Written by Courtney Daniels
If you’ve been trying to sell a spec script, attach a star, or raise financing, you already know it might take a while. Why not do something while you’re waiting for other people to do something?
- This is an excerpt from Courtney’s new book, Yes You Can - How to Make a Movie for Almost No Money
In the mid-to-late ’90s, I read Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without a Crew and loved it. But I thought the only reason a person would make a movie on their own is because they had no choice. It never occurred to me that shooting solo in the almost-no-budget range would be a fun, rewarding way to work.
But in between making two features (What Other Couples Do and Bedroom Story) and the pilot for This F*%king Town, I shot more material for episodes 1, 2, 3, and 4 of This F*%king Town on my own. And it was a fantastic experience. Low pressure, and low stakes! Working alone with the actors was intimate and fun, and it allowed for greater connection.
I can’t emphasize enough how different an experience it is to work alone compared to a typical shoot. You can shoot for a few hours a day, a few days a week, have balance in your life, and actually enjoy the process.
When I first started shooting alone, I told myself This F*%king Town would be my training ground. I knew I would make a lot of mistakes and I decided to just make peace with that. Because I was learning so many new skills and juggling so many tasks alone, my approach to lighting was based on expediency. I supplemented available light and practicals with use of one broad diffused lighting source (a dimmable LED panel). It took a while to figure out how to get good sound, but if you look at my camera work in the episodes, though it’s not showy, it’s solid. I got good angles, everything’s in focus, and the footage cuts together. Most importantly, the story tracks and the actors’ performances are great. And audience feedback has been enthusiastic so far. In fact, This F*%king Town might be my most popular project.
'This F*%king Town'Courtney Daniels
Somewhere along the way, I realized the episodes could be shoved together to make a movie. This fascinated me. The idea that one person could shoot a series or feature alone, working with just their cast, blew my mind. I came away from it wanting to shoot more projects this way. And I want to urge other people to consider it, too—which is why I wrote this book.
Clearly, people need more encouragement to think outside the Hollywood paradigm, because too many would-be filmmakers are still sitting on the sidelines, waiting to be picked by one of the big studios or streamers. Or they’re waiting to get financing some other way. Even in LA, this is common—maybe especially in LA, where it’s just expected that you’ll have a traditional shoot, requiring a lot of money.
But enough preamble. Let’s talk about how you can make a feature or series—without waiting for financing!
When to Shoot Solo
There are many scenarios in which the almost-no-budget route of shooting solo (working with just your cast) is ideal. For example, if/when:
- You simply don’t have the money for a shoot
- You’re concerned about the odds of recouping or making a return on your investment
- You suspect your script is not commercial or might not appeal to a sizable niche audience
- You don’t know if your script is strong enough to warrant spending $35,000 or more to execute it
- You don’t want to be dependent on a group of people to make something
- You think a down-and-dirty execution of your script could be cool, aesthetically and otherwise
- You would like to be able to experiment—explore different storyline possibilities, let actors improvise, etc.—without worrying whether you’ll end up with a commercially viable film
- You want to make other types of video projects (such as branding videos, tutorials, music videos, marketing or promotional videos) and don’t want to spend thousands on them
- You have experience making films or other types of videos with a group of people but have been wanting a more sustainable path forward
- You want to experience the joy of shooting more often, without having to schedule and wait for a big, expensive shoot
'This F*%king Town'Courtney Daniels
Your “Almost No Budget” Approach
Whatever amount of money you’ve got, here’s what I propose you do with it: Buy a camera and some gear and learn how to do everything yourself: operate the camera, light the actors, record sound, and edit the footage.
Yes, it IS possible. Even if you currently know nothing about any of this.
I know, because I used to be a person who couldn’t even set the time/date buttons on a wristwatch. In fact, when I rented a camera from BorrowLenses.com for the pilot shoot of This F*%king Town, I opened the box it was shipped in, gingerly lifted the camera out and handed it directly to my DP. I was completely intimidated by it.
But a year later, when I was frustrated and ready, I bought that same camera for myself, as well as a subscription to Adobe Premiere Pro editing software. Within three months, I had learned just enough to start shooting and editing scenes for This F*%king Town.
This F*%king Town trailerwww.youtube.com
Think about that. Within three months, you could be shooting and editing footage. Isn’t that wild?
Will your movie win cinematography awards? Not likely. Will the sound be decent? If you’re very careful, yes. Will you learn a ton? I guarantee it. Will you make something that’s perfectly imperfect and has flashes of brilliance, that your friends and family will love? Hell yeah!
But here’s the best part: When you own the means of production and know how to do everything yourself, there’s nothing stopping you from making more projects. Which means you’ll keep learning and getting better, which will give you confidence—which is huge. Because buried under all the fake obstacles is the real one: fear.
In fact, if you’re feeling freaked out right now, just take a deep breath. If you can’t even imagine doing everything yourself and are not at all sure you want to attempt it, you don’t have to decide yet. There’s a lot of ground to cover first. Just read the coming chapters and let everything incubate.
Let it fester.
Because it will. And maybe, by the end of my book, you’ll be ready to go for it.
Courtney Daniels’ new book, Yes You Can - How to Make a Movie for Almost No Money can be found on Amazon (or you can get a more beautiful, offset-printed copy here). Her films, What Other Couples Do, Bedroom Story, and This F*%king Town, can be streamed on Amazon. On her site, you’ll find short videos that address topics like how to decide what to write/shoot next.