Friday, December 1, 2017

How I Made a Microbudget Feature Film, Part 9: Expectations

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. 

This is my final post detailing how I made my microbudget feature film, Wait. I’ve used 20,094 words in this series to explain how I made Wait, and this post is a final chance to hammer home the most important points.

Make it for the Right Reasons
After all that I’ve said in this series, this really is the most important thing I can impart on anyone who wants to make a microbudget feature film: make your movie for the right reasons. Do not make your microbudget feature thinking you will quickly become Kevin Smith. Or Shane Carruth. Or Joe Swanberg. Those things do happen. People do get insanely famous from making a tiny film. But, unfortunately, if you measure the number of those success stories against the number of produced microbudget feature films, then you’ll see that those stories are incredibly rare.

I make art because I feel a compulsion to. I make art to share art. I did not make Wait to become famous. And I certainly did not make Wait to become rich. If those things were to ever happen, then that would be insanely unexpected benefit of making the movie. But fame and fortune never crossed my mind while making Wait. I simply made it because I felt I had to.

Manage Expectations
In this series, I’ve tried to illustrate how cool it is to make a flick, but also detail the emotional, financial, and physical burdens that come with it. Making a movie is not easy. If you want to make a feature film, you have to acknowledge how hard it will be.
Wait teaser one-sheet poster | Wait main one-sheet
Time. The most important expectation to manage is time. I wrote Wait in January 2013, and I am still actively distributing it today. That’s five years. Five years of thinking about Wait every day, for damn near every waking moment. If you’re going to make a movie, then by God, be in love with the material. If you are determined to complete the film, then know it will be in your life for a very long time. I have seen directors quit their film during editing. They get sick of working on the same thing over and over, and they just give up and move on. Hell, I quit Wait twice during post-production. It was just too damn much to take. But after a few days of feeling sorry for myself, I dove back in and didn’t turn back. Understand how long it is going to take before you start making it.

Money. Every film costs at least something. I shot a no budget short called Ascent in December 2016. I finished editing it in March of this year, and am planning to release it soon. “No budget” meant the cast and crew understood that we were doing this quickly and cheaply, no exceptions. But there were still costs. Filming took just one night, but I had to pay for mild special effects make-up, dinner, camera and light rentals, and, later, a song to close the film. Ascent was a no budget experiment, and it still cost me $800. 

All told, Wait cost me about $60,000 to make. That’s front to back – from buying meals while I wrote the script, to paying additional taxes during distribution. And believe me, I certainly did not intend to spend that much money on the movie, but it slowly happened that way. If you want to create a microbudget film, know that it will take at least some real money to make it happen.

Stress. The most stressful part of making a movie is when you’re actually shooting it. As I detailed in Part 4, I lost 30 pounds during the two months we shot Wait. No diet or exercise change, that is literally 30 pounds of stress that fell off me. I was constantly on the go, I barely slept, and anticipating the next day’s problems became an awful game of presumptuous Murphy’s Law. It is stressful, making a movie. Be ready.

Stay Friendly
I think it’s beneficial to always maintain a respectful, positive attitude (especially in the workplace), but I cannot stress how important it is to stay friendly while making a film. If you’re the director, then you’re in charge. A lot of people will come to you with questions and stresses and issues. The way you handle them will determine the entire tone of the set. I’ve heard so many horror stories of tyrannical directors making their film sets a living hell. And I cannot imagine a poor attitude benefiting a film set. And look, I’m far from Mr. Sunshine. I have my moments, I have my days. But I never, not once, took out my frustration on anyone involved with Wait. It’s simply not professional.
This is the very last image I shot for Wait. It didn't end up in the movie, but I always thought it was telling. 
If you aren’t concerned with how people view you (and are thereby determined to be an asshole director), then know that people talk. Creative people talk to other creative people, and if you get labeled as a hardass, you’re going to lose work because of it. I’ve been making a decent living as a DP, editor, sound mixer and colorist since Wait’s festival run. Everyone measures talent differently. My friend Nick saw Wait and thought, “I really like the way this film looks, I’m going to hire this guy to shoot my short.” Talent may have gotten Nick’s attention, but he soon started asking people involved with Wait what I was like to work with. If they all told Nick I was an asshole, then Nick wouldn’t have hired me to shoot his short, There I Go. This early in your career, talent will only get you so far. Maintaining a positive attitude, and treating everyone with respect, will benefit you in the future.

Save Half of Your Budget for Post
Yep, this again. The second most important lesson I can impart on future filmmakers is to save half of your total budget for post-production. And by post, I mean actual post-production (editing, sound mixing, color correction, score, FX), but also film festival submissions, marketing materials (posters, postcards), and a distribution plan. You’ll determine your total budget during pre-production, and in that moment, you need to set half of that aside for when you finish filming. I learned this lesson the very hard way on Wait, and I am just now clearing my debt as a result. Trust me, save half. 

What’s Next
So now then. You wrote the thing, made the thing, crafted the thing, and released the thing. So now what? Art, such as life, cannot fully be planned. You can set goals for yourself, create realistic expectations, but life is undoubtedly going to get in the way and disrupt your plans. 

The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do is make movies. And when Wait was finished, I thought I “wasn’t allowed” to make anything other than feature films again. Thankfully, once I abandoned that silly notion, the creative floodgates opened. Since filming Wait, I’ve made music videos and short films, shot and edited movies for other people, sound mixed feature films, color corrected shorts – I’ve used the skills I learned while making Wait, and applied them to my overall art. In January 2013, if you told me that in five years the most financially successful aspect of my art would be editing material for other people, I would’ve thought you were crazy. But that is now the case. 

And that’s okay. It’s okay to create in any format. It’s okay to make a music video if you’ve already made a feature. It’s okay to make a “no budget” short if your feature film has already won festival awards. It’s okay to color correct a comedy sketch. It’s okay to think of that new idea. It’s okay to finally sit down and write that new thing. And when it’s done, it’s okay to stare at it and think, “Damn, am I really ready to step into the arena again?” Hell yes, you certainly are. If for no other reason than you have to.

How I Made a Microbudget Feature Film




  1. Thank you for all of the insight into what it takes into making a film. Especially one that is small. It's true what you're saying. There's so many films being made and not all of them will be seen in huge film festivals. Even trying to get to one is hard enough and you never know if you're going to make it. At least you got it out and putting it out for all of us to see.

    If anyone does ask you what is next, just say "Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory". That is what Eric Idle said when someone asked him what Monty Python was going to do after The Holy Grail. It was a joke but it ended up being the basis for Life of Brian.

    1. Thank YOU for reading and commenting on every piece. It means a lot to me.

      "Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory" is the best possible answer to that question. I never knew that Eric Idle story. Love it.

  2. You are a good role for other filmmakers, despite the stress, lack of sleep, losing weight, and money issues, you still were professional/friendly on set.

    Look forward to checking out your short Ascent when it's available.

    1. Thanks so much, Chris. I really appreciate all the support you've shown Wait throughout the years!

  3. I have been absolutely loving this insightful series. Everything that you reviewed was so thorough, honest, and passionate. I have so much respect for your artistry and dedication. I felt like I was right there next to you along the way. When you discussed your financier leaving you in the dust my heart & stomach dropped - I can't imagine actually experiencing that first hand. You went through so much during this process, but in the end your vision was realized which is an incredible feat.

    1. Thank you SO much for this comment. I really appreciate the time you took to read the posts and comment here. Whew, what an insane process it was to make this movie, but I'm glad you enjoyed reading about it! Thanks again!

  4. I look foward to checking out this film.
    Also,are you gonna submit your film for a MPAA rating?

    1. Thanks so much! I really hope you enjoy your time with it.

      I thought about submitting it, but with today's streaming platforms, there's really no need to secure an MPAA rating. Only (most) movie theaters require a film to have an MPAA rating, streaming platforms don't really care. BUT, if I did submit it, it would be rated R for language, brief sexuality, and brief drug use. Oh boy.