Once upon a time I almost made it to the “big time” in the film industry. It was 2007 and I had just finished a post-graduate program at the Canadian Film Centre. And even more, I had managed to get a feature screenplay into the hands of an Oscar nominated, extremely prolific producer who loved my script. In my head I was already spending the six-figure script fee. I daydreamed meetings in LA with A-list agents. For me this was extra-exciting because, prior to getting into the CFC, I was entirely self-taught. I never went to film school. And, yet, here I was, on the brink of the big time.
Then the bottom dropped out of the global economy.
My challenging, emotionally profound, historically literate, script couldn’t attract a single penny - because there were none, at least not for challenging, emotionally profound… you get the point. The only thing that both Hollywood and “Independent” producers, distributors and financiers were interested in were re-treads, remakes, and sequels. They wanted formula films that were the closest thing to sure money. My career plans went belly up.
I couldn’t complain too much. The producer got me a job as a story editor at a production company, which earned me a steady salary. I did manage to get one Made For TV movie produced based on a script that I wrote but the producer/director made changes on set on the fly and it was so bad that I was told to never watch it or risk serious depression. I took their advice: I've never seen it.
And so began years of never getting anything made, but helping other people get their projects made. I read and provided notes on dozens of projects, reading over 150 scripts per year. But this wasn’t why I chose to be a writer. I wanted to make movies.
photo by Regina Lee. Stacks of unread, unsolicited manuscripts in LA manager's office. Can you spot yours in the pile?
You wake up one day and you realize that all these years have gone by and I have this mortgage and I have this couch and I have this life and... is this going to be my prison? Lynn Shelton, writer/director.
You wake up one day and you realize that all these years have gone by and I have this mortgage and I have this couch and I have this life and... is this going to be my prison?
My problem is typical of people out of film school - and of people who have worked in the biz for years. We all want to be directors, writers, creatives. We don’t want to spend our lives as water-carriers serving other people’s dreams as we sling a boom mic, or set the lights or make coffee for the director.
But there’s a big brick wall out there if you want to break in - especially if you have no connections, are a woman, a minority, poor… Just by statistical reality alone it’s damn near impossible to even get noticed if you don’t have a personal connection. I read that there’s something like 250,000 unsolicited screenplays floating around Hollywood at any given moment. Almost all of them unread.
Every man should pull a boat over a mountain once in his life. Werner Herzog, prolific filmmaker.
Every man should pull a boat over a mountain once in his life.
One day I was sitting in my home office, reading a script for a project that was already funded and had attached some major A-list stars. I was feeling very depressed that these same-old, same-old projects with no originality and no art, except for the art of marketing and business acumen, were getting made (with my help) and I was getting nowhere. I turned to my wife - a wedding photographer who shares the same office as me - and I said: “screw it, let’s make a movie!”
Luckily, my wife is as reckless as me. And once we decided that this is what we were going to do, we set in motion a plan to do it. If the “normal” channels of building a film career weren’t open to us then we were going to create a DIY film career. All we needed was a script, money, a crew, a cast… everything.
From our second feature shoot: Fucking My Way Back Home. We learned from past mistakes
Our first film starred me. It was called "Vince Del Rio." We spent $65,000 on this movie and it was a steaming pile of dog diarrhea. We almost gave up making movies. Marc Duplass, actor, writer, director.
Our first film starred me. It was called "Vince Del Rio." We spent $65,000 on this movie and it was a steaming pile of dog diarrhea. We almost gave up making movies.
I had made a couple of (not very good) short films. A feature film was a whole other kettle of fish.
I wrote the script, then we put together a producing team of people who were excited to be involved - actors, production manager, marketer. We even got a couple of them to invest money into the project and become partners in a production company.
And we made a movie
We shot it in 12-straight, excruciating days, juggling jobs and childcare, fighting to keep the train on the tracks. And then we endured an absurdly long post-production process, as we made every mistake in the book. But we learned - how to get cheap gear, free crew, professional actors; how to feed everyone on a budget; how to schedule, budget and plan; how to shoot and light economically. 18 months later we had a feature film. And you know what? It didn’t totally suck.
Sure, we didn't get into Sundance, which gets 4,000 submissions for 110 slots. But we did get accepted into a number of festivals and we won several awards - Best First Feature, Best Feature Comedy, Gold Remi for Comedy, plus a nomination for Best Actor. I flew to Romania and Texas (twice). We screened in San Francisco and New York.
And in the end our film got an international sales agent and I was invited back to one of the festivals as a jury member. Since then we have shot a second feature that is in post-production and, avoiding most of the mistakes of the first film, were able to shoot it for less than half the cost and reduce our post-production bill even more. We have a third film in development.
The trailer from our first film, A Brand New You.
”DIY is like, doing it yourself with a village. Film really becomes a living organism, and that’s really exciting to me... the push and pull of it, for me, is the essential practice of filmmaking, and it is a practice. You have to keep doing it. You can get out of shape really quickly. It’s a muscle. Ingrid Veninger, “Toronto’s reigning queen of DIY cinema”
”DIY is like, doing it yourself with a village. Film really becomes a living organism, and that’s really exciting to me... the push and pull of it, for me, is the essential practice of filmmaking, and it is a practice. You have to keep doing it. You can get out of shape really quickly. It’s a muscle.
There's a real hole in the types of stories being told in the film industry. So I want to share what we learned from making our first two micro-budget films. Since making that first movie I have taught workshops on how to shoot a no-budget feature film at festivals and for filmmaker organizations. I'm convinced that there needs to be a microbudget film movement of all the voices left out of Hollywood. But to build that movement we need a community and we need training and we need resources.
Godard's "Breathless". A microbudget that changed film history and aesthetics
That’s why I wrote a free eBook Tips To Making Your Own Micro-Budget Feature – to contribute to that movement. Think of the incredible films made through movements of filmmakers with tiny budgets - mumblecore, La Nouvelle Vague, DOGME 95. And filmmakers like Shane Carruth, who made Primer with $7000 and followed it up with the beautifully evocative microbudget Upstream Color. And you DON'T need to sell your house to do it.
Your first film probably won't be a masterpiece. Ours wasn't. But you can only get to the point of making great films if you make lesser films and learn through doing. PA-ing for ten years will teach you a lot of important things but the only way to really learn how to make a movie is... to make your own movie. Working in one of the departments on a set, waiting to be noticed will probably only get you noticed as someone who works in that department. Making a film will get you noticed as a filmmaker.
Most importantly, if you want to be a filmmaker, making a microbudget will enrich your life and your craft more than any other job on a film set. And while having almost no budget is limiting, it's also freeing: there's no studio or financiers telling you to remove this or that scene because it's controversial or telling you your idea has no market. You can make what YOU are passionate about. Isn't that why we wanted to become artists in the first place?
If you have any questions or comments related to my story, our film, or any suggestions of what you would like to see in the case study, please post them in the comments section below. I will reply to all comments as soon as possible.
And download the eBook, it's hard to beat free if it sets you on the path to making your feature film: Tips To Making Your Own Micro-Budget Feature
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