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The Microbudget Conversation

We're Only Talking a Few Thousand Dollars by John Yost

The Microbudget Conversation: The Art Behind Sacrifice

On the set of LaSierva - photo Sean Cruser

Picking up right where we left off; Anna Rebek says nuts to embracing limitations; start sacrificing everything to make all the details important.


One great thing about being micro is that no one but ourselves are breathing down our own necks, asking for results, and pushing the timeline. You often have as much time as you allow to problem-solve any limitations that you give yourself, so why would you cut corners and allow your film to be anything but what you realized at the script stage? Perhaps the best time to know how far you can push it is at the conception. Perhaps it’s time to slow down and craft every detail instead of just rounding out the corners. This past week Scott Macaulay wrote an incredible post about when to give up, and when to push on. Perhaps all microbudget filmmaking is is an incredible understanding of executable limitations, mixed with a keen sense of when to pack it up and try something else…or when to push beyond and sacrifice everything.

I started out thinking I would write this as a list of should’s, shouldn’t’s, and lessons learned, but then I remembered, I hate getting filmmaking advice. So I decided to tell my story instead.

When our film company Subtext Features set out to make our first feature, La Sierva (The Servant) (pictured), we aimed high story-wise and realistically with production. Mike Maekawa, the director, had written the screenplay and he went for real guts: terrifying bloody gash moments and emotionally wrought script sequences…real BALLS. Bad Ass. He also had the foresight to stay within our microbudget limitations — four of 11 locations were in moderately priced, local hotels; there were alleys and garages, and even each of our cars had a cameo. And it was all on purpose. He was a genius at this. He saw what we had, saw what we could buy, and wrote an incredible story we could pull off. A psycho-thriller border story about drug trafficking and a lead Mexican female with gravitas. I would play that part, the role of Sofia Morena, and produce the film, and we would have our filmmaker friends jump on board. It sounded like we were really playing by all the rules I’ve read in these articles and that I’d accumulated through practice on smaller projects. It seemed that there was no way we could fail. And we didn’t! We wrapped on schedule and on budget, but it still felt like we had failed somehow. Honestly, since we just wrapped on the 16th, I’m still reeling from the experience, and I’m still trying to figure out why it felt like something failed. I think it was because to make art you have to make sacrifices, and it hurts.

There’s this idea of “embracing” your limitations that has surfaced often in this microbudget conversation. There’s just something that doesn’t, how do I say, ring true about that from my experience when it comes to microbudget filmmaking. It’s like “embracing” it assumes that having to shave off pieces of the vision or parts of the story is somehow a natural part of the microbudget process — like it’s kind of “up to the universe” on some level. Let me be clear, it was my job, as producer, to do the absolute opposite and hold true to the story, as was Mike’s as director. If there were supposed to be some tortilla chips on the goddamn table and props had failed to remember, then it is my JOB to give someone $20 and have them go get tortilla chips – the cheapest they could find (if I couldn’t go myself). It’s not just “okay” to embrace the fact that we had other chips lying around, and use those instead, or just take them out of the shot, because it’s not “totally necessary, no one’s eating them in the scene.” The point is staying true to the VISION. (And also indirectly, dealing with underpaid people).

Everything about filmmaking, in my opinion, is about both the broad thematic elements and simultaneously every single minute detail, all functioning together to create an experience and a believable reality for the characters to exist within. It should be obvious immediately, to any audience member, who a character is even by how that person brushes their teeth. By what kinds of strokes they use,  with what kind of toothbrush, etc… These things don’t cost money, but they do require vast amounts of consideration. It is that level of analysis and consideration that make each moment in a film great. That’s why I just don’t understand the allowance of “happy accidents” to deter from the original vision and story. If there’s no purpose behind it moving the story forward, it shouldn’t be in the frame. Microbudget isn’t an excuse for lazy composition or control over what is in your shots. And this is why there shouldn’t be an embracing of the limitations — rather everyone should be more focused on the art behind every tiny sacrifice made.

I’ve been exposed to many microbudget/independent films, and even more expensive ones, that just seem to revel in their own languid lack of intention, and they’re being passed off as “artsy.” They seem to be trying desperately to communicate something, but it’s like a whisper underwater. What the fuck are you saying to me with this film? I consider myself fairly well versed in the vocabulary of artistic expression and abstraction, and all your standard elitist high-brow bullshit I absorbed from college. Visually there are, in these “voyeuristic” films, I’ll admit, moments that would make great photos. But if I need a grad school paper to unravel layers of subtext without any hint of actual text, maybe the problem isn’t me.

So, let’s get back to why microbudget filmmaking is grueling and painful. Because resources are limited, and there is no room to compromise the vision, the art of sacrifice is not just about problem solving, it is an emotional sacrifice also. When you need people to work on your film day and night (we had almost four full 24-hour days during our shoot) you have to bring in people you know and trust; basically that means friends. That means you have to rely on people you know to care as much about your project as you do. But how can they? It’s your baby. They can watch your baby for a while, help out when they can, play with it, tell you it’s cute, but at the end of the day, when it shits – they’ll hand it back. And that just has to be okay, because you’re not paying them enough to adopt it, or have to clean up the mess. Now, I’m not trying to say we didn’t have some really dedicated people that made it through every day with us; People that came prepared, and did their best. But microbudget filmmaking is mostly a hurdling act comprised of favors asked from friends, finding a way to pay somehow for skilled labor, and paying somehow for unskilled labor. In this environment most friend relationships are susceptible to lapses in politeness. and when anyone slips on their responsibilities, it costs the production time, money, and takes a toll on everyone else (which causes more tension and stress). There is an art to being grateful to everyone, because it is still their time, and they’re not being paid enough for it. Again, an artful, but emotional sacrifice.

Another idea that has also surfaced is the idea of what a filmmaker is. There are people who “talk” about making films, and then there’s the reality of what a filmmaker actually does. There is NO glamour in microbudget filmmaking. There is only the reality of doing it, and everything that must be done to create another reality FOR it to thrive. The real testament to a microbudget filmmaker is how well they deal with the frustration, and how well they adapt to sacrifice, and ultimately, whether or not their vision was executed. It sounds nice to say, “I’m a filmmaker”, or “I make films” – a little more attention comes toward you from whomever you’re addressing, a little sparkle in their eyes, because it’s safe to assume that they either love movies, love movie stars, want to be in movies, or all three. But unless they’ve been on a microbudget set before, they have no idea what a shelled-out, rickety ship it is to sail.

There’s also the overarching sacrifice everyone involved is facing because they’ve opted to work on the film instead of having financial security. La Sierva is not a student film, these are grown ass men who gave up jobs to be there as crew. That was their sacrifice too. There’s a lot of eggs that go in this microbudget basket, a lot of people’s hopes, a lot of people’s money, and you have to hold it together to show everyone that it WILL get finished, it WILL be great, and it WILL be something they will be proud to have had a part in creating. They have to BELIEVE that you won’t let them down, that you will finish what you’ve started, that it will all be worth it in the end. It was my job to convince them to join, and convince them to stay through the rough parts.

Anna and the director Mike – photo Sean Cruser

So, everyone involved poured all our savings and friendships into one big La Sierva pot and watched it boil. It takes serious BALLS. I found myself in those moments before I was fully awake thinking… Oh my God. What the hell was I thinking? I have no safety net, no security, if this doesn’t work I’ll just never live it down, I’ll become old and bitter and drink my way into getting a cat. But I had housed two crew members at my loft for over two weeks to save gas and they were stirring for a new, long day. No time for negative thoughts. I rummaged through bins of props and had help loading the car up with every kind of hoarded crap needed for the day. I knew that in his own home, Mike was doing the same with equipment, getting everything ready to get make the shots come alive. And then minutes later, on the way to the set while driving, I’d just stare out my car window at all these fresh, clean-looking people around me with desk jobs and haircuts and summer sandals on well-tended feet. We had blisters and bruises. I didn’t wash my hair for a week so it would look matted, and it worked. My sunglasses had been “mysteriously” broken on set, and my eyes burned. How different our crew was from these normal people.

I said to myself, Let’s do this. Let’s make a fucking masterpiece.

It is supposed to hurt when you birth something beautiful into the world. We all hurt to make this film happen. That’s what lets you know you CARE about how it turns out. That’s how you know you want it badly enough and that you have been white-knuckled for your whole life to get it. Art is worth the sacrifice. – Anna Rebek

I’ve been watching and reading a lot of material lately on the universe and its mysteries. (Research for the next feature.) It’s interesting to me to think of a microbudget film in relation to quantum mechanics and sub atomic particles. A film exists as matter does. When you observe the film, it appears whole, but the building blocks of the whole don’t really “exist” until you observe them. Many times microbudget films fall flat as a whole, and it isn’t until an audience, or filmmaker, seeks out the details, or “particles”, do we understand why. We start to realize how important these tiny details and sacrifices really are in making the whole. Until we understand that these films are just as complex, with every detail deserving our absolute attention, then we may not ever elevate microbudget filmaking as something sustainable, viable, and interesting to an audience. An audience that will not look at the details to see if they “exist”, but instead take for granted the whole film in front of them.

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