If you’re committed enough, you can make a full-length feature without going into debt or selling your kidney.
Don’t get me wrong, it’ll still be one of the toughest things you’ll ever do. But a lack of financing is not what’s standing in your way. I want you to be encouraged to jump up and go out and make your movie right now. (Well, not right now. In like 10 minutes. You gotta finish reading this first.)
I wrote and directed a feature-length comedy that played at a few festivals, won a few awards, was picked up by a small distributor and is now on Amazon, Google Play and other video-on-demand platforms. With the help of some talented friends who volunteered their time and talents to be a part of the cast and crew, we made it for hardly any money. It’s a mockumentary called We Make Movies, about a group of friends who get together to make a low-budget movie (I’m really doubling down on this theme here.)
You may already have a story you’re burning to tell, or maybe you have no idea where to start. Either way, the screenplay has got to be something you can pull off for no money. Sorry, but that means you’re probably not going to be making a movie where a superhero flies through the streets of New York, or a gangster epic that culminates in an explosive shootout in a sketchy warehouse down by the docks. Instead, you’ll have to learn to balance your creative and artistic muscles, training yourself to only write what you can accomplish on a nonexistent budget. But you’d be surprised at how much you can actually accomplish.
Think about the locations at your disposal. We shot We Make Movies over 17 days at 15 different locations. You could easily use your house or apartment as a location in your movie—but you’re not stuck there either. Do any of your actors or crew have access to unique locations? Does your best friend work at a local restaurant that might let you film inside during off-hours? Do your parents own a cabin in the woods? ( …Do you know anyone who owns a sketchy warehouse down by the docks?) In We Make Movies, one of our actors was a manager at a movie theater, so I wrote his character as a movie theater employee. The fact that this story was set in a typical suburban town gave us the ability to use a number of our own houses, backyards and neighborhoods as the locations where the film took place.
Next, think of your actors—what sorts of characters can they play? You’ll probably want/need to cater the script to your actors, casting the movie as you write it. The main roles in We Make Movies were already “cast” before I even sat down to write the screenplay. Instead of forcing actors into roles they may not be perfect for after you write something, you can instead craft a set of characters around the personalities and strengths you know each actor is able to bring to their roles.
For We Make Movies, I recruited the group of friends that I’d grown up making stupid movies with in the backyard after school (you know, the typical Indiana Jones/Star Wars/James Bond rip-offs all kids with a video camera first start shooting in their neighborhood). After all, I had written the film as an ode to those friends, and it was such a kick to actually have many of those same friends act out the characters they had inspired.
A good goal is to aim for a story that can be told with only a handful of characters. A smaller cast makes your life easier when it comes to scheduling and organizing the shoot. You’ll also want to aim for a shorter script—something in the 75-90 page range. Even with a cast as small as six people, it was a struggle to coordinate everyone’s schedules, since everyone was busy with their regular jobs during the week. Our schedule ended up being a day or two each weekend over the course of 3 months. You’ll probably run into the same sort of situation.
Above all, though, make sure whatever you write is something you care about. You’re going to be working on and tinkering with this thing for a pretty big chunk of your life, so it better be something you won’t easily tire of. Set aside your schedule until the movie’s done. Don’t expect to have much time to go bowling with the guys or lounge at the park or get into mischief inside warehouses down by the docks.
Ideally, you already have a small but committed group of people around you who are interested in making a movie with you. If you don’t have any of those people around you, don’t freak out just yet. Ask around, maybe some friends of friends are budding cinematographers, actors or makeup artists. Post about the project on Craigslist or Backstage.com. There are more people out there than you realize who are hungry to participate in exchange for experience and a credit on a feature length film—even if it’s free.
Aside from our cast, we usually had one or two other people on set at most. Everyone had multiple jobs—whether that meant Jonathan Holmes (“Garth”) setting up lights for a shot, Zack Slort (“Leonard”) going on a food run for the crew or Matt Silver (“Curtis”) stepping behind the camera on a day our camera operator couldn’t make it to set. The important part was that everyone was committed to making the best movie we could make. Those are the kind of people you want to surround yourself with.
Robert Rodriguez became something of a celebrity when he made his first feature film, El Mariachi, for $7,000. That may still seem like more money than you have at your disposal—until you realize that around $6,000 of that was spent on just buying and developing the film. Well, you’re in luck—do you have access to a camera that you can easily point at your subjects and will give you HD footage? Great. That’s all you need. And with a digital camera, you don’t have to pay to develop any film.
You don’t need to go out and buy the newest digital 4K camera to shoot your film. Ask to borrow your buddy’s DSLR camera. Offer them a Producer credit on the film. We shot We Make Movies on a standard Canon DSLR camera that belonged to Jordan Hopewell (“Donny”) and borrowed a lens from a friend. For lights, we just used a few household lamps and a simple reflector you can buy on Amazon for $15. That’s it.
Spending money isn’t always bad, though. Be willing to spend money on things you think will make your movie stand out. For example, one of the biggest laughs from audiences watching We Make Movies always comes from a simple sight gag, during which one character storms off the movie set and claims he’ll “be in his trailer,” only for the next shot to cut to him sitting in a small, cramped cargo trailer. It cost $20 for us to rent that trailer for the day, and it was worth it.
The less money you have, the more time you’ll spend asking for favors. I got a good friend who makes wildly successful stop-motion videos for YouTube to create an animated sequence for the film. We utilized friends and family as extras in our scenes at the film festival. “We Make Movies” called for a number of very specific costumes and props, and we could have gone out and bought all of them. But I asked around and we ended up accumulating almost everything we needed just by borrowing items from the crew or close friends. You simply don’t need to spend money in most places you think you might need to.
In total, our production costs (costumes/props/trailer rental/set decorations/light reflector/hard drive for footage/food) came to about $700. Depending on what your script calls for, it could be more or even less (P.S. don’t take for granted that feeding your cast and crew should be one of your main focuses–keep your volunteers happy they joined you, and keep their bellies full.) Moving into post-production, we spent about around $300 on editing software (again, you don’t need anything too fancy; I edited on Pinnacle Studio, an affordable program that does everything I need it to), copyright, and music licensing (you’d be surprised how much great royalty-free music is really out there if you search hard enough.)
Let’s face it, your movie is not going to look as good as the $100 million budget movies flooding theaters every other week. But there’s nothing stopping the story, the writing, and the acting from being just as good. That’s where your independent microbudget movie can really stand out.
If you really hit it out of the park (and have luck on your side), your movie could be the next El Mariachi or Napoleon Dynamite, but odds are it’ll be in the same camp as the other 99 percent of low-budget movies you probably haven’t heard of. So, ask yourself whether you’re doing this to make money. If was an investment banker I’d tell you these are probably the worst return-on-investment odds you could ever have. But if you’re doing this because it’s your passion to see your movie brought to life—and if you are, you should never forget that—all it takes is one connection from someone watching your movie or hearing about it that gets you progressing into the next stage of your career.
Making a movie for no money is about perseverance. You will want to tear your hair out when things don’t work out like you wanted and there’s nothing you can do about it. You will learn to be more flexible. You will have to push through lonely nights in front of your computer screen as you edit the same sequence you’ve already looked at 59 times. You will want to shout when someone on your crew keeps making stupid jokes about warehouses down by the docks. At the end of the day, you’ve got to will this thing into existence. But once you do, and once the movie’s done, and once it’s released for the world to enjoy… there’s nothing quite like it. MM
We Make Movies is now available on VOD platforms such as Amazon and Google Play, and on WMMFilm.com.