Micro-Budget Filmmakers Reveal How They Spent Only $100 on Cinematography
'The Plagiarists' was shot entirely on Betacam.
You simply have to take a gander at the IMDb page for The Plagiarists to get an idea of the scale of this micro-budget production. The film, directed and written by James N. Kienitz Wilkins and Robin Schavoir—"Peter Parlow," who is credited as the director, is their combined pseudonym—boasts a total of seven crew members, including the co-directors.
Just don't call The Plagiarists an indie movie. As Wilkins and Schavior told No Film School in a recent interview, "Indie is like the modern equivalent of Hollywood now." They believe that the "indie" label has evolved such that it no longer refers to independently-made movies, but rather to a "scene" that "espouses mainstream values."
This perspective is evident in The Plagiarists, a satirical, metatextual take on the genre. Tyler (Eamon Monaghan) is a cinematographer and aspiring filmmaker. When his girlfriend, Anna (Lucy Kaminsky), refers to him as a filmmaker, he retorts, “Have I made a film? Then I’m not a filmmaker!” Anna, meanwhile, is a writer who is working on a novel that may wind up becoming a memoir because it hits so close to home. They embark on a weekend road trip together, but along the way, their car breaks down. (The film is chock-full of these self-aware tropes.) A local man, Clip (William Michael Payne) comes to their aid. Tyler is mesmerized by his collection of old cameras—a self-referential nod to the film's use of Betacam cinematography—and Anna is taken by his enthralling remembrance of childhood events. But when they find out later that something he said was deceptive, the film launches into an investigation of what it means to create original work in an age defined by derivative material.
No Film School sat down with Wilkins and Schavior for a lively conversation about micro-budget filmmaking, including why they hate SAG and how they shot the film with none of the four actors ever appearing the same frame.
NFS: The whole ethos of this film is that it's a micro-budget production. Can you talk to me about how you got it off the ground and made it happen in the first place?
Wilkins: Robin and I both conceived of the film two years ago. From the beginning, we designed the project to be made within a year. We wanted to just make it—no holds barred, just by ourselves. That came out of a certain frustration from trying to raise money for other projects. So we wrote a script relatively fast for a movie that was to be made relatively fast. Then, we ran into some of the expected hurdles of trying to get it made—even by ourselves—but for the most part, I think we actually achieved our broad goal of writing something, shooting it, getting it out into the world within a year and a half. In that sense, it was very much a success.
Schavoir: Because we set our expectations in the beginning, the film was totally within our control. It was like making music or painting or something. The film was shot in my house. I was in transition to moving so I was like, "I should find a house that would actually suit this character and this film." So it was all kind of within our lives—we were able to do it without middlemen.
"We probably spent a total of $100 on the movie's cinematography, which is the cost of an SD card."
NFS: You said that you ran into some hurdles getting it off the ground. What were some of those?
Wilkins: Money is always an issue. I mean, even when a film is being designed to be super cheap, you still need some money. You also have to be okay with taking a personal risk when you're doing something for no money. And when you get actors to do things for a low rate, you can't make the same demands of them. You have to make sure you're really working with people who are spiritually invested in the project.
One big issue though, to be very specific, is we wrote the movie with [William Michael Payne], who plays Clip, in mind. So the character is sort of based on him. But there was a moment where we realized he's on tour so much—like 250 days out of the year. He lives this unfathomably insane life bouncing around the world.
We entertained [the idea of casting someone else] for a few weeks, and that just revealed this whole side of low budget film production, which is this world of SAG and all this shit that would have cost more than the movie cost to make. Fortunately, Clip came through and we were able to work with him. That was a mini-crisis.
NFS: You were able to circumvent SAG?
Wilkins: Yeah. We didn't use SAG.
I have a real problem with SAG. I don't have a problem with unions, but I have a problem with the way that SAG has tried to adjust itself to micro-budget, independent filmmakers. They're really behind the times if you look at their ultra-low-budget contracts and stuff. They distinguish between theatrical and online and don't realize that everything kind of plays everywhere now, you know? So it's just a bag of shit in terms of what filmmakers have to work with. We couldn't work with SAG. There was no way. Working with SAG would have ruined this movie.
We were very fair to our crew. This was a point of pride for me—even on micro-budget projects, we still pay our actors above SAG pay rates. I think we're pretty good to them.
Schavoir: I agree with that.
"I have a problem with the way that SAG has tried to adjust itself to micro-budget, independent filmmakers."
NFS: What was your vision for using Betacam to shoot the film, and how did it all work?
Wilkins: I had been doing a lot of research into the history of videotape formats and how they align with certain markers in the '80s and '90s. There's a certain nostalgia in these images, but a lot of times, people don't even know the difference between Betacam and VHS. The forms are actually very specific, but they kind of fall into this lump of the past. It just looks "old."
I had a Betacam camera and all this equipment lying around from a previous film project. To what Robin was saying about defining our limits from the beginning, the camera was written into the script, as Clip was. We knew we'd shoot on it. Instead of it just being a prop where it's like, "Oh, we find a camera in Clip's closet," we logically extend into, "Let's just use that camera to actually shoot."
The tape stock worked totally fine. You can find this old tape stock all over eBay—unopened boxes of stocks from the late '80s, early '90s. Actually, it was cheaper [than today's digital film]. We probably spent a total of $100 on the movie's cinematography, which is the cost of an SD card.
Schavoir: It looks kind of like a Hollywood movie from the olden days, just done in modern times on a totally scaled-down, extreme tiny budget. Even though the way it was shot was a fragmentary style, it almost feels to me like a studio film. Shooting Betacam even feels like shooting film—loading tapes and stuff. At one point, it broke, and we had to fix it.
NFS: What were some problems you ran into in production, and how did you solve them?
Wilkins: Well, our movie has a twist, and people like to talk about it at screenings. But there's a production-based twist which has been interesting to reveal: Clip was shot totally separately from all the other actors. The actors who played Tyler and Anna never met Clip. It's an illusion that they have any sort of actual connection.
That's the way all Hollywood movies have been historically shot. You have your most valuable asset, who is your star, and you maximize time with them, and then you bring in the people that cost less and you shoot the reverse shot or whatever. It's actually nothing new at all.
"It looks kind of like a Hollywood movie from the olden days, just done in modern times on a totally scaled-down, extreme tiny budget."
NFS: Did you make the decision to shoot Clip separately because of his difficult schedule?
Schavoir: Yeah. But form follows function.
I think there's this idea these days that that way of making films is rooted in an older era when film was super expensive, so you had to work within the limits of an economy. And old Hollywood movies were very profit-based. But now when you're like, "Oh, you can just make a movie with a really high-end camera and just get your friends to do this organic, fluid thing..." That disregards the fact that most of the money in a tiny-budget film goes to accommodating actors and working with their schedules.
Wilkins: Yeah. The money goes into getting the star to plug into your otherwise low-budget project to make it marketable.
Schavoir: So we knew from the very beginning that we're going to use Clip because he's our friend and he's down to act and all these reasons, but we cannot control his schedule with our budget. We can't say, "We're going to pay you all this money to come here [instead of working]." We had to just accept the fact that he had his own fluid life and these other actors had their lives and if we wanted this movie to even exist, we had to just to make it work.
I was just actually watching this documentary about Vertigo where they were saying that with the actress, Hitchcock just had to make her do a variety of things the whole time, because he didn't like her acting. Then he cut it together.
Wilkins: That's funny. Now when I think about Vertigo I can see that, actually.
NFS: There's actually a line in your film that has to do with that. Tyler is exploring Clip's old cameras and admiring them and he says, "With a new camera, there are no limits. It's like this empty hedonism." It seems like you advocate for limits in your art.
Wilkins: Oh, yeah. "New cameras have an empty hedonist tout."
I am fine with all cameras. I don't want to go on the record being the guy that's like, "Ugh, I can't stand the new things." I would be happy if someone gave me an ARRI Alexa. I would be shooting a movie tomorrow. But the thing is, first of all, no one is going to do that.
"Cameras always reflect the moment in which they're made."
Also, I am interested in how cameras always reflect the moment in which they're made. I think there's a kind of masked illusion that each new camera provides us with an ability to see more, and better. Sure, maybe on a technical level you actually can see more detail, but every camera has a limit that is probably not advertised and it's only found out when you look back at it.
Wilkins: A really good example is this new approach to polar correction. There's been a huge shift in the taste around how movies are colored. Everyone is getting these RAW cameras. You get a RAW image, and the idea is you're supposed to go in later and create the perfect color out of it. But you begin with this washed-out, gray image in production. You do most of your editing with that as well. So you develop a taste for it. You get used to it.
With some of these older cameras, you had less choice. You just shot and the image was baked in. That was essentially the experience of shooting with the Betacam. When we shot it, we were aware we were not going to gain any more detail. We're not going to gain any more color value. We can balance the image a little bit, but there's a real limit to how much it can be manipulated without it just becoming a CGI movie. So you accept what is.
"We both went to art school. A lot of people I meet that make movies have a total disregard for art."
Schavoir: Definitely. To me, that's how a film works and what its job is—to reveal what is through the limits of existing in real space. It's the opposite of other art forms, like painting, where you're coming up with something from the depths of your soul and putting it out there, and there are no limits, but it doesn't really interact with real space. Film is the converse. It's instantly rooted in reality.
In The Plagiarists, there is this sense in the way it's constructed that it's very faithful to that ethos. It's even referenced in the movie—you can fake this [Betacam] look easily in After Effects. So it's almost like you're never sure how a movie was made, even though it might feel or look a certain way. That's just the reality.
NFS: It all comes back to the reveal that the actor who plays Cliff was not in the same room as the other actors. That really speaks to the entire premise of the film. It's kind of a cool meta situation that happened.
Wilkins: We've been screening this film for audiences, and someone always asks this question: "How much of the movie was improvised?" They think that it was due to the content. But none of it was improvised. It was a very, very structured. In that sense, I think the shooting style is actually very faithful to the writing style.
People say this movie is mumblecore. And I think that's actually a sign of success. It maybe feels like a mumblecore movie, even though it's not. It's actually totally different from the intent and desire of mumblecore. In fact, I've never seen a mumblecore movie in my life!
Mumblecore has almost become a curse word or something. It's a language that we're all deeply familiar with because it comes directly out of reality TV. You don't even have to see mumblecore, and you still know what mumblecore is.
Schavoir: I haven't seen a mumblecore movie, either. To me, mumblecore signified the advent of cheap cameras.
Wilkins: It was like cheap digital cameras and also improvisation. Relational dramas that are seemingly undramatic, but presented in the form of a feature film. People are like, "I'm supposed to pay attention to this feature film, but it's about nothing and it looks like shit." I actually admire the impulse to make a movie that way. I don't have a problem with it from a production angle. I just think that it often highlights a very specific type of privileged demographic.
NFS: Since we're talking about indie films in general, I want to point out something Tyler says in the film. He calls indie films these days "cloying, aspirational copycats." Is that how you see the contemporary indie universe?
Wilkins: So you're asking, "Are we Tyler?"
Schavoir: I would say yes. I agree with Tyler. Not totally, but I agree with the gist.
"The values I often see in what are called 'indie movies' are very mainstream values that just haven't yet received mainstream support."
You know how people nowadays are like, "I went to college," and they compare themselves to people in the '50s that went to college? No one in the '50s went to college. Everyone now has gone to college. So it's not that big of a deal anymore to have gone to college.
Indie film operates like that. It inherits this legacy of this brave way of making movies—that the indie films that are made now are the same as the first ones, and to me, they're just not. Indie is like the modern equivalent of Hollywood now. I don't think it's fair that it gets to assume these things about itself anymore.
Wilkins: That's not to denigrate making stuff for no money independently. You're just doing something yourself, which is kind of largely the way artists have always worked. You just do something and try to find money to do it and hope that it works out. I don't think that's what indie film is.
Indie film is like a genre or a "scene." That's the thing I have a problem with, for the reasons Robin stated. I'm not trying to be like some hardcore, straight-edge punk or something, like, "Oh, you got to stay true to being broke." But what I mean is the values I often see in what are called "indie movies" are very mainstream values that just haven't yet received mainstream support. That's what really bugs me: when someone is just espousing the same cliches and waiting for their big break. Everything is just a calling card for a Hollywood opportunity.
Wilkins: I'm not saying that if someone came up to me and was like, "Hey, you want to write a screenplay for a Hollywood movie?", that I would say no. I would actually be interested in that. I need money, and I also would be interested in the challenge. So it's not a question of selling out. It's just one of, "What are the actual values that are being discussed here?" There are a lot of interesting independent movies. Indie movies are something different.
"For us, the screenplay was like a blueprint for the film. It was the most powerful force in the whole production."
Schavoir: We both went to art school. A lot of people I meet that make movies have a total disregard for art. It's secondary to making the movie. That's just strange to me. If you're going to make films, and film is an art, that should be your top priority. That's just my personal view.
Wilkins: I don't think society rewards [art] so much. I think society rewards this idea of branding yourself and creating a consistency that people recognize. Like, you do this thing, and you can do it again and again, and if you do it well, you'll keep getting to the next level. That's not what art is there for.
By the way, all of this is just how things work for me. It's not an assault or screed against other people's movies. People can make whatever the hell they want!
NFS: Let's talk about your crisp runtime. I think that is a rarity these days. I respect the economy of storytelling, and that's not the direction that the industry, or art films, is going in right now.
Wilkins: Yeah. This is a very talky movie, as you've seen. Usually, there's this screenwriting rule that there's supposed to be a page of dialogue per minute. One page equals one minute. It's not a hard and fast rule, but if you care about the scene and describing things, there is that padding.
Our screenplay was just straight-up talking. We had the most minimal stage direction because we already, in a sense, had visualized it. We were writing it for ourselves to make. So it was not necessary to sell it with this extra padding.
We tried to mirror that in the editing of The Plagiarist. There are really no wide shots. The only wide shots are at the end of each "act." I think of editing and the shooting style as an embodiment of the writing style. It's zoomed in on these people's fixations, especially about authenticity.
Schavoir: I've written a lot of stuff, and it does tend to be on the longer side. But this movie in particular—it's just so neat, so contained. The overall structure of how it worked just felt like a story someone would tell you and have in their head. It's easy to remember. It just had to be short. It had to be light.
"Money is always an issue. I mean, even when a film is being designed to be super cheap, you still need some money."
NFS: Is there a story behind Peter Parlow being credited as the film's director? He's not a real person; he's a combination of both of you. Was that a nod to the content of the film, regarding plagiarism and originality?
Wilkins: Peter Parlow is the credited "director." But the main goal of the film is highlighting the role of writing. What does it mean to do a writing-driven project? And what is this obsession with figuring out who the directorial voice is when this movie is based on the screenplay? So many of the production-related decisions were written into the script from the beginning. I know that's sort of unusual in the way that movies are made. But this was a movie that was written to be made.
Schavoir: I think that in general, in the TV industry, the writer has gotten way more credit these days. When you think of a show, you don't think of who directed the show. You think of who wrote the show and who came up with the show.
Often, when a screenwriter writes something, they're at the mercy of whoever is deemed to pick it up. Even in a screenplay, you have to make it so clear for the person.
For us, the screenplay was like a blueprint for the film. It was the most powerful force in the whole production. It was like notes in music.
Wilkins: We weren't worrying about writing for some speculative audience, you know? I think a lot of screenplays—to give advice to other filmmakers—get really laden and shitty and heavy with hand wringing and stuff when trying to speak up the food chain. You're like, "Oh, god, how am I going to keep the agent's attention?"
I've always fantasized about screenplays that could breathe more—just be more comfortable in themselves. Often, a screenplay will be really good and someone is like, "Well, you've got to cut this out and cut this out" until it's this weird, austere thing that doesn't have mistakes in it. I feel like The Plagiarist does have these weird little quirks and stuff in the screenplay.
Wilkins: It's an imperfect medium.
Schavoir: I enjoy that. I consider it kind of beautiful, that it has these mistakes or stray lines. I think that you can do that now because filmmaking is more affordable.