Filmmaker Josh Folan's Cynical Guide May Convince Us That Hard is Better Than Easy
Usually when we buy a book on filmmaking it makes all kinds of promises about having advice that will make the process more simple -- something along the lines of, "Make films the easy way," and "Shoot a feature film in 3 easy steps!" But, guess what -- it's never simple. Filmmaker Josh Folan's book, Filmmaking, the Hard Way, is the cynical version of a how-to guide, offering a case study of the feature film production of All God’s Creatures, a film Folan also wrote. This "top to bottom analysis" of the low-budget filmmaking process may appeal to readers with its honest approach -- aiming to help readers problem solve by knowing what they're really up against.
There is so much that goes into filmmaking that isn't often seen from the vantage point of the uninitiated. If it's your first time making a film, how are you to supposed to know details, like what exactly to factor into your budget or securing a clean chain of title, without either knowing someone or having some literature to guide you through it?
Folan wants to address this issue by walking readers through the making of All God's Creatures, an indie feature film he was heavily involved in, which was released through Osiris Entertainment last year.
The film was made and delivered to the distributor for less than $30k, which of course required countless creative solutions to make happen -- Filmmaking, the Hard Way is an in-depth analysis of that process.
Check out the trailer to the film below:
I've only read sections of the book, so by no means can I form a complete opinion on it, but it's lauded as "the indie filmmaker bible for problem solving at the micro-budget level." We all get skeptical when we hear such claims, but this book has 174 pages of extremely detailed notes that walk us through the making of All God's Creatures -- a step-by-step guide through the making of a film, inviting us to learn by its example.
There are several pages of Filmmaking, the Hard Way available to view on Amazon, but here's a short excerpt for you to peruse directly from Folan himself.
If you don’t have inexpensive/free legal counsel at your disposal, you will need to find a way to navigate all the legal paperwork required to safely ensure everyone and everything will be in place when the little red button gets pressed for the first time on day one of shooting. Before anyone will give you a dime for your work, you will need chain of title documents, location agreements, cast and crew deal memos, music licensing agreements and an assortment of other clearances. At the very least, you will be relying on that really business-savvy member of your core team to find pro-forma documents that you can tweak to fit your production’s needs.
Poor Man’s Film School Sidebar: We were able to barter for some legal advice by offering a role to an actor who happened to also be a lawyer. #problemsolver
Mark Litwak is a well-traveled entertainment attorney who has published a number of books wherein standard contracts to work from lie, and you can also find a number of documents [here]. You can fill these needs without spending thousands and thousands of dollars to have a lawyer draft all-too-similar documents from supposed scratch, but it is highly recommended you find a way to get approval on the end product from a law professional before moving forward in the process.
While using union crew is pretty much out of the question at the micro-budget level, you do have a decision to make when it comes to hiring union actors. SAG-AFTRA has a number of low-budget agreements and can be very accommodating in working with producers on smaller films, but they can also be quite rigid when they think union members might be at risk of being shortchanged or mistreated by awarding your project union status. We chose to go non-union with All God’s Creatures, and it worked for us and allowed us to get away with some scheduling expectations from our cast we probably would not have been able to afford if we’d have been a union production, and that allowed us to save a few bucks we could spend on other areas. What’s right for you will depend on your casting needs and decisions.
On a $20k production budget, renting sound stages and building sets from scratch is out of the question – which forces you into a location-shooting-only scenario where you’ll be exposed to all sorts of environmental risks and inconveniences that make everything more difficult than they would be in an in-studio setting. It also means you’ll have to find and scout the locations, figure out a way to get access to the owner/decision maker, and then beg them to allow you to shoot there at a time that doesn’t decimate your production schedule for little or no money. If you can’t afford a location manager and/or scouts, guess who’s going to be doing all that legwork…
One upside to this can be the authenticity and production value that can be gleaned from shooting in well-chosen locations, value that can extend well beyond that with which your financial means should allot you access to. A great deal of money is often spent decorating sets to make them look “lived in,” but a good (or lucky) scouting eye can find that genuine feel at little or no cost out in the real world. We had a few instances where our financial constraints forced us into shooting in places that ultimately lent themselves to the gritty tone of the film, whereas our first options would likely have been much too glossy for what ended up being appropriate.
All God’s Creatures had about 20 first unit locations and a few smaller ancillary b-roll setups. Some of our needs were terribly demanding given our meager location fee budget; a railroad yard, a coffee shop, a fast food restaurant, an office setting, a river, a suburban household. We also needed a couple NYC apartments for the two lead characters. How we found and secured each:
Apartments. We were looking at about five days, almost a third of the schedule, spread across the two lead character’s apartments. The bulk of our shooting was sizing up to be in Manhattan, which is where both Matt and I’s apartments were located and they worked aesthetically, so it was pretty much a given from the start we would be inviting a movie crew in to trash our pads for the shoot. Matt’s apartment also doubled as the production office – wardrobe, craft services, equipment and any other production need that required a staging point had a home there.
Employee Break Room. This was a tough one. The idea was for it to look like whatever an AMTRAK employee break room might look like, which we originally assumed any traditional office break room with a water cooler and a coffee pot would suffice for. If you have money to pay for it, these are pretty abundant. We did not, which relegated us to asking friends with office jobs if we could intrude on their place of employment for a night in exchange for…nothing. Except for a special thanks credit which, on a little film like ours, is the equivalent of shit stuck to your shoe. We didn’t have any takers on that attractive proposition, surprisingly, and eventually came up with the alternative idea of a locker room. Matt happened to belong to a 24-hour gym in West Harlem near his apartment on 148th Street, where he hunted down the manager and convinced him to let us come in with a skeleton crew at midnight and shoot the scene. I believe we paid something like $100 to cover some sort of administration cost on their end in exchange, in addition to agreeing to apply some shit to the manager’s shoe.
Claw Machine Game. Originally slated for the lobby of a movie theater, we quickly realized (even with the help of some film commissions) that we were not going to be able to secure a movie theater lobby of any kind on the cheap, let alone one that happened to have a claw machine. I received constant pressure to cut this from the script because of these difficulties, but I was pretty hard-headed about it and insisted I would find a solution. I lived on East 108th Street at the time, and there was a deli on the corner of that and 2nd Avenue that I passed by every day walking to the subway. The deli happened to have a decrepit claw machine game sitting out front on the sidewalk, and once we came to the conclusion a movie theater was not going to happen I started stopping in every afternoon, asking to speak to the owner/manager and leaving a business card, for weeks until I had gotten a signature on a location agreement to shoot there. What seemed like a concession at the time actually turned out to be a positive, as the rough Spanish Harlem exterior was far more appropriate for the film than a brightly-lit theater lobby.
All God's Creatures was written by Folan, who is also a producer, writer, director and actor. According to filmmaker Ryan Gielen, who recently wrote a guest post for us here at NFS, wrote this about the book:
You would be hard-pressed to find another book as detailed and direct about the costs associated with getting this process right, the pitfalls, the tiny windows of opportunity that you must recognize and act upon immediately --
Filmmaking, the Hard Way is now available on Amazon. Get the Kindle edition for $5.99 or the paperback for $8.99 new.
Have you read Filmmaking, the Hard Way? What are your thoughts on it? Let us know in the comments.