A very wise woman said to me after I finished my first feature film, “Congratulations. With independent films, you really have to will them into existence.”
Making my first feature film was definitely a matter of both persistence and desire. It took about 6 years to get “Fighting Fish” made, but it was worth it—I always say the year I made “Fighting Fish” was the best year of my life. I couldn’t have done it without my collaborators, of course, or my husband, who took care of our 1 1/2 year old twin daughters while I was shooting.
As for the desire part: I HAD to make this film. The story was a personal one, and not making the film was like talking with nobody listening. I wanted to be heard.
The thesis short that I made at Columbia University led me to getting some meetings and sending out the script for “Fighting Fish.” Jean Doumanian Productions ended up optioning the script. I think they would have rather had me on board as just the writer (I had previously directed only short films), but I insisted on being attached as the director. The company was unable to raise the financing, but I did have the opportunity to work with the production company’s fantastic development team, and together we got the script into really good shape.
After two more years of my trying to find producers, a close friend from film school, Bertha Pan, turned to me and said, “Why don’t I help you make this film?” She was a director and a producer, and was getting her production company off the ground. We worked on the screenplay some more, knowing that the script was all we had in our corner. The script was one reason people came on board. The other reason were the people involved with the film. Having experienced producers assured those who joined the team that they were in good hands. A good cast further elevated the film.
Two more years of us trying to get financing passed. Being a working mother of two who was trying to get her film made definitely had its challenges, but it also served me in that I had to steal time where I could, which kept me connected to the project over this long period of time. I had been saving money that I made working as a writer, putting away a little bit each month for the movie. And I had some savings. I bit the bullet and said to Bertha, “I have some money I can invest.” One of our producers rightly did not think we could shoot this film on location for that amount. Another investor then came on board, and with an under $100,000 production budget we were ready to shoot. I believe my first cash investment gave our second investor the confidence to invest. It also gave everyone the psychological push that this was really going to happen.
Once we had our budget, our first and biggest hire was our casting directors. We hired SAG actors under the SAG ultra-low budget (at the time, less than $200,000) agreement. The producers then put together a great crew, who worked on a stipend or for free. What the crew got was a step up on their resume, or a clip for their reel. Though, there were quite a few people involved who didn’t need to do this for their resume, but who gave their time, knowledge and talent because they love making films. This is probably one of the most exciting things about low-budget films—no one’s in it for the money! It sounds sarcastic, but there really is a purity about working this way.
We were lucky, we got to shoot on a RED, since our DP was able to get an affordable camera rental. I had always wanted to shoot on Super 16, but seeing what the Red could do, I had complete confidence we could achieve the look we wanted. We shot for 17 days in Woodstock, and drove the film down to New York City to the editor. She edited out of her home on Final Cut Pro.
We did not have a budget for post-production. The producers cobbled together a post budget out of equity and deferrals so we could finish the film properly. Still, our post-budget is more than twice the production budget. You have to have a professional sound edit and mix, color correction, and conforms. There is no way around that.
I feel like everybody can make this kind of film maybe once in their life–I certainly would not want to ask people to work for like this again. And today, every person who worked on “Fighting Fish” definitely gets money from me for their Kickstarter campaign. Which goes a little bit further than my undying gratitude.
We are continuing our festival screenings, and with our sales agent (who contacted us after our premiere at Nashville) are working on getting the film out to the public. That is a whole different journey.
Making a film like this truly is like having a baby. You can’t just carry your story around inside you. You have to show it to the world. And the labor and commitment involved is intense. Everybody on low-budget films does so much more than their job description. If you don’t have the deep desire to make your film, it could probably be a pretty harrowing experience. And remember you can’t make a film on your own. In my corner I had actors, a crew, producers, and a supportive husband.
Now, several years after shooting, I’m finally feeling like an artist again, as cheesy as that may sound. I’m taking things in, looking for inspiration and writing. All that too takes a while to get back. But I can’t wait to do it all again. I hope to have the opportunity.
“Fighting Fish” has its New York premiere on June 22nd as the Opening Night Film of the NY Visionfest. Annette Apitz is a writer and director who lives in Brooklyn with her family.