5 Essential Tips on Making an Indie Film in Your Backyard
Sure, New York and L.A. are super cool places to make a movie, but if you're an indie, no-budget filmmaker, chances are most of your films will be shot right in your hometown.
David Beltoft and his team shot their low budget horror feature HERE ALONE, which is currently running a Kickstarter right now, right in their backyard, Corning, NY, and greatly relied on the kindness of the community to get their film made. He offers 5 tips on how to approach your "backyard budget" films, like who to ask for help, where and how to gather resources, and how to be everybody's friendly neighborhood filmmaker.
As a screenwriter, the majority of my involvement with film has been in front of a computer screen. So when I wrote the upcoming low budget horror/thriller film, HERE ALONE, which I also produced along with director Rod Blackhurst and Noah Lang (BAND OF ROBBERS, SUN BELT EXPRESS), I had to leave the screen’s comforting glow and enter the boots-on-ground phase of planning a production. But I didn’t have to go far from my screen as we set the film in Corning, a small town in Western New York that I also call home.
Corning is my backyard but it isn’t my birthplace, so the usual perks of shooting where Mom and Dad also pay taxes (familial network, maternal-catering, beer fridge in the basement) didn’t apply. Corning is also a good distance from a large metropolitan area. The closest "major" city is Rochester, a 2-hour drive away. So while we gained many benefits of shooting in a small town, like cheaper hotels and catering, we lost some benefits of shooting in a larger city, such as a built in film network and a film-friendly talent pool.
Shooting a film in your backyard is the backbone of many indie-productions, but no matter where you are, it is still challenging. For many, including us, budgets are grotesquely low and hopes for any kind of production value are optimistically high, so finding and then relying on barely-known neighbors or absolute strangers to donate their time, talents, homes, businesses, and personal items is paramount to making your film work. With HERE ALONE we had to "design" our film to make it work within a small town and its surrounding area. Many tactics were applied to assist in this design, but I’d like to share 5 that we employed early on that helped our film stay under budget, on schedule, and allowed our bare-boned crew and production team the opportunity to pull off an amazingly tense and dramatic genre film (if I do say so myself).
Design your film on what's around you
Lena Dunham shot a huge portion of her directorial debut, TINY FURNITURE, in her parent’s 2-bedroom Tribeca loft. Director Jim Mickle shot most of his first feature, MULBERRY STREET, in co-writer/actor Nick Damici’s apartment. On HERE ALONE, we did the same thing, crafting the locations in the script and narrative to what was surrounding my backyard. Within a 30-minute drive of Corning are state parks, waterfalls, rivers, lakes, hills, woods, valleys, and nature preserves. Knowing that, we tailored our narrative and scene locations to harness the area's accessible and natural diversity. Doing so kept our locations budget low; our crew moves limited (only 3 mid-day moves over 16 days), but still kept the visual mélange for the film exceptional. Now, this doesn’t mean that locations (even if they’re outdoors) were automatically available, free, not a challenge to lock down, or film set compatible (electric, parking, facilities, etc.), but considering what was around us and what we had a chance of securing for little to no money in the development phase saved us time, energy, and money.
Your props are what you already own
Tina, the fat Llama lard in NAPOLEON DYNAMITE? She belonged to director Jared Hess’s mother. The infamous reel-to-reel tape recorder that introduces the accursed book in Sam Rami’s THE EVIL DEAD? That belonged to Bruce Campbell’s father. In HERE ALONE, a large portion of our props came from my attic or my brother’s basement (who was also our amazing production designer). Scenes where a large or costly prop could set us back were reworked so that they could fit creatively and visually with what we already owned. One of those items was a late 90’s sedan that needed to be covered in mud inside and out for the duration of that shoot. We chose a purple 1995 Geo Prizm, which also happens to be the car I drive everyday (#indiefilm). Tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, flashlights, baby toys, car seats, are just some of the items that came from our collective storage rooms. You’re obviously not going to have everything your script requires in your closet, but knowing what you have before hand, and designing your film with those items in mind helps keep your props budget low and your pre-production phase manageable.
Indie films are built on favors, so be detailed when you ask
When it comes down to reaching out to your neighbors and extended community (even if they know mom and dad) to get locations, items, props, and an extra set of hands donated, be detailed. You’re asking for favors, so you should also be upfront and honest. We received tons of donated items, from coffee urns to locations, because our requests were comprehensive and transparent (we didn’t play anything close to the vest).
For locations, you’re asking folks to let you, your crew, (and all accompanying gear) barge into their lives. It’s a big request, so give them every bit of information possible. We let our location owners know (exactly):
- what we were filming
- our crew size
- our estimated vehicle count for each day
- if we’d like to use their electrical or other facilities (bathrooms)
- when we’d show up each day (down to the minute)
- when we expect to leave
- the paltry fee we could offer
- that we were fully insured (no ‘if’s’ for your production, get insurance)
If it was a prop, or production related item, we preformed the same detailed song and dance.
It also went a long way to let our donation-friendly neighbors know that we aren’t a bunch of cleat-wearing troglodytes stomping through their homes or pissing in their precious coffee urns. In a small town, your neighbors and community supporters probably won’t know the first thing about how a film set and crew operate, so give them the scoop. Stating that your crew is professional and courteous (ours were x10) and that they will treat homes and items with respect immensely helps in securing the favors needed to enhance your production.
Let the local talent cast themselves
Our production team was so bare-boned that when it came to local casting, it was my then 2-year old son and myself. We had about a dozen roles to fill, and some had to be capable of acting like ‘infected’ individuals, crazed and bloodthirsty. Instead of employing the usual casting process, we skipped the headshots and auditions and requested that interested talent film their audition with their cell phones and send it in on their own. We sent our casting call to local universities, every area theater company we could find an email for, and posted it on Craigslist. As guidance to be one of our ‘infected’ we included a short 2 line description and a link to a 3-minute reference video. We asked them to either upload their video to YouTube and send us a link or send us the video themselves. We stressed that quality wasn’t of importance, just how they interpreted our request. Videos poured in, allowing us to see how local talent approached the material, their comfort level in front of the camera, and if they could dedicate themselves to the ‘infected’ approach for 30 seconds to a minute.
This also had the benefit of weeding out some folks who might flake on you come production. Anyone that submitted a video took the time, effort, and steps necessary to be a part of our film. It showed their commitment to the role and our project, despite a low day-rate. Every person we hired were professionals, even though for some, this was their first paid gig. They showed up on time, spent hours in makeup, and went through some strenuous days of physical activity without a single complaint.
Let people in on the excitement
If you film within a small town, share the love and let people in on the excitement. Making a film, whether big or small, carries an ingrained allure and people get giddy when it’s in their backyard. Knowing that something was filmed in their area, and that the hills they see everyday could make it to the silver screen (or an iPad via Netflix) is a perk that you can provide (that’s free), so let everyone that participates in on it. That guy that just lent you his generator? Invite him to set. The friendly Park Ranger that just stopped to see what y'all we’re doing? Treat him to your expertly curated crafty table. Let the community be part of the experience when you can. A majority of the requests and favors that were filled on HERE ALONE was because the community came through and in the end, helped our film become a reality. And it could be cyclical; the next time you decide to make a film in your backyard, the folks that you let in on the excitement will be the first to offer up their coffee urns, homes, and open their hearts up to your production. Even the warming glow of a computer screen can’t compete with that.
For more information and to see a great preview of HERE ALONE, head on over to our Kickstarter campaign.