Every moviemaker out there should make a feature for $10,000. It’s the best experience you’ll ever have, and if you can pull through, you’ll be a certified moviemaker. The irony is that it actually isn’t that hard to do; it’s just a pain to do it well.
It used to depend on who you knew, but now, thanks to sites like Craigslist and Mandy.com, even that doesn’t matter. You can easily meet people with equipment who’ll work for peanuts, if not for free. My film, Fighting Nirvana, was made in one location with four actors with a crew of less than 10. We pulled all-nighters, like kids in school cramming for a test. Eventually, we got that A+. This is my advice to anyone thinking of doing the same thing:
1. The Budget is Spending Money
You’re going to lose money in this venture, at least for the time being. This needs to be money you can afford to live without; it’s not a loan you’re going to get back. Of course the goal is to eventually make back a profit, but if this happens, it won’t be overnight. So whatever money you put in the budget, say goodbye to it, and be comfortable knowing it’s going to be spent. That may sound cynical, but you’ll actually be a better executive this way. Rather than being stingy, you’ll use the money for whatever’s best for the film.
2. Do the Paperwork
You’ve all heard of an evil place called “Development Hell.” Well, there’s an even worse place: “Post-Production Limbo.” Basically, it’s when the movie gets shot but remains unfinished for behind-the-scenes complications or whatever BS reasons. Fighting Nirvana spent a few months in limbo when there was a fight with the crew member who was in possession of the footage, and the location rights. It was weird thinking that the movie was shot but couldn’t be assembled. Many indie films, especially in this ultra-low budget range, end up unfinished—I guess due to the inexperience of the people involved and the lack of incentive. This is why paperwork is important. Make sure there’s a plan and, more importantly, get it all in writing!
3. Actors are Your Greatest Asset
Actors can be the greatest gift you have. You don’t need to use your budget on visual effects, action scenes, violence or even that dreaded fallback: Sex scenes. Story and characters should be what really carries a movie to begin with, but if you’re in position where your budget won’t let you have much else, great! Now you’re forced to be creative. This is where you need to roll up your sleeves, put aside the technical stuff and become an artist.
Work with the cast, push them and make them the faces of your story. Of course, this can be tough when you’re on set and there’s only so many hours left in which to shoot and money is being spent each day—which, of course, is why moviemaking is an ongoing challenge. What’s amazing is when you watch the footage and see what kind of actors you’ve got. For example, Christopher Kloko, one of the most talented stage actors in New York, is someone who reads the role once, knows exactly what works and needs no direction. Heather Cavalet, on the other hand, likes to be directed a lot. Both are equally talented, especially with facial expressions. Patrick Knighton is a subtle actor who stays true to the page, but does new things in his personality. I feel a strange affection for the four actors who went on this journey with me; they’ve traveled inside my head to the far reaches of my brain and back—and they’ve told me they’d like to go back in. People will see a cheap movie for good acting, just like they’ll brave a bad neighborhood for old friends.
4. Be Wary of Multi-Hyphenates
I personally am of the opinion that the producer, the director and the cinematographer should always be three different people. They’re three very different jobs, all equally absorbing. I’m surprised how often I encounter people in indie moviemaking who claim to do it all. If you honestly can do it all, more power to you. I certainly can’t. On Fighting Nirvana, the producer was also the DP. I realized on the first day of shooting that he now had way too much control, which wouldn’t have been a problem if he hadn’t been so hindered in doing both tasks. He was also originally going to be the film’s editor. This didn’t happen, which is why the film got finished.
5. Egos are Contagious
When it’s a crew of 10 people or less, there really can’t be any friction. Everyone needs to get along. And the best way to do this is to avoid the ego-trap of ordering people around—because once you get an ego, everyone else will. This is when people suddenly bring up that they’re working for very little and because of that, they no longer feel the need to come through on future obligations they had agreed to in your original verbal agreement.
6. Be in the Editing Room Every Day
I was surprised when I recently spoke to an indie director who claimed he felt little need to be in the editing room. Dude, you’re actually fortunate enough to have made a movie without worrying about studio interference; get in there and shape every single moment of the editing process! Actually seeing a film be crafted is usually educational for first-timers, plus you can help guide the editor, who often is new to the project and still getting a feel for the story. To me, this is much more meaningful on a feature than it is on a short; the more there is to edit, the more distinct the film’s voice becomes during this process. Being in there every day gives you a love and appreciation for every single shot and cut that gets used in the final edit, and it allows you to start planning for any necessary dubs and re-shoots early on.
7. Even in the Editing Room, Keep Writing the Film
After being away from the material for a while, it was interesting to come back and revise it after filming. Even with an almost entirely diminished budget and the original location no longer available, I grabbed as many shots as I could and eventually crafted an entirely new opening. A full moon, a filthy apartment, voiceovers—with these tools I was able to set an atmosphere four months after we had wrapped.
8. Make the Most of Your Premiere… Because it Only Happens Once
I was very fortunate in being able to get a small venue in Times Square to play the movie for a single night: The Times Square Arts Center, formerly The Laugh Factory. I still can’t get over that: A movie made for under $10,000 played in a historic venue! We were able to get an IMDb page just from that, and had a nice crowd of friends, family and the actors. Sadly, no screening since has ever been able to measure up to that premiere. Even when we actually got into a film festival, which was obviously a much more meaningful screening, we couldn’t generate as much buzz. When you can’t afford much marketing, you’ve really got to build for that one premiere and keep going on the momentum from that. No matter how proud of the film everyone is, they’re eventually going to move on and soon it’ll be old news. Besides, no future screenings can ever really compare to that first time.
9. The Best Way to Promote the Last One is to Start Working on the Next One
So despite all the stress and time in limbo, now I had managed to make it to the other side; the movie was finished, everyone enjoyed it, it had a spiffy little DVD cover and I wasn’t flat broke (gettin’ there though). But getting distribution would be its own mountain to climb. Submitting to festivals was expensive and they took forever to reply; soon six months went by and the movie wasn’t new anymore. What helped was that I didn’t wait, but got right to work planning the next film. And as I met new actors, producers and investors, I kept bringing up having made a previous film. Eventually one agent heard about it, checked it out and we got picked up by a distributor. It took three tries, but as I tell people, “The first distributor said it looked too dark. The second one said it looked too cheap. The third one said it was just right.”
If you want to make movies, just go for it with what you have. For one thing, you’ll learn what it’s like to be in the executive’s chair, and you’ll better appreciate why they worry about money so much. But even more than that, if you really want to make movies, this is the best thing you can do for yourself as an artist.
Gabe Rodríguez graduated from Syracuse University’s acclaimed film school, Newhouse, in 2006. Since then he has worked on several TV shows, including “Bill Moyers’ Journal,” (PBS) “The Apprentice,” (NBC) and “Make Me a Supermodel” (Bravo). He has twice been a producer for MenuMasters, a major award show for restaurant franchises. In 2007, he made The Joy That Got Away, a fan documentary about the making of the cult classic Return To Oz (1985). Although he has been writing screenplays since high school, and five feature-length ones in just the past three years, Fighting Nirvana is his first major project. For more information, visit http://fightingnirvana.weebly.com.