Child Actors, Natural Light, Werewolf Costumes, and More SXSW Production Challenges
30+ SXSW filmmakers reveal how they succeeded in the face of hardship.
Last week No Film Scool published its first of two surveys conducted with the shorts filmmakers of SXSW 2018. While the first question inquired about how they shot their work, the latest asks the men and women about the biggest production challenge they faced (and how the heck they overcame it).
To note that not every problem is created equal would be an understatement, and yet each one documented below caused a slight hurdle that each of the surveyed filmmakers managed to rise above.
David Ward (Producer/Co-Writer/DP, The Mangina Exit): Our original ending was far too ambitious for our budget and so we weren't able to film it all during the initial production. Shortly after that, our two main actors moved away to opposite coasts and we couldn't afford to fly them back to Austin, and so the movie sat unfinished for over two years. We overcame our lack of an ending by coming up with a new one that didn't require either of our main actors but that still wrapped up the story.
Jim Archer (Director, Brian and Charles): We filmed on top of a hill next to a mountain in Wales and there was a lot of wind. We also didn't have a sound guy which was a mistake, so we just had our camera assistant monitoring the sound. Josh was a true hero and, amazingly, we got everything, but I wouldn't do that again. Always hire a sound guy!
Mary Neely (Director/Editor/Producer, Pink Trailer): We were shooting inside a small trailer which is in a San Bernardino, CA retirement center just baking in the sun. Although we had a skeleton crew, it was still a very tight fit (especially because of all the dolls and trinkets in the space) and the air-conditioning had to be turned off for sound.
We were all sweating bullets and every time I yelled, “cut!” someone would blast floor fans, but that only went so far. As the director, I tried to keep my head straight and stick to our schedule (we had no AD) while keeping moral high. Pretty sure we were all a pound lighter after wrapping.
Valerie Steinberg (Producer, Hair Wolf): Shooting three overnights, and a truck crashed into my car on Day 3.
Weston Bering (Director/DP, Loveless music video): There was no budget (all of the acting was done free-of-charge) and so all of the actors had a lot on their schedule and we only had two days to shoot. I had to spend hours scheduling and planning what would be possible to shoot in which days, and it ended up working out.
Shannon Fleming (Director, Abnie Oberfork: A Tale of Self-Preservation): It was tricky finding enough animal crackers to feed the crew, but with the big bag from the grocery store, our dreams became a reality.
Fidel Ruiz-Healy and Joe DePasquale (Writer/Director and Producer, Ghosted featuring Kamille Get Some music video): Creating a werewolf costume on a very small budget
Ramiro Cantu (Director, #RefugeesWelcome): The greatest challenge was budget and time. All of the money used came out of my pocket so I had to work with a very tight budget. I worked with what I had. I also only had three weeks to write, shoot, and edit the story, but I focused most of the time on writing and planning so that we would not encounter as many issues while shooting. That saved us more time.
Sherren Lee (Director, The Things You Think I'm Thinking): Our greatest challenge was the small budget we had to work with. To overcome it, we took a good look at our screenplay and cut it down as much as we could, asked for a lot of favors (each of our background actors were some of Toronto's best talents) and did a lot of prep so we could use our time wisely. It was a struggle, but we made it through!
Kelly Fyffe-Marshall (Director, Haven): The day before principal photography began, the person in charge of bringing the equipment flaked on us. We were five hours away from call time, with a confirmed location, cast, crew, catering, and no equipment. I pushed through, callinh all of my peers and connections, and we were able to pick up everything we needed just in time.
Sara Shaw (Director, Tooth and Nail): Short timeline to conceive of the project and go into production. I had no idea what I wanted to write about but had a great opportunity (with a deadline) that I couldn't pass up. Also, telling such a personal story about losing my brother to cancer so recently was very challenging.
Ben Strang (Director, Beast): We shot the Beast pilot in December 2016 on an East Coast island called Smith Island, a 250-resident fishing island in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, 10 miles off shore.
The biggest challenge? Getting all of the cast, crew, luggage, food, camera and GE equipment to Baltimore from all over the country, putting the entire production onto a single tour bus that took us to the eastern shore of Maryland, then moving the entire production onto a fishing boat converted into a ferry and shuttling 1-hour offshore to Smith Island where we operated with only island golf carts and one 1980s pickup truck for nine days.
More than half of the pilot was shot at either dawn or dusk. We had to get pretty creative. For one of the visual gags where a metal canoe is mysteriously dragging across the water, my dad was standing in the freezing water in a 4.3 millimeter wetsuit and a scarf, tugging the buoy across the water with a rope held underwater just out of frame!
For the boat-to-boat scenes, we filmed the actors in the picture boat from the back of the fishing boat that ferried us to the island. And for a lot of the bike shots, we strapped the steadicam operator to the back of the pickup truck with a safety frame constructed out of speed-rail and ratchet-straps!
Carlyn Hudson (Director, Nice Ass): The greatest challenge for this film was convincing some people why this film was funny and why it needed to be made. After sending the script to an editor that we've worked with and hearing back, "I'm not interested. Good luck!"" we realized that this project was definitely not going to be for everyone
Danny Madden (Director/Editor/Sound, Krista): There are the expected challenges that come with making a movie for two grand, but for me, the tricky part is how to tell the story so that we're in the headspace of the character. This film has a few interweaving scenes, and so it was a process of figuring out how much we should reveal of each part and when. Experimentation is how you overcome that.
We were open and unprecious in the edit. Because of this, we were able to crack it open and try different versions and figure out what we think worked best.
Sarah Winshall (Producer, Men Don't Whisper): Trying to find a hotel location during Christmas that wasn't completely covered in Christmas decorations. Luckily the Hotel Angelino came into our lives and saved the film. It was a Christmas miracle!
Nicole Hilliard-Forde (Producer, We Forgot to Break Up): Our director, Chandler Levack, advocated strongly for a rehearsal process, as she was a first-time narrative director and there was a huge music component to the film. As well as composing the song in the film, Murray Lightburn assumed the role of Musical Director, spending time with the actors imparting band life wisdom and providing coaching for their specific musical roles to help shape the band.
We found Jesse Todd through an open casting call across Canada. He had never performed before and he took a big leap jumping into this ring with all of us more experienced filmmaker-types. We set up some actor-coaching for Jesse. He warmed our hearts immediately.
Karina Harchandani (Producer, Escape): To keep going when there was so many problems and obstacles. My friends and family helped me through, but especially my partner and my teacher. Both of them believing that we could make something great was what pushed me to work harder.
Norton (Director, I Want You - Chris Lake music video): It wasn't a very complicated film from a production stand-point: single location indoors with three actors and one extra. It really was just about time and limited budget. We had one day to shoot the music video and ended up having to go into overtime, but for only two hours.
Jesse High (Director, Half a Million - The Shins music video): Cutting out all of the stickers.
Celine Held & Logan George (Co-Writers/Directors/Actor/Editor, Caroline): The main characters of our film are three children under the age of six. We also shot during a major heat wave in Texas, with temperatures up to 102 on our third day of production. We overcame both of these obstacles by treating them as gifts: we were as flexible as we could be with our script, only focusing on hitting the major beats and allowing the children to improvise. In fact, we never had the kids memorize lines, nor did we feed them lines.
We captured the kids' genuine reactions to the circumstances, and developed deep relationships with them all by living with their family for one month before shooting. The positive of such high temperatures was authentic sweat and, at times, we had lots of popsicles available for the cast and crew.
Brandon Gross and Skyler Gross (Director/Producer/Camera, On My Way Out: The Secret Life of Nani and Popi): Shooting this documentary while holding a full time job! Action could occur at any time, and few of the "scenes"" were planned, and so stealing a lunch break to shoot and all weekends was the name of the game on this project.
Moisés Aisemberg (Director, Guilt): Shooting sexual abuse scenes with children and shooting only with natural light.
Chris Bennett (Co-Director/DP/Editor/Co-Production Designer, The Clock at the Back of the Cage): The greatest challenge came when we realized that we wouldn't make our production deadline. We were falling a bit more behind every day. We were aiming for seven frames per secondfor the animation, a good blend of smooth movement, while still having the jerkiness that gives it a stop-motion feel.
Halfway through the shooting period, we had to drop down to 6fps, re-time all of the upcoming moments we needed the music cues to coincide with, and then the final night of shooting we worked all night.
Milena Govich (Director, Unspeakable): We did seven locations in five days with an all-volunteer crew as part of the AFI Directing Workshop for Women. We did solid pre-production planning and shotlisting and everyone worked their tails off. I had to be selective and decisive with shot choices in order to make the days. Really good food helped!
Alexander Etseyatse (Writer/Director/Actor, Otis): Working with film students, which we overcame it by going as slow as possible.
Reiki Tsuno (Director, Crying Bitch): Budget. We had to find the crew that understood "indie spirit"" and we did.
Michelle Stein (Producer, The Big Day): Probably how to make the film on a small budget as it was set at a wedding, which meant needing big production design, extras, location, and commercial music. How did we overcome it? We managed to get a lot of great people to turn up for free by flying the local area. Our production designer worked for a local soap and we borrowed loads of stuff from them for free, and our director is a brilliant music video director. She helped us pull a LOT of strings with great artists that helped us get tracks at a minimal cost.
Charlie Tyrell (Director, My Dead Dad's Porno Tapes): Making a personal film about myself and my family was certainly the greatest challenge. I'm a pretty shy person and even hate having my photo taken. I overcame this discomfort by putting myself into work mode. I'm more comfortable on set and much better at articulating my thoughts and feelings through film. By approaching it as a job, I was able to get past myself.
Pete Lee (Director/Writer, Don't Be a Hero): The greatest production challenge we had to solve was tying six or seven locations together that are really 150 miles apart, over 4 days, while dealing with stunt driving, special effects make up, and dozens of extras, all on a tiny budget (and the movie was a period piece set in 1991). We overcame it by going over the script/shotlist over and over again so that each department knew exactly what we needed out of each shot, and how much time.
We had an insane day that covered six locations in 10 hours. We made sure each minute of the production was accounted for, planned every shot during tech scout, and just placed an enormous amount of trust onto each other. We ended up having to deviate from the shotlist significantly just to make the day work, but by then each department understood the needs and our sizable crew moved perfectly in sync with each curveball.
Laura Moss (Director, Allen Anders - Live at the Comedy Castle (circa 1987)): Eythan Maidhof helped us to ensure that we captured the feel of a late 1980s multicam comedy taping as best we could (and also get as many cutting options as possible on every take).
Though all of the footage was recorded through the camera's twenty-plus year sensor, we recorded to a solid state recording drive so that we didn't have to constantly change out tapestock on the day. We then edited the project in Adobe Premiere and bounced the final cut back to VHS, giving it a naturally degraded look that helped our titles and VFXs blend in.
Coco Marie Schneider (Producer, Xavier Corberó: Portrait of an Artist in Winter): Tight shooting schedule and limited access to our subject. We had to work around Xavier's schedule as he was quite busy with his other projects.
Leah Galant (Director, Death Metal Grandma): Our greatest production challenge was working around our main characters physical limitations. It was tricky trying to stay on schedule while working around her health restrictions and fluctuation. It took patience and care.
We could get a cancellation in the morning, but after a phone call and some convincing, Inge would get dressed and meet with us. We needed to roll with it! We went to her as much as possible to avoid the extra stress of travel for Inge. All worth it!
Sarah Downing and Natalie Sandy (Director and Producer, Cleansed): SAG-AFTRA! The people over at SAG-AFTRA were incredibly helpful, but it was my first time navigating the union waters on a film. With the help of mentors, our LLC Lawyer, and SAG employees, they helped me through every step of the way. My advice to filmmakers is to pay attention to deadlines!
Rebekah Miskin (Creator/Star/Writer/Co-Director, Night Owl): Our greatest production challenge on Night Owl was lack of time. We shot the whole first season in three nights because that's how long we had access to our main location (shoutout to Fiesta Farms grocery store in Toronto). Thankfully, we managed to do it! But if I could do it again, I would add another shoot day.
In some cases, lack of time meant having to make small sacrifices in order to get our days. That being said, our time constraint made it vital for us to do a very detailed and thorough prep which behooved us greatly in the end. In hindsight, I have to admit that I'm grateful for what the time constraint taught me about prep. It left me no choice but to prepare meticulously and learn to articulate my thoughts with the utmost accuracy and efficiency while on set.
This sparked the creation of a prep material I call a "story grid," essentially a spreadsheet that contains all the info a shot list would; in addition to board drawings, characters' dialogue, and various notes on action/intention, all as they correspond to every shot, scene, character, and point in the story.
It was my weirdly specific way of amalgamating all of the most important information in one single document. These story grids helped my "director brain" keep track of everything I needed to and I've used them on every shoot I've done since.
Hyun Lee (Writer/Director, Asian Girls): One scene in an elevator where no part of the location was cooperating. We weren't allowed to lock down the elevator so the public was constantly using the elevators, suddenly carting actors away mid-take to pick up random people on different floors. We overcame it with patience and thorough planning in pre-production.
X. Dean Lim (Writer/Director/Producer/Editor, First World Problems): The biggest challenge for First World Problems has happened after final cut. First World Problems features Asian leads. They’re driving the text and representing the audience. These people don’t lock phasers, wax-on/wax-off, or anoint some surfer-dude to be Iron Fist after he visits “Asian- land” - not that they would get a chance because they’d be replaced by Tilda Swinton. I created Harold and his family to be our heroes as they explore short-comings and foibles of American life. But I’ve had more than a few people ask if I’d reshoot it with “Americans.”
People in the development world need to have the bandwidth to understand diversity. Often, readers are the first layer of gatekeeping and are usually the same gender and ethnicity. In the full pilot script of First World Problems, a black female character teaches her Asian female roommate about self-loathing because she herself has a deeply programed longing to be white.
If the reader lacks the capacity ( because of either ineptitude or sloth ) to understand these themes that people of color go through, First World Problems doesn’t have a prayer. That would be a pity, as audiences have clearly demonstrated their desire for diversity.
PJ Raval (Co-Director/Producer/DP, Come & Take It): Shooting a protest under the bright Texas sun lends itself to exposure challenges, but always trying to expose without the whites clipping seems to do the trick along with carrying a water bottle with you to stay hydrated! Also, trying to get funding for a film featuring a bunch of dildos proves to be a huge challenge!
Maria Møller Christoffersen (Producer, Polar): Shooting in Greenland where there was no crew and no equipment. We cooperatied with and equipment house in DK, who helped us for free and brought all a-functions from DK.
Jonatan Etzler (Director, Intercourse): It takes some preparation and knowledge to rehearse and shoot a sex scene. The actors need to feel safe and relaxed. A director who doesn't manage to create a safe atmosphere is an irresponsible director. Also, if the actors aren't relaxed then they won't be able to act. Thanks to a respectful team, and preparations by "sexpert"" costume designer Sofi Gregersdotter, we managed to do it.
Laurel Parmet (Writer/Director, Kira Burning): Wrangling four 14 year old girls on a set with few resources was a feat at times. I just want to say, I love these girls and they did an incredible job. They will be the first to admit that their moods really affected each other. If one girl was hyper, it was contagious and they all got hyper. If one girl was cranky, they all got cranky. This was especially true while shooting our fight scene. We shot into the night and the girls got tired of doing the same thing again and again. I don't blame them, as it was hard and exhausting work! But we had to get the choreography just right and we had lots of angles, and so it took a long time. Eventually, they totally nailed it. I really had to be a cheerleader in this film, more so than anything else I've done. Sugar helped too.