The beginning of a feature ….

michelle010

After several attempts to make a movie with others I finally went it alone.  Not my most favorite thing to do.  I had always seen myself with a group of renegades making a film that we all thought would be groundbreaking, but alas it was not to be.  So when I decided to make a film I took stock of the resources I had and did my best to come up with a film I’d be proud of.  I had always been a big fan of Joel & Ethan Coen’sBlood Simple“, and I loved the author Jim Thompson who had a bit of notoriety in Hollywood when they decided to make some of his novels such as “After Dark my Sweet” , and “The Grifters” just to name a few.  I had few resources to boot too, so the film had to have limited characters and a bit of a different take on the film noir genre.

I wrote a film that I thought would be interesting, and something unique.  A take on the film “Double Indemnity” starring Fred McMurray and Barbara Stanwyck.  It was a 1944 movie about greed and lust.  It was a favorite of mine, and something I felt I could do.  I would just modernize it for today’s audience.  What I eventually wrote was something I could shoot, and do now.  I had limited funds, and I would be shooting this on 16mm.  It was way before digital video, and the video cameras that existed back in the late 90’s were in no way good enough for the visuals I wanted.  I broke down the script and created a shooting schedule with Movie Magic scheduler.  I had written my script in a program called movie magic screenwriter.  It was an old program that I used way back in the late 80’s.  If I had to give advice go with Final Draft.  I have used Final Draft for a lot of my projects and the program is quite good, but I have also used a program called Celtx.   When I used Celtex it was a stand alone screenwriting program.  The program now is a web based script writing, scheduler, budgeting, and call sheet program.  I highly recommend that you take a look at Celtx if you have multiple collaborators.  The program is quite easy to learn, and has a short learning curve, but whatever you use make sure you have a program that can breakdown the script.  It will save you time, and a lot of headaches.  Remember if you’re limited on funds and who doesn’t these days go with something simple.  Word has a template for scripts and it’s an easy download.  It may not be sleek and intergraded with other software, but it gets the job done.  After all films were made without fancy screenwriting software in the past, so whatever you use don’t apologize for not having the latest and greatest.  In my opinion use something you can all collaborate on . Celtx is subscription based so pay for what you need, but whatever you use remember the key to writing is re-writing, so make sure you get comfortable with whatever program you do use because you’ll be going back to it often.

I can say that making the film went down without a hitch, but I’d be lying.  Finding time to do all this was difficult.  It’s the main reason why the film took so long.  I didn’t have all the money to finish it, but I had enough to start it, and get it to post, so I did.
A mistake?  Maybe, but in filmmaking rules are meant to be broken, and so the only thing I can really say with any certainty is get ready for a wild ride.  If it’s your film be damn sure that you can finish it, and once you start don’t stop.  Stopping is the kiss of death for most projects.  If it isn’t the way you wrote it or envisioned it tough!  Roll with it, and it’ll all work out in the end.  Sometimes there are happy accidents that make the film better.  It’s the magic of filmmaking ladies and gentlemen, and when it happens know that you are experiencing a moment and keep moving because you have a schedule to keep.

Zecrew

When I started this film I first lived in New York.  It wasn’t until I was in Philadelphia that I started to really to hunker down and get the wheels of production moving.  This brings me to keeping it local.  I did not, so I had to find hotels for my actors and some of the crew.  I used two people from my alma mater of Brooklyn College.  I needed a lighting tech / gaffer and then a camera assistant.  I lucked out with the people I got.  Both were hard working and hungry, and they really saved me when things got way too much.  Then there were the actors.  I used SAG/AFTRA actors.  Let me tell you if you really want to make a difference in your production hire union.  They were professional, and high spirited.  I know what you’re thinking I’m a low budget film I can’t afford professionals.    They’ll bust my budget.  SAG/AFTRA has low budget and ultra low budget contracts.  I got a low budget agreement and paid a small stipend to the actors.  If you can’t I understand, but getting and working with professional actors will really make a difference to you and your production.  Not once did the actors NOT know their lines.  Right out of the gate they knew their lines, and blocking the actors for the camera was easy.  Having said this I would have looked around for more local actors around Philadelphia.  It would have been cheaper, but maybe not by much.  So my tip to the fledgling filmmaker is keep it local, and if you need outside talent schedule them in blocks so you don’t pay a fortune in hotel and food disbursements.  It’s mostly common sense, but it was a first for me, and the film became my graduate studies program by default.

Nickgirls

Also if you can DO NOT use your apartment or house as a location.  That being said I did, and I saved on location fee’s, but for 11 days my wife and I along with our kitties lived in a communal environment.  The bed the actors are on in the picture above became the make-up area, and the rest area for cast and crew.   Though I look at it now with nostalgia I have to say that it was 10 to 11 days of chaos.  My wife and I would get up very early in the AM, and she would go to work while the crew and cast assembled.  We shot for three or four days in the apartment.  Moving from room to room. We had a small continental breakfast or we would do a Dunkin’ Donuts run getting fresh bagels in the AM.  We would get assorted cheeses and jams the evening before and we would have liters of coffee or tea. So by this example I have to say that if you shoot in your house or apartment a big tip is to have you’re significant other onboard while shooting.  It’s great when someone has your back, and my wife Phyllis had mine.  She got executive producing credit also.

Irene1

Another thing or tip to the wise.  Get permission for everything.  I did, or I thought I did.  My landlady was cool about me filming, and she was pretty enthused about it.  But it only takes one person to really throw a wrench into your production and in this case it was a neighbor who knew a judge.  Seems some people were upset at seeing beautiful actors running around, and wondered what type of movie I was making.  I had the permits, I had the permissions and release papers, so why the problem?  Here is where the first lesson in of the moral minority comes in.  Not everyone is as open minded as they would have lead you to believe they are.  I got a visit from the police, and then a call from the local film commission here in Philadelphia.  Needless to say I believe my film made them draft a policy of “Code of Conduct” when filming in a Philadelphia neighborhood.   I had done this previously and thought all was copacetic, but it seems one person had a problem, and that’s all it took.  What eventually happened was that I changed locations for the ending of the film.  With the help of crew and cast we worked it all out, and even got a police officer to help us make the neighbors comfortable.  The advantages of being a small production is that we could make the change easier then being a bigger production.   We even got my father-in-law involved who has a brief part in the movie.  He came down from New York and stayed with us and being he was a retired federal police officer, and he acted like a liaison between the local police.  When we did this there were no more problems.  So a BIG tip here boys and girls is to have a police official on set.  He or she is like the muscle of the production.  It shows you’re legit, and everything is kosher.   We had two officers throughout the production and they were the best.  If you can involve the local constabularies into your production do so.  It will save you much grief.   The agita I got was not worth it and it was a distraction that I didn’t need, so remember talk to you’re local officials about your filming plans.  All it takes is one unsatisfied patron to ruin you’re shoot and in a low budget film time away from the production is wasted time.

What I learned most of all is that doing a film isn’t like it was when you were young and naive back in film school.   There are a lot to things to consider and a lot of the production budget gets eaten up by the must have.  Insurance, transportation, housing, and meals can eat at your budget before you even have shoot a frame of your movie. If you shop around and do your homework while at the same time take stock of your resources you may just save money and time, which will help you actually make your movie.

Another approach to low budget filmmaking that I’ve been thinking about would be to consider filming as a collective.  Rick Schmidt the author of: Feature Filmmaking at Used car Prices” once told a group of us that when limited in funds everyone in the film should bring something to the table, and thereby they become an investor in the film.   If the material is exceptionally good people will want to be a part of it, but you still need to sell it.  Bringing talent, locations, equipment, and even food is an investment, and when all players have skin in the game they are incentivized to do their best.  It is your job to make it appealing and something that has a quick turnaround, so as to have everyone not lose time away from paying gigs.

Everyone makes money when the film makes money.  In a way you create an LLC with your production crew and cast.  Thereby creating a collective of artists.  The sole purpose would be to produce this one film.  Just another avenue you may want to explore when you’re doing your guerrilla shot.

Me_camera

 

Spike Lee

clone tag: -634810565534071971

Spike Lee’s book about the filming of “She’s Gotta Have It” was a premier for me.  When I saw the film I became a fan of the film.  I had some stylistic issues that I disagreed with, but Mr. Lee’s bravado in film-making turned me on, and I really wanted to know how he did that.  This book set the stage for me in creating my own film.  What interested me was the journal in making the movie.  I even created a short journal while making my film even though I really never had the time to sit down and write about my day.  It was only in the evening where I was tired, and drained from the day’s shoot that I could write anything.  Low budget film-making is fast and furious, so there is little time to reflect.  I will in the future try and put some of those notes up here, but as for now I just want to go over the people and movies that inspired me.  Spike Lee’s film “She’s Gotta Have It” was one of those films.

The film was made for $175,000, but the book really shines a light on what Mr. Lee did to start filming his film.  A lot of people took deferments, and Lee’s back was against a wall.  Shoot or wait, and if you know anything about film-making waiting can be the kiss of death for any project.  lee worked like a dog to get the script up to snuff, and he pulled money from a couple of places, but here’s the real secret.  Lee shot the film with about 30K, and he continued to raise more of it while he was shooting.  The book opened my eyes on what you could do with very little.  Spike Lee’s innovative film-making style made the film what it is.  The book is a revelation at how independent film is made.  It’s a hustle plain and simple, and reading it made me think twice about shooting my own film.  But what the book does is show how you can do it.  I learned to hustle and I put a lot of money of my own into the film.   I cut corners in personal and made my film a simpler movie.

Seeing how Lee struggled was an eye opener.  The book is a good primer in the nuts and bolts of film-making.  Lee describes how he had $6,100 from friends and acquaintances.  It was a struggle, and he shot while pulling more an more money in.   Even the lab threatened to sell his negative if Lee didn’t come up with $1,000.  Citing all these examples shows that film-making isn’t for the faint at heart.  You need to believe, and you need to be driven.  It’s a great book on how Spike overcomes all hurtles, and it shows that you need to be flexible.  Sometime things do not turn out the way you want to, so you roll with the punches.  Lee knew once he started he had to finish.  Shot in 11 days also shows his pace, and how well he planned the film.

I made sure I broke down my script, and created a shot list.  What I really am amazed at is how Lee pulled it all together while still shooting the film.  It said to me that one person can do it if he or she really wanted to.

The book is inspiring and a good practical guide in making films.  Shooting a film when you don’t have the whole budget in the bank is risky, but it can be done.  You also need to surround yourself with a supportive cast and crew.  I looked for people who were hungry and creative.  Somehow it all gelled.  I used some students from my alma mater (Brooklyn College) to crew the film, and they really helped me.  I really recommend reading the book, and seeing the film.  I am in no way as talented as Mr Lee, but he does show that you can make your own film if you have the desire and will to do so.  He has always been a favorite of mine, and through this book and watching his film you can see how to actually make a film  yourself.  He had a whole lot more money, but my point is that he didn’t when he started production.  In Mr. Lee’s journal he lays it all out.  Scraping together money to pay the lab, or pay for insurance, while owing back salaries, and loans.  Film-making isn’t for the faint at heart, and Spike Lee shows you how he did it all.  His original film is on Netflix so it’s available to see his labor of love.

What I came away with is that “you could make a low budget film under 30K”.  But that only gets you past production if your shooting film at a ratio of 3 or 4 to one.  I paid my crew and actors because I needed them for a certain time and their time was valuable.  Much more then I was paying them, but I had to have money also for lodging, and food.  I wanted them comfortable, and they saw that.  The actors gave me their all because I was giving them my all.  That’s the key.  Treat people decently and you’ll find some phenomenal talent out there.

It in a way it’s even easier for someone to do a film today then it was back in the pre-historic time of analogue.  No need for film stock.  Just shoot digital.  You’ll cut your expenses in half.  Do the editing on your laptop, and try to get it seen.  Festivals, the Internet, and even four walling your digital epic in a theaters  even.  But do yourself a favor.  Have money left over after the production.  Even though you can build your web site, post your video you’ll still need to get it out there, and that costs.  I soon ran out of money with festivals, and stopped after not getting the results I wanted.  I got an offer or two but it wasn’t worth me giving up my rights to the film.   After all it was my baby.  I didn’t want to abandon it and loose everything I put into it.   The next two events that happened that propelled me into doing my film was reading “A rebel without a Crew“, and the distribution of Kevin Smith’s film “Clerks” . Two things that rocked my world and put me on the road to making my own film.  More to come folks.  I hope this is helpful, and I wish you well in your creative endeavors.

 

 

Format …

I shot my film “Deadly Obsessions” on 16mm.  The question being why?  In my defense for me it was the professional way to shoot the film.  I could have shot it digitally, but then I would have been locked into a process in finishing it digitally, and the one thing that concerned me was “obsolescence”.  If I shot in digital I would have to post digitally, and I knew I did not have the money for that.  I had read and watched “the Blair Witch Project” and other productions like “the Last Broadcast”, and thought I really liked how they were created yet I did not think that digital video was the way to go.  Since I shot “Deadly Obsessions” there has been advances in digital filmmaking, and now I would say that if you have limited resources digital is the way to go.  But back then when I was planning my film I was thinking of films that were shot in 16mm like “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer“, “Clerks“, “El Mariachi”, “Pi“, “Evil Dead“,”She’s Gotta have It” and even “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre“.   I had trained on 16mm, and liked it a lot.  I also knew that whatever format is dominant in the future I know having a 16mm negative would be to my advantage.  Everything now is HD, and though I shot in 16mm I can scan the negative and create an HD product.  This of course is an expensive proposition, but worthwhile, and at least I don’t doom my project to obsolescence.

In order for me to finish on 16mm I had to edit on 16mm.  I found an old 6 plate Steenbeck editor someone was selling not far from where I lived.  Getting the Steenbeck  home from where I bought it from was a herculean effort.  I enlisted my Uncle and even the guy I bought it off from to help me get it into the apartment.  I already had reel to reel rewinds, and a syncing block, so I could sync up my magnetic track and work-print.  By editing on film the big advantage for me was that I knew going into this that the film would be completed after a few years.  I had a day job and had to work.   On my time off I edited my film.  This also provided me enough time to save more money for the mix, the negative cutting, and the answer print.  It was from the answer print that I made a copy of the film on Beta digital tape which is where I made my DVD’s from.

Now I’m not going to say that I felt exhilarated at editing the footage this way because of the tactile sensation of handling my film.  It was stressful, and I felt like a dinosaur.  Cutting and splicing shots and effects was the only way I knew how to finish the film with the budget I had.  I occasionally went out with my Nagra recorder and recorded sound effects that I would later lay into the sound effects track of the film.  For me it worked.  The only sound effect that I purchased was a shotgun blast.  The rest of the effects were all created by me going out and recording it.  Just like John Travolta’s character in the film “Blow-Out”.   I have to say I used everything I was ever taught and even learned a few new tricks.  One of those tricks was videotaping my footage off the Steenbeck, and then digitizing that footage into my computer where I edited it on Premiere.  It was there that I could go quicker and see several different cuts before I attacked it on the Steenbeck.  I do not shy away from technology.  I embrace it, and use it to my advantage.  I am amazed at seeing how now students use digital editing to their advantage.  But in the end editing is editing.  No matter what you use and how you go about it the rules to editing still apply, and as always rules are sometimes meant to be broken.  The French New Wave and Sergei Eisenstein taught us that.

To sum up. I used what I had.  If you have a prosumer camera I’d say go ahead and shoot your film.  Do some tests and push that piece of equipment as far as you can.  It’s now easier to create your own film then it was in the past.  No excuses.   Remember how do you want to show this film?  There are great digital projectors now that project a fantastic image.  Most theaters now do project digitally, so all you need is a Blue-Ray disk and your set, and Adobe Premiere does a great job at creating  one, and there is now Adobe Premiere Rush for content creators.  Go ahead and use what you have or what you can get your hands on.  Format is important, but necessity is the mother of invention, so no excuses.  Go make that film.

  • A big thank you to my wife Phyllis who took the pictures of me.  Alway my best cheerleader and partner in crime.