Making a post-apocalyptic, comic book-inspired, cannibal desert thriller on a ridiculously micro-budget for my first feature was a very traumatizing experience—mentally, financially, psychologically, physically.

By the time I had made over a dozen short films and I more or less understood the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. It was time to jump in and make a feature. I knew no one would take me seriously as a filmmaker until I made a feature film, so I held my breath and dove in. It was a frightening endeavor.

With Drifter, I may have bitten off more than I could chew, especially since I didn’t have much of a producer on the film, nor a proper production company, nor a location manager, wardrobe supervisor, prop master, set decorator, etc. It was a bare bones operation. But you truly need to go through a traumatizing, hellish experience producing your first feature film.

Director Chris van Hoffman tending to a heat-scourged camera in between takes of Drifter. Courtesy of XLrator Media

You should do as many things by yourself as possible. The script should be incredibly challenging on every level and the budget should be guitar picks. Do not make your first film about a bunch of people talking. Make something extreme. Make something that will prepare you for the future. Make something that will destroy you.

The most challenging sequence to shoot in Drifter was the film’s dinner table climax. At this point in the story, a cannibal family have taken the main character Miles (Aria Emory) under house arrest. While he’s stuck in a cellar they’ve kept him in, the film switches its perspective to that of the family members with a sense of claustrophobia, now that the setting has moved from outside to inside.

Finally, Miles and the family come together at a sacrificial dinner where they are shown, for the first time, eating human flesh. Miles, with the help of the only sympathetic member of the family, Vijah, (Monique Rosario) tries to escape, causing all hell to break loose and a body count to ensue. (It’s a blatant tribute to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but it was also inspired by a Belgium film called Calvaire about a singer whose van breaks down in the woods, and which has been referenced as a Belgium version of Chain Saw.)

This sequence involved what was certainly the most complicated night of filming. We had more cast and crew on that set than any other shooting day and the most coverage to photograph plus a heavy amount of blocking, squibs, prosthetics, stunts, etc. Everything was prepped accordingly. All the actors were in make up and ready for the scene. We had the RED Dragon set up and ready for the first shot and then suddenly for the first time in the entire production schedule, the camera fried and completely shut down.

Drew Harwood as Dominic Pierce in Drifter

RED Dragon cameras are very precise pieces of equipment. To have it suddenly fry and not turn back on was quite shocking to all of us, but it does happen. Even more baffling was that we had been using this camera in scorching heat for nine days prior and nothing ever happened, so to have it shut down when we were inside a house in the Los Angeles area was quite ironic and hilarious… though certainly not at the time it was happening.

The actors were getting restless, and one of them was being quite difficult. I had to literally beg him to come to set that night because he was scheduled for work and forgot to ask his boss to get off. Even though it was entirely his fault for not getting a replacement in advance when he knew about this scheduled date for three months, he wasn’t too happy with me when the shoot was not only delayed but temporarily shut down for three hours. I was petrified he was just going to walk off set. The scene was like a puzzle and if one piece went missing, it would all implode.

To make matters even more horrific, the domestic sales agent, who just recently came onto the film, had stopped by right then to check out the filming, causing my neurotic self to believe he would find the production anything but professional. It was an absolute nightmare and I will admit I had a mini-breakdown, mainly because there was just no more money to get a back-up camera.

The only upside to this situation: This was one of only three shooting days and nights that were based in Los Angeles. All the other days and nights were completely outside of the area and deep in the desert, so we were thankful that the camera did not fry somewhere out there. At least we were near civilization at this time. After three hours of making endless phone calls to anyone who may have had a back-up RED Dragon they could supply for cheap and overly apologizing to all the actors for wasting their time, we finally found a replacement and filming kicked back into high gear. The cast and crew buckled up and we were ready to shoot overtime. The crew immediately started blocking off all the windows because we all knew this was going to go over 12 hours and into the early-mid morning.

Monique Rosario as Vijah in Drifter

Still, just because the cast and crew were ready to go overtime did not make the rest of the shoot go smoothly. Far from it. Since I was essentially my own production company and had no producer on this film, I couldn’t help but have multiple logistical concerns, a chunk of them having nothing to do with creativity: Is that angry actor going to walk off set, since he’s been pulling me aside every 10 minutes and telling me he needs to be out by a certain time? Will that massive delay with the camera do damage to the power of this scene? Will the actors’  performances be as effective as they possibly can be now that they have been up for so long? Are any of the crew angry with me? Can I afford this overtime? Is the person supplying this location going to cut us off? I have been trying to block a lot of the shooting of this film out of my memory because it really was quite damaging to my psyche.

One of the other major difficulties I had shooting this scene was the amount of coverage with each character at the dinner table. Obviously the stunts, prosthetics and blocking had their own tedious approaches, but shooting dialogue and character reactions all around a dinner table, especially when there were seven people to cover, proved to be especially complicated with only one camera and not much time to shoot.

I will say that I would’ve never understood how to approach a scene like that if it wasn’t for one of my Gods, Mr. John Carpenter, and his soulful advice when he was making The Thing. When asked how he managed to get all that coverage with an ensemble like that, he stated his method very simply: “Treat the cast like a circle, put the camera inside the circle and go clockwise. If the camera’s outside the circle, you’re screwed.” Thanks, JC.

Filmmaking is a logistical enterprise and truly a collaborative art and you can not do it all by yourself. Without a tenacious crew and committed cast, Drifter would have never been shot on a 13 day schedule with a super tiny budget.

Self-producing your first feature film will be an extremely painful experience. Not sometimes painful. It’s all-the-way painful. Do not expect it to be fun because it’s not. Do not expect it to be therapeutic because it’s not. If everyone’s laughing on set and having a great time, then you’re not pushing yourself enough. You’re creating a world that will be archived forever, so laugh when the work is done.

Drifter is certainly not a perfect film by any stretch. It’s rough around the edges, but it’s a film nonetheless. Now it’s time to make a better one, because making movies is just success training. MM

Drifter opened in theaters February 24, 2017, courtesy of XLrator Media.