Very, Very Independent Filmmaking – The Incredible Style of Zero Budget Films
Making a film on a shoestring isn’t always a first choice, or something you’ve been shooting for your whole career, or even that much fun at times. But sometimes it’s the only way we can get out there and make something, and it’s not exactly the end of the world is it…because we are actually making a film…which is pretty brilliant when you think about it.
As a filmmaker who operates within the universe of “is it free?” I must admit to you that I have often yearned for a few meagre bucks…or even a few million…with which to make my film. But as I grow…older…I am beginning to realize that money, although great and everything, can actually sometimes really get in the way of telling a story the way you want to or the way you need to or even the way it is truly supposed to be told.
I have seen plenty of studio and even indie films where the fact that someone gave them some real money made the film much worse – too loud, too many familiar faces, too complicated, too self-important and most definitely far too long.
Case in point, the other night I sat through the ‘de rigueur’ indie movie of the hour (it shall remain nameless…but it does have American and Honey in the title) and at the end of the two hours and 45 minutes of chaos and shaky camera and are they ever going to have a shower and careless, youthful ‘whatever’s,’ I had a bit of an epiphany.
Sometimes giving someone the money and also the freedom to do whatever they want isn’t always a good decision.
Don’t get me wrong, it was an interesting film, some of the story was a bit compelling every now and then, although it got lost in everything else, and the performances where original, etc., and apparently it’s won loads of awards and the director/writer is even an English women. But it was so long that, although I got why she shot and shot, I was just exhausted and cross that someone didn’t tell her “you know I think we have that shot already.” Because she really, really did have that shot already…many, many, many times.
But good for her and all that, I didn’t hate it, I just wish it was more worthy of my time and less long.
Having said all that, and pivoting on the pointlessness of endless, repetitive plays on the same small theme, here are a few crucial questions to ask yourself before you set out on the totally worthwhile and incredibly rewarding journey that is filmmaking, that I have figured out, mostly the hard way, over the years. Honestly, not having any money at all can and should actually help you make the film you want, if you embrace it, if you love it and if you make it a part of the style of your film.
What money do you have?
Really think about this one. We all say we have no money, I say it all the time, but is that really true? Maybe you have a couple of hundred bucks socked away in an IRA, maybe that old motor bike your husband insists on keeping even though he never rides it can be conveniently liquidated, maybe you should have a huge yard sale, or go through all those clothes that don’t fit you anymore and depop them. There is always something you can do to create money out of thin air if you put your mind to it, and this is all without begging and borrowing, and crowd sourcing.
What equipment do I really need?
This has something to do with the money thing, but if you are serious about making this film, then how you want to shoot it has a lot to do with what you have to shoot it on. Do you really need that drone shot? Can all the dialogue be shot when the actors stop walking/running, etc. so you can boom, and not hire expensive wireless mics. etc.? Can you live without the underwater sequence, the balloon chase and the lions? You might have to. Getting creative, being realistic and remembering that you are telling a story, not creating a video game option can ensure that you remain unshackled by the desperate need to ‘flash about’ and try for something that isn’t really you anyway.
What crew do I really need?
This is as important as equipment, and remember that the more crew you have the more people you have to feed and find bathrooms for. I have found that streamlining your crew can also speed things up tremendously. The most important person on the set is the DP, then the sound person and then, rather sadly, the director…oh and the actors, but they really do come last in this equation. Once you have your core crew then everyone else is gravy…although I do think MUA is vital…but if you can’t get one, then make it necessary that you don’t have one, make the ‘reality’ of your shots even more ‘real’ with no makeup. ’ve seen some films that didn’t have anything and it didn’t matter because the story was excellent and the chosen style made it unnecessary. But it has to be that kind of film, if it’s a film noir without MUA then you’ll be in trouble, so understand what really the film requires and begin your crew list from there.
How to cast from your tribe?
Casting is so hard. Although I love the process, it can be maddening to try and find the perfect actor for every role every time you make a film…so don’t. Every director sticks with the actors he works best with, just because you don’t have money to pay them doesn’t make you any different from Scorsese or Woody Allen. They don’t pay them either, they get the studio to.
But they find someone brilliant that really ‘gets’ them and then they work with them over and over again, every time they do, they make a better team and a better film because they know each other so well.
Of course you can edit it yourself.
I am no editor, I am the first to admit it, but I can edit, and the films I make don’t require complex techniques and effects. They require me, a bit slower than your average professional editor, but pretty capable and totally dedicated, in control of the story and able to work around the clock, in between everything else and to my own deadline…why would I hire anybody else?
If you do need help…ask for it.
So maybe I do need a couple of things done in the edit that I don’t know how to do, or I can’t seem to get the sound where I need it to be, or the location I have just isn’t working out. Asking for help might mean you have to wait a while, but it can also make a huge difference to the overall quality of your film. Sometimes the hardest and the smartest thing to do is to put the film first, swallow your pride and do what you have to do to make it happen.
So there you have it, a few hard-won truths about how I have found a way to make films that I love, warts and all, and involve wonderful people that I love in the in the struggle, in the journey, nay in the miracle of very, very independent film.