An average of 23 new superhero movies come out every week. And to be honest, I can’t get enough of them. I’ll defend Ant-Man until my death (Paul Rudd is the best—end of argument.)
Superhero films get a bad rap, and it’s understandable. They usually play it safe, are predictable, and come off as cash grabs even when they work. But they’re big, fun spectacles that awaken the kid inside you who played with Ninja Turtle figures on the bedroom floor for hours on end. And if I could do something like that as an adult, then why not?
Heckbender—the comedy group that is Winston Carter, Benjamin Crutcher, Brand Rackley and myself—has always joked about making a superhero movie based on an idea Ben had years ago. He was trying to see what we’d say “no” to doing, but we had just started making videos and needed ideas, so we just went along with it.
The pitch: a fake trailer starring a guy, Spaghettiman (played by Ben Crutcher), who tries to stop a woman from being robbed by lobbing spaghetti at the thief. When it fails, he runs.
Sound like a feature film, right? If you said “no,” then you are correct.
We had a thread of an idea and no money. So how did we get to the point where, over three years later, Spaghettiman, the feature film, is being released on iTunes, Amazon, DirecTV and other places? And how do you make a superhero film with no money?
We began making sketch comedy videos in 2014, often six at a time. We’d rush through them and then I’d get to editing so we could post as soon as possible. They were—how can I say this nicely? Hit or miss. But failing is good. By failing, we learned our equipment better, we learned new techniques, tried new things and learned how to work together and trust one another. Trust is the most important thing on a film set. Especially when you want to shoot 110 pages about a guy who throws spaghetti at people.
Heckbender doesn’t have Marvel or DC resources. All of us were working full-time jobs and could only shoot three days a week. We knew we couldn’t do amazing special effects, car chases, or explosions. Knowing that helped us hone a script that emphasized character and comedy. We knew we couldn’t have 10 minutes of dialogue, then 10 minutes of time-chewing action. We had to make sure what we were doing was funny and built a world these characters could thrive in.
Set the Rules of the World and Stick to Them
Members of Heckbender like all kinds of comedy: improv, satire, dry, absurdist, you name it. We all have a favorite. This was the focus of many discussions while writing the script: What kind of comedy do we want to make? This was the most important decision of the entire film, because it affected everything. Do we acknowledge how absurd the superhero is? Do other characters acknowledge it? Does he break the fourth wall? Do we metaphorically wink at the camera from time to time, telling our audience, “Look how silly this is?” The amount of serious discussion about this was, on its own, absurd and funny. I imagine anyone listening in thought Christopher Guest was shooting a new film.
In the end, we decided to play it straight. It’s a normal world with normal people and Spaghettiman is trying to make a living in it. And then we stuck to it. The rules were important because it gave us boundaries to adhere to and keep us moving toward the goal.
Planning and Testing Helps You Achieve the Seemingly Impossible
Pre-production, to me, is the most important part of the filmmaking process. It makes or breaks everything that comes after. Excel spreadsheets are your friends. Shot lists are your friends. I’ve met so many people who stumble at this point in filmmaking.
We were using a Sony a7s for the shoot due to its low-light capabilities and versatility. It’s also great because it’s small, so we could get away with using it places we shouldn’t. We gathered for a few days and nights and shot some things, then I’d edit and play with color to learn which camera settings we wanted to use. I can’t emphasize enough the value of great filmmaking communities. I read countless articles and message boards for research and help.
We also began work on the soundtrack in pre-production. Vance Kotrla, our incredibly talented composer, would send us demos of themes and fight songs for us to tweak and listen to while writing.
Reilly Smith, the film’s producer, and I were meticulous with planning. While writing the script, we were breaking down locations, actors, wardrobe, props, the shot list, the schedule. And then revising constantly. We had a 110-page script and no money. If we weren’t prepared, it’d never happen.
We had one main folder on Google Drive we would work on together and share with everyone. We had a locations list that broke things down by size of cast needed, time of day, and an estimated time we’d be there. We had our costume list. We had a prop list broken down by scene. We had the film’s master timeline which helped map out what costume and makeup we’d need when. And many more lists. I’m pretty sure I even made a list that linked to all our lists.
We were all very cognizant of what we were asking our friends to do: donate their time to our film. You hear a lot of horror stories about an actor showing up at 8 a.m. and not leaving until 8 p.m. for just a few lines of dialogue. We didn’t want that. We planned every scene with someone giving us their time to be quick and painless. Detailed shot lists were prepared. The core group would show up early to prepare for the shoot. DP Molly Becker and I would go over each camera setup so that when it came time to move to the next one, we had a course of action to take. We weren’t figuring it out as we went. We had it planned already.
It was, honestly, the very least we could do. With a budget that was somewhere between nothing and a 2003 Rav 4 with 95,000 miles on it, we are forever in debt to our large cast who gave us their time.
On Indie Superhero Movies, You Can Improvise
Many of our actors were talented improvisers and we wanted to take advantage of that. We’d tell them to know the lines and we’d make sure to get those takes out of the way, but then we’d play around some. Sometimes we’d do it on the spot. Other times, we planned for it.
Keto, the film’s villain, hires a group of henchmen. All six of these guys are some of the best improvisers around. They had scripts but we told them to feel free to shape the character how they saw fit and try whatever they want while shooting. And they were amazing. Some of the film’s best parts were just made up on the spot. For example, Blake Rosier made his henchman a cat lover with a fighting style best be described as “aggressive dancing.” Jack Norman displayed how good his character, “The Night Bandit,” was by pulling out a wallet and claiming he stole it from Keto himself. Samir Forghani showed us three possible scenarios when encountering Spaghettiman, one involving him losing badly. And Brandon Raman’s henchman just talked about building brick walls. Literally. He was going to beat Spaghettiman by building brick walls.
Now, this is where the film’s rules really mattered. Sometimes things would go a little too far into satire or become to absurd, and we’d have to guide it back. And as much as we might have loved those moments, one joke that didn’t adhere to the world we created could knock an audience out of that world as well.
You Don’t Make a Movie Just to Play it Safe
We wanted to make a superhero with our own money, and we had very little. We originally wanted it to be small and easy, but we’re our own worst enemies: We went big and crazy. So many parts, so many locations, stunts, action, everything. We knew it’d be tough. We didn’t know if we could pull it off.
But what’s the alternative? Play it safe and know that everything will work out? Where’s the fun in that?
Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Do something you’re not sure will work. Worst case scenario, you have to reshoot. Big deal. Don’t be safe. Be naive. Be stupid. Ignore logic. “Borrow” locations, like we did with Winston’s rooftop, a location we didn’t have permission for and weren’t sure if the alarm door leading up to it was on. (It was not!)
We knew we wanted a big fight to end it. But how? Thankfully, our good friend and the film’s villain, Joe LoCicero, is a professional fighter and jumped at the chance to choreograph something insane for us. I don’t want to speak for him, but I’m sure even he doubted what we were doing: “Oh, you want me to choreograph a fight with 12 people that masks cuts so it looks like one long take?” What a stupid idea.
He jumped at the opportunity. And it’s better than we ever thought because we weren’t afraid to fail. We met multiple times before and during shooting to rehearse. Joe brought us scenes from kung fu films and showed us his inspiration for a scene and how it should look. He meshed so many ideas together to come up with intricate moves and actions. Ben, to his credit, was down for anything. You could call Ben many things; athletic wouldn’t be one. But he took a hard kick to the throat and kept going.
Filmmaking is supposed to be daring and exciting. It’s supposed to challenge and excite us. My biggest recommendation to you is to throw yourself at an idea that excites you, no matter how impossible it might seem.
Then do a lot of planning. MM
Spaghettiman opens on VOD September 23, 2016, courtesy of Uncork’d Entertainment. It screens at the Los Feliz Theatre in Los Angeles September 24, 2016.