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on Sep 27, 2011

If you take a statistics class (or just take your fantasy baseball team really seriously), one of the first things you learn is that trends are largely a myth. When a team like the Red Sox starts the season 2-13, that’s probably nothing more than a few bad breaks strung together. Given enough time, they’ll right the ship. Unless their third starter is John Lackey. Then all bets are off. Our brains are wired to see patterns where none exist, to take statistical noise and turn it into something it isn’t (there’s a joke in there somewhere about movie critics, but I’ll leave it alone).

So when I work two films in a row where the director is also serving as the d.p. and camera operator — does that mean that there’s this great movement brewing on the West Coast? Of course not. Two films out of twenty-something does not make a sea change.

But still, there’s something there, a desire to simplify the wheels of production and make the process leaner and smaller. You see this a lot on productions around the country. Filmmakers either want the crew to be a lot bigger, with all the toys, or a lot smaller. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say how great it is when its just five people wandering around, making a movie. It hearkens back to our fond memories of when we were starting out and too dumb to know any better. Plus, the smaller the production, the less likely the cops will notice you, right?

Well this month, I got to do both.

On the small side, I went to L.A. and worked on Paul Osborne’s second narrative feature Favor. It was your classic DIY set with five lights and four C-stands. Only we had one C-stand and three light stands. Quick and dirty in the indie film tradition.

And then, I drove back up to Seattle to work on Matthew Lillard’s directorial debut Fat Kid Rules the World, complete with a whole grip truck full of all the bells and whistles and more C-stands than I could count.

One reason statistical noise is given so much more importance than it should is because it makes for an easy narrative, and writers like easy narratives. It makes their job easier. For example, right now the Red Sox are throwing away their playoff berth in an epic collapse. But they’re still something like 89% favorites to make the playoffs. But 89% doesn’t make a good headline. “OMG! PANIC IN BOSTON!” makes a good headline.

We’re not immune to this in writing about film. When circumstances present you with an easy narrative, you grab it. So let’s look at them in tandem, shall we?

(Right now, you can just imagine Paul Osborne sitting at his computer, thinking, “Oh fuck me.”)

Honestly, I never thought I’d end up on a film like Fat Kid Rules the World. When I put this project together, it never occurred to me that I’d end up on something with an actual budget. I figured that, best case scenario, I’d end up on a film that raised $80,000 or so on Kickstarter, which would still be pretty massive.

Paul Osborne’s Favor couldn’t be more different. It raised a little over $20,000 on Kickstarter. The gear mostly fit in Paul’s car. Craft services wasn’t catered. Hell, there was a day on set where I was the sum total of four different departments.

If Fat Kid Rules the World is Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, then Favor is Edgar Ulmer’s Detour, a pretty brilliant B movie that was shot for nothing back in 1945.

(Let’s be clear that I’m not comparing them in quality, either to each other or the classics. We’re just talking about scale.)

David vs. Goliath.

But that’s not the point. It’s just the easy narrative. The lazy narrative.

I don’t know the actual final budgets of either film, but let’s say that Fat Kid is ten times the budget of Favor. That seems more or less accurate. What does that mean, exactly? Is one that much better than the other? Of course not. Is one that much better run than the other? No.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far in A Year Without Rent, it’s that the budget matters less than you think. Sure, more money is always nice. But indie filmmaking comes down to a lot of things you can’t buy.

The number one thing? Passion.

I’m sure it’s possible to make a film you aren’t passionate about, but I can’t imagine why you would. It’s a really fucking hard thing to do and the passion and determination of the director is very often what’s going to pull a production through. And that manifests itself in a lot of different ways. It might show up in Paul Osborne soldiering on behind the camera after twisting his ankle. Or maybe you’ll hear it in Matthew Lillard’s voice during a toast when he talks about how he wants to make a “good fucking movie”.

Thing is, every director I’ve ever worked with has passion for their project. No one is there because they’re bored. But whereas some directors can kind of lose it in the chaos and start wondering why they ever thought this was a good idea, the good ones have a singular determination that they will make this film and it will be good, dammit. You can see it in their eyes. Failure just isn’t an option. The movie, in a lot of ways, runs on that. People feed off it. That sort of enthusiasm becomes contagious.

Think of it like a Kickstarter campaign. Everyone really wants their project to get funded. But some people have an ability to drag their campaign kicking and screaming across a finish line. And that has nothing to do with how much they’re trying to raise.

Same thing with a production. A budget doesn’t solve all your problems. It just presents new ones. And with new problems come new solutions. What doesn’t change is the process of making a film and the basic concept that you have to take care of the people who are making it with you.

Almost every day on the set of Fat Kid, I watched Matthew Lillard do something I’d never seen a director do before. As lunch would wind down, he’d go around and pick up everyone’s empty plates and throw them away. It’s a simple thing that costs absolutely nothing, and yet I’ve never seen that before. I’ve directed something like ten shorts and 2 features and it’s never even crossed my mind before. But think about what that says to the crew.

Or on Favor, when UPM Katie Schwartz had to go to Michigan for a couple of days in the middle of the production to be in her sister’s wedding. Every day she was gone, she got us updated call sheets before we wrapped for the day. She could have easily blown it off or gotten someone else to do it for her, but the fact that she didn’t speaks volumes.

To make a long story short, it isn’t about the money. The money is just the tool you use to do your job. At the core, making a film is about working with people. It’s about being the type of person who people want to make films with, the type of person who works their ass off to get the film made no matter what and takes care of the people who did it with them.

To quote Gregory Bayne’s fantastic column from a couple of days ago: “It’s the work, stupid.” In the trenches, the budget means nothing.

Making Favor is almost exactly the same as making Fat Kid Rules the World. At the core, they’re both helmed by talented filmmakers driven by their passion to make a “good fucking film”.

It’s something that’s easy to say. But trust me when I say that it’s really, really rare.

Filmmaker Lucas McNelly is spending a year on the road, volunteering on indie film projects around the country, documenting the process and the exploring the idea of a mobile creative professional. You can see more from A Year Without Rent at the webpage. His feature-length debut is now available to rent on VOD. Follow him on Twitter: @lmcnelly.

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