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No Budget Report - Making Pig

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Making A No-Budget Feature &
Breaking All Your Own Rules
April 2009 
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Jody Hill at No Budget Film School

"Pig" starring Rudolf Martin

When you teach no-budget filmmaking and then you a make no-budget feature, there's a lot of added pressure on you. Yeah, you have to get the film made, which is trying enough, and for a lot of first-time filmmakers, that is the big accomplishment. When you've made a few, especially if you've been successful on some of them, then the bar is raised higher--you have to make a great film. If you've made a few films, especially with limited resources, you know how hard that can be. I would say it is just about impossible, with equal amounts of skill, experience, passion, luck, magic juju, and probably a few mystical things I haven't discovered yet, needed to make it possible. But when you teach no-budget filmmaking, and arrogantly consider yourself an "expert" in no-budget filmmaking, the bar is raised even higher--now you've got to get the movie made, it has to be great, and you HAVE to do it for no money, even if you live in Los Angeles, (where most movie-making things cost money), and even if you don't necessarily have a no-budget project.


Class in session
No Budget Film School

This last little caveat--the no-budget project--is what the first day of my class is all about. I've always felt very strongly about this idea--designing a project from your own unique set of limitations and resources--and have tried to impress it upon my students, despite my sense that that's not what they paid $200-$300 to hear. They want me to tell them how to make the film in their back pocket, the one that wasn't designed around their resources (or lack of them), and for this reason, I sense they enjoy the lessons from Day Two much more, where I tell them how to save money on standard movie-making things and give them a sense of the risks they're taking by not spending the normal amounts people spend on things like production insurance, or SAG actor salaries, etc.

Well, when I show up on May 30th and do my bit about taking that script in your back pocket and putting it on the shelf, and coming up with a brand new project catered to your specific situation, I will do it with a renewed sense of passion and vigor. This is precisely how you make a good no-budget film and it is also the way to enjoy making a no-budget film. Nothing teaches you that more than doing it the other way. The way we did it on "Pig," the no-budget film I just finished shooting.


TL in Bar
"True Love" scene in friend's bar

I know, I should never admit anything like this, and I'm not saying that the film won't be a good one--it's much too early to say and at this point, I am actually very excited about its prospects. The point I'm trying to make is that no matter who you are and what you know about making films for no money, if you don't work from available resources, and embrace your limitations, you are in for a difficult haul. Yeah, I knew this, but I guess I got cocky. With my last feature, "True Love," we pulled several miracles out of our butt, which I certainly had planned to do this time, and did do. But we also took a $2 million budgeted script and re-wrote it for what we had, for the most part. Especially locations. All the filmmakers--the director, my producing partner, and myself--opened the doors of our homes up to the "True Love" shoot, and close friends were cajoled into doing the same. (BTW, this is usually a one-time thing--a get out of jail free card you can only use once). "Pig" just wasn't this kind of script, and here's where the trouble started.


Mojave Desert
Shooting "Pig" in the Mojave Desert

To pull off a smooth-running shoot, especially a no-budget shoot, you have to lock down locations with enough time to coordinate and schedule everything else around them. You can't lock down cast and crew schedules, order up equipment, and put together the myriad of other things, if you don't have anywhere to shoot. A camera assistant can be found the night before, an 8-day location can not. If you don't have the money to pay the going Los Angeles rate for a 1920's Apartment, or a Large Fancy Conference Room, then it is going to take time (and maybe a miracle, pulled out of your butt) to find these places for no-money. Making films The No Budget Way, you're supposed to already have these places and then write them into your script, not the other way around. So you're trying to coordinate a ton of other elements, namely people's schedules, without the certainty that you will have the place to shoot. Three things happen in this situation: 1.) you find that miracle, and pull it out of your butt; 2.) you don't find that location, and you either push the shoot (or that portion of the shoot), or you compromise with something you can afford; or 3.) you pony up the money necessary to secure the location and shoot your damn movie. With "Pig," we did all three, though as far as ponying up the money, that was only done within certain shallow-pocketed limitations. I just don't have the cash or the gall to pay someone $2500/day for a location, which is considered cheap around here. I feel great about the butt-pulled miracles (I think it's time to retire this metaphor), and I don't think we made any compromises that screwed the film. What's killing me is the extra money spent. YOU don't have to worry, perhaps, about going over budget--if you have or can find the money, then you did what you had to do to make the film great (or get it made), but ME, the no-budget filmmaking MAVEN, that is not permissible. The first Write It Down Rule in my class is "Refuse To Spend Money"; I'm already breaking my own rules here!


Collin & EX1
DP Collin Brink w/ tricked out Sony EX1

This is another topic I discuss in my class, and I take a rather controversial position on it. I didn't say above that the DP was the most important position. They, the DP, will undoubtedly think that, but you the producer can not be swept away by the idea that it's all about the visuals. Sure visuals are important, and more so with some projects than others, but you're responsible for every other department, and all the things that happen in post and beyond, like marketing the film and delivering it to a distributor, and you have to realize that within that context, the visuals are just a small piece of the pie (or puzzle, more accurately). Take my class for a lengthy explanation of what I believe is almost always more important, but the reasons why the DP is the most influential position are several. First, they determine what your equipment needs are going to be. You may have purchased a prosumer camera to shoot your film with, but if they don't want to shoot with that camera, then you are either going to spend more money on what they prefer, or struggle daily with an unhappy cinematographer. They're going to choose the camera, format, camera gear, and grip and lighting gear, and while you won't want to give them free reign on these decisions, the middle ground you agree on will be different with different DP's. Second, they determine your crew needs. Yes, you can insist on one G&E and no camera assistant, but if they don't want to--or can't--work that way, then your film will suffer. Third, they determine the speed of your shoot, for the most part. You may want to shoot your 120 page script in 10 days without going over 12 hours per day, but it really doesn't have anything to do with what you want. You're either going to make your days or you're not, and the DP (along with the director and even the AD to some extent) will be incredibly influential in that process. If you haven't figured it out yet, these three determinations all affect to an enormous extent the cost of your production. If you have a no-budget plan about what kind of camera you're going to shoot with, what kind of gear you're going to need to light things, the size of your crew, and the speed with which you shoot, but you find a great DP with different ideas, then you're going to either adjust your no-budget plan or you're going to have to find another DP. On "Pig" we found a wonderful, talented DP with a different plan. Because we were boxed into a scheduling corner due to our locations, we didn't have time to find a wonderful DP with the same plan, so the plan changed. And it got more expensive. Does the film look great? Absolutely! Do I have a lot of money left over for re-shoots and such? Fuck no. These are the decisions and considerations a producer has to make when they're trying to get the film in the can, and still have something good enough to pull out of the can.


1971 Scout
1971 Scout ("The Beast")

There are some lessons from my class that I only reinforced on this film. Leverage is a concept I discuss quite a bit over the two days. You leverage the cash resources you have to cover things you don't have, you barter equipment and services you have for things you don't have, and you lean on friends and family and beg, borrow and steal from them. This works, people! This is how you make a movie with no money. I give several examples of this in my class, but I will discuss a couple here. We needed a very particular vehicle for several days of shooting--specifically, a 1970's or 1980's Bronco, Blazer, or Scout type SUV. I had no money to rent one and it would have been difficult (and no doubt expensive) to find one to rent anyway, without going to one of the big Hollywood studio vehicle rental places. How did we get it? I reached out to friends, asking if they knew anyone with this kind of vehicle, and then I bartered my car (a once-amazing, but still hanging-in-there 1998 BMW M3 convertible) for the SUV. A friend suggested a neighbor who owned a perfect 1971 International Harvester Scout, and he was up for the trade. We got a lot of production value out of what was essentially a free piece of equipment. Another example: we shot with the Sony EX1 HD camera, (which we own and I highly recommend). We wanted to shoot with two cameras and we also wanted more SxS cards (the expensive memory cards you shoot on in lieu of tape), but we didn't want to pay for any of that. Because we owned one, we were able to barter for the other, and not only the other camera, but more cards and batteries. This saved us a lot of money over the long haul.


Shooting in the park
Shooting in the park--no permit

So what other things did I learn from this shoot, or re-learn, as the case may be? Good sound is more important than good visuals in most instances--another slide in my class. A wonderfully lit, incredibly well-acted scene is probably unusable if you don't get good production sound. Acting is everything. A good performance will save your scene, and your film, if all else goes wrong. You want to create an atmosphere where good performances happen. These environments may be different for different actors and projects, but generally, you want to give your director the time to work with the actors, and you want to put them in a situation where they can be comfortable finding what's best for the scene. That means that if you are stealing a park location and even though you have a full-proof plan for alerting the set if a park ranger shows up, everyone is freaked out anyway that you're going to get busted, then you're going to have to find a better place to shoot that scene.

Shooting downtown
Shooting downtown--no permit

That example aside, I'm still a big believer in you don't need a permit to shoot in Los Angeles. We shot all over the place--suburban streets, downtown in front of office buildings and tenement hotels, aforementioned parks, inside motel rooms and apartments--all without a single filming permit. Hey, that's how I roll. You also want to design your film access-wise and money-wise to be able to re-shoot scenes that don't work, or after editing, go out and shoot inserts that will enhance the cut and make it sing. If you don't own the camera or can never get the lead actor back again, these options will not be possible. This is something I feel very strongly about and we made sure to cast someone who was willing to work that way.

These are just a few of my thoughts about no-budget filmmaking as I sit back and reflect on what we've just done. And we're still editing, with a few more days of shooting that we still owe. We're basically at the 5 yard line of a 100 yard dash at this point. There will be more lessons to glean from this experience for future Reports, or future classes.

No Budget Report August 2007 - LAFF
No Budget Report March 2007 - Sundance
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