Paul Schattel’s Ten Tactics for MicroBudget Success
This is a guest post by American filmmaker Paul Schattel. Paul has been working for years on both independent films and commercial videos, and is currently hard at work making his fourth feature, American Breakdown. He shares with us some of the knowledge he has acquired to success making a microbudget. (My favorite tip is #5 by the way, I did it myself and it worked wonderfully.)
As all filmmakers know, when we have no money we have to work smarter. Brainpower and creativity can (usually – almost) make up for the lack of cash. As a filmmaker who’s made several features and gotten international distribution, I often get asked how I made my first film – what I would do different, what I did right, what I regret.
It’s a tough game, filmmaking: The rules are changing all the time, and what worked yesterday may not be so effective today. But like storytelling itself, there are a few basic constants that you can count on to maximize your chances of getting your work out there … and maybe even taking it further than that.
For context, my first film Sinkhole (2004) was a $50K 35mm feature (yes, Virginia, there is such a thing). It launched at a prominent 2nd tier festival, got some decent publicity, and the distributors literally came calling. Soon I found myself with a screenplay option at a prominent NYC production company attaching Oscar-winners to my next project (disappointingly, that film got mired in development hell).
But it got my name out there, and allowed me to attract other projects, other deals and move on to more work. My latest film, called American Breakdown, is a Kickstarter crowdfunding project with an even smaller budget. Check the link below to find out more.
So, in that spirit, here are my Top Ten Tactics for Microbudget Success:
#1 – Find Solid, Dependable Collaborators.
No one makes a film alone, but the last thing you need is to have an actor or crew member flake out on you halfway through your shoot. Find people like yourself who are serious and looking for that next level of career achievement. The steady but somewhat less talented actor is way more valuable to you than the brilliant but half-cracked thespian.
Find people you can trust, and enlist their creativity – make it their project, too. Then they’re personally invested in the project, and will see it through. On one of my early short films, an actor didn’t show up on day one, and we had to scramble to replace him (it worked out fine – possibly even better – but it could have resulted in disaster). Get a line on their commitment and gauge just how much they want it. If they don’t want it on a similar level as you do, move on.
David Gordon Green‘s DP Tim Orr helped him shoot his first film, George Washington. Since then, they’ve partnered on every single DGG film together.
#2 – Story Story Story.
Did I mention story? Let me clarify – if you have a crappy story, you have a crappy movie. When I teach Directing for Film, I remind my students that Jimi Hendrix could make a five dollar guitar sound great. It’s not in the tools – it’s in your head. An Arri Alexa is cool, but those pretty pictures mean nothing without compelling characters and a story that moves.
Like I mentioned, on my first film we used 35mm, but more importantly, the story compelled.
Interestingly, Andrew Bujaski shot his period feature Computer Chess with antique video cameras that were available at that time. Horrible resolution, no color at all – but the story moved. Paraphrasing the poet William Blake, Story is the all in all.
#3 – Keep It Contemporary.
With a limited budget, it’s hard to acquire costumes, period sets and antique vehicles. Save yourself some headaches and keep it modern. Shoot on the sidewalk in front of your apartment. Find locations that are easily gettable. Wardrobe can come from the actor’s closets. Make it about people, rather than the time period.
Edward Burns famously shot his last movie for under $10K. That’s because he makes modern stories about characters who painfully grow and change. You don’t have to make a talky movie – there’s room for excitement in microbudget films – but there’s rarely the budget for period trappings.
My attempted sophomore feature The Mourning Portrait – the one that got lost in development hell – was set in 1920’s Appalachia. My co-writer and I had a great story, but perhaps all those Model T’s we needed contributed to the project not happening.
#4 – Use Locations That You Can Actually Get.
Empty trailers, dead end roads, neglected parking lots, our production designer’s wacky house – these have been my tools because we actually had access to them. I’ve shot a scene up on the roof of my house. Why? Because it was interesting, and because it was better than my very ordinary back patio.
Even in my recent Kickstarter pitch video, we used an old foundry in rural North Carolina that had been abandoned. It looked like something out of Full Metal Jacket – and we got it for free.
Know a cool old apartment building that oozes production value? Use it. That place in the woods that’s really pretty but somehow kinda scary? Put a scene out there. Anywhere that works for the story, and that you can actually get – that’s what you want.
#5 – Get Donated Food.
When everyone’s working for free (or cheap), food is doubly important. Feed your guys well – they’ll work harder for you. One technique is to go around to local restaurants, present yourself well, explain what you’re doing, and ask for their help. Three times out of five, they’ll say yes (pizza and salads are really not that expensive to make).
Offer a thank you in the credits of your film – that’s practically free advertising for them – and you get great food for free. We asked a prominent Mexican restaurant to help us out, and later that night as we were shooting in a bar, they set up such a great buffet table that the patrons were helping themselves.
#6 – Be Nice.
Politeness and generosity are your secret weapons. If people genuinely like you (and trust you) you can get away with a lot. On a microbudget set, you can’t afford to throw a fit. Understand that everyone is doing the best they can. Pitch in, help out, thank people for being there and continuing to work hard day after day for what is may be essentially a favor. Sometimes it’ll be tough to hold your tongue, but affability is a resource that applies even to the upper tiers of filmmaking.
Nobody wants to work with a dick, even when you’re getting well-paid. One filmmaker I know was lucky enough to land a rising actor – she had just gotten a small part in a tentpole superhero movie – in his micro-budget film. He scared her off, and she bolted before the first take. So smile, laugh, give respect and have fun. Always.
#7 – Compromise in the Right Places.
There’s compromise … and then there’s compromise. Can’t get access to that L-series lens you really wanted? Screw it, make do with the kit lens. That really cool green truck you wanted for the getaway scene? It’s gone, forget about it. Concentrate on what you can control, not what you can’t.
Know which details really help, and which are just that – details. Most of what we worry about is not really that important, anyway.
On my second feature, Alison, I once had an actor show up halfway through a shoot with a shaved head. It took me a minute to get my head together, to contain my frustration, but we went with it – we spun it so that his character was a bit unbalanced – and it ended up working for the movie: his scary character actually became scarier. Happy accidents are all around, you just have to know how to exploit them.
#8 – Do As Much As You Can Yourself.
Can you edit? Do it! Color-correct? Make it pretty! Audio design? Make it sound the way you want it. If you don’t have much money, you can always ask a professional to help out, but they’re inevitably going to be busy, and often they ‘phone in’ a half-cracked job and just ‘get it done,’ rather than lovingly massaging it to perfection.
No one cares about your baby as much as you do. Favors only go so far, so get in there and get your feet wet. It’s not rocket surgery – you can get access to an editing machine, they’re everywhere nowadays.
On all my movies, including the one coming up, American Breakdown, I’ve had an almost unprecedented amount of control. For better or for worse, that’s what a microbudget is good for – it’s your movie. Own it. Often, if you can get something to 75 or 85 percent, a pro will help out and get it all the way. If you ask nicely, they’ll be impressed by your commitment, and want to pitch in.
#9 – Finish What You Start.
Does your movie suck? It’s okay, finish it. It’s gonna take a year? Who cares, finish it. You’ll get much more respect – and career capital – by completing something than by abandoning a project and trying to mount another one. They’re all your babies, some of them are just a little bit less … pretty. It doesn’t matter – by committing to what you start, you’re telling everyone (including yourself) that you’re serious, you’re putting in the time and effort to make it the best you can.
On my most recent movie, Quiet River, production felt sometimes like a Sisyphean task — like the project was stalling in the middle of of the shoot. But we soldiered through, and after all the pieces got put together, it ended up as perhaps my favorite of all my films.
Most projects feel much worse than they are when you’re in that intermediate stage, anyway, and by finishing your projects, you get the invaluable experience of closing one down and moving on to another. That’s how we grow our talent – through the fires of dedication.
#10 – It’s Only A Movie.
This may be the hardest one. A movie can take over your life for a long time, sometimes even years. But they aren’t worth your personal happiness.
Remember, you set out to make a movie in order to find some happiness, so don’t let it make you miserable. You may get lucky and have your microbudget movie change your life (it happened to David Gordon Green, and to a lesser extent, myself).
Or it may be a blip that passes very quickly.
It’s all out of your control anyway – all you can do it to make a film as best you know how … and let it out into the world. Don’t allow it wreck your emotions, your life, your relationships. It’s not worth it. Movies are fun, there should be an element of play. Not so say things don’t often get stressful and quite serious, but generally, if you’re not having fun, move on to something else.
Life is short. Enjoy it.