Vifill Prunner on Shooting a Feature Solo that Opened Doors for His Second Film
Icelandic Indie Filmmaker Vifill Prunner shot his first feature film alone, for a few hundred dollars and decided not only to share his experience and lessons learned (good or bad) below, but also to release the full film online (you can watch it at the end of the post).
Prunner’s thought process aligns with the like of Shane Carruth or the Duplass Brothers, going for it, with whatever it takes and he has, not foolishly thinking it will be a masterpiece but instead learning, growing and already looking to the next project.
I highly recommend you to read the full interview first and then watch the film. There’s a ton to learn from Vifill who is a very articulated and genuine creative.
Comment under or reach out directly to Vifill, I know first hand that talking straight to a filmmaker is the best way to grow and learn.
Vifill Prunner on Making a Feature Solo That Opened the Doors for His Film
Notes on the making of The Animals.
The Animals is an experimental feature film that I shot over three years with a group of friends and as a crew of one. It started out as a test in response to several failed attempts to get a film off the ground through the traditional channels, film funds, private investment etc.
So born out of the frustration of not being able to get a film made, the idea was to see if it would be possible to make a film with the bare essentials and work maybe like a writer writes a book, starting on page one and finishing with the last chapter, shooting a narrative film, the way a documentary might be made.
While the majority of the film was scripted, there was no actual shooting script, rather I wrote a scenes, shot it, then edited it before writing and shooting the next. But a lot of what shaped the story line, was external things not related to the film itself, such as availability of locations, actors, lack of money.
So even if there was quiet a bit of improvisation that went into it, much of it was out of necessity rather than from choice. I had a basic idea of a story, a riff on a film noir theme, about a small time gangster coming out of prison, trying to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend. But it was not so much the story as the characters or even the actors themselves that interested me, so the story was more like a structure that allowed me to suspend these characters in.
That is not to say that it is a film about the actual people as much as it is snapshot of a particular period of my life, living in LA, a reflection of the relationships and internal politics within our group, told in a fictionalized form. So it is maybe not a movie in the traditional sense, but rather a hybrid between a documentary and a family album that drew its inspiration from our every day life and the relationship we had to each other.
A film that tried to capture the LA as I experienced it, a place where truth is quite literally stranger then fiction. It was a glorious and rowdy time working with a group of talented people, that blurred the lines between that which was reality and that which was the film, but it was also the most exiting and romantic period of my life. We were living what we where doing and everything we did was part of the whole, we were The Animals and The Animals were us.
What was your inspiration for the film?
The contradiction between who we are and the part we have to play to survive in a society like ours.
What was the process of getting the film made?
After several years of trying to get a film made through the conventional channels. I gave up on the idea that I would be able to make the film that I wanted to make and get it financed. In 2011, I started shooting without money and a crew of one, using my friends as actors.
How long was the shoot? Where did you shoot?
￼We shot for about 50 days, in and around Los Angeles, as well as in Palm Springs and Death Valley over a period of 3 years.
What is your favorite scene in the film?
It’s hard to pick one, because every scene is more then just a scene in the film. It is also a record of an extraordinary time spent together with friends, making a movie under extremely turbulent and difficult circumstances. So each scene represents a step of that journey and a battle we fought. But if I had to choose one, it would the first scene of the film, because it was the first scene we shot and the place where this film was born. Also it has a certain innocence and lightness about it, the ambition of the novice and the shortcomings of the amateur, kind of like a first kiss.
What was the most difficult scene to shoot?
Death Valley was difficult, because we were working without any infrastructure, just the three of us and a car. It was so hot and dry that you would not last more then 10 min outside in the sun. At 130 F in the shade, the camera was constantly overheating and turning off. It was hard just to do ordinary things like walk, let alone give directions.
But it was also amazing experience, the extreme environment, you could hear every breath, it felt like you where on the moon. Also it was our little moment crossing paths with cinema history. I knew that Antonioni had shot Zabriskie Point there, so he must at some point have stood exactly where we where standing, in that same heat, looking at the same landscape, thinking to himself: “How am I going to do this?”
Another time was when 12 gun-drawn LAPD burst onto our set and did a room-by-room search at an apartment we where shooting a sex scene between Eric and Nikki. A neighbor thought someone was getting raped and called the police on us.
It was scary, because I knew Eric had a prop gun as part of his wardrobe and he was in the bedroom when the cops spilled into the living room. They were all really nervous, flashing around with their lights and talking on their walkie-talkies. The actress, Nicky, who was half naked, was trying to tell them, that nothing bad had happened, that we where making a movie. But the place looked like a drug den, littered with beer cans and empty glasses, so it probably looked more like a snuff porn set than an actual film set.
I was telling her to sit down and just let them do their job, while at the same time they where telling us to not move. I was picturing Eric emerge from the room any moment holding the prop gun and they would just start firing. He, of course, did not, but it was scary and chaotic moment and we where happy when they left.
The film is told in a series of episodes rather than continuous time. Why did you decide to tell the story this way?
The film was shot like a documentary, which meant we might not have access to the same location twice, the same actor with the same haircut twice, so I knew I was not going to be able to tell the story in a traditional way.
Also since the story uses relative stock Film-noir characters and storyline, I knew the viewer would be able to fill in the gaps. In any case the plot was never really important to me and was simply a structure to play with.
The idea for the film was based on my experience living in America, our little group of friends and all the group dynamics and internal politics involved. So I wanted to treat it like an exploration or nature documentary, where I would follow the subjects in their natural habitat, without interfering with it too much. So it made most sense to break it up into sections, as in, the animals feeding, hunting, mating etc.
What was it like to shoot as a one man crew?
I did run two cameras for the party scene, but besides that the whole film is shot with one light and one camera. I had couple of sound recorders with lavaliere microphones mounted on the
￼actors, which they would have to start and stop themselves. But it was a really creative and intimate way of working with the actors and gave us a lot of freedom. Of course there are some technical trade-offs.
What format did you shoot the film on?
I shot on the Canon 5d mark2 and 5d mark3, using a 24-70mm zoom lens.
What was the post production like?
I edited the film on a medium range Apple laptop on my kitchen table.
What was the budget for the film?
A few hundred dollars, but then it is impossible over three years to distinguish what is a real life expense and what is the film’s. The most expensive part was more or less taking three years off of work.
What do you think is the essence of the film and what is it about?
Having a moral awareness is what distinguishes us as a species. Acting contrary to what we know to be right is what distinguishes us as a civilization.
Why did you decide to release the film online and for free rather then go the festival rout?
I did submit it to Cannes and did not get accepted, but you could say it was a moment of weakness, because we had stolen this film from the street and ultimately that is were it belongs.
A year after finishing the Animals, you have since wrapped your second feature film, how did making The Animals prepare you and contribute to that?
I could not have raised the money or made my second film without making The Animals first. On the other hand my last film was significantly bigger in scope with a budget of around US$ 200k and a crew of 25 people. It was fully scripted and more or less shot like a traditional film, but although I had initially wanted it to be a scaled up version of the way I made The Animals, with more money, there is more risk, permits, insurance etc.
So what was supposed to be a 7 people crew ballooned in size to support the necessary infrastructure to fulfill those requirements. But since I have not yet edited the film, it is hard to judge if it was better of worse way of working. Even if I had a lot more money to play with, it was still an incredibly challenging shoot with its own set of problems. But what remained the same is that I shot in sequence, wrote, directed and shot it myself.
What was different is that when you shoot back to back for 60 days, there is not much flexibility to experiment or adjust course and you are forced to blindly follow the script and somehow hope that you are getting what you need. So you can’t step back and think about what you are doing and it becomes more like an industrialized proses of executing a pre-agreed strategy, which for someone like me is relatively boring. So a lot of what was right for my previous film, was not applicable on my second one.
What would you do different the next time around?
I think there is something very pleasant working with a small crew, and 25 people means it is hard to be flexible and everything takes a very long time. Then again, maybe I will never make another film, I am not sure.
What is striking between making a firs and second film is when you do your first film the objective is incredibly clear, the goal is simply to make that first film.
￼When you make your second film you are faced with the question of why are you making this particular film and the answer to that question is more complicated.
What would be your advice be for a first time filmmaker?
It is more important to live an interesting life than to make an interesting film, and I think you can’t make the later without doing the former.
• The Animals is a film shot with a crew of one.
• The shooting budget was under US$ 1000.
• It took 3 years to shoot and edit.
• The film did not start out with a completed script, but was written scene by scene over the course of its making. The film was edited on a laptop.
• With the exception of the party scene, the film was shot with one camera and one light.
• The film was shot in Los Angeles, Palm Springs and Death Valley.
• The film was shot in sequence.
• The film is exhibited in black&white.
• The exhibition format is 16:9
About the filmmaker
Icelandic born Vifill Prunner, is a self-taught, filmmaker, photographer and journalist. Arriving in Paris at age 18, he worked for several years as an advertising, fashion and fine-art photographer.
• In 2008 he completed his firs short film EUROPE 3.
• In 2009 he founded THENEWCINEMA magazine, a print magazine dedicated to independent cinema, which launched at the Cannes Film Festival the same year. The magazine featured interviews with notable filmmakers, producers and actors, among them David Lynch, Monte Hellman, Jan Harlan and actress Mariel Hemingway.
• In 2010 Vifill moved to Los Angeles, where he shot his short film THE EMPIRE, with actress Paz de la Huerta and skateboard legend Steve Olsen.
• After financing for THE ANIMALS fell through, he commenced shooting in 2011 with a group of actor friends as a crew of one and no money. The micro budget version of THE ANIMALS was finally completed three years later in the end of 2014.
• In 2015 Vifill moved to Bangkok, where he just finished his second feature film, now in post production.
You can follow Vifill Prunner on instagram and on www.thenewcinemamagazine.com, and visit The Animals Page
For any additional questions about the process of making THE ANIMALS you can post your questions in the comment section and I shall do my best to answer them there.