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A Recipe for No-Budget Filmmaking

A recipe for no-budget filmmaking might go something like this: gather no more than a baker’s dozen of crew members, a half dozen actors, a large helping of friends and family, and a lighting/camera/sound equipment package smaller than half the size of a cargo van. Fill the other half with set dressing, props, wardrobe, unit supplies, and craft service and load into a smattering of free locations of varying shapes and sizes. Roll camera, repeat up to 1,000 times or until you run out of time, money and hard drive space. Total prep time – 4 weeks. Total shooting time – 17 days. Post for 5 months, and serve immediately while hot. Sprinkle liberally with favors and thank you’s to taste.

The Exploding Girl, like every independent film, was a blur of collective will and momentum, a hurrying against closing actor availabilities and a constant straining against resources. The Exploding Girl is also the fastest and lowest budgeted film, by far, that I’ve produced. Twelve months exactly from conception to festival premiere and a low five-figure budget from script to video master.

So how did we do it? It’s a question I get asked a lot, given the industry’s growing penchant for no-budget films and today’s realities of financing and distribution. The recipe above is my tongue-in-cheek response to a question with no straight or easy answers.

There were several decisions we made in pre-production that made The Exploding Girl possible. The best decision was to take a page from the production handbook of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s masterful film Café Lumiere. The film served as story inspiration for The Exploding Girl, so it made sense to also crib from its production methodology. We didn’t achieve Hou’s extreme minimalism, but we did keep the production as spare as the film’s storyline, working with the barest minimum of people and stuff.

The second best decision was to commit, and then realistically prepare, to make the film regardless of budget. We had a small window of availability with our lead actress, Zoe Kazan, and we knew that come August 5th, we would shoot with whatever we had in the bank. Sure enough, three weeks before our start date, we put away delusions of cash flow and put Plan C into action. Plan A was a budget 10 times higher, Plan B was 5 times more. But Plan C, which in this case could stand for compromise, or completion, is what got the film made.

With Café Lumiere’s production handbook and Plan C, we were on our way. The next hardest obstacle became our actors’ schedules. They coincided in a three-week window of availability, which meant a 17-day shooting schedule with no buffer or margin for error. So when I received a phone call on Day 2 saying our lead actor Mark Rendall’s shoot in New Mexico had pushed due to weather, it meant facing a loss of three of Mark’s 12 scheduled shoot days. So in between setups and after wrap, writer/director Bradley Rust Gray and I traded scheduling scenarios until we settled on one with the least casualties of scenes. Mark gamely arrived on set a few hours after landing at JFK and Zoe Kazan graciously worked up until the moment she got in a car and raced to catch a plane to London for theater rehearsals.

We managed post-production without too many obstacles until we got to the online edit. This is when you conform the edits to the original footage — in our case, the RED 4k raw files. In everyone’s worst technical nightmare, our hard drive crashed, taking with it shots from the film’s climax. Then we found out the LTO backup of that drive was corrupted. We didn’t have the budget to back up to more than one drive. The footage was lost. Luckily, we remembered a 1k output of the film made two weeks prior for a festival submission. The festival rejected us, but we salvaged our footage from the submission tape, plus or minus 3k of resolution.

For every setback, a small miracle would nudge the film forward. Executive producers Jason and Josh Diamond offered their RED camera package and technical expertise at a price we could afford – gratis. Executive producer and angel investor Billfield Cheng signed on at the 11th hour. Cinematographer Eric Lin graced our team when the original DP became unavailable. Like every independent film, The Exploding Girl became its own adventure, with its own set of unique problems. The key was always to adapt, work together, pray for sun, and keep shooting.

No-budget maxims:

Scale the script and director’s vision to the size of the budget. This is harder than it sounds.

Free your production from the conventional film apparatus.

Try new methods and new technology. Last year, it was the RED, this year it might be the Canon 5D.

Have a Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C. Be prepared to shoot on Plan C.

Look around, dig deep, and take stock of all the resources you have. Don’t be shy. Always ask.

Be grateful and show it. It’s common courtesy, and it will help the next no-budget film that shows up exercising maxim #5.

Practical Tips:

Office rent in NYC is expensive. So work out of home — yours or someone else’s — and find large spaces with free wifi. The 2nd floor of the Houston Street Whole Foods, before they killed the wifi, was gold.
Make sure your grip, lighting, camera, sound, set dressing, props, wardrobe and unit supplies fit into one cargo van. No, I’m not kidding, and yes, it can be done.

Borrow an SUV or van from a friend or family member for the shoot. It will serve a million and one purposes.

Get a grip when you need one. We made due with great PAs, but when the shotlist called for a car rig, we splurged on an experienced grip for the day.

Shoot in locations that come with free extras.

Keep track of productions about to wrap and offer to take craft service and unwanted expendables off their hands.

Find enthusiastic, smart interns with multiple skill sets.

Producer Ben Howe contributed to this article.

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