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How to Rethink the Budget Needs and Hierarchies of Traditional Film Production to Enable Creative Freedom: On the Making of This Is Not a War Story

This Is Not a War Story

I just completed my second feature film, This Is Not a War Story. It’s a narrative hybrid film, complete with combat veterans denouncing war and Tom Waits wailing on the end credits. The film went from a microbudget experiment in 2017 to a Warner Media/HBO release in 2021. The supporting cast is composed entirely of non-actor veterans. We shot for 41 spread-out days, (with no bone-crushing overtime) and with a crew of eight-to-12 dedicated crewmembers functioning as a collective, in the model of a worker co-op. Our schedule was designed around two-week shooting periods, strategically scheduled over a course of eight months. I directed the film, as well as wrote, produced, edited, sound-designed, acted and line-produced.

Usually when asked what prevents a filmmaker from getting a film off the ground, the answer is “money.” But when it comes to smaller, personal projects, more money can mean less creative freedom — or, at least, that’s the argument I’ll make here, and I’ll do so by comparing the production of This Is Not a War Story, my second film, to my first, Descent, which went the traditional route of building a budget on a bankable actor, employing a 40-person crew and checking all the indie film boxes.

Creative freedom is heralded by two words: final cut. This contractual term is what grants filmmakers creative autonomy. Its opposite — surrendering final cut to a financier — is to be tethered to someone else’s (or a group of people’s) ideas, assertions, and ultimately power. What hangs in the balance here is no small matter – it is the filmmaker’s ultimate satisfaction with the film and its integrity, which generally is what makes the work worth the effort. Directing even a bad film is a monumental task. It takes years out of one’s life. It’s logical for a director to seek the creative autonomy of final cut. 

Okay, so how in ultra low budget terms does a filmmaker achieve this?

The scenario I’ll outline here for filmmakers considering these same issues relies on a “direct cinema” approach to fiction. Since the bulk of our work on This Is Not a War Story attended to real people portraying themselves, working with small crews and 360-degree lighting was not only a sensible goal but a key aspect of creating comfort among our non-actors, allowing them to be themselves in what would otherwise be an inhibiting and surreal experience (i.e., a traditional film shoot).

With the type of film I am describing, a filmmaker does not need a 30-person crew to work overtime to do the work of a 60-person crew. But as a filmmaker, you do need yourself to function on multiple levels and in multiple roles, including intense periods of preparation, dedication and clarity. The result: on each shooting day, you are only ever attempting to accomplish what eight to 12 people as a crew can reasonably accomplish. This does require narrative confines, but for the filmmaker looking to tell a personal, honest story, these limitations can be incredibly liberating, rather than restrictive. This is exactly what I experienced when directing my second feature for a fraction of the budget of my first.

What follows here is not the recipe for a Bond movie or a calling card to “bigger” things. I’m talking to the person who is undertaking a passion project that they simply must make, come hell or high water, while staying true to their dream instead of a finance person’s balance sheet. The road to empowerment for filmmakers starts when they have creative control.

On my first film, Descent, we spent a year submitting the script to production companies. Briefly, the film is about rape and the damning futility of revenge. My team and I resolved to not compromise on three points: 1) Maya (Rosario Dawson) can’t report or talk about her rape because that silence is many women’s reality — a reality rarely depicted in movies; 2) She has to become worse off for having gotten revenge; there is nothing good about it; 3) The final 20-page rape scene could not be censored. The good people with money gave us all manner of script notes: Why doesn’t she go to the police? Can’t she at least have one friend she tells her feelings to? Why does she have to stoop so low at the end? Can’t the revenge help her heal? It was clear to me at many points that we were never going to make this film. We turned down four million dollars at one point from a company because we would not agree to such script notes, all of which would have rendered the film a predictable barrel of (very harmful) cliches and not, according to our convictions, worth making.

Now on the flip side, This Is Not a War Story was predominantly self-financed, with one additional investor, my trusted closest friend and creative partner, and a generous grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. The budget was a fraction of Descent, and with that drop came the immediate and exhilarating absence of men in suits on set, pacing around, baffled that I’m not shooting standard coverage. On Descent, even though I had creative control on paper, I had to fight, and explain, untangle, push back, clarify, beg and surrender many “smaller” things. I had to pick my battles. Cut to War Story, which is also about trauma, this time concerning veterans who have returned from wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam… The unquestioned creative control the low budget here allowed me to make this film in partnership with combat veterans who in turn trusted me with their stories. The freedoms provided by my low budget assured me that no one was going to hover over my shoulder asking me to promote a clichéd hero-worship view of these veterans.

So as filmmakers how do we reduce our “need” from $1 million or more to a fraction of that?

We do so by reorienting our thinking about how films get made. Let’s examine some boilerplate assumptions many of us have about producing an indie film:

1. Crew roles are fixed and basically in accord with traditional Hollywood constructs.

2. You need to function like a downsized version of a studio movie but with the same hierarchies.

3. The larger the budget, the more talent will come your way.

4. Two actors in a room is boring.

5. Pre-production, production, and post-production are separate phases of work with real boundaries.

I did not start scheduling this film until I found my DP, Ryan DeFranco. All my extensive preparation with the veterans, while ongoing, did not take shape into a plan for production for the entire year that it took to find Ryan, whose insight, skill, temperament and resourcefulness was a constant flow of support and in many ways the backbone of the shoot. The key to this mode of filmmaking, by far, is finding the right collaborators. These are the people who love the script as much as you do, who dive in headfirst on behalf of their own passionate need to see this story realized – not as a favor to you, or as a stepping stone to a better job, but for the thing itself. Production and wardrobe designer Noa Rachel “Brick” Bricklin was likewise tantamount to us making this film at all. We conspired as equals to coordinate what our responsibilities would be, and we shared those. I did a ton of preparatory work to ensure that the props, artwork, etc. involving veterans was my responsibility, while Brick handled the scripted characters and location design elements like a sheer force of nature. The three of us got together and as producers of the film, decided where our boundaries were regarding the work that needed to be done. And we mapped out from there, all ahead of time, the crew configuration that the needs of this film demanded. As a collective we wanted what little funds we had to go on screen, and so long as we agreed to limit the scope of work to 10-12 hour days, striving for even less, we made it our priority to work in a meaningful, deliberately slower way. In this way — by thinking outside the box about how crew roles are defined, by embracing open transparency and open dialogue, and by taking on only what’s safe, manageable and logical  — we made a film with more of a band than a crew. We played multiple instruments, we played the hell out of them, and we did it for love of the project.

Because we staffed War Story with a DP and gaffer committed to working with a nimble, Harris Savides-inspired 360-degree approach to our lighting, we were able to operate grip/electric with a gaffer and one swing. We were after motivated, natural (and, sometimes, practical) lighting, all of which needed to feel specific to the story. (Even without that goal, it has become incredibly affordable to access low-light sensitive lenses and LED lights that literally fold up and fit into your backpack.) We invested time in pre-lighting locations we had continual access to, making it possible to return weeks and even months later to reshoot or shoot more of a particular scene. In terms of audio, we had a complicated Altmanesque mic situation designed for overlapping dialogue and improvisation. Without the commitment of Nick Bohun, our sound recordist (and also later our composer, co-sound Designer and mixer, we could not have achieved this). Nick came on board for love of the material, and in so many directions his creativity was central to the film.

By using tiny digital audio recorders that are hard-wired to lav mics (basically the kind embraced by wedding videographers), we were able to let the veterans’ mics run all day, turning them off only for meal breaks. These are affordable and small devices, and on set I was functioning as a sound assistant, handling the veterans’ mics myself, changing batteries, etc., which also allowed me to keep their orbit clear of excessive fuss.

But hierarchy is necessary in filmmaking because one vision ultimately needs to answer for the existence of the film and must steer the ship in that direction, through all manner of unpredictability and chaos. Modern studio productions still have complex individual hierarchies within every department. In This Is Not a War Story, that singular vision was expressed through a collective. Because most of our cast was non-actors, representing themselves as they chose, their wardrobe was their own. As to make-up, we embraced the look of human beings as they are, using lighting, lensing and filtration in lieu of extensive makeup. Our 2nd AC/DIT Paul Chaffin, also a combat veteran, was a crucial member of the team whose personal voice in the production far outpaced what that crew role would traditionally allow. Now, a key to consolidating crew roles is that the majority of prep work (finding and securing locations, coordinating with veterans about what they would wear, scheduling the shoot days, designing a thorough first draft of the shot list, mapping out the actors’ blocking, coordinating with the veterans about their artwork and poetry) was done already by me, the director, before most of the crew was even on board. The entire two years before the shoot was spent with me putting in roughly six hours or more a day of preparation time, thinking about every single possible departmental concern.

And as regards to the shooting itself with the crew, there is one factor alone that makes this arrangement acceptable, and that is use of time. We all agreed at the outset that we would spread this shoot out over several months in order to ensure a schedule that did not surpass eight-12 hour days, and to create time in between blocks of shooting to reflect and reassess. Only a handful of days we went overtime by one hour. Operating with a SAG Ultra Low Budget Agreement, we had a base day-rate, an overtime rate, and paid transportation and per diem on all days outside of NYC for the crew. We sometimes had six-hour days. Other days it was just myself and Ryan, or a team of three or four of us shooting B-roll. We did not have an assistant director or script supervisor. The energy on set was self-reliant, mostly calm and rarely stressed out. 

Rather than fight for a traditional studio hierarchy, I am advocating here for a more thoughtful, less bureaucratic approach. A collective, equalizing structure for a crew is a more collaborative and efficient way to run, provided the material can be done this way (Cassavetes-small) and you’re not trying to make a Marvel movie. In our experience, it’s a hell of a lot more fun like this, rooted in camaraderie and frank, heartfelt communication.

Talent being recruited by the size of the budget really must beg an obvious question. The best way to get great actors has always been to write a great fucking script. Most actors know great material when they see it, and they just don’t see it enough. Most are starving to work on better material. The onus is on us to get better at writing. You can’t teach writing, but you can learn it. 1

I did that by writing every day, one scene every day. I did this for several years. Every day, no matter where I was or what was happening, I wrote. I also watch films repeatedly. My other advice to new filmmakers: do not stay alone in a room for too long. Avoid writing groups. Get actors and read to your material. Read it once a week. Have new pages every week. And when I say read, I don’t mean sit around a table. Get up and move, see and hear the vitality of the material. Jump into it yourself. When you’re ready, the great actor will take what you offer, and they will be on board for the same reason you are. There is no guru or magic trick or formula. If there were workable formulas, there would never be any flops. Watch The Hustler and The Misfits and Carnal Knowledge. Watch Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Read. Read books constantly, read like your head is on fire. Listen to how terrible your dialogue sounds until you figure out how people actually talk. Do the work. Do it well and the actors will come to you.

Which brings us to point #4, the assumption that “two actors in a room is boring.” That’s lazy-speak for “character-driven material is too hard to create and to watch.” There has never been anything more riveting in the history of drama than what is contained in that space of potentiality between two people. Spectacle has its place. But if you can figure out how to create suspense between two people in one location, you can do it anywhere else, with all the toys and all the special effects. As human beings, we need to see ourselves reflected in a story and a character: some semblance of our struggle, our memories, and our dreams. Film is, at the end of the day, a bit of a psychological trick. Suspense means you don’t know what’s going to happen next, and that’s a human, psychological condition of relationships. Our relationship to other people, to our environment, to our own mental and emotional processes, to life itself. Understanding contrast, and the true sources of tension between people, is what makes ‘two actors in a room’ the closest thing we have to fathoming ourselves through drama.

One (or very few) location(s) means many amazing things for a filmmaker, if it’s the right location. Location is production design. A film produced according to this model should use its production design budget to augment an existing place that has inherent production value and is already cinematic. On This Is Not a War Story the entire second half of the film takes place in a cabin upstate New York. Through a friend, I got to know a World War II veteran named Gould Colman, who at 94 years old still changes his own tractor tires. Gould, being interested in helping ambitious young people get a foothold in life, let us shoot in his home, and he became instrumental to the film’s realization. In the case of this location, the advantage was partially how good it looked on film but primarily our ability to access it for extensive preparation. I could hang out with Gould and prepare the film (block, design, shot list, organize logistics.) Choosing a location that supports the time to prepare is key to this kind of filmmaking. And, like the greatest signature of the filmmaking experience, perhaps its deepest bounty, Gould became a mentor, a grandfather, and his family became family to me – just as immersive work with the veterans in the papermill blossomed into some of my deepest friendships and partnerships. 

All this is to say, “two actors in a room” should translate to the astute filmmaker as: indelible characters battling human existence in a metaphorically/poetically apt space.

Like on-set protocols, there is a standardization to the way most indie films think about the three phases of production. Firstly, there’s the matter of the shooting schedule. Descent was a typical indie film in that its entire shoot was crammed into 24 days. Roughly 14-18 hours per day, at 24 days, to shoot the entirety of the vision. Those long days are beyond brutal, and there is very little time for thinking by the time you’re on week three. Filmed in 41 days over the course of eight months, This Is Not a War Story had built-in flexibility from the start: a scene would be on the schedule, and we would shoot it, but we knew we always had the option to return, to reshoot and make adjustments. The idea was that if we embraced such a plan we wouldn’t be shooting while being harried and frazzled — we could concentrate on the work and treat it with our true depth of concern. 

I would reflect on footage and even start cutting during off weeks of production. Locations like Gould’s or the veterans’ papermill upstate were places I could hang out for hours, weeks and months to prepare, before and during production. This methodical way of working simply is not possible along traditional lines, where filming is done in one blurry shoot-vomit where you just go until your body collapses and your money runs out. If post-production can participate actively in the decisions made during production, and pre-production can be a facet of an ongoing shoot, this is a totally different way of working. To do this, you have to be a collective, a director must be willing to work from morning until night, seven days a week, without asking this of anyone else. The director must pick up all the slack and wear ten hats at once. A director’s enthusiasm for the project has to give the project that much energy. If that’s the case the collective can function knowing they can rely on the director to do all the myriad things that cannot be done or covered otherwise. I had meetings with DP Ryan and production and costume designer Brick, walking through how this would work. They were absolutely producing partners, with point participation and producer credits on the film. Likewise 2nd AC Paul Chaffin and others on the crew were equal participants with a share of the film and were credited as producers when that role overlapped. We were transparent with one another; no parental figures, no dudes in suits. Just us, having a blast.

If we rearrange our thinking about traditional hierarchies, apply ourselves whole-heartedly and reconsider what resources we really need to make a great film – the low budget modality can be embraced as the clearest path to creative autonomy. I think at the end of the day all it requires is a sense of adventure and some trust in yourself. If you resonate with the material that’s  truly in your heart, regardless of what others say, then you can bet somebody, somewhere, will feel that way. Maybe a lot of somebodies, maybe only a few – that part is not within your control – but you can take charge of making the best possible film that you are capable of making, the deepest story you are capable of telling – and that is enough. 

This is Not a War Story premiered at San Francisco Indie Fest 2021 where it won the Audience Award for Best Feature Drama. It also won awards at Urbanworld, Indie Street, Atlanta Underground, Tallgrass, Portland and Woods Hole. It was picked up for distribution by Warner Media’s Project 150 for release onto the HBO Max platform nationwide Nov 3rd, as well as in theaters in LA and NYC.

For more info on screenings and tickets, visit: www.thisisnotawarstory.com

To view the trailer for the film, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qMnueNMRoo&t=2s

1. I do teach a Screenwriting class at The New School, and it’s exactly this, basically an anti-Screenwriting course, with the only required text being the collected essays of James Baldwin.

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