The question of "How long did it take you to film Cheap Thrills?" often comes up in Q&As, and my answer sometimes gets a bigger gasp from the audience than anything in the film itself. Now, to be fair, I know plenty of films that have been shot in even less time, so I don’t consider this some impossible feat… but it certainty wasn't easy. Here are 12 lessons from the experience for other filmmakers about to dive into a breakneck schedule on their first film:
1. A good script is a director's best friend. With little money, time, or experience, it really is doubtful that you'll be able to pull movie magic out of your ass without a solid screenplay. No matter how fucked up things get on set, and believe me, they will get fucked up, if you have a great script, you still have a shot. People will forgive all sorts of technical imperfections, or budgetary constraints if they're drawn into the story you’re telling.
2. When breaking down the script, try to isolate the beats and turns of every scene. A shot list is important, but it's also important to know why a shot is there in the first place. In a limited schedule, sometimes almost everything that's been planned is thrown out because you just don’t have the time, so it's good to at least have a basic understanding of what is needed from a scene. What is it supposed to feel like? Whose scene is it? Sometimes you can accomplish what you need with one shot instead of five, if the most important moment or emotional turn is captured.
3. Chose an aesthetic or filming approach that you can actually pull off with the time you have. I chose to film "Cheap Thrills" mostly handheld, not just because I wanted the thing to have a naturalistic, drunken, fly-on-the-wall type feel, but also because I knew that I really wouldn't have the time to fuss around with track, or complicated setups. It can take hours to prepare for a dolly shot, a steadi-cam sometimes takes forever to really prep for. The result can look great, but you have to really know if your schedule can afford it. If your film is going to be very performance based, and dialogue heavy, you really want to design your approach in a way that gives actors the most flexibility and freedom to do their thing, and sometimes a super complicated, technical camera move puts more of the focus on the super complicated technical camera move… and less on them.
4. The most important work is assembling the right cast and crew. Honestly, your key decisions will happen before you shoot a frame of anything. You want people that are quick on their feet, skilled, passionate, and will fight to make the film as good as it can be, because with barely any time, that’s what it will take.
5. GO, GO, GO! When you have tons to tackle in one day of shooting, sometimes all you can do is just jump in there and start filming. Save the intellectualizing for the editing room, you really don’t have time. Trust your instincts, and trust your collaborator's instincts, and just fucking make your day. But….
6. Even if you think you've got the shot, go ahead and get another one anyways. Trust me, when you get to the editing room you’ll be happy that you did. It’s not that the first one is bad per se, but technical errors can sometimes slip past people when they’ve been working long hours, and moving quickly… and sometimes, we all just want the take to go well so badly that occasionally our brain can play tricks on us. You don't want to go crazy and get 20 takes of somebody turning a doorknob, but even when the adrenaline is going, and it seems like there's so much else to do, always make sure to go again just to be safe.
7. If you film for too long, you're legally insane. Similar to the above. At some point, after too many hours, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, you’ve probably lost perspective. Our last day was an overnight shoot, and it literally took all of our concentration not to leave film equipment in the shots. People would just bust up laughing for no reason, or just stare at each other after forgetting their train of thought. At times like that you have to just push through the slog, and hope that what you're filming doesn't reflect your muddled head space. Also good to watch monitor playback a couple times before signing off on anything.