Friday, October 27, 2017

How I Made a Microbudget Feature Film, Part 3: Pre-Production

The purpose of this series is to share my experience of making my microbudget feature film, Wait, while being as transparent as possible. This series is specific to my experience only. Please do not take these posts as universal How-Tos. Also know, this series is intended to shed light on the process of making a film, not on the quality of the film itself. 

In Part 2, we followed the money. And while that entire post was dedicated to the patience-testing, somewhat soul-crushing, curiously enlightening process of how you can acquire money for a microbudget feature film, the money talk is far from over. Though, from here on, I’ll discuss how I used the money I had, as opposed to how I got the money in the first place.

So, you’ve locked down your script, edited it tightly, scraped some dough together, and you’re finally ready to get things moving. At this point, the only way to get your film moving is to put it in motion yourself. This is a microbudget film, and, like most passion projects, it’s important to know that no one will care about this film as much as you will. Your excitement and passion for the film has to fuel your work ethic. It’s insane to think that you’re starting with just an idea, and will soon have a completed feature film. But that insanity has to motivate you.

Save Half for Post
This is perhaps the most important lesson I will share in this entire series of posts: you must save half of your budget for post-production. No exceptions, no bullshit. Half. If you have $45,000 to make a film, $22,500 of that should be set aside for post-production. If your budget is $5,000, save $2,500. I cannot stress how important this is. I know this because it is a rule I ignored while making Wait, and it killed me later. When you’re starting pre-production, it’s easy to assume that your entire budget needs to go toward the actual filming of your movie. But that’s wrong. During pre-production, you spend a lot of money on a few things. In post-production, you spend a little money on a lot of things. I’ll dive into this more in my post-production post, but trust me, before you begin pre-production, set aside half of your budget. 

Hire a Producer
It’s your first day of pre-production, and the most valuable thing you can do is hire a producer to help you. Major movies have dozens if not hundreds of people to fill behind the scenes jobs, but you can get by with one or two. Since you don’t have a lot of money, it will help if this person is a friend, or someone you trust that you’ve worked with before. It’s also good if they are the ying to your yang. I don’t like making schedules, scouting locations, or haggling with people, so I hired someone who is good at doing those things. 
Catherine Warner in my short, Earrings. She later starred in and produced Wait.
My producer for Wait was Catherine Warner, who I worked with on my previous short, Earrings. During Earrings, Catherine expressed that she’d like to work behind the camera as well as in front for Wait. From Day 1 of pre-production on Wait, Catherine was tasked with producing affordable locations, quality actors, and a streamlined shooting schedule.

Compensation is up to you. It’s your money, so spend it wisely. I pay my crews and actors. I don’t pay them much, but it’s just enough to politely demand professionalism. Using only your friends to make a film can be messy. People won’t take it seriously, and they’ll put the duties of the film aside for paying gigs. Many of the people helping to make your film will have day jobs, and if you aren’t paying them, there may be no incentive for them to make your film come to life.

Locations are the most difficult part of pre-production. They take up most of your time, and demand the bulk of your budget. Locations also determine your entire shooting schedule, as you have to work around when your locations are available to shoot in. But first, you have to find locations that match your vision.

Wait had 21 different location settings: 11 interior and 9 exterior. I knew I would steal as many locations as I could by shooting gorilla style (i.e., filming without permits). This is a risky and illegal tactic (and one I’ll discuss more in my next post), but it is certainly cheap. The hardest paid locations to find for Wait were a restaurant, a night club, a sports bar, and a hospital. Catherine got to work on those four locations, cold-calling and visiting places that mirrored my vision. She ultimately found a restaurant we could shoot in for free (provided we were in by 8 a.m., out by 3 p.m.), and a handful of ideas for a sports bar. We visited three sports bars, and I realized that in one of them, I could double the sports bar for a night club. We rented the sports bar for eight hours of consecutive filming, at a cost of $3,500, which is very cheap by LA’s standards. But because I was going to shoot both the sports bar scene and the night club scene at the same location, I was getting two locations for the price of one. Not bad at all.
Me filming the sports bar scene and the night club scene in Wait. Two scenes, one location.
The hospital was trickier. We considered every option. I asked a nurse friend of mine if we could film in her hospital in Virginia, but that would’ve required me to fly three LA-based actors to the east coast. Too expensive, too much hassle. I considered renting hospital equipment and dressing a room to look like a hospital, but I realized that’d be a logistical headache. I thought about stealing the shots, by having someone on the crew fake an illness and be put into a real hospital, but that could’ve caused legal and insurance nightmares. Ultimately, I did something I do not recommend, and that was starting production without having the hospital location locked down. I buried the hospital shoot at the end of the shooting schedule, and thankfully, two weeks before we were supposed to shoot the scenes, another producer of mine (by this point I had two) found a soundstage 30 miles south of Los Angeles that we could work with.  

Shooting on the stage cost $5,000 for 12 hours, and required $100,000 in insurance. Many locations require filming insurance. That way the location isn’t liable for any injuries or damages that may occur in their facility. The $100,000 film insurance policy cost me $1,500. All told, it was going to cost $6,500 to create a hospital scene for the movie.

Other locations included various apartments, a rooftop with a skyline view, a city loft, and an office, all of which I acquired through friends and acquaintances who did me major favors. Wait also has two scenes set in different hotel rooms. And while I did legitimately pay for the rooms, I did not tell them we were filming inside the rooms (which isn’t technically legal), so those locations were half paid/half gorilla.

Scouting, negotiating, and booking these locations took nine months. I cannot stress the importance of hiring a producer to help you book suitable locations that stay within your budget. Believe me, while your producer is working on locations, you can be working on many other necessary things at the same time.

Casting & Auditions
There are four major roles in Wait, and before pre-production began, I already had three of them cast. Catherine was to play the role of Claire Marlow, a forlorn actress unsatisfied with her new life. Claire was written exclusively for Catherine. Nathan Stayton was to play Dylan Cole, a successful business owner who still thinks of his first love, Claire, from time to time. And Murielle Zuker was Natalie, Dylan’s current fiancée. Nathan had a small part in my short, Earrings, and I was immediately drawn to his sensitivity as a performer. I wrote Dylan for him. Murielle was a personal friend of Catherine and Nathan’s. I saw some of her work and knew she had the fire to bring Natalie to life. I too wrote Natalie for her. 

The only outstanding major role to cast was Christian Wood, Claire’s current boyfriend and business manager. Catherine was in charge of finding a handful of suitable men to play Christian, as well as people to fill other supporting roles. Her resources were casting websites (Actors Access, Backstage, Now Casting), people she had worked with, and people her friends had worked with. By September 2013, I had 20 actors to consider for various roles in the film. I spent weeks watching each actors’ work, seeing if their acting style matched what I was looking for. Ultimately, we rented a room at an audition studio (cost: $500 for four hours) and we brought in 16 people for one day of auditions in early October. 

Auditions are weird. They’re strange for the actor, and strange for the director. Some actors are noticeably nervous, while others overcompensate with false confidence. Some actors flub lines, and others don’t have the social awareness to know when it’s time to leave. I was kind and respectful to everyone who entered the room, but I can’t say the hours spent auditioning were fun. Productive, but not necessarily enjoyable.
Micah Parker auditioning for Wait. Micah Parker starring in Wait.
Micah Parker was the first person to read for Christian. The minute Micah walked into the room, I knew I had my guy. His style and demeanor were an exact fit for what I was looking for. He killed his audition, and I had Catherine offer him the part an hour later via phone. Micah was the first audition of the day, which meant I still had seven other guys reading for the part of Christian. I felt bad knowing that none of them would get the role, but I watched them closely anyway. Through this, I learned a great lesson: just because someone isn’t right for one part, doesn’t mean they aren’t right for another part. I eventually offered six of the guys who read for Christian other, albeit smaller, roles in the film. They all accepted. The other supporting roles filled out nicely, and within a few weeks, we had a fully cast picture.

As mentioned, I believe in paying your actors. If for no other reason than the compensation demands a certain level of professionalism. I paid each actor $100 per day (eight hours max) of work, and provided food and reimbursement for any large transportation fee (like gas for driving 30 miles to the hospital set). It’s best to be clear about money early. I wrote up contracts for each actor, explaining how much they would be paid and when they would be paid. That way, we were all on the same page about money.

Union or Non-Union
This is a key question when making a microbudget film: Do you want a union production, or a shoot that is entirely off the books? Unionizing your film will cost you more money (union fees, location fees, actor fees, insurance fees), but it will legitimize your production. Wait was completely non-union. I didn’t register with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) or any union like it. This caused roadblocks at times, but I ended up saving thousands for being non-union. 

The main reason to unionize your film is to have the ability to cast qualified actors. If an actor is part of SAG, they may not be legally allowed to act in your non-union production. There are ways around this union red tape, namely finding an actor who doesn’t give a shit about SAG rules. I did, however, lose actors for Wait, simply because they were too afraid to piss off SAG, which is totally understandable. Personally, I don’t think it’s necessary to unionize your first microbudget feature. Many would disagree, but there are ways to cast really good actors while also saving a shitload of money in union fees. My best advice is to research the pros and cons of unionizing, and decide for yourself. 

Meeting with Actors
Meeting with the actors you have cast is my favorite part of pre-production. This is a time to sit down alone and dedicate an entire conversation to the character they are playing. You can share thoughts, swap ideas, talk context, background, wardrobe, and so on. Many directors skip this step, but I think it’s important in establishing trust. Plus, it doesn’t take much time, and costs little money (if you’re out for a meal, pick up the check). 
Me directing the actors in Wait. I met with all of them before shooting, to talk openly about their characters.
I use these meetings to tell the actors what to expect from my directing style, and to hear their thoughts on their character. Much like writing styles, everyone has a different method of directing. Again, hopefully your first microbudget feature isn’t your first time directing, so you have an idea of how you will conduct yourself on set. Share this with your actors. Listen to them. I don’t belittle ideas if they don’t match your vision. I don’t put grand demands on actors. I present myself realistically, and hear any thoughts they have. In doing this, by the time we all get to set, everyone is comfortable and ready to create.

Hiring Your Crew
Hiring good technical people is essential. I went about this process similar to casting actors: I hired a producer to help me find good people, watched as much of their work as I could, met with them, and made the decision to hire them or not. 

Arguably the most important person to hiring during pre-production is your cinematographer. I interviewed a few people for director of photography on Wait, but I couldn’t find someone within my budget, who could also be flexible for a microbudget shoot. I ultimately decided to shoot Wait myself, which presented many benefits and burdens, the bulk of which I’ll discuss in my next post.

People I did hire in pre-production included a producer for location and casting help, a sound mixer, a boom operator, prop master, and a make-up artist. I negotiated fair and reasonable fees with each person and had them sign a contract as well. People I could not afford to hire included a production designer (to create storyboards and a visual scope), an art director (to dress sets and locations), and a costume designer. I assumed all of those responsibilities myself. I spoke at great length with the actors about how their characters would look and dress, occasionally going shopping with them and picking out wardrobes. In hindsight, I probably took on too many roles for Wait, but I saved a ton of money doing so. My advice is to learn a trade(s) beyond writing and directing, before you begin pre-production on your feature film. This will help you save money, but it will also build your arsenal of creative talent. The more you know how to do, the more work you will book down the line. I used my short films and music videos to learn how to shoot, edit, color correct, sound mix, create visual effects, and design marketing materials. Use the years you have leading up to your feature film to experiment with the technical sides of the process. You’ll likely discover something you didn’t know you loved doing.

You have everyone and everything in place, now you have to coordinate when the hell to shoot this thing. Scheduling is not my bag, so I put Catherine in charge of this as well. Everything revolves around your locations. The location gives you a day they are free, and you work around that day. Ideally, it is great to shoot your script in order, but that is rarely possible. Wait covers seven years and is told out of chronological order. It helps your actors if you can shoot in order, but they’ll understand if you can’t. I was also careful to not schedule too much to shoot in one day. The last thing you want is your cast and crew gasing out right before a big scene. Manage your time, and the crew’s time, as wisely as possible. 

You also have to take in your actors’ availabilities (remember: most will have day jobs they are working around), crew availability, scene demands (day shoot or night shoot, interior or exterior), holidays, and so on. This is a necessary and complicated part of the process. Put someone in charge of scheduling who is really good at it. Someone has to make this whole thing come together. After all, you have a damn feature film to shoot.

Main Takeaways from Part 3: Pre-Production 
—Hire a producer, assign them duties to help you with pre-production burdens.
—Take your time scouting locations. Find something that matches your vision and is within your budget.
—Take your time casting and hiring a crew. Do not settle. At least 80% of directing is casting.
—Meet with your actors. Listen to them. Collaborate.
—Take on responsibilities beyond writing and directing, but don’t stretch yourself too thin.
—Create a realistic, streamlined shooting schedule, and stick to it.
—Save. Half. Of. Your. Budget. For. Post.

Primary Costs for Part 3: Pre-Production 
Producers: I paid my two producers as soon as they started pre-production, $100 for every 8 hours of work
Locations: this will depend on the location, but expect to give up a large chunk of your budget
Location insurance: also depends on the location, but know that it will be necessary for some locations
Union: if you’re a union production, you will spend thousands in union fees
Food: Pick up the checks when you meet with people (but meet in affordable places)

Emotions to Expect for Part 3: Pre-Production 
Excitement that you’re finally getting your film moving
Exhaustion that the wheels are now in motion, and they will stop if you don’t keep going
Panic that you keep writing checks for thousands of dollars
Anxious that the first shooting day is quickly approaching
Inspired that you’re finding creative people who eagerly want to bring your vision to life

How I Made a Microbudget Feature Film




  1. I think saving half of your budget money for post-production is a good idea. This is a lesson that I think needs to be learned. After all, you have no idea how long it's going to take to be in the editing room. Watching and re-watching footage every day. I learned about this from Martin Scorsese, John Carpenter, and Gus Van Sant. Especially when you watch some of those special features from Criterion as it relates to Terrence Malick's movies.

    It has to be bonkers to realize what you're given and what you need to spend. This is good. I'm learning stuff from what you're saying. It's good to learn.

    1. Yes, exactly! Watching special features, listening to commentaries, reading AMA's... that helped me understand how important it is to save money for post. I wish I would've remembered that fully when I made this movie. Because it really bites you later if you don't have money set aside.

      Thank you so much for your comments on these posts.

  2. Really appreciate the detail and insight here. Filmmaking is clearly serious business, and I think it's easy to underestimate how much everything would cost and how much planning and foresight must be needed to make sure each stage of preparation goes off without a hitch. I have a friend who's a budding filmmaker and I'll be sure to refer him to these posts. Looking forward to the next one!

    1. Thanks Tyler! I'm so appreciative of your reading and commenting on these posts. I hope your friend finds these posts useful!