Get seven tips on how to maximize your production value with a small budget!
The following is written by filmmaker Quincy Rose, regarding the production of their newest project, The Narcissists.
Let me start by saying, this is not what I like to do.
I do not like writing about the work I have already done. Not because I don’t like my work or appreciate the opportunity to share about it (thank you, NoFilmSchool!), but rather, mostly because I like to let the work speak for itself; and, also because so much effort goes into making a micro-budget feature film, by the time I get distribution, and begin promoting it, I’m certain you can imagine how I might be running out of steam. Especially when you take into consideration that the film I am promoting was shot in five days.
Yes... five; and with a cast of four (where I am one of the 4); and a crew of 4 (where I am also one of the 4); that means 3 and 3 and Me. Never mind the fact that I was also the line producer, locations manager, craft services, editor, writer, producer, director, and one of the leads. Oh, did I forget to mention the film’s title...?
Would you be surprised to find out it is called The Narcissists? Didn’t think so.
So, now as I find myself clawing for something to say, something meaningful that you, or anyone out there interested in making a feature film, can hold on to, or take away from my endeavor, allow me to share with you some key elements regarding the process of making this film, and some ideas to consider when you go out to make your own.
1) No Giving Up Production Value: Doing More with Less
When I set out to write The Narcissists, the script for what would become my third feature film, the micro-sized budget may have dictated the rules of engagement, but in no way was I willing to give up production value in order to tell this story. Lucky for me, I was shooting in New York City, the most cinematic city on the planet, where there’s no such thing as a bad location. Show up for principle photography only to find a construction crew jack hammering the sidewalk? No worries... simply walk two blocks in any direction and, voila, you’ve got your new frame! However, knowing that every micro-budget film is not going to be shot in NYC, I thought I could offer a few key tips about the planning that goes into making a film of this size and scope, which can be applied to any production of this magnitude. Micro-budget filmmaking is about the willingness to tell yourself “No” in order to capture the big “Yes!”
2) No Frills: What are your minimum requirements?
Figuring out your bare essentials is most important here. Hiring just one extra crewmember can throw off your budget by the hundreds, or even thousands. And the same goes for equipment selection. You don’t need 5 lenses when you can tell the same story with 3. Remember, this is about being frugal and exact, not about being cheap. Figure out who you know and what equipment they already have. This is one place where having lots of previous work under your belt really helps out. Every time you make a new project, you expand your Rolodex... use it! In the case of The Narcissists, I knew I had my DP (Jason Krangel) and Sound Mixer (Rob Ellenberg). Jason is an old colleague-
turned-friend who owns a badass camera and lens set, and is a documentary cinematographer used to shooting on the go and in natural light... it’s almost as if he was born to shoot this film. Rob is also an old colleague/friend, who owns his own mixing kit, is a total pro at what he does, and, like Jason, is a great team player. So when I told these two stellar problem solvers that we would be shooting single-take scenes from long distances, they were immediately up for the challenge.
Now, in all honesty, I would have skipped having an AD if I weren’t also in the film. But, being as I was, I needed someone to be my eyes behind the camera whenever I was in front of it; also to play the general lookout, walker, blocker and talker, when it came to interacting with the public. Once again, the crewmember gods were on my side, and I was able to turn to my old friend, Jason Calicchia -- someone with a vast knowledge of cinema, adept in the art of filmmaking on the fly, and whom, without a doubt, would be down for the fun of it. Betwixt the four of us, my bases were covered.
3) No Superfluous Set-Ups: Breaking Down Your Screenplay
With script in hand it was time to breakdown my shooting scenes. What is the most efficient way to shoot? The answer to this will depend on your exact screenplay and the story you’re hoping to tell. For The Narcissists, a film that takes place over the course of one day in New York City, split between two twosomes, shooting in order made the most sense. As previously mentioned, I knew that I wanted single-take scenes -- that there would be no cutting within dialogue, and no coverage -- allowing the action to take place in real time. To accomplish this, a carefully plotted out shot list was key for saving time. This also allowed me to release actors once they were done with their scenes, and eliminate additional holding fees.
4) No Memorizing on Set: Actors Must Be Off Book
You can’t be futzing around on set if you want to get things done on, or under, budget. Cast your actors wisely. Although that seems obvious, it is quite often the first unforgivable mistake a director makes. Believe me, I’ve done it before (not naming names). It’s the pits! Whoever you cast must be able to memorize the entire script (or at least all of their dialogue) if you’re hoping to blast through scenes and setups. There will be no time to memorize on set. Naturally, this is mandatory when shooting single-take scenes, however, it is highly recommended on any time-restrictive productions, as it allows the actors to be freed up, and ready to go from any point in the script at any time. They also have to be down for whatever the production requires of them. This is not a big budget film with trailers and caterers and wardrobe assistants with walkie-talkies. Hell, this isn’t even a low budget film with a PA, a makeshift holding area, and readily available toilets; no, this is a micro-budget, DIY feature where everyone is helping out on everything, and no one is pampered. Actors must be prepared to apply their own makeup and be responsible for their own wardrobe.
5) No Prima Donnas: Self-Efficiency is a Must
Because of everything I just mentioned above, it is of the utmost importance that whoever you hire to play these wonderful parts you spent a year to create (or years), appreciates the opportunity and is absolutely not a Prima Donna. There is no time for that. And, while hiring your friends to play parts is a general no-no when it is based solely on the fact that they are your friends, it is a must-explore situation when shooting this type of movie. Just make sure they are rad actors, trained and experienced. This is one area in which I am spoiled. I knew first and foremost that I was going to be playing Oliver (for better or worse) and that Zachary Tiegen was to play opposite me as Max. Zak is an old, dear friend, who is incredibly talented and hilarious, and whom I have worked with many times previously -- most notably on my debut feature, Miles to Go. Zak and I go way back, and he is there for me 100%, as I am for him! I actually created this role for him, so that was a done deal. For the other two characters, Cassi and Letty, I turned to two other wonderfully talented professional actors I knew: Jessica DiGiovanni and Augie Duke, respectively. Jessica has tons of theater experience as well as film and television, so I knew she would be up for the challenge. She also lives in NY and we had been hoping to find something to work together on, since I met her while casting a short film I was making, years earlier. Augie is an old family friend, raucously funny and a terrific actor too. She works all the time, and much like Zak’s character, I created this role with her in mind, knowing that the profanity and vulgarity of Letty’s wisdom would come out of her mouth in the most naturalistic of ways. They all said yes instantly, and I was well on my way to making this movie.
6) No Rules: Who Says You Can’t Do That?
This one is pretty self-explanatory: Do whatever you want to do. Don’t let someone else tell you that you can’t do that because of some unwritten rule, or even a written one. It’s not true. It’s mind control. We are working in the creative arts. That means anything goes. I mean, imagine if Jackson Pollack had listened when others scoffed and told him he can’t simply splatter paint on a canvas and call it art; or if Godard didn’t spit in the face of the status-quo and opt for his ruffian, in-your-face jump-cuts throughout Breathless. This doesn’t mean that what you make will end up being good or great or even watchable, but it will at least be yours. Remember, micro-budget films have a function: they are for cutting your teeth, making mistakes, and learning your craft prior to getting the grand opportunities you are looking forward to. Put in those 10,000 hours, experiment and be free! Plan well. Be smart about those you include in this process. If someone isn’t on board with your vision, get rid of them. There is no time for bullshit on a micro-budget indie, and there is definitely no time for negativity and naysayers.
7) Yes You Can: Congratulations
The key lesson here: everything has a cost and a value, and The Narcissists is proof that you can cut costs while maintaining value. Remember, more isn’t necessarily better. Now go out there and do more with less... But not before you watch The Narcissists!