There's a lot of ways to cut corners on your no budget feature film to get it in the can and out the door. We're big fans of making your film whatever way you can, by hook or by crook. But this is one corner you should seriously consider NOT cutting.
If at all possible, use professional actors at least in your lead roles. There are programs through SAG and ACTRA (in Canada) for ultra-low budget films that allow you to pay a reduced fee, though – at least with ACTRA - it means that all your actors have to be paid and union members (unless you do like Edwards in Monsters and shoot out of the country, using non-actors in all your supporting roles). On our last film we used the Co-Op Film program through ACTRA, which meant actors got a percentage of any future profits in lieu of pay, based upon the hours worked. It was an extra hassle to work out everyone’s percentage but it saved us thousands of dollars.
I know Mike Leigh uses non-actors in all his roles and makes great movies. You’re not Mike Leigh, don’t have his budgets and don’t have the time to really work on set with your non-actors to get a decent performance if they freeze up, are flat or over-act. You probably only have two or three weeks to shoot your 70-90 page feature film, so you want people who know what they’re doing. Here’s some benefits to using pro-actors:
1) They know how to build characters and find motivation and arc. They will become your collaborators in creating the best film possible. They will be able to feel when a line isn’t working and help you fix it. And, when you don’t have time for tons of takes they will give you better performances.
2) They know how to act in front of a camera so that you can edit it together later. If your actor moves their body or hands or hair differently in every single take – in one angle they scratch their face, in another they don’t, in a third they do something else – you will have a very difficult time cutting together your different shots. They understand a million other technical things about acting on camera, from blinking to eye-lines to finding their marks.
3) They can act.
Of course you can’t always find professional film actors. There are certainly good actors who aren’t in the union (and bad ones in the union). But I would suggest that if you use non-professional actors you should add extra time in your schedule because you will probably have to coach them to get the performance you need. Again, as with crew size, you have to find the balance that you’re comfortable with between going guerilla and covering your bases, which takes more money and organization.
THIS WAS AN EXCERPT FROM MY BOOK, MASTER THE NANO. You can get it for just $5 and it comes with a complete kit of production documents. The two together will get you from conception to completion. Avoid making costly mistakes by learning from the stupid stuff we did and the ways we learned to keep costs down while getting quality in the can.
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