How I Made a Feature Film at Age 20 for $5,000

Credit: Sam Hartshorn
Want to be a filmmaker? Go make films!

This post was written by Sam Hartshorn.

This is the advice I’d heard time and time again. Whilst it may feel like cinema is teetering on the verge of extinction and New Hollywood is a distant memory, I actually believe there has never been a better time to get into filmmaking. We’ve all got 4K cameras in our pockets and free screenwriting software is but a few clicks away. The means to bring your ideas to life are more accessible than ever!

I started making movies when I was six years old using my granddad’s old camcorder. My formative years were spent spoofing Star Wars and ripping off all my favorite directors. A turning point for me was watching Gareth Edwards’ debut Monsters, a creature-feature created by a crew you could count on one hand. He created all the VFX from his bedroom using off-the-shelf software and the film then went on to make 4 million at the box office—inspiring stuff!

After spending my teenage years pumping out countless short films, I knew the challenge of producing a full feature off my own back would be too tempting to resist. It would prove a mammoth task, agonizingly difficult—but not impossible.

Take Stock of Your Resources—Before You Write!

Most filmmakers are dying to get to Hollywood and start signing six-picture deals. However, I knew I’d have the most luck pulling a feature together in my hometown—there are real advantages to being a “big fish in a small pond.”

I had a network of friends I could use as collaborators, connections I could pull on to access interesting locations, and, most importantly of all, I felt comfortable and confident here. But what story to tell? Sci-fi epics and period pieces were ruled out. I knew I’d have to be creative to squeeze every last drop of quality out of a likely minuscule budget.

I settled on writing a screenplay loosely based on my rural upbringing in North Yorkshire, UK. Write what you know, it’s sound advice! I took stock of the various resources I had access to. I scribbled out a tale of teenage friendship, rivalries, and the bittersweet trials of growing up, keeping the cast of characters relatively small and specifically writing for locations I knew I’d be able to access. Budgetary restrictions shouldn’t act as roadblocks—they tease out the most creative of solutions!

That being said, no one ever changed the world by playing it safe (don’t quote me on that, I’m sure someone actually did—but they weren’t a filmmaker) and I was keen to have an ambitious centerpiece tying the plot together. This manifested in the form of a giant cardboard fort, 10 feet tall and ripped straight out of a childhood fantasy.

Within the first few pages of the screenplay, it had been burned to the ground, kicking the narrative into gear as our protagonist, Charlie, begins retracing his steps over his summer holiday to uncover the identity of the arsonist.

Credit: Sam Hartshorn

Breaking the Bank

Unless you’re lucky enough to have rich relatives or flush friends, don’t expect the money to come to you. I saved up for the film by working part-time jobs and forgoing standard Christmas presents for budget contributions. I managed to self-fund a chunk of the film from my own pocket, and this brought a certain advantage; you aren’t gambling with anyone else’s money and you’ve got no pesky producers to answer to.

My pennies didn’t take me all the way, though, so I decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise the remaining amount. Don’t expect the bucks to start rolling in once your project goes live. The onus is still on you to attract investors. Over 90% of the supporters of my film were friends and family. Kickstarter simply provided a professional platform that I could direct anyone who was kind enough to donate to my project to.

As much as possible, try to engineer your production so that most of your money ends up on screen. I tried not to wince each time my production designer or cinematographer needed more cash, as I knew that money would directly be visible within the frame. Instead, see if you can be more economical when it comes to splashing cash on stuff that doesn’t end up on screen. Travel and accommodation often drain a lot of the budget.

We tried to lessen the dent it made by choosing locations close in vicinity to each other, crashing on my parent’s floor, and seeing how many favors we could call in. Don’t be afraid of asking for anything, just ensure you do it in a polite manner and let people know that the ball is always in their court. You’d be surprised how many elements in Cardboard Fort were acquired by being personable, friendly, and letting our passion shine through—it can take you a long way!

A word on catering. Don't scrimp!

Sure, you might not need 5-star fine dining... but frozen pizzas are not the way to go! I asked the help of my mum who was kind enough to cook a hot meal every day and deliver it to the set. Full tummies make a happy cast and crew, who will be much more willing to listen to your crazy ideas!

Credit: Sam Hartshorn

Scheduling Saves Indie Films

A clever schedule can save time and money and make your film look far more professional than the ramshackle production that produced it!

It’s a no-brainer to shoot out-of-sequence in order to avoid returning to locations over and over, but more specifically, think about how detailed your plan can get. Listen to your DOP when they start babbling about the position of the sun.

Listen to the production designer if they have concerns about how long a costume change is going to take.

Poor planning can wreck your entire film, and it’s always best to play it cautiously. I much preferred the days on Cardboard Fort when we had time to play around with some improvised moments due to generous scheduling—compared to the days we were several hours behind because I’d been too optimistic about the number of shots we could shoot.

Outlining a fluid plan which will navigate you from set-up to set-up will make the world of difference on set—in that no one will realize how smoothly the shoot is going!

Credit: Sam Hartshorn

Keep It Local

We utilized our homegrown roots to bolster the project. I went back to my old high school to cast some familiar faces I had encountered during the school musicals of yesteryear.

The local press is your best friend! We were lucky enough to be featured in the town newspaper (Shout out to the Harrogate Advertiser!) several times which raised the profile of the project in our valley. We attracted a wave of collaborators and had the local council on our side all due to the exposure in the paper.

This also led to opportunities working with musicians in the area who now populate the soundtrack of the film. 

Credit: Sam Hartshorn

Trust Your Collaborators

Selecting some capable competent collaborators is key! For much of my formative years, I’d be the sole crew member behind the camera, hashing out the script, editing the assemblies, and then marketing my flicks. Learning to let go of responsibility and delegate is a core lesson for first-time directors. The skill you must acquire is allowing others to tackle problems and coordinate solutions whilst working toward the unified vision dwelling in your head.

Don’t let hubris get in the way. It can be tempting to want to oversee absolutely every element of production, but it’s important to understand when to trust others.

The titular cardboard castle was constructed by my production designer and a carpenter he knew. I was tasked with visiting every supermarket in town to source waste cardboard. As the director, I gave as many visual references as possible and we often became locked in long conversations about the specific shades that would colour the fort. He was even kind enough to throw together a miniature model of the structure which became incredibly useful when planning my camera coverage.

Credit: Sam Hartshorn

Don’t Lose Sight of the Ultimate Goal: Have Fun!

Filmmaking isn’t open-heart surgery. Nobody dies if it goes awry, and this was the most important thing I kept in mind on set.

If you have fun behind the camera, it will shine through into the frame. As director on a small indie film, a lot of responsibility falls on your shoulders to set the tone and atmosphere of the set. We had a lot of busy days working with young actors, so I tried to keep the vibe relaxed and playful.

We had a tough night shoot scheduled slap bang in the middle of production, so I wore pyjamas and slippers to set!

We also had a particularly miserable task for several supporting actors which involved them taking a water balloon to the face—much more painful than you’d expect! I would know… since I allowed myself to be pelted at point-blank range upon wrapping so that my actors could enact some sweet, sweet revenge.

Feature films are a marathon, not a sprint. You need to keep everybody onboard and happy.

Sharing Your Film with the World

In case you hadn’t heard, the world came to a standstill in spring of 2020. We had shot the film the previous summer and the various lockdowns imposed due to COVID actually somewhat benefited the post-production process. With no impending release deadlines on the horizon, we had the time to really focus on our sound design and score.

Never underestimate how good clean audio and a rich soundscape can make a movie feel a hundred times more professional.

Cardboard Fort has been selected to have its world premiere at the 28th Austin Film Festival, something I would have thought out of the question when I began this crazy journey! Current U.S. travel restrictions mean that I’m planning to spend two weeks isolating in Toronto before flying down to Texas for the festival.

The journey might seem excessive but this isn’t an opportunity I can afford to miss! If you find yourself in the area (the dates are the 21-28 of October), please come down to see what can be achieved for $5,000 by a group of overconfident, passionate and slightly mad young filmmakers. I’ll be there in person and can’t wait to connect with others!     

Find Cardboard Fort on Facebook and Instagram.

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1 Comment

I agree with every point you made, Sam. You clearly are wise beyond your years. I'm back in my hometown, hoping to do the same thing in the next couple of years. Thank you for sharing and good luck!

September 22, 2021 at 9:33AM

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Jeremy Evan Taylor
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