“Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”
It sounds almost defeatist the first time you hear it, but this became our mantra throughout the process of making our movie Honey Buddies (now retitled Buddymoon), a comedy I made with my friends David Giuntoli and Flula Borg. Now I think of the phrase as an incredibly motivating outlook on the creative process.
Here was the situation: David, Flula and I had always wanted to make a narrative feature together, but we knew that with our respective schedules we would only have 10 days for principal shooting. (David had a small break from filming Grimm, Flula was wrapping Pitch Perfect 2, and I was between documentaries with Discovery.)
To complicate matters, we didn’t have a script. But we also knew that if we didn’t make a movie now, it would likely never happen. So, while it was not a perfect starting point to the moviemaking process, I’m glad we ignored doubt and practicality and moved forward anyway.
Here are some things we learned along the way.
Cast High-Energy People to Motivate Everyone Else
The most important task in this crazy endeavor is to cast the right people. Flula and David are incredible improvisers and they are also both two of the funniest people I’ve ever met. So boom, first decision made: We’re making a comedy starring the two of them.
If you are going to improvise the entire process of making a movie, your leads need to be comfortable ad-libbing a lot of the dialogue, along with everything else: the daily schedule, entire scenes, where you are sleeping, and pretty much all other aspects of the process. The crew will follow the energy of your leads every time. Since David and Flula were up for anything, everyone else instantly got on board for the ride as well.
Steal From Life as Much as Possible
On top of this, we decided to have David and Flula play slightly amped up versions of themselves rather than come up with entirely new characters. David describes what he and Flula did as playing themselves, except with exclamation points. As an added bonus, the on-camera dynamic between the two of them is something we’ve been developing for a few years. When the three of us all lived together in our early Los Angeles days, we once filmed a web series about, well, David and Flula. Some of the interactions that we explored for that project all those years ago found their way into Buddymoon. Since we had already beta-tested those character dynamics, we had a jumping off point for the relationship between the two of them: David would adopt the straight-man archetype and Flula would be his slightly insane German best friend.
Watch Other Movies in Your Genre
In developing possible storylines, we figured out pretty early on that we should make this a movie primarily about two characters. Logistically we knew that on a 10-day shoot, we just wouldn’t have time to film multiple story arcs with multiple characters. So the three of us started watching a bunch of two-character movies.
Some of them were incredibly boring, which fed my fears that we would end up making a boring movie as well. To me, that would be the only true sin. But we saw other films that convinced us that there was a way to make a film that really focused on two characters and kept the audience engaged. It was helpful to rewatch films like Planes, Trains and Automobiles or the more recent Prince Avalanche.
Add Depth With Supporting Characters Whenever Possible
Even though the focus of Buddymoon would be on David and Flula, we knew the final product would feel claustrophobic if we didn’t have any other characters at all. So we recruited a few talented friends (Brian T. Finney, Claire Coffee and Jeanne Syquia) to play key roles that we could intersperse throughout the movie. Ninety percent of the movie ended up being scenes between David and Flula, but the moments of the film with other characters are absolutely necessary for pacing, and they make the two-character scenes that much stronger.
Get That Natural Light
From a technical standpoint, we wanted to shoot pretty much the entire movie outside in natural light. This decision was vital to finishing Buddymoon; the storyline we came up with (about two friends on a backpacking trip) developed only after we made that decision. A lot was made of The Revenant using only natural light, and we did the same thing too! But it was just because we didn’t have time to set up lights.
We also decided to film the movie in the Oregon woods, where most scenes could be shot under tree cover, so the lighting was often diffused even during the middle of the day. Our two DPs, whom I’ve worked with on numerous documentaries, were completely comfortable shooting in natural light. In the end, that natural look (like in The Revenant) lends a realness that artificially lit scenes in the woods often won’t have. As an added bonus, when you shoot in Oregon in the summer it stays light late into the evening, and we often shot with natural light until 8 p.m.
More Cameras Means More Coverage, Period
We shot every scene with two cameras, often in “dueling singles,” and—unsurprisingly—it doubled the amount of footage we could shoot in the same amount of time. I initially wanted to do this because I didn’t want to lose any good improvised material from David or Flula, which they might deliver off camera. But the other bonus from shooting every scene with two cameras is that you don’t to lose time resetting the shot and getting the reverse. And since we were improvising so much, when something new popped up, we had it instantly from both angles. So yeah, basically this made every shot happen twice as fast.
Outline Simply and Thoroughly
As I mentioned, we didn’t have a full script, but by the time we started shooting we had a pretty detailed outline. Before we started shooting, I made a color-coded outline that assigned each story thread a color to make sure we didn’t forget about the key storylines for too long. And it worked. It didn’t always work perfectly, but it worked.
Flexibility Extends to the Editing Bay
Once I started editing the movie, it became apparent how much we would have to improvise this part of the process as well. A huge turning point for me was reading a New York Times article on the editor Brent White, the man behind most of Judd Apatow’s and Paul Feig’s movies like Spy and Knocked Up, all with long improvised sections. In the article, White lays out exactly how he edits an improvised comedy. Especially helpful to me was his method of finding the best joke of a series of takes, then working backwards and rebuilding the entire scene around that joke. (Seriously, if you are ever going to edit a comedy, read this article.)
There are going to come points, especially if you edited something as quickly shot and improv-heavy as our piece, where the current cut or scene just isn’t working. So you need to stay flexible while editing the entire time. There were so many moments where we had self-imposed rules for how something should go or be ordered, but when we stopped to ask ourselves if it really had to be that way, it rarely did. For example, we finished the first full version of Buddymoon and showed it to a few friends, and we got one consistent note: It felt like Flula overpowered the movie. It really needed to be David’s story, told from his perspective, if you were going to care about him as a character. My first thought was giving David some internal monologue. I love any movie with good internal monologue. But it didn’t feel quite right for Buddymoon. And then it hit me: David’s character in our story is auditioning to play William Clark in a Lewis and Clark movie, so what if we incorporated the journals of William Clark into Honey Buddies? We tried it and I can’t imagine the movie without it now. Be prepared to improvise other parts of the moviemaking process too.
So, is Buddymoon a perfect movie? Definitely not. But it is a movie, because we actually finished it, and we never would have even started making it if we had waited to do everything the “perfect” way. While making a movie this way is not without moments of pure stress—I broke down in tears at least once while editing alone at 4 in the morning—the added benefit of creating something unexpected was worth it, which in the end is sort of perfect in its own way. MM
Buddymoon opened in theaters July 1, 2016 courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.