Secrets of Indie Filmmaking: The No Budget Budget, Part 1

OK, so you have no money. No problem, money has pretty much ceased to be a requirement of movie making.

In the thirty years that I have worked professionally in film and television, I have seen a lot of changes obviously. For a very long time I was proud to call myself a filmmaker because I worked as a busy pair of hands on a big project, as a Production Assistant, Craftservice, AD, Accountant or whatever. Then one day I realized that I had everything required to make a feature film literally lying around my house.

So I jumped on a plane to Mexico and made one.

It was a bit more involved than that, but to get started, you can’t focus on the obstacles, but on your goals, and on opportunities as they arise. Right now, with my cell phone, I could make a movie more technically superior, and with less tech headaches, than with the best equipment I could have laid my hands on 15 years ago.

What hasn’t changed though, is the paramount importance of storytelling and performance.

After we made our first feature, we were asked by a famous college in New England to come and speak to their film students on the subject of DIY filmmaking. We accepted, because the idea of talking to a captive audience about our experiences was irresistible. I wrote about thirty pages of notes for the talk, then realized as we pulled up to the college that I hadn’t asked the professor if there was anything specific he wanted me to address. I asked. He explained that his students were taking part in some big short film competition. Panasonic was donating amazing cameras, and they all had their own dedicated FCP editing stations, good mics, all the basic shoot equipment. In fact, they had way more cool stuff than I had for my movie. But I’m not bitter. Some people are just born rich. Anyway, the prof had got sick of listening to their whining about how they couldn’t possibly realize their artistic vision without a RED One camera, and AVID, and a crew of 50 people.

OK, I said. Let me at these guys.

In my excitement, I had packed every piece of video equipment I owned, thinking I might hold each thing up proudly to their oooo’s and ahhhh’s. Obviously, they were unlikely to be impressed by my homemade lighting kit of clamp on work lights bought at the hardware store for $15 apiece, and my carefully packed array of long life low wattage fluorescent bulbs in various intensities, from the same hardware store.

Instead, I took my duffle bag, my camera bag, and my backpack up to the front of the room, put them down solemnly, one at a time and said:

“With the contents of these three bags, we made a full length feature film that has won awards in 3 countries. If you can’t make a worthwhile short movie with what has been provided for you at this school, you can not call yourself a filmmaker, and should find something else to do with your life.”

That annoyed them.

The main point Samantha and I tried to make, which seems so obvious, is that (with all due respect to the remarkable technicians who make films and videos look and sound so beautiful) the technical qualities of a movie are entirely secondary to whether the film has anything to say beyond, look how pretty I am. Too often I see movies that look and sound pretty slick, but have no narrative energy, and no discernable point to make. With few exceptions, movies are stories, and filmmakers are storytellers. A good way to figure out whether your film will hold an audience’s attention is to workshop it like a play. Not just a seated reading, but actually getting the whole script up on it’s feet and going through the whole thing. And you have to be hard on it. The best technical values in the world won’t fix a dull unfocused script or a bad performance. You won’t have the time to fix these things during the shoot when there are far to many technical nuts and bolts to deal with. Making a movie is far, far too much work to do without there being a purpose, and the purpose is to tell an engaging story.

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