Chose locations where you can shoot one way, turn around and shoot another story location without moving. Find the winning location for your movie and your budget will heave a sigh of relief.
- 3. Rewrite and consolidate!
Your script is too long. Yes I know I haven’t read it, but trust me, it’s too long. If you don’t believe me then revisit this article when you are in the cutting room and look at what you have cut out in the last few months. Then ask, ‘what if I hadn’t needed to shoot it ‘cos I cut it out of the script before we even shot?’ Those resources would have then become available to improve other scenes. So before you nail down your script for the schedule, get your devils advocate hat out and start questioning every scene, every character, every word! Can it be three policemen instead of six? Can they be plain clothed cops instead of needing uniforms? Of course you mustn’t compromise your script to the point where the credibility of the world you are creating is destroyed, but question everything – whatever it is, can it be told in a more succinct way? Can you cut the car crash and just see the aftermath? Can two separate characters who serve a similar story purpose be merged into a single? If they can, that’s one less agent to negotiate with, one less actor to pick up and drop off, one less mouth to feed, and of course one less pay check! Again, I reiterate, only make changes if the modifications still serve the greater good of a terrific story well told, and don’t undermine the world you are creating. Here’s the dilemma though. New writers and especially new writer directors, can become obsessed by what they think is their ‘amazing work’, so much so that they can become entrenched. Often they are used to constant praise from people who are impressed that they used to shoot Bar Mitsvas and weddings, and are now making a movie, and this new ‘negative compromise shit is gunna fuck the movie’. Or the opposite is true and they are so used to having to fight for everything that they fight out of reflex. Help them see the compromise is being made to maximise the overall potential.
- 4. Plan and delegate!
It’s an unwritten film making law, ‘if it can go wrong, it will go wrong…twice!’ Having said that, there is a huge difference between ‘catastrophe’, and ‘catastrophe with a backup plan’. The best run low budget sets have a huge amount of forward thinking from everyone. And you can’t start too early. Forward planning also opens up the wonderful world of freebies! Given a phone, fax, printer, stamps, email, plenty of time and a seductive voice, pretty much anything can be gotton for free. Here’s the deal. For the production team, the screenplay is like a huge shopping list of things to get. The big stuff is obvious – actors, locations etc., but the smaller stuff is less obvious. Small props, costumes, special effects props that will need duplicates for extra takes, newspapers that have story headlines etc. Then there are the tools of film making such as cameras, lights, food, trucks, gas for those trucks. Get on the phones and find ways of getting this stuff for free. What you can offer in return is stuff like a credit, a ticket to the premiere, maybe being an extra! Outside of major cities that enjoy a healthy level of film production, most people are just tickled pink to be a part of something seemingly exciting. Given the right approach, ‘we are young and inexperienced, but we have got guts and passion… and we really need your help…’ amazing things can be achieved. Most businesses are run by bored middle class males who, frankly, will get rather excited if a female sincere and sultry voice asks for help – sorry, I know it’s not PC but neither is Guerilla Film Makng! So the best way to raise money is to not spend it in the first place – any fool can write a check and pay for something, and that’s how many films are made, by throwing money at the problem. I have made three indie films and met hundreds of other film makers who have done the same. There truly seems to be no limit to how low you can go in terms of budget. What you don’t need to spend, you don’t need to find investment for!
- 5. Pay now!
Yes I know I just said don’t pay your bills until after the shoot, but… often you can cut a better deal with rental companies if you pay everything upfront. The reason is simple. They are used to dealing with major companies who pay their bills, then you come along, beg them to do a great deal, and hey, they like you and your film… but they are worried that you may not pay. And if you don’t pay, they will have spend money chasing money for what was a favor in the first place! Pay up front and you will always get a better deal.
- 6. Plan your post!
You’d be surprised how many film makers fail to properly plan how they will technologically complete their movie. And if there is one time you can blow huge amounts of cash through stupid mistakes, it’s in post production. There used to only be one or two routes for film post production, now there seems to be literally hundreds. Frame rates, sound sample rates, aspect ratios, editing platform, mastering format, sound mix format… One choice always seems to lead on to two new questions. And the problem is that your editor may be great at putting shots together, but do they understand the whole technological process? Add to that the fact that your script was too flabby, the crew fell out, you ran out of budget, you have seen your film 100 times and now hate it, and you have a recipe for disaster. Even if you don’t understand the post production process, get all the smart people together – sound recordist, editor, camera, director, sound post guys, labs – and draw out a long flow chart outlining EVERY single stage. Then make sure everyone understands it. Remember, at some point, everyone will move on, and if your film is left incomplete, or worse, in a technological mess, it will cost you both time, money and energy to unravel and fix it. Ultimately, it may be up to you to complete the movie. Don’t get left holding the baby.
As a final note, remember to plan your career. When you make a movie, players with power may say… ‘Cool movie, so what’s next…?’ You and your film are hot for a short and finite period of time and you need to go through those now slightly ajar doors, before they shut again. The problem with low budget films is that they drain you of so much financial, emotional and spiritual energy, that you don’t have anything left at the end. So I suggest, making your first movie is the easy part, surviving it and having the energy to continue and climb upward is the tough part. Good luck and I hope to bump into you at the Oscars next year!
Onwards and upwards!