How To Shoot a Film in Less Than 25 Days: Producing Girlfriend

My name’s Shaun O’Banion. You’re probably asking yourself, “Shaun who?” That’s OK.

I’m a producer only on my second feature film. My first, Dakota Skye, was made for $150,000 in 16 days and while we didn’t get a theatrical release, we were all thrilled to get the film on DVD and on sites like Netflix and Blockbuster Online.

Having recently completed my second feature film, a drama starring Shannon Woodward (“The Riches”), Jackson Rathbone (Twilight) and Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction) called Girlfriend, I figured I might have something to say about pulling off a film on a limited budget and short schedule. As a fan of the magazine and website, I talked to MovieMaker a bit about what I’ve learned and they thought it would be good for me to pass along a bit of it. It’s pretty crazy, as you move up in budget, how quickly you forget how to do things small and fast, but it definitely does happen, so I figured I ought to get some of this out there now while it’s still fresh in my memory!

What follows is geared toward people with a similar budget to my first feature, but are elements you should look into regardless of your budget, if you can. Here goes…

GO HOME
Go home? What kind of tip is this? Well, to be honest, it’s the best way to get a film made right now. If you no longer live in your hometown, but can go back there to make your film, it’ll do wonders for your budget. Dakota Skye, as scripted, was originally set in Georgia, where the screenwriter was from. Once the director and I began to figure out how we could pull this off on our limited budget, we began to realize a few things: First, for that particular story, it would actually suit the film better to shoot it in a place that was vast, hot and where young people wouldn’t have much to do. Second, if we took our shoot to Phoenix (where the director is from), we could very likely pull a ton of favors—which we did. “Hometown boy makes good,” that whole thing. On Girlfriend, taking the film back East was already part of the plan for exactly the same reason. Not only did the landscape of the Boston area provide exactly what the script required, but it was also a place where the director knew people would be willing to help out—and we got a lot of help. We had access to crew, equipment and local businesses as well as people’s homes because the director knew everyone in the town. Also, since the town we were shooting in was just starting to figure out how to welcome the film community, we got to take advantage of things like not having to pull permits for most of our locations and our director even got us the full cooperation of the local police force!

FORM AN LLC
Having an LLC (limited liability company) will, in most cases, protect you from any legal issues that may arise during your shoot. An LLC is less formal and more flexible than a typical corporation, while offering similar protection and even a few advantages. For example, members cannot be found personally liable for company debts, so your assets are separate from the assets of your LLC and can’t be seized. Another of the advantages of an LLC is that taxation is based on the partnership model. This flow-through taxation is advantageous since members are only required to pay taxes on their earnings once, instead of paying both corporate and individual taxes.

Your LLC, unlike a corporation, could have as many members as you want and doesn’t require bylaws, meetings or the recording of minutes. While many states do not demand an operating agreement, you should have one drawn up as it is a requirement of the Screen Actors Guild. An LLC will cost you in the neighborhood of $800, but could save you thousands if you run into any problems later.

GET INSURED
There are companies in L.A. (like Filmmaker’s Resource) who will place you under their umbrella policy based on several criteria—such as how many shoot days you’ll have, for example. By going with them and using their existing policy, you’ll save yourself time, money and potential headache, but you may have to sign an even longer contract. I’ve never had any issues pop up with them, so I couldn’t tell you how such problems are handled in that situation.

On Girlfriend we went with a company called CSIS, and they were really helpful. I’m glad I found them because we had several instances where we needed to reference our policy. We had to call an ambulance when a background performer in one scene literally passed out when Jackson Rathbone walked by her on set. We also had our key grip go to the emergency room after she was bitten by a deer tick. Workman’s Comp insurance covered both cases. You’ll also need insurance to cover your equipment—especially if you decide to go out of state and have to ship things. This is where those two letters a producer hates to see might come in: “L&D” or “lost and damaged.”

HIRE A GREAT 1ST AD
Even at a budget of $150,000, you most likely won’t be able to afford a DGA assistant director, but it doesn’t mean you can’t find someone amazing… and a great 1st AD could very well save your shoot. Find someone with a ton of great recommendations who has done the job in the past. The 1st will be your one of your greatest allies as producer and your director’s best friend and partner on set. Once you’ve built what you think is an amazing, workable schedule, you’ll marvel as your 1st comes in, re-orders the thing and finds a way to take a day off of it (saving you serious money). Also, when they ask to bring their 2nd with them? Say yes, you’ll thank me later. On Girlfriend, Mike Whitecar (our 1st) and Scott Kirkley (our associate producer, who is a DGA member) saved us a ton of money and time by keeping us on target.

CONSIDER HIRING SCREEN ACTORS GUILD)
While it may seem out of reach to go for recognizable actors, you should never feel limited. Granted, if you’re not in L.A. already and don’t have a way to get to “name” talent, then you will probably have to hire locals and hope for the best. However, SAG has many different tiered agreements, which make it possible for the indie MovieMaker (see what I did there?) to get good talent into their films. On one of my shorts, I got Jennifer Morrison (“House M.D.”). For my friend’s short we got John Carroll Lynch (Fargo, Zodiac). Actors just want to do good work—especially now—so go after someone you want. For Dakota Skye, we saw a lot of recognizable talent, many of whom went on to far bigger films than ours. For Girlfriend, we actually had people calling us to get in the film. Go to www.SAGIndie.org and see if one of their contracts will work for you. Having professional actors in your project is one of the best ways to set yourself above the other guys, who are using their stoner neighbor for their lead.

SCOUT EARLY
If you can afford to do it, make sure you physically go to the locations you want to use. Talk to the owners. Schmooze a bit. This seems obvious, but it can save you a lot of headache later. The best thing about shooting in rural areas that maybe don’t have a film infrastructure yet is that you’re more likely to get things for free, which, even at a budget of $150,000 can really save you. The key thing to be aware of during this process is that any number of locations you think are locked could fall out—the more time you have to find alternates, the better of you’ll be. Which leads me to:

HAVE CONTRACTS
If you don’t have a lawyer on the film (which I highly recommend), there are a number of Websites from which you can pull contracts. If you aren’t able to find any that fit your needs, you can always make them up yourself, (though they may not be legally sound should a vendor or location decide to pursue any sort of legal action against you). You want to have contracts for all of your above-the-line talent (i.e. screenwriter, director, acting leads), but you’ll also need them for any location you use. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll want to have photo release contracts for anyone who comes out to be an extra for you. For crew, unless you’re sharing backend points, a “Deal Memo” will suffice.

GET A KILLER CREW
This is where you really have to think ahead. You’ll probably want to bring your key crew members and department heads with you, so you need to think about where everyone will stay. On our first feature, we had a bunch of hotel rooms in which two, or in some cases, three people shared a room. You can’t do this to SAG actors, so you need an accurate head count and you need to figure out what to do with everyone. It’s not just a matter of asking mom and dad if six people can stay with them—you have to ask, ‘Is Bill, our gaffer, going to be okay sharing a room in my mom’s house for a month?’

This is where all of those favors you’ve banked get called in. Whether you can afford to put people up (you’ll have to put up your SAG talent) or not, you need to know where they’ll sleep. You also need to factor in things like nearby amenities. If you get a bunch of crew out on location, but can’t afford to provide rental cars for those staying at your parent’s house seven miles from a Laundromat, you’re going to end up with some unhappy workers… so plan ahead!

THINK ABOUT FOOD. THINK ABOUT TRASH.
Food is just about the most important element you’re going to have to provide. It needs to be a broad enough menu that it can please 30 or 40 people, while still being good enough food that will power your crew through the second half of their day. You also need to think about trash. Where will you put it? Who will pick it up? On Girlfriend we actually had to purchase a certain colored trash bag from the local dump—only with those bags could we dump our trash. And you’d be amazed at how much trash can be generated by 30 people. Oh, and don’t forget to ask if anyone on your crew is a vegetarian.

KNOW YOUR FORMATS
Early in prep, you’ll be having discussions about what format on which to shoot. Film is not that expensive, and using short-ends (leftover, but unused film rolls) and getting deals from camera houses is pretty easy these days, but I’m going to suggest something that at one time would’ve made true cinephiles scream: Shoot on the RED ONE digital camera. Here’s why: Shooting on the RED will save your production day. Even though every second counts on every set, there is nothing quite like the breakneck speed you’ll need to move at on an indie shoot, and the RED will save you time—which, as we all know, equals money. First off, you don’t need to re-load every eight minutes (the average amount of time it takes to expend a 1000-foot film magazine). Next, you don’t have to light as much, so you’ll save setup time. Saving on lighting and on setup time saves you a ton of time and money. Next, your post-production workflow will be that much easier (not needing to Telecine means big savings). For editorial, your digital imaging technician will have everything backed up to a hard drive, so you’ll be able to (virtually) go right into Final Cut Pro after re-writing the codecs. Basically, it’s really the best way to go at the indie level.

THINK ABOUT POST BEFORE YOU GET TO IT
Post is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle and yet, it’s very often overlooked. Well, I’m here to tell you that you need to think about it in advance. Aiming for festivals? What format do they need your film on? How much will it cost you to transfer to D5 or Digibeta? What about color correction or a pro sound mix? What about an editor (which, while I’ve mentioned it, I highly recommend having; an editor will bring you perspective, which, by the time you get to post, will be something you desperately need)? So basically, don’t shoot your film without knowing where you’ll go after you wrap. It can sometimes be the most expensive piece of the process, and there’s nothing better than being able to have this prepped in advance.

So there you have it: A few things to think about before you get started making your first feature film. Again, you can maybe get by without some of these or even be creative enough to bend them to fit your needs, but they’re all things you should try and figure out before you get to your location. Good luck! MM

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