As indie filmmakers, we’re often limited to shooting in
contained spaces with no extras, no stunts, no effects, and no elaborate props
or design — great limitations that have made for some incredibly brilliant films
throughout the years.
But as filmmakers continue to embrace technology, I’ve developed an itch to direct an
action-adventure micro-budget blockbuster, and am currently raising funds on
Kickstarter to shoot MACK LUSTER.
Having spent the last handful of years in development, I have learned a few things about how to get a micro-budget action film off the ground. Some may seem obvious at first, but you’d be surprised how many people dive right in before taking the time to prepare.
Below are 8 tips for those of you looking to blow the roof of your next indie:
1. Take time with your script.
This applies to anyone making a film and it doesn’t change
for those of us who are crazy enough to make an action film. In a way, with
effects becoming democratized, story is more important than ever. This is a
great thing. Nurture your story and fall in love with your characters before inching
2. Learn how to shoot.
Grab a DSLR and start shooting. You’ll quickly learn what
you can accomplish by yourself as a director/DP and what you can’t. Having this
knowledge does a few things:
Gives you the confidence to creatively schedule/budget
when and where crew is needed. For MACK LUSTER, some days are simply my actors,
sound mixer, and me with a camera. Minimizing crew like this saves
exponentially – less crafty, meals, parking, travel, per diem, wages, payroll,
etc. Instead, those resources will be saved for an awesome location, prop,
stunt, or effect that my budget otherwise couldn’t afford.
Opens up location possibilities. For example:
suppose you want a scene on an airplane. In any other indie production, an
airplane would be too cost prohibitive and written out of the script. But if
you’re confident in your own ability to DP, pack some lavs and your camera into
a carry-on and shoot your actors in their seats. Bam. Done. Total cost is a few
plane tickets and with some luck, you might not get caught. Better yet, write a
scene for whatever dummy location you fly to and shoot it during your layover.
Suddenly your micro-budget indie is bi-costal!
3. Learn How to Edit.
Editing informs decisions on set. You’ll know exactly what you
need and when “you got it.” This keeps set efficient, leading to more setups in
less time and more money for elements that other indies at your budget level
can’t afford. Also, it helps save money in post. Being able to log, do your own
assembly and first cut, and perform the turnover/master prep cuts down on the
amount of days you need to hire a “real” editor to do the important stuff like,
you know…be creative!
4. Learn the Basics of VFX.
Once you have a handle on editing, VFX is just a step away. Granted, it is a daunting step, but there are some amazing resources and tutorials
online that will give you a firm grasp of keying, roto, and compositing basics.
Having these skillsets will alleviate pressure from your VFX artist, freeing
them up to focus their time on critical elements. The mindnumbing stuff? You
can do. Also, a working knowledge of VFX will instantly broaden your mind to
shockingly simple possibilities…and suddenly the plane ride you shot in Tip 2
is in the middle of a lightning storm.
5. Don’t Do Your Own Stunts.
Don’t even begin to try. Hopefully, you will have saved some
money in Tips 2-4 and can put a disproportionate amount of your budget into
stunts. Find an experienced stunt coordinator who brings great ideas, some
resources, and safety. This is hands down one of the most important components
of your action film and the best investments you’ll make. They will bring ideas
and talent that can do things in a way you and your roommates never could, all
the while saving time and adding production value.
6. Embrace Your Limitations.
Once you’ve nurtured the above skillsets, be honest with
yourself: how good are you? I’m not great at VFX and I’m not a great DP. I
embraced this truth, rather than avoided it, and chose to set MACK LUSTER into
a skewed 1980s reality of present day. Doing so thematically enhances the world
by keeping it honest. With solid writing, performances, efficient editing,
and sincere storytelling, my hope is the film will be a mixed, but cohesive, bag
of larger-than-life 80s action movie meets arthouse indie. The last thing you
want is to try to fool the audience into think you’re Lord of the Rings when clearly you’re not…or maybe you are!
7. Adapt the Script to Fit Your Locations.
When scouting, I’m often conflicted with, “Bummer, this is a
great location…but it doesn’t quite fit the scene.” My advice is to make it fit. Brainstorm
and scout the most awesome locations you have access to, then adapt your script
accordingly. As a micro-budget indie you don’t have the luxury to design, so your
locations are EVERYTHING. They are your set. They are your world. It’s the difference
between an action film with a wide palette that broadens the characters and
their journey and an adventure that feels forced into a box when it really
wanted to be let out.
8. Accept That You Will Be Doing Everything Yourself.
You remember that part in Sidney Lumet’s MAKING MOVIES where he talks about directing being the greatest job ever – swimming in fresh
bagels every day, surrounded by assistants, endless choices, dozens of artists
all working together to help you bring your vision to screen? Forget about all of that. That
won’t be you. You will be alone. Cramming your car full of props. Eating stale power
bars. And one day someone will tell you how it’s cool that you’re growing out
your beard and you’ll realize you’ve forgotten to shave for a week. Bottom
line: the majority of you day will be doing thankless, mind numbing work. With
everyone telling you what you’re trying to accomplish is impossible. But…if you
love your characters and story enough, it will all be worth it.
I know what you’re thinking: hold up, his advice is just to
learn how to do it all myself? Yup. It’s not easy, but if it were easy everyone
would do it. Pulling off the above is what will make you stand out in an
industry where everyone looks the same and few are willing to do the actual
work. The fact that it is difficult will make it that much more spectacular
when you succeed.
After graduating from UCLA’s film program, Drake directed and produced his first feature, “Visioneers,” starring Zach Galifianakis and Judy Greer. “Visioneers” screened at dozens of film festivals worldwide was distributed domestically and internationally (You can watch it for free below via SnagFilms, Indiewire’s parent company). Since completing “Visioneers,” Drake has directed dozens of celebrities and professional athletes in a variety of branded content for companies such as Sprint, Wrigley, Vaseline, Yahoo!, Google, AOL, and others. “Mack Luster,” Drake’s second feature film, is currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter.