Shooting At Your Own Risk: The Art of the $1,000 Feature

Our experience in shooting our feature was meta: telling the story of people wandering a desert, concerned about water and finding their way.

The four of us empathized with our heroines as we wandered the desert, gulping water and looking for our next shot. Like kids, young filmmakers, we lived only for the movie. Gone were pressures of investment and regimentation of schedules. Against all odds, in a hostile environment, we shot At Your Own Risk.

Our $1,000 feature film began with this simple logline: “We’re going to make a film about two women in the New Mexico desert called At Your Own Risk.” When asked to participate, Director of Photography Richard Galli (Rick) didn’t hesitate for a moment. “There isn’t any pay. We won’t have any other crewmembers either,” I warned. “Sounds fun,” was his response. “Just you, me and our two actor/producers. It’ll be great. Like camping but making a movie. We will own stake in the project, like a co-op and we’ll self-distribute. Everyone gets a creative voice.”

“I said I was in,” he responded.

We were talking about going back to our roots as guerrilla filmmakers in a way that felt exciting and dangerous all at once. 

Helenna Santos in At Your Own Risk.

The Origin

 “I’ve told you about Distribber, and you told me about Amazon’s Video Direct. Why don’t we just make a movie and self-distribute it?” Helenna (Santos) said. I looked at Alexandra (Boylan) and said, “But we don’t have investment, and even if we did, we don’t know if we’ll make enough to pay the investment back.” “Let’s just make a movie, for fun. Cheap as possible. Don’t spend anything and then there isn’t any risk. Just us and Rick. That’s all we need to shoot anyway,” Alexandra said.

Helenna Santos was in the early stages of planning her own feature and Alexandra and I were a month away from shooting a film.  All of us were feeling the stress of fitting our films into the box our budget allowed. The difference with At Your Own Risk was that we had no money; thus no box. It’s easy to make a film for nothing once you see there isn’t a box to fit it in.

We saw a unique opportunity to take our film directly to the viewers. Eventually there won’t be a physical medium, and we wanted to learn how to distribute content online. Here was Helenna Santos, a connected social guru and Alexandra Boylan, a guest on countless filmmaking podcasts. Discounting disk production, we had everything that a distributor offered.

But what was the film about?

As a team of three, we had thrown around potential ideas, bouncing them off friends and family to see what was exciting. Aliens in the desert? Ghosts in an old building? Friends on a disastrous road trip? When you watch At Your Own Risk you will see an echo of each of these ideas. We didn’t know the story, but we knew some important details due to budget: one desert location, two female leads and something two crew members could film. We even had a great free location where I had filmed before: my parent’s house.

A smart guerrilla filmmaker writes around what they have access to. In our case we had my parent’s house. There was no way they would want us to shoot inside. I’d already used up that favor on my first film. But the outside was fair game. A movie set entirely outside. 

“Geocaching. What if the ladies were doing something like geocaching?’, suggested Helenna. To this, I called my parents and asked them, “Hey! Would it be ok for us to shoot a movie on your property . . . again?” I could hear my dad mulling this over on his side of the crackling land line. “Yes!” my mom piped in. “For how long?” was my dad’s response. I didn’t know exactly but I did know that, this time, our shoot would be all outside. “How’re you going to make a movie about people only outside the house?” my dad asked. I didn’t know “When?” I didn’t know, but all I could say was, “Soon.”

Alexandra Boylan and Helenna Santos in At Your Own Risk.

Developing the Story

Alexandra asked writer Andrew Boylan to take the idea from concept into story and script form. Andrew has a knack for forging stories that don’t follow the typical Hollywood tropes. Most importantly he brought truth to a story about two women. They would not be talking about ‘boys’ or ‘marriage’ or ‘children’, running around in short shorts and bikini tops or any other cliché forced onto female characters. They had depth, spirit, and flaws.

Building a Team

We needed a band of creative geniuses. Usually, only the film’s creator can reach a deep level of creative ownership. When you hire people who are of the utmost talent, give them permission to use that talent. Filmmaking is a collaborative endeavor, and it is a mistake, in my opinion, to have one person be the only one to call shots. The filmmaker’s job is to guide those shots in a singular direction. Only when you give room for this sort of collaboration will you find the spark that is movie magic.

In a Los Feliz café, Helenna introduced our editor, Lex Benedict. Lex’s empathetic and tenacious attitude towards cutting footage would prove her to be one of the most formidable editors I’ve encountered. For the first time in my career I had someone who would be editing for me. With a budget of zero, I had an editor.

As we added filmmaking buccaneers to our project we discovered that they had something in common. They wanted to be creators, not technicians. We ensured they understood that they were working with us creatively. Our team was getting something that most producers never actually give. Freedom to be artists.

The Reality of Something

“This is perfect.” I put down my boom pole and took off the zoom recorder fanny pack, disconnecting the XLR cable that ran through the hole I cut into the side of the pack so that the cable could connect to the zoom. We were nearly at the top of the tallest hill on my parent’s property, a 25 min hike (40 with gear).  A short distance up the hill Alexandra and Helenna were waiting already. They had been ahead of us walking as we shot them hiking. Now they stood, taking in the view. 

Carrying our Sony A7sii, Rick began switching out lenses as I took off my backpack, which carried our 3DR Solo quad copter. “So everything we shoot for the rest of today will be on the 14mm lens, right?” Rick asked as he snapped the 14mm lens onto the camera, already knowing the answer. Early on, Rick and I decided that at a certain point in the story the ‘look’ would be obtained entirely with a 14mm lens. Helenna turned and called to us down the mountain, “Drone first or us on hilltop?” “Drone!” I yelled as I opened the case. I stared for a moment in disbelief at the empty drone case.

I had left it in the house on our equipment table.

Not a glorious story, but this was a reality we faced with only four crew members.  Even though two of us were acting on set, we all had to pull the weight of multiple people. Helenna and Alexandra would keep track of costumes and props, knowing which character had which prop in what scene. They were script keepers, line checkers, timekeepers and actors. When we had reception, they dealt with any producing needed.

Rick was in charge of all things camera, including; cleaning, charging batteries and keeping track of what scenes required which lens. Rick was also my eyes, as the only monitor was the couple inch wide screen on the camera. Aside from directing, I recorded all of our audio using a Zoom recorder my boom pole, shotgun mic and two wireless lavaliers. I slated using an app on my phone, captured media files and backed them up. Anything else needed, we did. There was no one else.

Evenings consisted of checking footage, planning the next day, organizing gear and laughing heartily at the day’s escapades. It was exhausting and exhilarating! Each day we accrued 10,000 or more steps on our fitness apps. Even with our micro equipment package, it all amounted to a lot of stuff to remember. We rarely forgot something, but when we did it was a real difficulty. There wasn’t anyone to send home to get the missing item while we filmed. I’d have Rick shoot something we could do MOS with Helenna and Alexandra while I retrieved the item or problem solved the equipment or whatever the issue was at the moment.

In the beginning of filming At Your Own Risk we stayed close to my parent’s house as we figured out our desert survival process. After one day I ordered more camera batteries, memory cards (for when we would be gone all day shooting), and we decided to carry one gallon of water per person to be safe (we kept these in the car or by set and carried one around with us).  Alexandra and Helenna’s canteens, props for the movie, were used for their intended purpose of holding life-giving water.

We learned to work with the desert to make our film. Rick carried black duvetyne to cover himself and the camera in order to see the screen in the glaring desert sun. I devised a loud chirp with my voice that the camera and microphones were able to pick up at a great distance (for syncing footage to audio later). Lex later told me how amused and thankful she was for my vocalization of the sync point. I still use that method to this day when limited by distance.

John K.D. Graham and Richard Galli

Post (Desert)

Lex pieced together an incredible edit.  She pulled our footage together in a way that built upon the truth our writer put into the script. Our heroes transition seamlessly from start to finish, the big bold wide shots breathe the perfect amount and the frenetic ending feels like the wild crazy we all knew by the end of shooting.

She is not only a storytelling genius, but talented at painting things out of the image. Even miles from civilization, the desert is big, and you can see for hundreds of miles. A group of distant houses showed up in some of our shots and while she worked on this, we continued through post.

The audible tone was set by Sean Barrett who composed the project with ominous drones and twangy guitar. Our Director of Photography, Richard Galli colored the film while sound designer David Schatanoff Jr. worked his magic building a soundscape. Late in the game we discovered the talented Jason Baumgardner who came on to make a killer trailer.

Sweet Release

We decided to work with an aggregator and chose Distribber.  Distribber allows indie filmmakers to put their projects onto platforms that might typically be impossible to reach without a distributor. They believe the filmmakers should be the largest owner of their intellectual property and for that I am grateful.

Early on we involved Dog & Pony Creative to create amazing posters, iTunes banners, etc. that will go out into the world. Big-budget studio films command a serious portion of the market’s attention. It would be impossible to compete on their level without forty million dollars for marketing. We have been developing plans for grassroots marketing, word of mouth and strategic placement since the beginning.

No matter your budget, completing a film is difficult. Find people to join your team that will not only help carry your film but add embellishments to it. Create a project where people can join you in a venture of passion. Surround yourself with the kind of people that will stay up late after their regular job is over so that they can create art with you.

Find people who see filmmaking from a child’s eye, will sit in the dirt with you, and play make-believe. MM

At Your Own Risk opened on VOD exclusively via iTunes October 9, 2018. Moviemaker bundles that include a behind-the-scenes featurette and moviemaker commentary are available at atyourownriskmovie.com.

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