“Money matters most” insists Sloan Kelly in our holiday comedy, Holly Star. Sloan is a down-on-her-luck puppeteer feeling the pressure and loneliness of being broke at Christmastime.
When we first meet her, she’s lost her job, her rent’s been jacked up, and her roommate has moved out. She returns home to Maine to lick her wounds and spend some time with her paintball-obsessed best friend, her tango-dancing grandma, and a childhood crush.
Soon after arriving home, Sloan finds a (possible) clue to a buried treasure and goes on a desperate hunt to find it. In the process, she discovers a meaning to her life beyond the pursuit of money.
Like Sloan, indie moviemakers are on a quest for their own kind of buried treasure—once we’ve managed to get the machine moving, what will be there for us at the end? Will the film be the treasure we imagine? Will it be the lucky charm that wins the festival, inspires the bidding war, lands the prestige distributor, puts us on the map? What do we need to do to get us there?
Once shooting starts, we have to shift our focus away from the money and beam it straight into the creative. We believe our films will uncover deeper truths, tell more meaningful stories. Our unique vision will carry us through to the end, we tell ourselves, if only we can start shooting.
This isn’t to say it took a lot of money to make our film. Holly Star is an ultra-low-budget production. Against all odds and better judgment, we shot in the middle of winter—in Maine—with car stunts, night shoots, a ton of extras, and way too many locations. We still got it in the can. But to do that, we had to stay very conscious about money.
Chances are, if you’re an indie moviemaker reading MovieMaker, you already know how much money matters. That’s a platitude. Yawn. It’s easy to forget, though. And the reality is the indie moviemaker needs to be thinking about money, obsessing on it, never letting it out of our sight.
Begin At the End
Take distribution delivery, for instance. You haven’t even shot the film yet, so, of course, you don’t want to think about delivering all those tech files, agreements, clearances, and licenses, ad infinitum, that you’ll eventually need. You are in the middle of a creative frenzy. You’re designing shots, preparing your actors, creating your sets. All that distribution stuff can wait.
Until it can’t. When the film is complete and your sales agent and distributor are calling for your E&O insurance and you have no money to cover it. When the CCSL is due for France. When the UK is waiting on your MPAA rating. When your Copyright Report hasn’t been ordered. Everything comes screeching to a halt. Suddenly you are in a crisis. Worse even than scrambling for a cover set in the middle of a snowstorm. Because now? Now there are no options. You either supply the material and deliver, or you don’t release your film. No work-around.
So, start at the end and work backwards. Review a typical delivery schedule in prep and start the process. Create and update the files you’ll eventually need. Squirrel money away. Call a post-supervisor or sales agent and ask a lot of questions. If your budget doesn’t extend deep into post, make cuts in production until it does.
Even When You’re Ready, You’re Not
We combed the script dozens and dozens of times – pulling out material that would be too costly, trying to limit our company moves and manage our shooting days (we landed on 17, with five days of additional photography months later.) We were lean, mean, and felt confident.
And yet, three days before we were to begin shooting, it became clear there was more to cut. The first five pages had to go—there was no time to shoot them and I realized I’d probably cut them in the editing room anyway. But those pages contained some of my favorite scenes/snippets of dialogue. We would lose a beloved (already cast) character. We would have to re-do our entire schedule and get permission for new dates.
Even though I’d been through this somewhat brutal script-slashing process before—actually on every single one of the eight features I’ve directed—I still went through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression. Eventually I hit the final stage, acceptance, and cut the pages. You never stop looking for ways to save, stay vigilant, solicit suggestions from fellow professionals, keep after it.
Be Nimble, Be Quick
Our low budget meant a smaller crew, smaller footprint. Which meant the whole production was more flexible, allowing us to take advantage of opportunities that arose to create a bigger looking film.
In the planning stage, our talented cinematographer and our co-producer—Trish Govoni and Erik Van Wyck, respectively—made a list of elements that might help our film feel bigger and set out to get them: drone shots, dolly shots, beautiful, cinematic locations, real weather (snow), and plenty of extras. We succeeded on all fronts. Mostly by moving quickly.
The town of Saco, Maine—one of our locations—has an annual Christmas parade. We were offered the opportunity to shoot a scene within it. I liked the idea because of the production value (and free extras!) but worried about the logistics.
It would require us to shoot at night, if we finished our earlier work, creating a longer day and forcing us into overtime. We discussed it early in prep and kept discussing it. Was it worth it?
Producer Scott Taylor and I decided to take the financial hit. It was only a minor expense bump, but we had razor-thin margins. We kept an eye on our day and when it seemed likely that we’d finish shooting in time for the parade, we trimmed off most of the crew and dove in.
The edited footage takes up only a few seconds of screen time, but the atmosphere and production value we captured is priceless. Had we not been discussing it from the first day of prep—and been able to move quickly, being mindful of our budget—we would not have been able to take advantage of the opportunity.
On the other hand, the script also called for a “magical, enchanting” snowfall to blanket a farm at a crucial moment in the story. It was nice on the page, but how would it be possible to do in reality – on our budget? Even big studio movies would find it a challenge. Should we just ignore it?
We kept an eye on the weather. Snowfall prediction in Maine in December is hit-or-miss. Could we move quickly enough to shift everything around at the last minute to accommodate a (possible) snowfall like we did with the parade? Could all the departments be ready? Would it make sense financially?
Ultimately, the answer was “No.” Our budget was too low to chase the weather, no matter how cinematic the result might be. We opted to stick to a schedule and shoot whatever weather the day might bring. Even if the snow had melted. Maybe we could afford some digital version of the white stuff in post…
As luck would have it—and there always seems to be at least one truly lucky moment on every production—the snow started to gently fall the minute we started shooting. We adjusted our shot-list on the fly and shot the scene chronologically to capture the snow blanketing the land in real time. The result is both magical and enchanting.
Move Your Money
Holly Star features several puppet scenes interwoven with live action. Each of the puppets were hand-made specifically for the film by world renowned puppet master John Farrell and his company, Figures of Speech, in Freeport, Maine. Miniature sets were built and the puppets were shot against green screen after principal photography was complete.
Eyeing the upcoming shoot, we suddenly felt uneasy about our preparation. Never having worked with puppets before and nervous about how to light them, how to navigate around the puppeteers, how to direct them, what kind of unknown issues might arise, we opted to do a one-day test.
The test was invaluable. We worked out some kinks—I got a better handle on how to direct the puppets, Trish better understood how to light them, and the puppeteers got a sense of what to expect. But the test was not in our original budget.
We immediately sensed the benefit of having done the test, but it meant we had to pull money that had been allocated elsewhere. We felt that pain when it came time to deliver the film.
Hire the Right Actors
Our lead actor—Katlyn Carlson, from the Broadway-bound Be More Chill—was great and perfect for the part. We felt confident in our creative choice.
But Katlyn would also very much determine whether or not the film would be completed. She was scheduled to work every day. If she wasn’t prepared, committed, and willing to go the extra mile, a domino effect would cascade though the production and bring us to our knees. When you’re only able to do one or two takes, an actor with the right attitude is money in the bank.
The truth is, it’s difficult to determine this before the first day of shooting. You do what you can, like reach out during casting to people who have previously hired the actor to see if you can get a sense of what it’s like to work with them. If possible, meet an actor before committing.
We got lucky. Katlyn was cast just from a video upload and a phone call. She brought an enormous amount of preparation and focus to the shoot and set the tone for the rest of the cast. She never once forgot a line or lost her way in the middle of a take. We have no blooper reel.
Aside from our three leads, the rest of our cast was hired locally. This was a financial decision. We didn’t have money to travel and house many actors. What we found, however, was that the decision benefitted us creatively.
The well of talented local actors was unexpectedly deep. I made a mental note for the future. Don’t be afraid to cast your neighbors.
Money Can’t Buy You Love
It’s essential to keep your eye on the ball, focus on managing the budget—from early prep and deep into post. But money isn’t the only answer. It can’t buy you love—and it’s love that will motivate you and get you through to the end. Another platitude, sure. But true, nonetheless.
I wrote Holly Star 24 years ago. That’s an awfully long time to try to get a film made. I am stubborn, but I also always loved the script. It made me laugh whenever I read it. I wanted to see the film. In the early days, I dreamt of sitting on a couch, eating a bag of popcorn, and sharing it with my (future) family. We will be doing that this Christmas.
Our production was blessed with a lot of good will. Our actors enjoyed being on set, our crew embraced the (cold) adventure, our locations welcomed us. Those are all intangibles, and it’s impossible to assign a value to them. But they are essential to the success of any shoot.
As a low-budget indie moviemaker, you almost always have your hat in your hand, asking for a favor. How you feel about your project will be evident as soon as you open your mouth. Love what you’re making, what you do, and who you’re working with. You don’t need money for that. Those feelings will inspire others to help you and will sustain you over the (sometimes painfully) long haul. MM
Holly Star is now available on VOD, courtesy of The Orchard. Follow @hollystarthemovie on Instagram for more behind-the-scenes info.