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8 Tips About How to Make a Micro-Budget Action Film

By Jared Drake | Indiewire April 22, 2014 at 9:33AM

As indie filmmakers, we’re often minimized 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.
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Mack Luster
Mack Luster

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.

"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."

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 forward.

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!

Read More: If you liked Spike Jonze's 'Her,' Check Out 'Visioneers'

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.

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit: Crowdfunding, Jared Drake, Visioneers, Crowdfunding