How We Made Our Low-Budget Action Movie Look Like a Million-Dollar Feature

Credit: Brotherhood Studios
Shooting a film is tough. Here are tips on how you can make it look good. 

Written by Brian Ulrich

I studied film production in college, and after several years working as an editor while pitching a pilot that wasn’t getting traction, I decided it was time to make my first feature. But I needed a script, so I wrote it myself and teamed up with my wife Julianna Ulrich, who became the producer and first assistant director, on the indie crime thriller feature Last Three Days.

The rules for the script were: modern-day, no kids, no animals, no blowing things up. This was the beginning of the complex logistical puzzle that was our feature. 

Initially, the plan was to shoot a feature on weekends with friends over the course of a year (in the same way Christopher Nolan did with Following) but as the script developed, we decided to take a shot at doing it right. Armed with book knowledge, Julianna put together a budget, shooting schedule, and business plan. Our cinematographer Chris Haggerty joined the project early on, and together, we crafted a spec teaser to use to pitch the film.

For the look, we wanted the film to start warmer and get cooler as things got more mysterious. We also talked about it having a noir feel to it, so we wanted to play with shadows and darkness as much as we could.

With the spec teaser in hand along with the sixth draft of the script, Julianna and I walked into the first investor meeting and walked out with the film 20% funded.

Afterward, I continued to churn out a new draft of the script each month and we continued to meet with investors to keep funding moving forward. But it wasn’t until a month before production that we finally raised enough money to get to the end of principal photography.

Pre-Production

For casting, everything was signed with SAG under the ULB contract so that they would have access to a network of talented cast members. That decision proved well worth the additional paperwork and money required. We then brought on ABS payroll to manage the ins and outs of paying union actors as well as paying the crew.

For crew, the rate was minimum wage across the board, so we brought on talented individuals who believed in the script and didn’t mind making very little money. Some of these people we had worked with in the past, but many were brand new to the team.

For locations, we borrowed friend’s homes and businesses, asked local businesses if we could buy out the place for a few hours, and sometimes drove around the city just looking for the perfect spot and then found out who owned it. During prep, the team spent 11 days meeting in a borrowed classroom with the various department heads going through the script and schedule.

On location of 'Last Three Days'Credit: Brotherhood Studios
Production

The shooting schedule was set for 21 days. Production days were 12 hours for the crew, but for me, the DP, and AD, it was an additional four to six hours in the evenings, watching dailies, finishing the next day’s shot list and schedule, and sending out the call sheet.

With 17 locations, eight days of stunts and action, over 100 VFX shots, and a crew of mostly first-time filmmakers, our planning, communication, and strong vision were key.

Part of what made this overwhelming project possible was the casting. Our casting director Deborah Lee Smith brought amazing actors to the project who could hit their marks, nail their lines, and deliver solid performances so that it was possible to regularly shoot seven pages a day including company moves to new locations.

Another key component was SAG stunt coordinator, Ian Eyre, who brought years of experience to the team. While there was a clear vision of the action scenes, Ian knew how to pull it off safely in a way that would be convincing on camera.

Every single department felt that this film was special, and what they lacked in experience, they made up for in passion and raw talent. Every individual went above and beyond, operating outside their singular position and doing whatever it took to bring this story together. Even when things went wrong, which they always did, the crew would remind themselves, we’re all on the same team. We’re going to tackle this problem together.

Post-Production

Post-production brought on the opportunity for great collaboration, not hampered by the tight schedule of a 12-hour day. We took a unique approach to editing, splitting the film between three editors, Blake Kliewer, Natalie Comstock, and me. Because the film already had three distinct sections, each leaning into a different genre, each of us was able to bring their own distinct style to the editing process.

Once the film was picture-locked, the music was composed by Hannah Parrott. I gave Hannah the freedom to write full themes, which gave her the opportunity to have a clear voice in the storytelling. We discussed how themes and suites could serve to anchor the film in certain emotional landscapes and within the evolution of love between the two main characters. 

As all indie filmmakers know, visual effects can often make or break a project, and they usually cost an arm and a leg. That’s where VFX artist, Rick Cortez, came in, graciously offering his skills on the 100+ VFX shots for the equivalent cost of a few shots at industry rates.

When it comes to VFX, Rick says that ultimately all that matters is what ends up within the boundaries of your finished frame. You don’t need a giant set, a giant backdrop, or even a “finished” practical set. And the more carefully you plan your shots, the less time and resources you need to fill that frame, and suddenly your VFX budget is the size of a window instead of the size of a backyard.

From there, supervising sound editor Jiaqing Audrey Gu managed a team of sound designers and sound editors to master the final mix for the film.

In all, the film was in post-production for nearly two years before it was complete and ready to sell. When it comes to indie features and your crew putting in extra work for lower pay, you have to be patient. It's better to give yourself more time than to rush your project. 

A scene from 'Last Three Days'Credit: Brotherhood Studios

Marketing and Distribution

For the release of Last Three Days, we skipped the festival route and instead went straight to sales. Being perfectly frank, this was the area that felt the most foreign and difficult to navigate.

As a low-budget non-linear action romance thriller, with no movie star on the poster, it was initially difficult to get eyes on the film, but when executive producer Mark Joseph saw it, he connected with the heart of the story and saw the potential for the project.

Mark introduced the film to Slater Brothers Entertainment, who instantly saw the market potential for the film and signed on as sales representatives. After shopping the film around, they acquired deals with Gravitas Ventures (domestic) and Archstone Entertainment (international) who released the film on November 13, 2020.

As Julianna and I look back through the whole process, we're grateful for all the wonderful friends and creatives who surrounded us on this project. Everyone had so much to offer and went above and beyond time and again and truly made this indie film the best it could be.

Just as we were offered sage advice over coffee from many experienced individuals on their journey, we are open and available to help other indie filmmakers bring their passion projects to life.     

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