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Of Guerillas and Weasel

Of Guerillas and Weasel

Articles - Directing

Above all else, in order to
make a no-budget feature film you must be insane. Anyone who
does not agree with this has never made one. It is the only real "rule" in
this sort of enterprise. I am in the process of trying to raise
post-production completion funds for my film, Bloody Mary,
so writing this article is both a means of enlightening others
on the subject of no-budget filmmaking and reflecting on what
I’ve done so far as a guerrilla soldier in the cinema war. And
it gives me something to do while I wait for the phone to ring.

First of all, let’s drop the expression "no-budget." It
is used far too much (I have already used it 3 times) and automatically
gives a negative image of the exciting venture upon which you are
about to embark. For our purposes here, we’ll use the gentler term "Budget-Lite," or "BL" for
short. I realize this sounds silly, but somehow I like the sound
of it.

My wife and I decided to go to a lawyer to see about
setting up a limited partnership in order to raise funds for a
$500,000 feature. Imagine our surprise when we found out that the
legal costs alone would exceed $10,000, which was more than the
budget of our first BL feature, Subculture. Sure, we could
have charged the legal fees, and worked for years trying to find
investors, but who has that kind of patience? We, the "Credit
Card Kids" (as I fear my generation of filmmakers will come
to be known) do not. We want to cut directly to the chase. We are
willing to put ourselves at extreme financial risk in return for
total creative autonomy.

I am not sure that we are as dauntless and heroic
as the Coen brothers or Sam Raimi, who spent the early 80’s in
limited partnerships raising funds for their films Blood Simple and The
Evil Dead
. Joel, Ethan, Sam: I salute you for having that patience.

Credit cards are the new alternative to the limited
partnership or the Subchapter S Corporation. People are producing
quality films using the Budget-Lite system and they are making
money and garnering a certain amount of respect. More importantly,
these films are working as springboards to successful careers.
They’re on top of the world, with their film festivals and three-picture
deals. Sometimes they also become spoiled brats, but oh, how we
all want to bejust like them.

Director (and author) Jamies Westby
with castmembers Melik Malkasian and Marty Ryan.

The "insanity" clause comes most into
effect here. If you can borrow 10 grand from your grandmother, then
you runsmack into Filmmaker Bliss. Do it. It is likely that she will
not charge interest. But if this is not an opportunity that presents
itself, it is time to get a credit card or ten.

Before my wife and I decided to exercise this option,
many people told us it was a very bad idea. "If you cannot
pay them off," they said, "you will go bankrupt." "Yes," we
replied, "but if we do not make our movie we will most likely
throw ourselves in front of a large, fastmoving vehicle of some
kind."

A person could, in fact, easily be forced into bankruptcy.
Is your automobile or your big-screen television more important
than your film? If so, you probably shouldn’t do it. But if you
have nothing to lose, then steel your nerve and put it on the plastic.

You very likely have either lame credit history or
no credit history. If this is the case, get one or both of your
parents or an aunt or somebody to cosign for a card. This means
that you will have a credit card with both your names on it. The
next thing you do is charge a few things on this card. Nothing
expensive that you can’t pay off -the idea here is to give yourself
a credit history. Buy some groceries with it and pay it off promptly.

Wait a few weeks and apply for another one, this
time by yourself, using your other card to give you clout. Go to
every bank in town and get as many applications for Visa and Mastercards
as you can. Most of them will turn you down, but not all of them.
Once you get one on your own, other banks win begin sending you
applications for cards, some of them preapproved and some with
rather high credit limits.

Melik Malkasian, Bloody Mary‘s star Badass.

You know that first card? The one your parents
co-signed for? Do not use this card for your movie costs unless you
want your co-signer to be responsible for the payments.

These cards will be what you pay for your film with.
At first it’ll feel illegal, getting all this cool processing and
workprinting and sound transferring seemingly for "free." After
your first couple of bills, however, it feels quite legal and does
not seem free at all.

I could say that it is a good idea to have a quality
screenplay before you make your BL film, but of course this is
(or should be) obvious. We have no stars, we have very little in
the way of production values, and of course we are Budget-Lite.
So a script that is competent enough to transcend these barriers
is a damn good thing to have.

What makes a good script? Let’s take some advice
from the great Billy Wilder, a personal hero of mine and one of
the finest writer/directors of all time. An aphorism of his, as
told to his screenwriting collaborators on the set of the cynical
masterpiece Ace in the Hole (1951), was as follows: "Now
what is it which makes a scene interesting? If you see a man coming
through a doorway, it means nothing. If you see him coming through
a window -that is at once interesting. Please bear this in mind
in every scene."

Budget-Lite budgets can run anywhere from $8,000
to $50,000. Beyond these figures, I think one should have to come
up with a new term.

So far on our film we have spent about $13,000. All
of this has gone toward film stock ($3532.50 for 40 rolls of Kodak
color negative), lab costs ($6735.49 through workprint stage, including
sound transfers), equipment rentals ($2,500 for Eclair NPR camera,
DAT machine, 2 Arri light kits, microphones, tripods, etc., and
3 months of flatbed rental). We also paid money for food, around
$300. Pay for as little as you can get away with and still make
a good film. That is the essence of Budget Lite.

All of our locations were acquired for free. This
is essential. If you write your screenplay based on what locations
you have at your disposal, as Robert Rodriguez did with El Mariachi,
then you’re way ahead in the game. You will eventually get kicked
out of other locations by the cops, especially if you’re in a public
place with no permission. Horror maestro George Romero, during
the making of an 8mm feature entitled The Man from the Meteor,
was arrested by security guards for throwing a burning dummy off
a rooftop. Sometimes a night in jail is well worth it for a groovy
shot. Also, try and write your script with a budget in mind. Or
you can do the opposite, which is tougher. It’s probably best to
avoid this, especially if your script is laden with explosions
or Forrest Gump-like special effects. Forrest
Gump
is not a Budget-Lite movie. For my film I was hooked up
with a talent agent who gave me dozens of resumes and head shots,
all from actors who were willing to work for nothing. Most of my
cast came from these photographs. Bad acting is the evil creature
that kills most BL films.

Getting talented people to work for free is hard
but not impossible. There are plenty of actors, talented actors,
who want a shot at the big screen, for money or no money. You,
of course, will offer them the no – money route and try and make
them a big star.

Holly Spencer plays Westby’s femme
fatale.

Depending on your project, you may want to populate
your cast with nonactors. Just make sure you are thoroughly comfortable
with these people in your movie. Sometimes when a nonactor is forced
to "act," it can get pretty ugly and ruin the credibility
of your picture. But if you can find a way of tricking someone into
giving a good performance, it could be the best thing that happens
to your film. For good examples of non-actors used to greatest effect,
look at Werner Herzog’s use of the mental patient Bruno S. in The
Mystery of Kaspar Hauser
and Stroszek, or the authenticity
of the street kids in Hector Babenco’s Pixote.

To get your actors (non-actors or otherwise) enthusiastic
about being a part of your film for no money, it helps to throw
a big party before you begin shooting, and talk constantly about
how the film will be a big hit at Sundance and Cannes. Spread plenty
of schmooze on the crackers.

I believe that the technical facets of filmmaking
are vastly overrated. Aside from the sound mixer and the cinematographer,
I am of the belief that trustworthy friends and relatives, or enthusiastic
but inexperienced film students, are the best crew members to have
on a BL set. They always show up, they’re eager to learn, they
don’t mouth off, and you can pay them in tuna fish sandwiches.

The quality of location sound will obviously make
or break your production, so hire accordingly. Finding this person
to work for free is a little tougher than finding actors, but again,
not impossible. If you can’t find a person who will work for free,
offer him/her a piece of the picture. Put up an ad at a local film
school or a lab bulletin board for an ambitious, talented cinematographer.
They’re all over the place, looking to be someone’s Gregg Toland.
You shouldn’t have trouble getting them to work for free, either.
They most likely have a reel to build. All honest relationships
in BudgetLite filmmaking are based mainly on the mutual lust for
big-time success.

Top 10 Tips for
Budget-Liters

On Feb. 16, Independent moviemakers Jim Sander
and Laurie Maasen sold out the opening night of Seattle’s
Rainy States Film Festival with their feature "Oedipal
Breakfast" Here are their top 10 tips for Budget-Lite
Moviemakers:

1. Do more script draft

2. Shoot in color

3. Edit on a non-linear video system instead
of film

4. Don’t scrimp on location sound recording

5. Delegate more authority

6. Be less afraid to ask people for things

7. Learn to milk public opportunities

8. Spend other people’s money

9. Think more about distribution

10. Shoot in three or four hellacious weeks
instead of two suspensefilled years.

Hitchcock was a storyboard guy, Hawks was not. Whatever
camp you belong to is irrelevant to your success as a filmmaker.
What I’m getting at is this: Having your film planned out beforehand,
whether you draw storyboards or write out a detailed shot list,
is extremely helpful when making a BL picture. When you get to
your BL set and are dealing with your BL actors, you don’t want
to be suddenly trying to figure out what needs to be filme

I personally like to use storyboards. To me, they
present three different creative processes. You write your script,
then you somewhat rewrite the script with the storyboards, based
on locations and whatnot, and then you rewrite the storyboards
by what happens on the set. Things are constantly changing, but
it is a good thing to have something to work from. Plus, it’s a
nice feeling to be supposedly working when you’re really just drawing
cartoons. I’m especially envious of filmmakers who get paid for
drawing these cartoons.

"Discounts come to those who are weasely." This
would make a great quote in some kind of independent film bible,
if such a thing existed. Consider what that cat Kevin Smith (one
of those spoiled brats I was telling you about earlier) did to
get a deal on film stock for his picture Clerks. Before
starting production he signed up for some stupid class at a school
that had a film department, never went to the stupid class, and
got Kodak’s 20%-off student discount! That was a classic weasely
thing to do or I don’t know weasels

The same thing can be done regarding film schools’
extreme discounts on equipment rentals. Become good friends with
the local film school staff and the lab employees. I have these
people in my area thinking I’m a nice guy.

Labs will most likely give you a juicy package deal.
If one doesn’t, go to another. If you try, try, and try and no
lab will give you a discount, then you simply aren’t being weasely
enough. Try smiling more.

Every Budget-Lite film is going to be different.
Some will spend more money on the film stock in order to do a lot
of coverage, others will do everything in one take and with two-shots.
Figure out what kind of style your film needs and plan it out based
on that.

On my film we shot every single day for three weeks
and it was the most draining experience of my life. As I said before,
you must be insane. And I’ll add just one more rule: you must hire
people who are insane.

Also it’s a good idea to get married or find a companion
of some sort who believes in your project as much as you do. This
helps enormouslly (especially when they’re paying the bills). Film
is a collaborative medium, on and off the set. If I wasn’t married
(my wife is my co-writer and producer), I would probably be some
schmo working in a video store pontificating about how lucky that
guy Tarantino is.

If you’re serious, your project is going to take
up several years of your life. When a movie like Slacker comes
onto the scene, people say, "Wow. Cool new movie." But
to the filmmaker, it is not a new movie. It is, in fact, a very
old movie. It is a movie he has been working on for three years.
The idea is to try and produce a film that you won’t mind living
with for the rest of your life.

Or at least paying for. MM

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