This post was written by Greg Pope.
“Write it this winter. Shoot it over the summer. Release it in the fall. Rinse and repeat!”
My friend Daniel Collins sat there grinning at me from across the table at our favorite sushi and Thai haunt, having just suggested it was actually possible for two busy freelance filmmakers to turn out a feature film in less than a year.
We had met over a decade ago, collaborated on too many client projects to count and turned out a few original shorts. The conversations about how to pull off a feature were getting more frequent and more intense. I’d crunched numbers a million times and written a few terrible feature-length screenplays. And now this crazy idea of his. No fundraising plan. No production schedule. Just this half-baked formula that felt like some kind of insane dare.
Strangely enough, that’s all it took.
Less than a year later we were standing in front of a sold-out audience at our local premiere, having just screened our feature, a fantasy/sci thriller called There’s Something in the Lake. We’d just gotten word it was screening at the summer 2022 Comic-Con International in San Diego and it was about to go live on Amazon Prime. The whole process had taken around nine months and cost around $2,500.
Below is an attempt to condense the making of the movie into a few short paragraphs that will hopefully inspire. If you’ve been considering making a feature but can’t seem to crack the nut of limited time and resources, please read on.
February and March: The Screenplay
Honestly, I wasn’t totally convinced we were going to pull this thing off, but I dutifully blocked out three weeks in February to turn out the first draft of the script. I was pulling story elements from a short film Daniel and I had made the previous year that had played at some festivals and won a genre award. But by the time I’d written the 80-page script, it had morphed into something completely new: a nostalgic throwback to “creature features” of the 1960s and ’70s.
Our movie would be about a 13-year-old girl and her two friends who fall asleep watching a monster movie and are literally sucked into its world. As dark forces close in, the kids formulate a plan to destroy a horrific lake-dwelling creature in order to end the movie and return to reality.
My wife and I help to run a community youth theatre company here in Franklin, Tennessee, and some of the kids are super talented. So writing a story where the three main characters were kids was definitely strategic, and I already had specific kids in mind to cast in those roles, including my daughter Esther Jane Pope.
'There's Something in the Lake'Credit: Greg PopeI also wrote the screenplay with a strict eye towards keeping the movie “small.”
The few locations in the script were all local places that I knew we could get for free or at least very cheaply. After looking at the script together, Daniel and I surmised that we could get the movie in the can in about 12 days, shooting from Friday to Sunday on weekends in June. That would get us the weekend rate on gear rentals, the kids would be out of school, and it would allow some flexibility for our adult cast members who worked during the week.
At the end of March, I did a table read of the script with the three main actors and friends standing in for the other roles. While not as fruitful of an exercise as I had hoped, it was a chance for the kids to experience the entire movie in one sitting and for me to root out some bad dialogue and further tighten up the script. I made notes during the read-through and made an audio recording of it, which I have never listened to.
Credit: Greg Pope
April and May: Casting and Rehearsals
In April, Daniel and I solidified our shoot days for three weekends in June and one in July. To cast the remaining roles, I reached out to local actors I’d worked with previously, friends, and another director of a local theatre company with a detailed email stipulating that all roles would be non-paid. The email included a synopsis of our movie, a link to a trailer from our previous short, a tentative shoot schedule, and specific instructions for submitting a videotaped audition.
While I didn’t get a huge number of responses, we got enough auditions to make the remaining casting decisions fairly difficult, and I was surprised at the number of talented actors that are right here in my community. After a couple of callbacks and tough decisions, our movie was cast.
In late April and May, we came up with a weekly rehearsal schedule. I would email what scenes to prepare in advance and the actors would meet at my house for an hour or two. We sat in my living room and read the scenes, making adjustments to dialogue. Then we would block those scenes, using household objects for props, and I would shoot them, usually in one master shot with my iPhone. I cut together an edit of our “taped” rehearsals and posted a private link so the actors could review.
By the time we started shooting in June, we had already rehearsed and blocked all of our key scenes. Moreover, I had a rough idea of where to place the camera to shoot them.
These videotaped rehearsals were hands down the biggest factor in how quickly and efficiently our shoot days went.
Credit: Greg Pope
June and July: The Shoot
Most days, our cast and crew consisted of five to seven people. I directed, Daniel was our DP, and a former theatre student of ours named Macy Helm did an amazing job with hair and make-up and special prosthetic effects. And my 16-year-old son Finn reprised his role as sound engineer as he’d done previously on our short film.
We shot on the Canon R5, which Daniel owned, and rented the Canon C70. For budget reasons, I originally wanted to shoot the entire movie with the R5, but this would have been a mistake. While some of the R5 shots are among my most favorite in our film, the summer temperatures lead to a fairly well-documented overheating issue that caused us to have to reshoot one of our biggest scenes involving a lot of extras. Ouch.
The C70 on the other hand is just an amazing and reliable workhorse of a camera.
After nine full shooting days and two half-days during 90-degree temperatures in public parks, a cemetery, a 900-square-foot condo, and a private pond (with mosquitoes, ticks, and yes, leeches) we had our movie in the can.
And I just have to say, we had a blast. Of course, it wasn’t easy, but I wouldn’t describe it as a grind at all. It was beyond exhilarating and there were some tears shed when it was all over.
On the money side, I’d spent about $1,000 on gear and $800 on liability insurance. About $700 was spent on various props and costume items and feeding the cast with a combination of home-cooked meals and non-fast-food takeout from local restaurants.
Credit: Greg Pope
August and September: The Edit and the Score
Between shoot days I had started organizing a project file in Final Cut Pro, throwing footage in a timeline mainly to be sure we had gotten all of our shots. So when the time came to edit our movie I already had something like a rough cut going. I do a ton of editing for my freelance clients and have watched a few tutorials on how to approach the longer form, but I have to admit I got overwhelmed very quickly as I started working on the edit.
I kept jumping around from task to task which was really difficult not to do. There was so much to get done! I’d get to the end of a day and realize I’d spent eight hours adding digital slime to three seconds of footage when I could have been cutting whole scenes together and making more overall progress. I was working on all of this while juggling client work, and I could see burnout on the horizon.
'There's Something in the Lake'Credit: Greg PopeI’m a “to-do” list maker so in the end, breaking down the job into a list of categories, subcategories, and very specific tasks was hugely helpful. My main categories were PICTURE, SOUND, MUSIC, VISUAL EFFECTS, and COLOR GRADE. Under these were subcategories and tasks.
For instance, the "sound" category looked kind of like this:
- synching audio
- editing audio
- cleaning audio via EQ, noise reduction, etc
- sound effects
- monster roar
- lake atmosphere
- water gun sounds
- sword sounds
- wind blowing, emptiness
- room tones
So every time I worked on the edit, I would look at this list and pick a specific thing to work on that day and then cross it off. Once everything was crossed off I was finished... with the first cut.
I’m a musician and songwriter as well as a filmmaker so it seemed the most cost-effective approach would be for me to score the movie. When that was done I showed the cut to Daniel, but I didn’t tell him I wrote the score. I knew if he said, “So when are you going to have the actual music in there?” I would have to fire myself and hire a different composer. Instead, he said he loved it and asked what stock agency I bought it from.
Our movie was scored.
'There's Something in the Lake'Credit: Greg Pope
October: The Premiere
We have a beautifully restored historic theatre in downtown Franklin, where I live. But it was going to cost more than I’d spent on my entire movie to rent it out and show it there.
So instead I decided to think outside the box. I rented an event venue typically used for musical artist showcases and wedding receptions with about 125-person capacity and a kick-ass projection and sound system. We sold tickets through Eventbrite, had movie-themed concessions, photo ops with the monster, and limited edition DVDs. I made a chunk of our budget back, but more importantly, we had a sold-out, very enthusiastic audience who were now our advocates.
'There's Something in the Lake'Credit: Greg Pope
On Prime Video and Screening at Comic-Con
From what I’ve heard and read online, Amazon has gotten somewhat choosy with indie film submissions. I didn’t use any third party or middle man to get our movie up there. I followed their rules, submitted, and waited, assuming nothing. Lo and behold, two weeks later our movie was up on Amazon Prime. So I guess my advice other than make the best movie you can is to follow their rules and cross your fingers. Keep in mind that once your movie is live, it will be pirated and show up on torrent sites within hours.
I’ve been aware of the Comic-Con International Independent Film Festival for years and have been lucky enough to have two of my short films selected to screen there. While it may not have the notoriety among filmmakers of a Sundance or a Cannes, it is a very well-known brand among average consumers. And as a guy who makes old-school monster movies, I’m honored to have my film connected with it.
I realize I’ve left out a ton of information here on the making of our movie. I could go on and on about the creation and gathering of all the props used, the visual effects, the monster moments and special makeup effects, and the enormous task of communicating with everyone and organizing the shoot schedule, which was perhaps the most stressful part of the process.
Honestly, I could probably write an entire book about the experience. But unfortunately, I don’t have time. You see, Daniel and I are meeting for dinner next week and I’ve got to come up with the story concepts for the feature we’ll be shooting in summer 2022.