Can't get that location you need? Build it!
[Editor's Note: Zach Daulton guest authored this article after successfully building a garage set.]
When writing the script to Mayfield, I was really inspired by the architecture of the old Murphy Theatre in Wilmington, Ohio and wrote my script with that location in mind. The script was completely finished when I took my first visit to the theatre; I really tried to visualize all of the scenes there. The dressing room written for Mayfield had so much character, and unfortunately the dressing rooms at the theatre I rented did not. With bright white walls, fluorescent lighting, and a grey concrete floor, nothing about these rooms fit the script.
At this point, it was time to make a decision. Do I rent an extra two days at the theatre to set dress and shoot in the dressing room at $500/day? Or do I save that money and build it somewhere else? At the end of the day, a dressing room is really just a rectangle with a mirror in it, so it was obvious to me that it could have been done anywhere.
Why build a set, anyway?
I wanted something that seemed very old and distressed with a wood floor and grimy mirror. I also wanted something that had the same vibe as the rest of the theatre did. After I realized what I wanted out of the dressing room, we began to search for the location.
Once you start building cheap sets and using every scrap you have, you’ll find yourself becoming a pack rat.
Locations are really hard to find when you don’t have a lot of money and you’re making an indie short film with no plan for a financial return. So the first thing I did was call all of my friends who owned real estate to see if they had anything open I could borrow for a couple weeks, but each place had a problem that would make it impossible to shoot. One building had a perfect look, but no electricity and was located on a very busy street with a lot of loud traffic. I considered just using a regular bedroom, but most bedrooms are really tight with very limited space for lights and other gear. I didn’t think I would get all the shots I wanted. When I talked to my DP, he suggested finding a location with an open ceiling so we could top light it. That’s where the garage comes in.
Finding the right garage
The actor who plays James Mayfield (John Riley) has a garage with a 12’ high ceiling. It was a perfect place to build a set because there was plenty of electricity, we could top light it, we had some sort of temperature control, and access to a kitchen to make all the food for the crew. The only problem is that there was currently already a set built in there from a western John had directed a few years prior.
You don’t know what’s available to you until you ask about 100 people and hear 'no' about 99 times.
I had to convince a man in his seventies to help me tear down his line shack cabin set built in his garage and build another set in there. As you can imagine, he was a little reluctant to sign up for all this work, but once he saw how passionate I was about this project and how much work I had already put into it, he agreed to help me. (Side note: It turns some people really respond to passion. If you want to get people passionate about your project, find a way to give them ownership in their role and show nonstop appreciation for everything they do.)
Use what's available
Indie filmmakers really shine when they are resourceful and make the most out of what they already have. No one is impressed when you build a great set with a huge budget because it’s expected. However, if you can build a great set with little to no money, people start to notice.
Once the space in the garage was cleared, it was time to build the set. We already had part of a wood floor, so we backed it into the corner so we wouldn't have to have a ton of support for at least two of the walls. A producer on the film used to own a haunted house, so we traveled to a barn where he kept about 200 set walls and sorted through them until we found about 12-14 that were salvageable and good enough to build our dressing room.
We made the whole thing look old by rubbing coffee on it.
We used every piece of scrap we could find to get the walls up and make the trim. It might seem like luck to run into a bunch of set walls, but we did everything we could to run into as much “luck” as possible. You don’t know what’s available to you until you ask about 100 people and hear “no” about 99 times. Once the walls were up, we painted it with a mixture of leftover paint we had from painting a room in our house, and some reject $5 gallon paint from Lowes. I spent about $40 in bead board to put around the bottom edge of the set, and stained it with leftover stain I found in my shed from a home improvement project years ago. We made the whole thing look old by rubbing coffee on it.
I know my advice for building a cheap set sounds a lot like “just have everything already and you’ll be fine,” but it’s all about taking inventory of what you have available, and when to recognize when something can be useful in the future. Once you start building cheap sets and using every scrap you have, you’ll find yourself becoming a pack rat. For example, last year I had a contractor build a deck on my house and told him not to get rid of any scrap wood because I wanted everything. So now I have a shed full of wood he would have thrown away, but is perfectly good for building sets at no extra cost!
Finding the stuff you don’t have
Naturally, at first we took inventory of everything we had to use in a dressing room that would fit the mood and story. Unfortunately, it wasn't a whole lot. Going to Craigslist or Goodwill for props and furniture seemed like a good idea until I realized everyone on Craigslist wanted real money for vanities, mirrors, dressing shades, old theatre seat, etc. Spending anywhere from $75-$300 per set piece wasn’t really in our budget, especially since we needed to borrow a truck to go get them. I also didn’t want to own all of the items after buying them because I have limited space to store potential props and don’t have the time to resell them.
After asking around and talking to our lead actor, I found out he knew someone at a theatre playhouse. We gave them a call and begged them to let us go through all their props they had in the building. We managed to pick up about 75% of what we needed to fill the dressing room with old theatre stuff. I know favors like that don't come to everyone, but you never know until you ask, and if you ask, be willing to return the favor and add value to them as well.
I bought an old mirror from Goodwill and aged it following a YouTube tutorial (after ruining two other mirrors). Once the big stuff was taken care of, it was easy to print old theatre posters now in public domain and throw clothes everywhere.
I spent about $300 to get exactly what I wanted in a location that we had access to for 2 months instead of paying $1000 (plus props expenses) to rent a space for two days that would have been much less suited to our movie.
Building the bathroom
The script also called for a bathtub scene, so we built a bathroom right by the dressing room. That process was almost identical to the dressing room, except that we didn’t have more wood flooring, so we drew “boards” on a piece of leone that was stained with our leftover stain. We were also able to easily fill the tub with a garden house and drain it right outside the garage door. (I did have to spend $75 on a claw foot tub at a junkyard, but those are actually hard to find for free.)
Lessons of adaptation and decency
Filmmaking is all about adapting to a situation and making the best film you can with the tools available. Although it seems like our experience worked out perfectly and we kept getting lucky, that’s not the case at all. Every moment of success we had was the result of a dozen failures and a lot of hard work. We just kept adapting to the situation and problem-solved along the way.
Also, you never want to be the guy (or girl) who burns bridges. If someone extends him or herself to you and donates their time or property, be willing to pay it back. Not only is it important to maintain those relationships and build a network, but it’s also part of being a decent person.