This post was written by Reuben Guberek.

No conventional wisdom pointed my brother and me toward making an ambitious period film in a dead genre. But as lovers of history, comedy, and sword fighting, we knew it was authentic to make our next short film a swashbuckler.

From pirates to musketeers, swashbucklers were one of the major genre outputs of Hollywood until the 1950s, after which they largely disappeared. They are characterized by sword fights and plucky heroes—often rebels who crave revenge or justice rather than treasure or conquest. Ultimately the tone is a light-hearted adventure with a hero we want to root for that is adept with a blade.

Although the genre is largely untouched by Hollywood these days, joining a sold-out crowd of 17,500 people to see The Princess Bride in concert at The Hollywood Bowl in 2021 showed us that audiences might still be interested in this type of lighthearted film.

In setting out to make a swashbuckler film, we didn’t want to just emulate or parody the genre. We wanted to deliver the feel-good emotion that we felt watching The Mask of Zorro or Pirates of the Caribbean growing up to our audience. Our challenge was to do this on a crowdfunded micro-budget. Here’s what we learned.

The Flower of Battle | A Sword-Fighting Comedy Short

Build a World with Landscapes

A landscape shot of 'The Flower of Battle'

'The Flower of Battle'

Credit: Pearce Healey

Natural vistas provide some of the best production value you can get without having to build or fake anything. After all, how many of the most iconic Lord of the Rings shots are just costumed actors back-dropped by New Zealand?

We could only afford to shoot locally in Southern California, but we wanted a convincing “lush Italian Countryside” devoid of the dry brush, eucalyptus trees, and fire roads that are a dead giveaway for SoCal. So we waited until late March to shoot during one of the greenest weeks of the year at the Las Virgenes Open Space Preserve to make it look as non-California as possible.

If you’re in the USA, consider getting a permit to film on federal land (like BLM, National Parks, and Forests) where the fees are relatively low.

Populate the Landscape with Costumes

BTS of 'The Flower of Battle'\u200b

BTS of 'The Flower of Battle'

Credit: Charly Charney Cohen

Great costumes are key to world-building a genre film. Our costume designer pointed us toward Medieval Collectibles, Etsy, and costume houses in LA as incredible resources for period/fantasy clothing.

To my surprise, buying was often more economical than renting, because rentals come with dry cleaning costs and can’t be altered.

Sometimes simple camera tricks can stretch the costume budget too. On The Flower of Battle, we had a scene with nine guards in uniform but only had the budget for three. So we did a simple effect of splicing three separate takes of the guard trio on the same camera setup to give the illusion of nine people in the frame.

How to Film an Action Set Piece

Two men sword fighting in 'The Flower of Battle'\u200b\u200b

'The Flower of Battle'

Credit: Charly Charney Cohen

Just as many other genres are defined by action set pieces like car chases or boxing matches, sword fights are what make a swashbuckler.

Preparation is key. Watch lots of reference scenes from films you like and ones you don’t. Study them. Don’t just write “they fight” in the script. Write out as detailed a description of the sequence as possible to understand it in story terms.

In our prep, we studied when sword fights are best played in wide shots versus close-ups and found that close-ups were best to emphasize key characters or story beats, while the spectacle played better in the wide.

We worked with people who had sword experience and understood the principles of safety. They used dull prop swords made of aluminum, which are lighter and safer than steel. Every move was choreographed and rehearsed several times before ever arriving on location. Be safe. If you’re not an expert, bring someone onto your team who is!

Anamorphic Lenses Are More Accessible than Ever

Part of our strategy to achieve the classical Hollywood adventure look was to film on anamorphic lenses. With their wide field of view, anamorphics are perfect for making landscape shots as stunning as possible. But I’d read horror stories about the lack of micro-four-thirds mount compatible options and the need to work with difficult-to-use adapters, diopters, etc.

That might’ve been the case a few years ago but thanks to today’s market of options, we encountered none of those troubles. We were able to rent a trio of BMPCC 4K compatible Vazen 1.8x anamorphic lenses from Lensrentals for reasonable rates.

You May be Surprised You Can Afford an Orchestra

The Budapest Scoring Orchestra recording for 'The Flower of Battle'

The Budapest Scoring Orchestra recording for 'The Flower of Battle'

One of the most effective ways to have an audience feel something is through music, and we knew we wanted a rousing score in the classical Hollywood orchestral style. We assumed going in that working with a real orchestra was out of the question at our budget level.

But to our surprise, our composer told us about an orchestra in Budapest renting out recording time by the half-hour with sessions starting at under $1,000! And it’s high quality too—they’ve worked on big movies like Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning, Parasite, etc.

So by prioritizing key moments in our score that we wanted to sound the biggest, we were able to afford time with a real 60-piece orchestra!

But even if you have zero budget for music recording, a talented composer can still achieve terrific-sounding orchestra music using digital samples and instruments.

Push the Boundaries of Genre

Whether resurrecting or redefining one, genre is such a great tool for the filmmaker. Think about yours and how to innovate or return to great genre conventions that have been lost.

Regardless of what your project is, there is no substitute for prep, rehearsal, and bringing on good people. Communicate your vision with pitch decks, storyboards, or pre-vis as needed. Trust the expertise of your collaborators and give them the tools they need to succeed. Give yourself enough time and you’ll be surprised what you can pull off.

This post was written by Reuben Guberek.

Reuben graduated from USC Film School focusing on writing and directing; his thesis film Foodfellas was distributed nationally on PBS Film School Shorts. He co-wrote, directed, and produced his own micro-budget feature film Sign Man, which won Audience Choice Award at Scumdance.