In 2004, moviemakers Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou made their film Take Out on a budget of $3,000 out of their own pockets.
It went on to be a hit on the festival circuit, garnering two nominations and winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Nashville Film Festival. There was a time, before the digital format was widespread, that a $50,000 budget for a movie would have seemed minuscule—even for an indie; $3,000 wouldn’t have even covered the catering. Which makes Take Out, which tells the story of an illegal Chinese immigrant who works as a deliveryman on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, even more remarkable.
Shortly after the film’s release on DVD, courtesy of Kino Entertainment, MM hosted a session in which Baker and Tsou interviewed each other to provide some insight into how they were able to do so much with so little.
Sean Baker (SB): So MovieMaker Magazine asked us to discuss how we pulled off a feature film for $3,000.
Shih-Ching Tsou (ST): How? How did we do it? Because we can do everything.
SB: Holy shit.
ST: No, I mean we saved a lot of money because we didn’t hire a crew. No cameramen or editors. We shot the film on digital video and then edited it ourselves. We did everything including subtitles—Chinese and English. We were wearing many hats.
SB: Wearing many hats is one of the most important aspects of making a low-budget film. So I advise people to get to know the technical side of moviemaking as much they would learn the techniques of writing and directing. I personally hate shooting, however I have been forced to shoot both Take Out and Prince of Broadway because of budget restraints.
ST: So, basically you have to be able and willing to do anything, and have good friends.
SB: Let’s talk about the history, the timeline of making Take Out.
ST: At the time, we were living above a Chinese restaurant, so I went to talk to the deliverymen, and they told me stories. Sean and I always wanted to make a different New York film; a side of New York that is hardly seen by most people—the side of New York that is often ignored in mainstream films. Once we wrote the script, we searched for a location. We found a restaurant on 102nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue. The owner, Feng Lin, was very generous and let us shoot in the restaurant free of charge. If we had to rent that location out for 30 days or build a set, it would have cost us thousands of dollars. So a free and central location was the biggest savings on the budget.
SB: I think that it is very important to point out that people deserve to be paid, and we wish we could have paid them. But if you are making this kind of movie, you are basically asking everybody to work for free. We had to find people who are passionate about filmmaking and willing to work more for the love of the art than the money. Some of the main actors got deferred payment contracts which will hopefully result in payment for them someday. However, the film is still in the red. Although the film made money at the box office and a DVD deal was struck with Kino Entertainment, advertising costs still have to be paid back to the distributors before we see any money. It may take years. So that’s the main point, you have to find as much as you can for free. You have to find the location for free, actors and crew for free and borrow as much equipment as possible. And still you will have to spend some money. To get us to our premiere at Slamdance, we spent a total of $3,000. We will break it down now and explain where the money was allocated.
ST: The rental of the Sony DSR-PD150 camera from our friend cost $400; we would have bought the $3,000 camera and Ebay-ed it after the shoot, but we didn’t even have the money to buy it upfront. We were broke at the time and could barely pay rent.
SB: If we had the $3,000 dollars to spare, we would have done that. We would have bought the camera and avoided renting. That’s what I did with Prince of Broadway. With that film, I basically bought a camera, then sold it right after the shoot, hence it’s like a free rental. I lost—at the most—$200 on the sell.
ST: Still, even with our rental of the PD150 on Take Out, our friend gave us the generous offer of using the camera for an entire month for $400.
SB: That is extremely generous and it’s very hard to find that kind of deal. So having friends in the industry is invaluable.
ST: Yep. Have good friends.
SB: Some money also went to actors. We gave each “delivery” actor $5. And we shot about 50 deliveries, so that’s around $250.
ST: And the only actor who got paid upfront was Ms. [Wang-Thye] Lee (Big Sister), because she was a non-professional. Although now she has been bitten by the acting bug, at the time we were asking a lot of a person whom was not pursuing acting. We were taking away a lot of her personal time, plus asking her to be a consultant on the film. She became our “fact-checker.” We paid her around $500.
SB: Then the rest of the money was spent on MiniDV tapes, audio equipment rental (also discounted from a friend), subway, food, car rental, gas and gifts for the workers at the restaurant.
ST: We already had the editing equipment—Final Cut Pro and a Mac—so we didn’t work that into the budget.
SB: Then we delivered the master on DVCam. We borrowed a deck and we dumped it to DVCam. That’s how we showed it at Slamdance, which was the film’s premiere.
ST: Then a year ago, right before our theatrical release, we color-corrected and remastered the whole film at a company called Next Millennium.
SB: It’s a post house in downtown Manhattan, good friends of ours, who were very generous to give us a very good deal on post-production. Take Out was finally color-corrected on the Avid and prepared and mastered for its theatrical release. As you can see, it’s really all about favors, and giving people the proper credits. I don’t think it’s possible to make a movie like this after your first and second film. I think this is a model to follow if you are starting off, because after that first and second film, you’ve used up all your favors.
ST: Another thing we didn’t spend any money on was lighting. We shot with available lighting, and this is part of the style of the film. The only time we enhanced the lighting was in the back of the restaurant, where Ming keeps his money. We placed an extra florescent in that area.
SB: The little music we used in the film, we got it for free. There are two songs in the film: One was a hip-hop song that we found on Myspace; one is an R&B song that a friend of mine wrote and performed. For an entire page during the end credits (including their MySpace and Website URLs), they generously gave us their tracks for free. The hip-hop song was even used in the trailer.
Anyway, let’s sum up the conversation?
ST: So the conclusion is, in order make a low-budget film, first you have to be very passionate about your project. Second, you have to have more than one set of skills, to be able to wear many hats. Along with Charles Jang, our lead actor, we did everything. Costume design, sound, shooting, editing, poster design, web design, you name it.
SB: And three is patience. It took us six long years to get the film to this point: Five years to get to theatrical release, six years to its DVD release. But if we didn’t persevere, we wouldn’t have found Cavu Pictures, who released the film theatrically. It wouldn’t had been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and it wouldn’t had been picked up by a very prestigious label: Kino Entertainment. And now it has given us the opportunity to make another film with other people’s money.
ST: Yep. You have to believe in your project, just keep on pushing and pushing. MM