Microbudget filmmaking is almost like the premise of a reality show: how do you make your vision come alive on the screen while spending the least possible amount of money? Even if you have the best screenplay since Manchester By the Sea, there’s a veritable “Ultimate Beastmaster” set of obstacles between you and a finished product.
One of the best tools in your kit for overcoming those obstacles is knowing the right questions to ask early on that can help you save time, money, and headaches in the long run. In a daylong microbudget filmmaking seminar at New York’s IFP Made in NY Media Center, Paul Harrill of Self-Reliant Film laid out several questions that you’ll want to answer during development and pre-production.
Below are the first five of 10 crucial microbudget queries that we’ll publish this week:
1. What do you think other movies get wrong?
Harrill kicked off his workshop with a central idea that many of us have heard before: the most important thing you can do to get attention and position yourself in the marketplace is to make a unique film. However, his approach to figuring out that unique element entertains a different kind of question. He encourages filmmakers to look at what’s out there and see what you think other movies are doing wrong—and then use that as a launchpad to get your story right.
'For Memories' Sake,' a documentary by Ashley MaynorCredit: Self-Reliant Films
2. What physical resources do you have available?
Once you have a unique screenplay that you feel good about, you’ll begin putting together your budget and trying to figure out how the thing will actually get made. A major part of that process in microbudget filmmaking is determining what you can get away with not paying for.
That means that you have to mine all of your personal, professional, and community connections (and your own assets) for physical resources that might be useful for your film: costumes, locations, vehicles, props, in-kind services, and more. (Kevin Smith famously shot influential '90s indie Clerks after hours in the convenience and video stores, where he worked in real life.) The same goes for gear and other equipment; is someone on your potential crew affiliated with a university that lends gear to students? Does anyone you know own a light kit that they might be willing to lend you for the duration of the shoot?
3. What human resources do you have available?
The same goes for people. Now, it’s karmically preferable to pay everyone on your crew at least something (and you sure better feed them decently no matter what), and, frankly you’ll get better work out of people who feel compensated to some extent.
That being said, you may have talented people in your network who would be willing to take reduced or deferred rates for a project they believe in that could expand their own reel. Do you know a shooter who gets their bread buttered by commercials, but doesn’t have any features under their belt? Now might be the time to hit them up.
Also, consider who might be able to help with some of the film’s other aspects, like funding. Can you get a team of volunteers to help rally support for your Kickstarter campaign? Do you know anyone who won the lottery and might enjoy the title of Executive Producer?
'Something, Anything,' directed by Paul HarrillCredit: Self-Reliant Films
4. Who are the most talented actors you know?
When considering those “human resources,” there might be no one more important than your leads. After all, they are going to be the faces of your movie who make or break whether or not an audience connects with it. The Hollywood trope is that you need a name actor attached to your script to get any kind of support, but the rules on micro-budgets are a little different.
If you know a strong actor who you’d really love to work with, write a part for them, and let them know you’re doing it. Heck, you can even consider writing with them to get them invested early on. And if you do want to gun for a more well-known cast member, writing a part specifically for them and explaining to them in detail why you had them in mind (beyond “I think you’re so great”) might be the hook you need to get them to pay attention.
Speaking of actors, another question to ask yourself early on is whether or not you’ll be doing a Screen Actors Guild (SAG)-unionized production. You may have to spend some money and give yourself a bit of extra admin work by becoming a SAG signatory and playing by union rules on-set, but if you don’t do it, you will be cutting yourself off from working with over 160,000 talented and experienced actors. (Most legit casting directors won’t work with anyone who doesn’t use a SAG contract.)
Either way, make the decision early, as it can take six weeks to be officially recognized as a SAG set. If you do decide to go the SAG route, there are resources designed specifically for smaller-budget productions at SAGindie to help you get started.
5. Have you established legitimacy?
Just how you’ll go through your networks to see what resources you might have available, you’ll want to catalog your own accomplishments to remind yourself and all potential collaborators of what you bring to the table. Getting others on board in any capacity, from crew to financiers, will be easier if you can prove some kind of track record or industry legitimacy.
This doesn’t mean that you had to have made a feature before, but it does mean that you should assess what you have done and what you have to show for it. Harrill suggests that some cred-building steps are having high-level experience in another part of the industry, having had previous shorts play at major fests, winning a prestigious grant or screenwriting competition, or having recognizable names attached to your production team.
In the second part of this miniseries, coming later this week, we’ll share the next five critical questions you should ask yourself when shooting a microbudget, focusing on financing and production.
Featured image from 'Quick Feet, Soft Hands,' a Self-Reliant Film directed by Paul Harrill