One of the compliments I frequently receive on my new film Forget Me Not is that it feels like a studio film with a large budget. I assure you, a studio was not involved and the budget was decent at best. Paradoxically, money didn’t buy me production value. I know it sounds crazy, but our production value came from tools anyone can afford.
Three years ago, Jamieson Stern and I began writing Forget Me Not in that isolated screenwriting netherworld where anything is possible and the blank page beckons. Then the necessary infrastructure began to emerge: Managers, production companies, lawyers and financiers. As we neared production, the whole snowball was tearing down the mountain, just as we’d hoped it would, and budgets were flying. As a producer as well as the director, I was intimately involved with the financial considerations of the production and I quickly came to the sickening realization that everything costs money. You want to drain that pool? Well that’ll be $250 to refill it. You want to shoot on the roof of your hospital location? That’s $500 an hour extra. You want an establishing shot of an anonymous suburban house in Northridge? Well it turns out their kid needs braces, and—you guessed it—that’ll be $1,000 please.
I love directing. I’m lucky (or cursed) enough to be born for this job—the controlled chaos, the last-minute improvisation, the problem solving, the 14-hour days… all of it. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the financial side of producing. I was gripped by anxiety, losing sleep and couldn’t focus. Then, tossing and turning in bed one night during pre-production, I had an epiphany: Everything doesn’t cost money. The most important moviemaking tools are free. And then I got a good night’s sleep.
In the heat of production it’s easy to forget, but truly, the tools that distinguish us as moviemakers don’t require a team of VFX artists, a gyroscopic helicopter camera mount or a sushi bar at craft service. So here you go, a reminder of the recession-proof moviemaking tools that cost you nothing.
1. Get your script right.
Long before the production hordes overrun your film, you have the time and freedom to hone your script to a fine edge. Be ruthless and demand the absolute best from your script. Jamieson and I threw out our entire first draft after we realized it was not the film we set out to write. We had spent three months on it, but, I kid you not, all we kept from the first draft was the main character’s name.
I don’t care who you are, writing is the toughest job in town, and it’s easy to try to wiggle out of it. I love production—you’re actually doing something, not just sitting alone in front of your laptop—and I understand the temptation to say “good enough” and get the ball rolling before the script is completely ready. Don’t do it. The cliché is true: If it’s not there in the script, it will never be on the screen.
2. Work with your actors.
Granted, rehearsal time can cost you money, but I guarantee you can find some time to work with your actors prior to shooting, even if it’s for a few hours before cameras roll. Your actors signed on to your film because they love it and they want the film to succeed as much as you do. So there’s a good chance they’ll commit a few rehearsal days off the clock. On our film, our lead teenage actors even organized a beach day to hang out and get to know each other as friends.
Questionable acting can be a pitfall in horror films, and I was determined to get the best performances possible in Forget Me Not. Specifically, I felt the emotional journey of our lead character, Sandy, was crucial to the success of the film. She is under duress for most of the film, and the risk was her performance being one note. In preparing for the shoot, I worked with actress Carly Schroeder to develop a shorthand for the emotional arc of her character, to map her progression throughout the film. Carly is incredibly talented and hardworking, and she made my job easy, but without taking the time to create a dialog with her I never would have been able to maximize her talents.
3. Put the camera in the right place.
As a former cinematographer, this one is near and dear to my heart. I can’t stress this enough: Learn camera blocking and movement. Learn color theory. Learn focal lengths. Nothing squanders the power of a scene faster than ineffective or arbitrary camera work. I’m not talking about copying some kind of slick, low-angle dolly shot over wet pavement with a tobacco grad. I’m talking about developing the visual grammar of your film, so the camera blocking underpins your story and its emotional progression. You’re going to be deciding where the camera goes no matter what. It might as well be a conscious decision that makes your film better.
I shot documentaries for several years after film school, and nothing taught me more about using the camera to build a scene. Because the action is unfolding in real time, you don’t have a second chance to go back and get “coverage.” You learn to help tell the story with the camera. (And on documentaries when you fail, I guarantee you’ll get an earful from the editor.) Bringing this sensibility to any type of moviemaking is invaluable. Always ask yourself why you’re putting the camera in a particular place. What type of emotion does that lens and camera height evoke? Are you introducing a character in the most powerful visual way possible? Would it be stronger to combine two shots into one continuous camera move to bring the audience into the scene? These are the questions you need to be able to answer.
4. Kill your babies.
You’ve probably heard this violent expression before, and it’s true. At the end of the day, alone in the quiet of the editing room, all you’re left with is your footage. It doesn’t matter what you wrote. It doesn’t matter what you intended. It doesn’t matter that your favorite location looked really cool and cost $20,000 for the day. If it doesn’t work in the film, cut it. I mean it. The more you can separate yourself from any preconceived ideas, the better. In fact, I would recommend throwing out the script and never looking at it again. And for God’s sake don’t give the script to your editor. I’m kidding… sort of.
In Forget Me Not we cut an entire sequence that we had previously considered the lynchpin of our ending. Gone without a trace. It didn’t work, and the film is much better off without it. Believe me, it was a difficult choice (and didn’t win me any points with the actors I cut), but it took the film up a notch. I see too many films that would have benefited greatly from some ruthless editing. Don’t let yours be one of them.
I’m sure I’m overlooking a herd of other free moviemaking tools (i.e. the old “I’m shooting a student film, Officer” technique), but for me these are the biggies. And at the end of the day, I take solace in the knowledge that no matter the film’s budget, I can always afford them.