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Justin Evan’s No-Budget Odyssey

Justin Evan’s No-Budget Odyssey

Articles - Directing

Left: Evans behind the camera; top: Portland actor,
Marc Mahoney; bottom: Evans’s high school drama teacher Rick
Crouse in a starring role.

My knuckles should have been bleeding,
because I’d just punched a glass coffee table. Hard. My fist expressed
frustration through a glass surface because of some rather bad
news regarding my first feature film. It was stolen. I had spent
all my savings on the film. Dropped out of NYU for the film. Quit
my job at a photo lab three weeks prior for the film. Now I had
nothing to show my interested distributor and therefore nothing
to sell. A diamond ring sparkled on my fiance’s finger that required
12 more monthly payments. All my plans and dreams had been destroyed.
And Christmas was only two weeks away.

As I gathered the shards of glass, A Day In The
Life
was born. It wasn’t an epiphany and was far from focused.
Simply, I knew that my first feature was forever gone and that
left me no other choice but to begin again. And I needed to make
sure the tragedies of the first film would not be repeated.

Learning from one’s mistakes is not an easy task.
One is capable of learning from mistakes in both positive and negative
directions. I almost learned not to trust anyone. Instead, I studied
up on contract law, acquired copies of some standard studio contracts,
and decided to surround myself with a better caliber of people.
Contracts don’t guarantee honesty. Honest people don’t nullify
the need for contracts. I almost learned the only way to make a
film is to lie. Lie to insurance agencies, casting agents, equipment
companies, cast and crew about budget, number of shooting days,
script content, and anything else that might result in a negative
answer. Although many independent filmmakers consider lying "Standard
Operating Procedure" I could not accept this. From a moral
standpoint I believe the ends never justify the means. If I could
not make a film honestly then it’s not worth making. The first
film’s foundation of industry-standard white lies caused its downfall.
I was certain an attempt to make a film honestly could fair no
worse.

The final concept I almost learned, a concept the
entire industry accepts as a mighty galactic law, is that a film
made for 10 grand is incapable of looking more expensive than 10
grand. On the surface this appears logical, mathematical, self-evident.
However, X-number of dollars is not the only factor in calculating
production value. The appropriate equation is X-number of dollars
plus Y-number of productive hours equals Z–production value. Inexpensive
digital technology increases Y exponentially. Storyboarding, rehearsals
and lighting diagrams all increase the productivity of hours spent,
as well. Time, in the right amounts, can look like enormous amounts
of money.

These lessons became my mantra. I began working on A
Day In The Life
the next day. Of all the new people involved
with the production, my co-director, James Walker, proved to
be my strongest asset. Despite the monolithic set-back, James
raised $2,000.00 for the initial February shoot. He quit his
job in Ashland and slept on my couch for six weeks while we phoned
companies, held casting sessions, scouted and secured locations,
and locked down enormous amounts of equipment.

We decided to shoot one third of the film with our
initial money. I began writing letters of intent to companies and
putting together small proposals of stills, schedules, and script
pages. James met with the companies we sent these to and established
our needs. We targeted companies that had helped us with the first
film. Most of the companies agreed to help again. The small amount
invested in letters and proposals netted us a helicopter, 30,000
watts of light, a 1-ton grip truck, an Arri-SRII with all the trimmings,
and 5,000 feet of donated stock from Kodak.

Our next task was crew selection. James placed ads
at the local film school and several colleges for crew positions.
We received about 40 resumes for crew positions. After a series
of interviews 16 people were selected. I deliberately favored Portland
actors because it would save us money and allow me to have extensive
rehearsals.

James then used our proposal and accumulated information
to secure a location. Our proposal, dedication, and insurance convinced
Waddles, a famous 40-year-old Portland diner, to let us shoot for
six (two weekends) nights in their restaurant. We signed simple
but clear contracts with the location in order to establish what
each party expected.

Our final job was to rehearse both cast and crew.
Actors were required to be off book when they walked in the door
for the first rehearsal. Our goal was to hone the performances
to perfection before we began shooting. All the actors had stage
backgrounds and found this quite comfortable. I also met with certain
crew members and made sure they knew their duties. Free crews lack
experience, and therefore will function slowly. I spent time helping
them hone their skills so magazines would load quickly and lights
would move swiftly into place.

We also spent time planning every shot and lighting
set-up before we began shooting. We spent a total of eight nights
sitting in the booths of Waddle’s drawing out the lighting diagrams
and deciding each camera set-up with precision.

With the equipment secured, contracts signed, cast
and crew rehearsed, and every shot and lighting set-up prepared
we began shooting A Day In The Life on January 26, 1996 at 7:00
P.M. Despite all our plans, complications arose. It snowed during
the first weekend’s shoot, which rarely happens in Portland. This
slowed travel time considerably. James laughed that the weather
could get no worse.

As we began preparing for our second weekend, the
snow melted and refroze as an inch of black ice. Travel time grew
from 20 minutes to an hour and a half. The crew arrived two hours
early to beat impending road closures. But despite all the weather
set-backs, shooting went smoothly. Our work impressed an actor’s
parents so greatly they invested $1,000.00 toward our next shoot.
James laughed at how the weather could get no worse. So the ice
melted into the worst flood to hit Portland since the 1950s. Mud
slides wiped out homes and closed highways for months. President
Clinton declared Portland a disaster zone. James never discussed
the weather again.

In March we shot another third of the film. The process
we had mastered for the first six-day shoot was simply repeated.
Our work convinced our new investors to give us enough money to
shoot the final 30 minutes of the movie and transfer all the film
to BetacamSP. And our video transfer impressed the owner of a post-production
facility so much he agreed to defer all post-production costs until
the film was picked up by a distributor.

On January 1, 1997 A Day In The Life will be answer-printed.
The film boasts an arial montage at sunrise, seven major locations,
over 800 camera set-ups, a 40-minute original score, impeccable
sound design, a theatrical quality poster, digital press kits,
and a company website. We’ve spent only $17,000.00. Thank God.
I’ve still got a coffee table to replace. MM

Justin Evans can be reached through his email
address, jevans@portlandpictures.com

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