No Budget? No Problem!
by Adam Bowers , IFP
Not to toot my own horn (I can’t anyway, since it was stolen by those circus freaks), but I recently shot my first commercial, through IFP’s Emerging Visions competition. It was my first shoot with any sort of budget, unless you count the time I bought a pack of gum so my DP could use a gas station bathroom (that gum made us have to cut 5 pages out of the script).
Needless to say, when I wrapped shooting on the commercial, I stood on the grip truck and shouted “I’ll see you in hell, no-budget filmmaking!” (it had been building up for awhile).
Now, people will come up to me in the men’s room and say, “How did you make your first movie for such little money? Also, this is a Toys ‘R Us.” In this post, I’ll share some things I told them (most of which they couldn’t hear anyway after they closed the door to the squad car).
DIY, no-budget filmmaking can be hard, but it’s become so feasible, there’s no reason everyone and their grandma shouldn’t be making a film (especially if their grandmother is Werner Herzog).
Set Yourself Up For Success
The best thing you can do for yourself on a no-budget shoot is to set yourself up for success from the very beginning. Write a movie you can actually make: one that doesn’t require locations you don’t already have access to, moments you can’t film cheaply, or a mob of angry Samoans (ignore this last one if you live in Samoa, which I assume most of my readership does). This isn’t the time to shoot your movie about what explosions will look like in the future.
Find a story to tell with the resources around you. You could take a page from the mumblecore playbook and aim to make a movie that’s grounded in real, everyday situations with people you know. Also, if you can, take another page from the mumblecore playbook and cast Mark Duplass. That would really help you out.
Depending on the limitations of your production values, you may even want to tell a story that exists in a world where those “setbacks” can actually compliment the feel you’re going for. My first movie was shot in standard def with a film lens adapter, giving it a grainy, almost 16mm-esque look, which was perfect for the gritty world the characters lived in (i.e. “Florida”). We shot on this because the only things I was able to borrow from friends were a standard def camera and a film lens adapter, but people will believe you if you say it was intentional (especially if you tell them while their wife is going into labor).
For locations, not every scene can take place in a generic apartment, so think about what you have access to (finally, a believable excuse for that basement dungeon!). And if you need to shoot in a restaurant, or a gun range, or a restaurant/gun range, it never hurts to ask (it’s also a great place to take a date to). If you live outside of a big city, you might be surprised by how often people are willing, and even excited, to let you shoot at their establishment. For my first movie, we shot in a working hospital, and they were totally into it! (Pro tip: Film in your own house. That way, you kill two birds with one stone when you shoot those scenes where your characters are mowing the lawn and scrubbing the toilet.)
The same goes for things like music. Try to plan on what local or independent musicians you want to use from the get-go. You’d be surprised how much that scene of yours, where the blind man learns he’s dying of cancer, is elevated by a song from that local ska band.
Not only does embracing these “limitations” make your job easier, but it also has the effect of helping to make your movie unique to you and your world, and that’s something you have to offer that no one else can (except for Paul Thomas Anderson– he can do anything).
Now, if you don’t have access to anything unique or interesting (like, if you’re currently in solitary confinement, or Orlando), my suggestion to you is to just become a more interesting person, for God’s sake. Or, if you really hate individuality and/or love the Bravo network, embrace the blandness of your world. Criticize it, and find the beauty in it. I’ll appreciate you for it, even if your friends and family will think you’re a total butthole.
Don’t be an idiot
Take your time with this. DIY moviemaking isn’t a sprint, it’s more like a marathon (in that there’s a good chance your nipples will bleed). You need to prepare as well as you can and make sure that the footage you’re getting is as good as it can be (treat it the same way you treated your parole hearing). I know it SEEMS like you’ve gotten a good enough take of Nerd #2 saying, “My boner’s got a boner!” but keep trying until you get the take where we can sense his feelings about abortion. Otherwise, the entire message behind Beach Spies 2: Operation G-String will be completely lost. You’ll look like a fool.
Technically speaking, don’t let the movie look or sound like boners that have boners (for lack of a better term). Get the best equipment you can and make do with it, but don’t worry if you can’t shoot on the same thing Peter Jackson films his kids’ birthday parties with (I’ve heard the special effects in those are mind-blowing). You could conceivably shoot a decent movie on an iPhone, if you’re careful about lighting and sound. Remember: it’s not the “size” of the camera, but how well you have sex with it (side note: I’m no longer allowed at Panavision).
Also, make sure you’re casting actors who are, at least, able to give natural, comfortable performances (I swear I’m never working with my mom again. What an amateur.). For more on actors, check out an earlier blog post here. I’ll wait.
Be an idiot
Remember when I talked about working hard and making sure you’re meeting a certain standard of quality? Well, throw that out the window and put on your silly hat (the one with the feathers), ‘cause DIY filmmaking is all about having fun (and coming out to your parents)! That’s the one thing no-budget films can do better than the biggest studio movies (from what I’ve heard, they’re about as fun as watching Bravo in Orlando). Work hard to make sure it’s worth your, and everyone else’s, time, but remember that you’re (probably) working with friends, who (definitely) aren’t getting paid, so make it a positive experience for them and yourself. Or, if everyone ends up hating each other at the end of it, at least make sure you can turn that footage into a documentary. You could sell it to Bravo.
Do something different
Speaking of studio movies, don’t try to make them. You can’t compete with the glossiness of a studio movie, and I’m willing to bet that your lead actor doesn’t have Channing Tatum’s abs (if he does, your movie officially has an audience). But, who cares? You’re a “rebel,” so quit listening to other people and do what I say.
A great thing about not having a budget is that you don’t have to please financiers or studios, so focus on pleasing yourself (but not in public), and make the movie you’ve always wanted to see (the one about pleasing yourself in public). Don’t worry about making it appeal to a broad audience, because there’s a good chance part of that audience is outside, keying your car.
Sure, something you try in the movie, or even the entire movie itself, might fail, but like the saying goes, “It’s better to try and fail, something something” (I always tune out after that). DIY filmmaking is a low-risk venture, even though you may feel like your entire life depends on telling that story about the black comedian who dresses up like an old lady and murders people.
Be ready to compromise
The downside of not having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars is that you’ll have to make sacrifices. One way to help you get everything you need during production is to shoot as efficiently and economically as possible. Believe me, I know how important that crane shot is to you, but maybe there are other ways to find out if a character is balding.
Something that’s changed about no-budget filmmaking is that you used to have to conserve your film stock. So, if this was twenty years ago and you were reading this on Prodigy, I’d say try to shoot scenes in one shot. Luckily, today we have the luxury of being able to shoot as much as we want, as long as we delete the footage of our son’s Bar Mitzvah. But, I think, if you’re ever wondering what the best way is to shoot a scene, sticking to the “fewest shots possible” rule will help keep things moving along, and push you to get creative with your setups (Woody Allen once filmed an entire scene, where two neurotic New Yorkers finally find love, while shooting a blank wall).
Be prepared to be a guerilla during production. You may have to shoot in a sensitive area without a permit, or even sneak another shot after “the Man” tells you to stop (unless “the Man” is someone you’re filming from behind bushes, in which case, you probably should listen to them). Do what you need to get what you need (if we were all in better shape, this would be on a banner in our gym).
After it’s done
So, you’ve managed to get all your footage and edit it together on pirated software (I mean, I’ve HEARD of people doing this…). The next step is to submit it to festivals: all of the big ones, and the smaller ones that make sense for your film. I actually almost didn’t submit mine to Sundance, where it ended up premiering, because I thought I’d be wasting $100, which I needed for something stupid called “not being homeless.” But, a friend of mine convinced me to, and on the last day they took submissions, I drove a copy down to their LA office. So, take that as proof: I shouldn’t be allowed to make any decisions whatsoever.
Needless to say, screening at Sundance was a complete surprise (I’m still pretty sure they thought I was Lena Dunham), so be sure to manage your expectations. Your film may not play a major festival, or it may play a major festival and then go nowhere. You never know what’s going to happen, or why. But, still, make sure you take every rejection as a personal attack by peons who don’t understand your genius (you’ll be lots of fun at parties).
Luckily, there are more ways to get your movie seen than ever, outside of the traditional theatrical-to-DVD release (and I’m not talking about forcing ex-POWs to watch it, which is always an option). Even without a distributor, you can get your film on digital outlets. I have a post on my first film’s distribution plan here, and there’s a great book on the subject called Think Outside The Box Office by Jon Reiss, if you want to learn more. Or, if you want to learn even more than that, there’s another great book out there, and it’s called THE BIBLE.�
Just do it
If you’re still not making a movie because you’re afraid it won’t turn out good, you’re being a real wiener about this. There, I said it.
All you need to worry about right now is making something. Once you get over the hump and realize how possible it is, then you can worry about getting it right. Consider yourself lucky: this is much easier to do with making movies than it is with giving insulin shots.
And if, at the end of the day, all you have is a movie you made with friends and spent no money on, that’s still a better way to spend your time than going to a bunch of restaurants and water parks (unless the water park is Wet ‘n Wild– that place is SUPER fun). Let anything else that comes from it be icing on the cake. Just don’t forget to take your insulin.