This column usually focuses on one subject per post that tackles one specific aspect of micro-budget filmmaking. I never wanted it to be a place where we talk about the latest gear or tips on how to get a film done; There are other awesome sites for that. However, after talking with filmmaker Jamie Heinrich, about no-budget filmmaking, he sent me the list of important things to remember below. Jamie recently completed his film I Like You, and after seeing the trailer I can’t wait to check it out. Jamie’s advice is funny, to the point, and no nonsense. I felt I needed to share it as it aligns with my outlook to an obscene level. (#4 is my favorite.)
Here is what I’ve learned, and how I made my first feature film for free. If you’ve never made a feature, and want to make one for free, then you just hit the jackpot here. If you have made one for free, then we should start a club. These are my tactics. I’m a pro at making a first feature film for free and complete novice at making a second one. I’ve listed bullet points of the steps for you readers, so you can get a little notebook and have a guide to accomplish a feature film. If you’re cutting edge and own a printer then print it out. I appreciate the opportunity to share some of my tactics with fellow striving human filmmakers.
1. If you’re reading this first step then you;re committed and really interested in making a feature. This is the biggest step for you. Not many people try to accomplish a feature.
It took me 15 years to figure it is time to do this. Its like having a baby. You;re never ready; you just got to jump in the flames. Don’t wait for a budget. You don’t need money to make your first feature and especially don’t deserve it. If your don’t start from the dirt, then you won’t be in the true film maker cool club.
I talked to my good friend Joseph Whitmarsh (who made the film with me) about writing a script and said we’d make it for sure if he was down to write. He started writing, and 55 pages into it we started. Don’t do that. Finish your script first or you’re fucked. I also learned, after completing my first film, that story is why people are even watching your movie; Especially for an hour and a half. Don’t get me wrong, all the other elements make the film cool but not as much as a good story, especially when someone invests 80 minutes of their life in it. That’s what my first film lacked. And write within your means, Spielberg.
My bad ass friend, and DP, Ryan Baker, owns a lot of his own equipment and seriously knows how to sweat and properly operate it. This is fun, and a plus. It’s not a necessity unless you want to make your shit look right.
To be honest if you’re broke, and don’t have proper equipment, then use something really shitty and say it was on purpose. I picked up a VHS cam on Ebay for $100. It was a good one, but you can get one even cheaper than that with some investigation. If you think you need equipment to make a good film then you’re gay (not in a nice homosexual way). It’s about how talented you are at moviemaking, not how big your lens hood is. (But a big lens hood does help people take you more seriously when you’re using their restaurant or church location for free.) You can always buy a camera and return it. We needed an underwater shot so we bought a Canon 7D, duct taped it in a plastic sandwich bag and dumped it in a pool 30 times then returned it for full refund.
Be cool. Directing doesn’t make you important. You’re dumb if you think so. Your DP is cooler than you anyways.
Use anybody. So now you have no excuse. It’s up to a good director (you) to find and pull the awesome moments out of their personality. Some of your talent is naturally comfortable in front of camera. Usually the “shy in real life” people. If they suck just shoot them when they think you’re not rolling. Can’t get any more natural than that. (Just have to do some trick edits) This requires a DP who knows when to do this, and can communicate with you telepathically. Take note, it is a bit tricky to get a 19-year-old to show up on time when they’re still on acid from the night before, but it really doesn’t matter because you should be focused on so many other aspects of your production, and when they arrive you don’t make them stand around forever. That’s just lame to do to your stars, and it means you’re a serious rookie. Tell them to show whenever they feel like it. Always. Let them know when you’re going to be there so they can come chill if they feel like it, but give them three hours after you arrive. As far as actors, I have never worked with a real one so I don’t know shit about that. I look forward to it some day.
Don’t ask, or ever get permission unless you want to spend half of your time making your movie by getting strangers’ permission to do it. Just go there and act like you’re supposed to be there. No one will ask questions unless they have the balls to. In that case you say “sorry do you mind?” If they say yes then say okay and feel out how much more you can get before they get really upset. If people have a problem with you trying to do something cool then they deserve to get worked up. Always be polite because you’re in their zone, then say thank you and leave when necessary. Most people will be privileged to be a part, and if they think their spot is too special to be filmed in, then go to the restaurant next door and have fun with cool people who support you. Don’t ever shoot in L.A. That place just blows, and every location just looks like L.A. anyways. Nobody will even let you pull out a phone camera without trying to get $5000 out of your dirt bag looking production. Cutthroat. This is why I shoot in cool places like Reno that think a camera is neat.
I’ve made this its own subject on the checklist because if I’ve learned anything from my first feature, it’s that sound deserves its own category. It’s soooo important. Have a sound guy on set. You’ll probably go through 15 dudes before the movie is done because it gets old quick standing there with a pole over your shoulders. But, it takes serious concentration and is so crucial to get background ambiance, and make sure that mic is in the sweet spot. You’ll be fucked in the edit room (or when your cutting the whole feature on a laptop on your kitchen table) without proper sound for everything. ADR is bullshit. It works on 20% of your shots. It’s just not the same. Can’t just relive those special moments in life. Sorry. They’re gone.
If you think you’re cool because you bought Final Cut Pro, you’re not. What’s cool is finding someone with experience who can edit properly. Any body can set an in and out point, and put clips side by side. That’s what Final Cut does. If you don’t have money, then do it yourself and take in all the feedback you get from a variety of people who DON”T have anything to do with film school. Then re-edit with all of their advice and critiques. I’m learning to do this and I’ve been editing everyday for 15 years before non-linear. I was 12. But that’s not important, just do what people who go to the movies like, then throw your own touch on it without being annoying. Stay away from a cross fade (it’s not cool, trust me) and never try to do an effect. You don’t need effects unless you’re a serious compositor. If you want effects in your movie and can’t pay someone what they deserve for learning and getting good at composting for a majority chunk of their lifetime, then do all your effects in camera. You CAN’T go too wrong. They will be hilarious if they go wrong in camera and that makes them exceptional.
9. Sound Design
Find some sound designer to hook you up. If you’ve come this far in your feature film it’s worth the wait and investigation if you want it done free. A cool sound designer will hook you up, and your movie needs it. Don’t think you’re a sound designer because you installed Soundtrack Pro with its awesome library of effects that you hear repeated in every student film. Your movie will suffer without good sound. I recently saw Michael Semanick speak and chatted with him for a while afterward. He’s the legend of sound mixers. Look him up. He’s a rad guy and made realize even more how important this area is.
Don’t do it. You’re better off leaving your film as shot raw. If you want to color then “color correct.” Yes you can match shots but if you think crushing blacks and boasting contrast looks good, it doesn’t. But I’m sure most of you reading this so far knows all that already… I’m trying to help here the first timers here. You’ll think your film looks cool, and color the whole thing, then realize a month later vanilla tastes better than chocolate and you have to start over. And that’s not cool on a feature. I’ve colored my feature three times,and I’m still not satisfied with it. I’m a post guy though. I wouldn’t suggest you mess with coloring unless you know what you’re doing. Just leave it how it is. If your movie is that good and worthwhile, someone good will step in and probably color it for you later for free if they think it’s cool. Coloring is fun for them on a cool movie… Just like a sound mixer… throw them a cut of the pie if it sells.
Now you finished your film and you think it’s so rad. Not everyone is going to think that so lets hope you enjoyed the process. But here’s the best part of finishing your film. You don’t owe anyone money. It’s a long process to distribute a film even if its good. I wouldn’t know actually. I’m in this process with my first film. Sony Pictures Classics contacted me out of the blue about screening it. They screened it right away and denied it.
So you’ve had a great time and huge adventure making this movie. Get super drunk for one night and celebrate with the people you made it with. Only one night. If you try to celebrate more than once it wont be fun and now you’re doing it for the wrong reasons and probably like to get drunk for no reason…. Then hit the reset button and go make a better one.
Making films is serious business. If you’re not fully committed to it, the results will show. BUT, I like Jamie’s approach. It has to be fun, because you and the crew/cast may be the only people that ever see it. If you’re not enjoying the process, then why do it in the first place? I’m often approached by folks who start talking about the film they are going to make by discussing what festivals they’ll be in once it’s finished. Wrong answer. If you’re making a no-budget film to get into a festival, stop right now and pack it up. Humility, community, excitement, and creativity is what it’s all about.
We’d never turn down the chance to hear from you, especially micro-budget fans and filmmakers. To become part of the conversation please send us your thoughts, responses, and questions.