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First Person: 'Cheap Thrills' Director E.L. Katz's 12 Tips for First-Time Filmmakers

Indiewire By E.L. Katz | Indiewire March 31, 2014 at 3:14PM

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 from anything in the film itself. Now, to be fair, I know plenty of films that have been shot for even less, so I don’t consider this some impossible feat… but it certainty wasn’t easy.
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Drafthouse Films Drafthouse Films' "Cheap Thrills"

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.

"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."

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.

Read More: "Cheap Thrills" Star Pat Healy On How to Make it As An Actor On Your Own Terms

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.

8.    If your shoot is for 14 days, make sure that your cast and crew set aside 15. We were shooting during one of the hottest Los Angeles summers in recent recorded history… and during the rehearsing of a fight scene in the film, there was a massive blackout. That was it, no more shooting could be done. It literally wasted HALF of a day. Finally we were able to get light in just one corner of the house, forcing me to basically only shoot in one direction, in a very limited space. Because of losing that time, it created a chain reaction effect, where things that we weren't able to shoot got pushed to the next day, which then pushed things to the next day… and ultimately, created the most densely packed schedule on the last day in the house location, where we shot more then 12 pages in one day, and had to go overtime.

One problem with shooting on such a tight schedule is, that if you don't make your day… you’ll still have to get that stuff you missed shot at some point, it needs to go somewhere, and it's usually at the most inopportune time ever that you’ll have to get it. Next time, I’ll make sure that there's a contingency plan of an emergency extra day that can be added on. This time, the actors' and crew’s schedule was such that they had other things planned directly after our shoot, so it was impossible to add anything else to the schedule because we didn’t plan for that possibility from the beginning. Always plan that things will go wrong, because without fail, they will, and on a short shoot, it can really derail you for good if there's no margin for error.

9.    There is no movie without your crew. Some digital footage that we were transferring got lost, and it happened to be Pat Healy’s performance as he ripped his own finger off. The crew was nice enough to stay late and reshoot the scene… and they really didn’t have to say 'yes' to that. If they hadn’t agreed, we would have been stuck with an incomplete scene. Always appreciate your crew, and make your crew feel appreciated. At the end of the day, the movie is in their hands, and they don’t really owe you shit. Treat them badly, and not only are you an asshole, you might be an asshole with an incomplete film.

10.    FX takes a long fucking time. It doesn’t matter how subtle, make-up and make-up fx take a VERY long time. Just putting on Pat’s final look in the film took more than 6 hours. Problem was, that wasn’t factored into the schedule as realistically as it should have been, and a good portion of our day was spent waiting around. Whenever you have a make-up effect planned, think about ANYTHING else you can shoot while that’s going on, or you’ll literally be paying people to sit on their asses.

11.    Don’t drink at the end of the day. It's nice to want to bond with your crew at the bar, but you have to understand that they’d rather have a functional director who isn’t hung-over and groggy. Some people can pull it off, but filming is really taxing, and your brain has to be sharp to juggle all sorts of last second decisions and to solve problems. There are so many things that you're responsible for, and even though it can be tempting to want to decompress after a long stressful day of shooting, you're really better off just going home and going to bed.

12.    Stay positive. No matter how crazy things get, no matter how impossible everything can sometimes feel, as long as you try to grin and bear it, try to tackle every scene with enthusiasm, heart, and total concentration, you’ll get through the end of the day, the end of the week, the end of the shoot, and hopefully, with luck, you might even get a movie out of it.

CHEAP THRILLS is available now on VOD and in select theaters. 

E.L. Katz got his start in the industry working as a film and music journalist. After graduating film school he collaborated with acclaimed filmmaker Adam Wingard (You’re Next) as a screenwriter and producer on the award winning indie feature Pop Skull. He spent the next decade working primarily as a screenwriter, before directing his feature debut "Cheap Thrills." He loves food of all kinds, poorly produced local news programs, art museums, and everything Scandinavian.


This article is related to: E.L. Katz, E.L. Katz, Cheap Thrills, Cheap Thrills, First Person, Filmmaker Toolkit: Production