The decision to start focusing on ways to get a micro-budget feature off the ground was made before any scripts were ready, and well before “Uncle John” was even conceived. In summer of 2010, we were both freelancing independent of each other, but also pursuing work together when we could get it. That culminated in a bigger way that fall when an opportunity arose for a larger-scale commercial shoot, and we immediately established an LLC to run the job through and crew up. That also began the process of saving what we could from each job in, which went into a kitty committed towards the eventual budget for a film.
Leading up to that point, each of us had been writing scripts by ourselves with the express intention of making one of them the first project. As the kitty was slowly growing and we started getting real about those ideas, the day of reckoning came on both when we took an honest, hard look and neither was quite right. One was too small and obscure, the other was too big to realistically attempt on our limited budget.
As evidenced by many successful micro-budget movies, by writing with hometown advantage in mind, your ability to call in favors and stretch money is vastly increased. We both grew up in the Midwest and had always been thinking in terms of setting the story here. We also both feel strongly connected to this region of the country, and loved the idea of explicitly writing for midwestern characters because there is a hell of a lot of uniqueness and depth available there.
In the course of rethinking things and pushing forward, one of the biggest ideas that sparked “Uncle John” was about the contrast between life in a big city and a small midwestern town. Though a city seems more exciting and dangerous, it can also be largely anonymous and filled with trivial problems. On the other hand, a small town seems like it’d be a permanently peaceful haven, but can breed just as much darkness as any city — and because everybody knows everybody, personal reputations carry a lot of weight and folks are up to speed on each other’s business. Knowing we had direct connections in both of those places informed all of the writing and helped keep things in reach for actual production.
To say a lot is learned while making a first feature is an understatement, and also not news. That fact can be confirmed by literally anyone who’s decided to go for it because it’s impossible not to learn more than you’d care to during the process. That said, we loved this story, felt settled with our perspective and what we wanted to communicate on it, and saw a realistic path to getting it off the ground. Once the tipping point was hit on those factors, taking the plunge was an easy decision. Whether it’s heavily scripted, heavily improv, heavily visual, whatever — one of the greatest aspects of film in general is that there are a billion unique ways to go about it dependent on you and your ideas. Specifics of the below may not apply, but what follows are a few things we learned during this first venture.
Set your dates and stick to them.
One of the best choices we made was picking dates early and promising not to deviate. By mid-winter the script was not completely finished, but was in real decent shape. The story is set during summer in the Midwest, so vaguely steering things towards that area of the calendar was already in mind. However, keeping it vague felt like it would also keep it weirdly mobile and at risk of slipping away. Putting circles on the calendar starting in August suddenly made everything very real. That day happened to be eight months away at the time, but it was coming. Locations and people we were trying to secure suddenly had something to pencil in on their calendars. Like anything else with a fixed deadline, there was a little whiff of discomfort going to bed at night because that day in August is going to arrive. Simply setting that date provided an entire structure to everything we were asking for and needed to figure out.
Figure out your budget range – and be realistic about it.
In tandem with picking dates, getting comfortable early with the likely size and budget range we might have turned out to be key. In the opening months, things loosely organized themselves around a plan A, B and C. Plan A was obviously the top, based around raising the max we thought possible which would allow for a 20-ish person crew, great camera, all the fun support gear we would love to use, and at least 20 days of shooting. Naturally, C was the opposite end of that spectrum — shooting on existing equipment with half that crew and fewer days.
Though running with C would be grim, we had everything needed in hand already, so production was on regardless. B was a moving target somewhere in between all that, with any first money in going towards the DP, camera and lenses we wanted. Though the entire film was storyboarded with A in mind, the honesty upfront about this entire range made it possible to keep things on track while navigating the realities of fundraising.
Months went by with many promising leads ultimately netting zero dollars. As we moved within two months of shooting, all scaling back went into effect to prepare for the worst. Thankfully in the closing weeks, our executive producer, Gary Jesdanun, came on board, and got us solidly into B territory. Though compromising is not fun, had we pretended there was only one way to make the film it would have been excruciating to revamp entirely in the late stages, or more likely the film wouldn’t have happened at all.
Be realistic about casting.
Honesty with our size filtered directly into the casting process as well. Sights were sky high the entire time, and they absolutely should be. That said, we tried to avoid wasting time or setting any unnecessary land mines by pretending this was going to be a huge production. We reached out to John Ashton directly with a frank letter outlining the fact that we’re “small, but making this film no matter what. If you dig the material and might be interested, we would love to talk.” We got a similar message through to Ronnie Gene Blevins. Despite being long shots, they both liked the script and within weeks we were having real and direct discussions about their participation.
At the same time, we started out by trying to cast the entirety of the film ourselves. This did yield an amazing discovery in Jenna Lyng, who we connected with very early through actorsaccess.com, and who went on to ultimately win the part purely through taped auditions and Skype. However, it was clear very early on that trying to cast this way was going to be obnoxiously challenging. In an attempt to just garner some advice, we wrote to the highly-regarded Chicago Casting Director, David O’Connor, whom we did not think we could hope to afford on this one.
Very fortunately, David liked the script, happened to have time in his busy schedule to even consider us, and afforded us an incredible deal to cast the film. Though dabbling with self-casting was educational, if there was a mistake here on our part, it was in waiting at all to try and work with a high-level casting director. Even if the stars don’t align on it, any advice from the true pros in that world will be helpful.
Keep a healthy perspective.
Throughout the process of everything above, we tried very hard to keep from becoming precious about the whole project. Not that its easy — trying to get a micro-budget film together is all-encompassing because it requires your non-stop attention and a willingness to ask for endless favors. However, keeping that framed inside the fact that the rest of the world is also doing its own thing was incredibly helpful. Without proper money, way more no’s than “yes’s” came in. But, by keeping things reasonable and honest, the “yes’s” we got were for the right reasons.
In terms of production specifically, micro-budget on this one meant there would be no room for indulgence, ego or indecision because it was all going to be over in 16 days anyway. By doing what we could in extensive prep to set that up for success, and by trying to maintain a collaborative, healthy vibe on set because you are all there making a movie together, the whole experience was the most difficult but satisfying thing attempted to date. For us, the goal now will just be respecting those lessons and trying to grow from it all as the next project gets set up.
Steven Piet (“Uncle John” director and co-writer) was born in Chicago and raised on the south side of the city. He attended the Savannah College of Art and Design with a major in Film. Following graduation, he returned to the Chicago production industry, where he has directed a variety of projects including broadcast commercials, music videos and short films. “Uncle John” is his directing and screenwriting feature film debut.
Erik Crary (“Uncle John” producer and co-writer) was born and raised in Lodi, Wisconsin. He majored in Film and Journalism at the University of Wisconsin, and moved to Los Angeles following graduation. He soon began working for renowned director David Lynch, initially as his assistant, then eventually as an Associate Producer on his latest film, “Inland Empire.” He and his wife relocated to Chicago in May of 2008, where he has worked in the production industry since. “Uncle John” is his first credit as a producer and screenwriter.
“Uncle John” is now in theaters and on demand.