It’s been said the most common outcome for microbudget features is that they simply don’t get finished, let alone distributed.

Neither scenario was acceptable to us with our ultra-low budget feature Black Road, which we made through our company, Joma Films, in Ashland, Oregon. It was my third feature and our most ambitious project and our smallest budget to date. Its $100,000 budget contained all our expenses: from script and prep, payroll and production, to editorial, VFX, score, sound mix, exhibition, marketing and delivery. And there was no contingency to lean on if something went awry.

Our $100,000 budget came together through a successful $46,000 Kickstarter campaign, equity from a small group of regional investors, and money from the Oregon Film Incentive program. In addition, much of our equipment, lodging and food was donated by members of Southern Oregon’s supportive film and business community. Making a cinematic, slow-burn noir-thriller on that kind of shoestring budget requires very careful steamlining of cast, crew and resources. Sure, you already know that. But what does that actually mean in practice?

Sam Daly as Dylan and Michelle Lombardo as Sarah in Black Road

Sam Daly as Dylan and Michelle Lombardo as Sarah in Black Road

Give Your Small Crew a Stake

As any athlete knows, having talented teammates around you who share a common goal is critical. Making a successful movie is a bit like trying to have a winning season: You want to win more games than you lose. Often producers adopt a “crew-up” attitude and treat people as if they were expendable. And often these crews hold negative attitudes when they sense they’re underappreciated or being taken advantage of.

I’ve been lucky to work with the same creative team for over 12 years now, beginning with our 2004 festival short “Wow and Flutter.” I always try to combat this “us vs. them” dynamic by making our cast and crew feel valuable and irreplaceable. Because more often than not, they really are.

One way to do that? Make sure your allies have bought into your financial plan. In lieu of big day rates on Black Road, we shared equity with them. We decided on a cast/crew/investor-owned business model to keep costs down and share any profits. All of the key cast and crew were paid the same flat rate, myself included—director, DP, producer, composer, sound mixer, editor, gaffer, AC, etc. Profit points were allocated based on the number of weeks or months each individual was committed to the project. We were transparent with our team about all our plans and goals.

Early on, well before official prep began, we all discussed the film in great detail. I loved having thorough creative input early in the game. This wasn’t just screenplay feedback; these were creative discussions that helped me work through what I wanted to do visually and also how sound design, VFX and score would operate in the narrative.

Reduce Excess in Your Screenplay

During the months leading up to shooting, our key creative team poured over our script, the blueprint for the production. Remember that any ink on your script means money. The scope of our screenplay had to fit our resources. The last thing I wanted for Black Road was to be shoehorning a much bigger movie into a smaller budget.

Besides keeping the page count down, we tried to rein in the number of speaking roles and locations in Black Road. We asked all the hard questions. Do we really need this scene? Do we need this character? Do we need this location? Do we need this bit of dialogue? These self-imposed limitations and creative discussions ultimately led me to give our protagonist, Dylan, an on-board A.I. personality named “Clyde.”

At first this was just a device so we could cover more narrative ground with only Dylan on screen. But while I wrote and rewrote the screenplay, I gradually fell in love with Clyde. His voice and personality got warmer and more human with each draft. The Dylan and Clyde relationship continued to evolve and ultimately became the heartbeat of the story.

Set a Shooting Schedule That Actually Works

After much deliberation, I knew I needed about 20 shoot days, with four five-day weeks. Always schedule five day weeks if you can. You and your cast and crew will need those two days to recover, reboot and prep each week. Also, try to keep your days to 10 to 12 hours. You will have a longer one or two, no doubt, but always honor turnaround and keep spirits high. In your schedule, try to follow any potential monster days with an easier, shorter one.

I identified the scenes and sequences that I thought were most critical and challenging to shoot. There were several long dialogue scenes with Dylan and key characters that I needed more time to execute. The last sequences on the beach in Oregon were also going to be complicated and time consuming. The flip side of this, is that there were a few scenes, sequences and transitions that I knew would be much easier to shoot. I tried to identify these so they were shot as quickly as humanly possible.

Black Road cast and crew on location in Ashland, OR. Photograph by Mark Arinsberg

Black Road cast and crew on location in Ashland, OR. Photograph by Mark Arinsberg

Be Resourceful with Casting

Once Sam Daly came on board to play Dylan, I knew he could carry the film. This was a big confidence boost as he is in virtually every scene. Our next task was to put the best possible cast around him. Our casting director Christine Sheaks has excellent taste and sensibilities, and we’ve been lucky to have her on our team since 2007. It was her idea to go after Steve Zahn for my our 2009 feature Calvin Marshall, and to make an offer to Shirley Knight for 2013’s Redwood Highway. With Black Road‘s limited budget, we could only offer SAG ultra-low budget scale with favored nations back-end participation.

Like Sam, Michelle Lombardo (Sarah) was also on board from the start. They both came out to Ashland, Oregon from Los Angeles. I had imagined Andrew Wilson to voice A.I. Clyde while writing the script. We went to L.A. during post to record his dialogue, so I acted as the voice of Clyde on set while we were shooting. Local talent from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland filled out the rest of the cast, including the terrific Danforth Comins as Bruce. Two major question marks remained: We had to find the right actors to play our villain Sterling and our femme fatale Lisa. Luckily Christine came through in the 11th hour to help us cast Simon Templeman and Leilani Sarelle. After I saw their reels and talked to each of them at length on the phone about their characters and the script, they agreed to come out and co-star in the film just days before shooting.

After months of post and visual effects from our small and wonderful post-production team, we premiered the film in Los Angeles to a packed house, one day after our last visual effect was completed, and about a year after we wrapped shooting.

We then did several weeks of traditional theatrical with Coming Attractions Theaters in Oregon in 2016. We also played at a few regional festivals, winning two audience awards from the Astoria International Film Festival and the Mount Rainier International Film Festival. Finally, we promoted a series of Tugg screenings in some major cities over the spring and summer, including two sold-out screenings in New York. After these mini theatrical and non-theatrical runs, we were lucky to sign on with Gravitas Ventures for worldwide distribution. Many thanks if you rent or buy our film on iTunes or another platform. A significant percentage comes back directly to our LLC, where it’s shared between our investors, our cast and our crew. MM

Black Road is currently available on cable VOD, Amazon and iTunes. Featured photograph by Mark Arinsberg.