As a television commercial director in the 1990’s, I wrote sci-fi scripts in my off-hours and dreamed of one day getting myself onscreen in a space suit. Struggling, I left the film business to actually make some decent money by putting people into jobs (headhunting) and condos (real estate). Through it all, I was hoping to return some day to the film industry on my own terms. I was now 50 years old with a new wife and a new baby. In the summer of 2013, I got lost and injured by myself on a remote trail that scared me half to death, but it was also the catalyst to finally get my feature film aspirations back on track. My harrowing wilderness experience gave me the concept for my film. Excited, I began the process in earnest.
Locations, locations, locations…
To make a feature for only $10,000, it all starts with the locations. You must design your story around the locations, not the locations around your story. This is key because if you actually own the locations you do not need to pay for permits, insurance or police support. I own a cabin north of Toronto that is a fabulously spooky location. I own a 100-year old home in downtown Toronto that is an excellent film location as well. I also realized that I could shoot in the government-owned “public” woods near my cabin without interference. I now had all of my locations for zero cost and zero hassle.
It’s all on the page…or is it?
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I chose not to write a standard script with dialogue. Instead, I wrote an 18-page treatment which described the scene-by-scene action and the overall story arc. By not writing the dialogue, I saved myself months of being bogged down with dialogue rewrites. I knew there would be many risks shooting a feature film without a standard dialogue shooting script, but I wanted the film to have a realistic, “as it happen” feeling like “The Blair Witch Project” and “Open Water.” I believed that shooting from a treatment without written dialogue would allow the actors to be “real” and the film to appear spontaneous.
You don’t need a pricey camera.
This cinema-verité shooting style allowed for a minimal crew. I only needed a Director of Photography, location sound recordist and production assistant. I was friends with an excellent DP who was willing to lend the use of his Canon 5D Mark II DSLR. There’s no need to shoot a film with a RED 4K camera or another expensive camera. Camera technology has changed so significantly in the last five years that most pro-consumer DSLRs are excellent cameras that have more than enough flexibility and resolution to shoot features. 1920 X 1080p HD is still the HD standard and a quality DSLR’s image resolution is within the QC (quality control) requirements of all distributors.
The shocking amount of talent on Craigslist that is waiting for your call
My DP was willing to shoot the film for 30% of future revenues. This agreement was critical to keeping the budget to $10,000. However, with the right script, any producer will be able to convince an up-and-coming DP to shoot with their equipment for a few days for a back-end percentage. The other crew members were willing to work for $100 per day. I found my production assistant through my DP and my sound recordist through an ad on Craigslist. You would be amazed at the film talent you can find on Craigslist. Twenty sound people responded to my ad and I found an excellent and experienced sound recordist who had connections with the sound equipment houses, so my total cost for sound equipment (16 track mixer, RF’s, boom, shotgun) was only $750.
As for the cast, I cast myself, and I met the other actors through personal connections. The cast was non-union and worked for no fee. Again, if you have a good script and a passionate vision, you will be able to convince excellent up-and-coming actors to go on the journey with you.
Six days in the dark
The number of shooting days have to be kept to an absolute minimum and you have to shoot with no lighting whatsoever. The cinema-verité shooting style allowed us to shoot every scene without lighting. We even had a nighttime scene that was lit only with candles and one practical. You would be amazed at the low lighting capabilities of new DSLRs – they can handle anything you throw at them. Shooting without lights saves you lots of money but it also saves you lots of time so it allows for a very short shooting schedule. “Red Trail 90” has a running time of 70 minutes and we shot it in only six days.
A six day shoot requires you to have a basic understanding of how much you can shoot in a day. Years ago, I had experience as an assistant director, so I had a fundamental understanding of how to schedule scenes based on locations. You must schedule your days very carefully and creatively and you must remain flexible while you shoot. I did not storyboard any scenes – with a short shoot it was a luxury I could not afford. Throughout the day, I was l required to drop shots and adjust shots constantly because I simply did not have the time. There was a sense of urgency on every set up and every shot – all day. So, it is imperative that you do not get “locked down” with a strict shot list and schedule based on storyboards. On micro-budget features, you must remain flexible and use your best instincts at all times.
Director? Auteur? Military Commander?
The director on a micro-budget feature must be a very confident, instant decision maker – a general. Do not underestimate how fast you must get your shots and how much you need to politely – yet firmly – push your crew every second of the day to make your days. You must be in command at all times with every aspect of the production and know exactly and quickly what shot(s) you need next. Move – move – move – fast. On big budget features, there is zero luxury of time. On a micro-budget feature, time is in warp drive – every millisecond counts.
Food of the Gods
You must constantly push your crew to move faster, and the only way to compensate for this endless harassment is to keep them happy. No matter how hard they work during the day, two things will always keep a crew happy: You must feed them very well, and you must give them at least one hour for their meal break. Crews do not mind working long hours for little pay, but they will not work long hours for little pay if you do not give them a delicious one hour meal break. I spent $2,500 on catered meals – this was 1/4 of my entire production budget! That is how important food is to your crew.
Craigslist comes to my rescue. Again.
We shot “Red Trail 90” in six days. It was the most difficult, most intense and high pressure – yet the most exhilarating six days of my life. But, I could not get ahead of myself – I had to begin post-production and I had to figure out my post-production strategy from scratch.
Again, I ran an ad on Craigslist for a post-production supervisor who could do the rough picture edit, final picture edit, sound effects, sound design, foley, sound edit and sound mix. Essentially, I had to find a one-person-show who could do it all. Again, I was shocked at the response from my ad. Thirty post-production people applied, and I hired an excellent post production person for four months to do all of the post for the film (including credits) for $5,000 on their Apple computer using Final Cut Pro 7. I bought the music online from iStock Audio for $350. It is not that difficult to find a talented, up-and-comer post- production person to post your entire feature film for $5,000. If they like you, your footage and your script, they will go on the journey with you.
The simplicity of self-distribution
There is a true democratization of filmmaking happening right now. Digital technology has made the impossible possible. Films can now be made for less money than at any time in the past. Just as importantly, the traditional methods of independent low budget film distribution are changing as well. With the explosive growth of online video streaming, new online distribution channels have opened up for the indie filmmaker. Sites such as IndieFlix, IndieReign and Reelhouse (where I am currently selling “Red Trail 90”), have dramatically changed indie film distribution. Today, an independent filmmaker no longer has to rely upon a handful distribution companies to buy their film. They can do it all themselves, including renting out a local cinema for a friends and family Premiere Screening. I did it. You can do it too – so get out there and make your film! It all starts with the locations…
Glen Schultz, writer, producer and director of “Red Trail 90” graduated from the Radio and Television Arts BAA program at Ryerson University in Toronto in 1987. After becoming an assistant director on a well known CBC television series, he started his own casting company and became the Extras Casting Director for big-budget feature films such as “The Freshman,” Sea of Love” and “Stanley and Iris.” As a television commercial director in the 1990’s, Glen directed national commercial campaigns for clients such as Ford, Anacin and Lean Cuisine. Glen left the film business behind in 1997 to pursue other business opportunities only to return to his love of film in 2014 with “Red Trail 90.” He is currently writing his next feature that he will produce and direct in the summer of 2015. Watch “Red Trail 90” here.
READ MORE: How to Make a Low-Budget Horror Film