Wednesday, November 1, 2017

How I Made a Microbudget Feature Film, Part 4: 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 3, I said that during pre-production, you spend a lot of money on a few things, and in post-production, you spend a little money on a lot of things. Spending money is a big stressor, but strangely enough, while you’re actually shooting your film, you don’t spend too much dough. But believe me, you have plenty of other things to stress about during filming.

When you’re filming a movie, you have to manage your expectations. Shooting a movie is very hard. There are tons of things to juggle every day, in every scene, in every shot. As the director, it’s your job to maintain control of it all. I realized early into Wait that I had to treat production like an advanced form of Murphy’s Law. I had to examine every variable and assume that something would go wrong with most of them. In assuming faults, I could come up with solutions to potential problems. This way of thinking applied to everything. If the person in charge of ordering food forgets to order, have someone else take care of it. If your location manager fails to show up, have other scenes to shoot that day. If gear doesn’t work, have backups. If actors or crew get sick, be able to shoot around them. 

Other than losing financing while shooting Wait, the most significant production snafu was when a location manager failed to arrive to let us into their bar at 7 a.m. I had dozens of cast and crew members waiting to shoot a full day of work, but the location manager got drunk the night before and was sleeping one off. I detailed this episode in a post a few years ago, but needless to say, I was infuriated. I lost thousands of dollars that day on food, gear rentals, and salaries. The location manager eventually paid back my loses (after I threatened to sue), but losing that entire day of shooting posed severe problems for our production. Again, anticipate problems and come up with reasonable solutions.
Ana Lucia Villalobos and Catherine Warner in Wait
Because the money gave out while we were filming Wait, I shot the film while in the midst of a personal crisis. No one on set had any idea about the money problems. Informing them would not benefit the film, so I kept it to myself, silently scrambling for ways to pay off the debt I was accruing. I maintained an open and amicable set, but I was crumbling inside. The stress of not having production money affected my personal relationships, as well as my physical and mental health. On Day 1 of production, I weighed 159 pounds, which is a bit high for me. Exactly two months later, on the last day of production, I weighed 129 pounds. I wasn’t exercising and I hadn’t changed my diet. Those 30 pounds were entirely stress-related. 

You don’t have to assume that everything will go wrong while filming, but it would be smart to assume that something will go wrong. It’s simply inevitable. 

Being Your Own DP
I touched on this briefly in my last post, but my decision to act as my own cinematographer informed nearly every decision I made while shooting Wait. It is, of course, in no way a requirement for you to shoot your microbudget feature yourself. I did it to save money, and utilize skills I had worked hard to learn. 

Being my own Director of Photography (DP) proved to be beneficial and burdensome. Because I had little money, I had no official grips (people who help set up technical aspects of a shot), no lighting techs, no electricians, and no camera operators. Every photographical requirement of the film was done by me, and this occupied the majority of my time on set. Normally, it’s nice to touch base with the actors between camera setups – discuss the intention of the shot and the motivation of their character. But I didn’t have time for that. We would talk briefly (if it was necessary), but in between setups, I was moving lights, changing lenses, blocking and timing shots, and balancing exposure, white balance, ISO, and shutter speed on the camera.
You don't have to shoot your own film, but doing so will save you thousands.
Assuming sole responsibility of the visual look of your film is dangerous because it’s such a heavy burden to carry, but it does come with benefits. Not having to pay a camera crew saved me thousands of dollars, and not spending every free moment with the actors suited my directing style well. I don’t over direct actors. I don’t discuss tedious details and critique every little action. I’m far more interested in giving them space and seeing what they bring to a scene. And because my attention was usually focused on the camera, it gave the actors room to breathe. Being my own DP also made filming pick-up shots and reshoots much easier (which I will discuss more in a later post), as I didn’t have to coordinate schedules with an entire crew, just the actors in those scenes.

Would Wait look better if I had an entire camera crew or a dedicated DP? Yes, of course. But shooting a microbudget film is about cutting corners and saving money. It’s up to you to decide what corners you want to cut.

Guerrilla Style vs. Permits
Guerrilla style shooting is a cornerstone of microbudget filmmaking. Guerrilla style simply means shooting at a location without a permit. Depending on the location, shooting without a permit can be dangerous, and it’s almost always illegal. The only benefit to shooting this way is that you save thousands of dollars not having to pay for permits. 

It is not wise for me to encourage every microbudget filmmaker to exclusively shoot guerrilla style. You have to examine the variables in your scene. If your scene involves large moving objects or weapons of any kind, get a permit. Period. While filming the Gregg Allman biopic, Midnight Rider, in 2014, second camera assistant, Sarah Jones, was killed when she got hit by a freight train. The producers failed to get permission to film on the train tracks, and Jones died as a result. Recently, an Indiana police officer shot at an actor who was filming a robbery scene. The producers didn’t tell the local police that they would be filming a scene set partially outside while using a fake gun. That could’ve ended very badly, simply due to permit negligence.
A few "guerrilla style" shots from Wait. If you're shooting guerrilla, be safe and move fast.
As mentioned in Post 3, I stole as many locations in Wait as I could. These were easy shots: establishing shots of cities, characters walking outside, people standing on a street corner, and so on. Shooting guerrilla style on a microbudget film can be done, as long as you follow a few unspoken rules. If you expect to shoot somewhere for free, do not block anything going on. This means you can’t block roads, sidewalks, paths, etc. Nor can you have equipment hanging around that impedes passersby. To shoot guerrilla, you have to move fast. Most of the guerrilla shots on Wait required no dialogue, so we didn’t have a boom operator with a large shotgun mic looming close by. We didn’t use lights either, because lights take up space and draw attention. The camera I shot Wait with, the Canon 7D, is small and consumer-grade. It is easy to conceal and move freely with. The only people present for Wait’s guerrilla shots were me and the actor involved. That’s it. Get in, get out, and be done.

What if you get stopped? If you’re a shy, introverted filmmaker, strongly consider getting permits. Because if someone of authority approaches you with fair questions, you have to be able to respond quickly and efficiently. This often requires a bit of charm, naïveté, and bullshitting on your part. You are the director. This is your film and your responsibility. If you’re going to do something illegal, you have to be willing to accept the consequences of it. In reality, I have never really had problems shooting guerrilla style, mostly because I blend in and shoot quickly. Before anyone of authority can notice, I’m gone.

But the law is the law, and if you get some hardass cop pressing you as to why your camera is pointed at the FBI headquarters building in Washington, D.C., you have to offer a reasonable explanation (I just wanted a good shot of the Capitol!). My advice is to play dumb while packing up. “Oh, wow, I’m so sorry,” “We are just shooting a silly student film,” “We’re shooting this sunset for a wedding video,” “I had no idea, this is my first film.” Be nice, play dumb, walk away.

Inversely, permits afford you the time, space and comfort to get the shots you need, but they are very expensive. You have to pay the location manager, buy insurance, and, depending on the location, purchase fire department and/or police safety permits. Remember, do not write what you can’t reasonably afford, and don’t shoot somewhere that puts you or your crew in physical danger. 

Dealing with Actors
Being a director is like being an event planner, a therapist, and a film director all at once. You have to talk to each actor differently, because their craft and personality are unique to them. Even if two actors have studied the same method, their technical approach will be different, because they’re bringing their own personal experiences to their work.

Here’s an example. Micah Parker and Catherine Warner play a couple in Wait. Their characters have been dating for several years, and they know each other well. Micah and Catherine have completely opposite approaches to acting. One isn’t right and one isn’t wrong, but they are indeed different. And it was my job to identify the differences in their approaches and make them work for the overall strength of the film. This is where a director’s vision is crucial. Although you have to handle each actor differently, every actor (and every crew member, for that matter), must know that their work is servicing the overall film, not just their character. It’s the director’s job to make all of these components fit into a cohesive film. It’s all about trust and respect. I respected Micah and Catherine’s differing approaches to their craft, and I trusted that they would service Wait as a whole, and not their individual characters. As David Fincher likes to tell his actors, “You are the oboe player, but I am the conductor.”
Me directing Catherine Warner and Micah Parker for Wait. Two great actors with opposite styles of acting.
There is another factor to deal with regarding actors, and that is personality. To be clear, there are difficult people in every profession (including directing), but it’s true, some actors can be demanding and mercurial. Some actors are low key. They sit off to the side, silently dial into the scene, and when you say action, they go. Other actors are anxious, and their anxiety motivates them to ask dozens of questions that don’t inherently concern you. I’ve woken up to two pages of questions from an actor, regarding a single-page scene we were shooting later that morning. You have to decide how much you want to entertain this anxiety. This is why meeting with actors before you shoot is so essential. You get on the same page about your respective styles and develop a way to work together.

Other actors are controlling. They will call cut in a scene, and try to dictate the way things should look and be shot. My suggestion is to put a stop to this immediately. Pull them aside, and politely tell them No. It’s your responsibly to gain and maintain control of your set. On Wait, many of the actors knew each other personally. This can be good and bad. If things are going well for them in their personal friendships, then that will benefit the work they put on screen. But if your actors have a falling out off-camera, then that can impact their performance. Not all of the actors got along while making Wait. They were all professional – they showed up on time and delivered good work – but it was clear that off-set quarrels made them less tolerant to work with each other. Friends fight, actors hook up, couples break up – my advice is to inform your actors before shooting that none of that outside bullshit is welcome on your set. But if it manages to bleed through, politely demand professionalism. 

Dealing with Crew 
I had zero problems with crew members while shooting Wait. Crews are trade-based and are exclusively interested in delivering the best product possible. Actors are hard to replace. If you’ve shot for two weeks, you can’t afford to fire a troublesome actor and reshoot their scenes. You can, however, fire a difficult boom operator and have a new one ready for the next day of shooting. But they don’t want that, and you don’t want that. In my experience, there’s an unspoken level of professionalism that is often maintained with crew members. It is a truly beautiful thing. 

I did have one episode while filming Wait, regarding a troubled crew member. On one long day of shooting, I noticed a key crew member was acting a bit off. During lunch, I found the crew member outside, sitting alone. I approached them and asked if they were okay, and they began sobbing into my chest. Ugly crying. Big, loud, nasty crying. I sat there and let them have their moment, and when they calmed down, they looked at me and simply said, “I’m just having a really bad day.” I stayed silent and listened, and they said they’d be ready to roll in five minutes. Four minutes later, they walked on set and were back to their normal self. People are people. They have troubles and fears, and sometimes they just need a moment.

Open Collaboration
It has always been my credo to maintain an open, collaborative set. In my experience, this makes everyone comfortable and trusting. But there is a balance. You’re going to hear hundreds of ideas a day, and you likely won’t use any of them. But who knows, maybe one idea is the key you need to unlock a shot. 

I inform my cast and crew of my directing style before we shoot. For Take 1, I let the actors do what they want. I’ll give some input, but for the most part, I want to see them explore. For every subsequent take, I’ll issue minor directions – “Slower, faster, meaner, drunker.” I also don’t restrict actors to the words or actions on the page. As long as the intent remains, and the key focus of the scene is left intact, I’m not typically concerned with how the actor gets there. 
Me shooting a pivotal scene in Wait.
Wait includes a scene that is one long argument between two people. Before we started shooting, I lit the space in a way that the actors were free to move wherever they wanted. I knew I was shooting the scene handheld, in one continuous take. This gave them the freedom to act natural and move wherever the scene took them. This certainly isn’t how I shot every scene in the movie – some scenes were far more meticulous and planned out – but this level of open collaboration proved to be beneficial, as the scene is the emotional core of the film, and the actors acted their hearts out for it.

Steven Sodberbergh said that audiences will forgive poor image quality, but they will not forgive poor sound. It’s so true. We’re in a different era. Movies shot on iPhones can win awards and garner major acclaim. You can buy consumer-grade digital cameras – like the Canon 7D – for a very reasonable price. Sure, the 7D doesn’t look as good as a RED or 35mm, but if your story is solid, people will go along on your journey. Put another way: I can recall plenty of great movies that don’t have the best camera quality, but I can’t recall one great movie with poor sound. Do not neglect sound. Hiring professional sound mixers and boom operators is not that expensive. They are around, and they are eager to work. And paying decent money for them is completely worth it. Bad sound will take the audience out of your movie, and seriously discredit your final film. Shoot with whatever camera you have, but use pro-grade sound gear while doing it.

You can’t fuck with people’s food. If you don’t feed your crew, they will quietly rebel. They’ll get tired and cranky, and it will show in their work. Spend a little more on food than you think you should. Your cast and crew will appreciate it to no end. This is a microbudget film, so you can’t afford lavish craft services, but have good snacks around for people to munch on between setups. I prefer healthy snacks to junk, simply to avoid sugar crashes. Water, fruit, coffee, nuts – you can’t have enough of this stuff. For meals, order something different every day. If you order Chipotle five days in a row, your crew is going to complain. Switch it up. Also, put someone in charge of taking food orders every day (to respect diet restrictions), and have the food ready when you break. I cannot stress this enough: good food will make for an immeasurably better filming experience. 

Main Takeaways from Part 4: Production
—Manage expectations. Assume things will go wrong, and develop reasonable solutions to potential problems.
—Inform your cast and crew of your directing style before you shoot. Maintain control of your set at all times.
—Shoot guerrilla style, but be smart about it. Do not put yourself or your crew in danger. 
—Talk to actors as individuals, not as a whole. Listen, be open, collaborate. 
—Hire professional crew members and you will get professional results.
—Keep your crew well fed. Give them variety. It will show in their work. 
—Do. Not. Skimp. On. Sound.

Primary Costs for Part 4: Production
Actor’s Salaries: I paid my actors twice, half of their projected earnings in the middle of shooting, the other half at the end of shooting. I paid $100 for every day of work (up to 8 hours). 
Crew Salaries: Crew will likely want to be paid up front. I paid my boom operator, producer, and make-up artist agreed upon rates, on their first day of work. Inform each crew member of your total budget early on. They will likely work with you to keep their fee reasonable.
Food: Spend slightly more than you think is necessary. Give your crew variety for meals, and healthy snacks for breaks.

Emotions to Expect for Part 4: Production
Panic before your first day of shooting. How will you get it all done!?
Psychotic serenity once you hit your filming stride. Time will fly by.
Anxiety over various money and locations issues.
Joy. It’s true, when you have a really good day of filming, or even a really good shot, you feel a sense of joy that is unparalleled. It’s incredible. It makes it worth it.

How I Made a Microbudget Feature Film




  1. Losing 30 pounds in the course of 2 months. Damn...

    It has to be stressful as I can see the benefits and disadvantages of shooting guerilla story as that story about Midnight Rider is an example of what not to do which makes me hate those people even more as it wasn't the first time they did something like this.

    I think one of the big things as a director is that you're not just responsible for the actors but your crew and yeah, I'm sure there were times you were pissed and had to take your anger at someone. Yet, at the end of the day. We're all in this together and trying to do something. I do hope if you're going to make another film. Find someone who shares your visual ideas and have that person become your DP.

    It's a good thing I'm on meds. I'm not sure if I can handle all of that shit if I'm not on meds.

    1. When I make another film, I will definitely be hiring an established DP. In a perfect world, I'd love to do what Michael Mann does, which is hire a great DP, but actually operate the camera myself. I honestly can't imagine how much more free time I'd have on set if I wasn't my own DP.

      And you're right, making a movie is all about emotional balance. You're all in it together, doing what you can to deliver the best final product.

  2. Another great read. I liked how you were open to handling your actor's different techniques. Personally, I'm not sure that I would ever want to work with someone who stays in character at all times. Like the actual character's mannerisms (ala Daniel Day Lewis) and not just the accent. I think that would stress me out.

    I can relate to that crew member that went off to have a cry went go back to work. Been there. ha.

    1. Thanks Brittani! I haven't worked with a full-on method actor before, but I have worked with actors who do not naturally have American accents, so they maintain their character's American accent on set all day, which is totally fine. The DDL method is something you wouldn't be able to do on a microbudget film. There are no trailers for them to prepare in, no downtime to regroup - you're constantly on the go. (But it would be hilarious if someone tried!)

      Method is also something I feel like you have to work up to, you know? A first or second time actor can't demand the "Method treatment" until they've proven their craft. But who knows, maybe someday. I've always wondered how that works... like, are you allowed to ask "President Lincoln" for another take? Does he respond in film terms? It's so interesting!

  3. I like that conductor-oboe player analogy from Fincher, I think that's spot on. The actors and director will each have their own distinct style within which they're performing their role, and so long as it's in service of the film, there should be no problems. I think perhaps some people underestimate how much of an open-minded, likable and sociable person you have to be as a director, if you want a shoot to run smoothly of course.

    1. Leave it to Fincher to have a perfect analogy for the actor/director collab. I completely agree with your last sentence. As long as you're on the same page about things, then it should run smoothly. An actor must accept how a director works, and adhere to that in order to have a smooth shoot.

      I just heard John C. McGinley on Norman Lear's podcast, and McGinley said that working with Oliver Stone is not a collaboration. It is a dictatorship. Stone tells all of his actors this before they shoot. If you go along with everything Stone says, then you will have no problems. But if you buck back at him, then you're going to have issues. McGinley has never had an issue with Stone (which is way Stone casts him all the time), but those Stone horror stories are all from actors who could not accept Stone's style. Michael Mann is the same way. Do exactly what he says, and you'll be fine, for better or worse.