IFH 116: Fast and Cheap: Lessons Learned for the No-Budget Feature Film

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In this week’s episode, I go way back to a simpler time, the 90s, and discuss the lessons we can learn from some filmmaking legends. I’ll discuss films by Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, Christopher Nolanand Richard Linklater to break down and learn the techniques they used to make awesome, no-budget feature films with limited resources.

“In no-budget filmmaking, your limitations are your guide.”

If you take note of what filmmakers did before you, you can jump-start your filmmaking career. Enjoy!

I also included this killer video by The Royal Ocean Film Society. In the late 1980s and 1990s, there was a great movement indie cinema of no-budget filmmaking that was the beginning for some of the most successful and popular filmmakers of the modern-day. Let’s take a look at five features from that movement and see what lessons we can learn on how to make a great film with as little money as possible.

Here are some key points discussed:

  • Shoot black and white
  • Be disciplined
  • Try not to use guns
  • Film something that hasn’t been seen before
  • Take stock of what you have and make a movie about it
  • Don’t take things so seriously

Alex Ferrari 2:26
So guys, today's episode, I wanted to go back a bit and talk about a time of a much simpler time a lovely time called the 90s where a lot of indie film guys got their start. And I wanted to kind of talk a little bit about the lessons we can learn from a lot of these guys who started their careers back in the late 80s, early 90s. And what they were able to do, and how they did it, and I've studied them over the course of my career, and just started finding similar themes and similar things that each of these guys did, to kind of get out there to get a career started. So why don't I go over, go over individual filmmakers as well as movies and concepts as well. And I hope you guys get a little something out of it. Because I've been I've been getting contacted a lot by filmmakers who you know, are trying to get their first movies made. And I see they tell me like, Oh, I'm going to do this kind of movie, this kind of movie. And it's going to cost X amount of dollars. And I'm just thinking to myself, I'm like my god, you know, the chances of you actually making any money back is going to be very, very difficult. And I wanted to kind of give a little bit of a helping hand if I can with this episode. So first and foremost, guys, when you're going to go into making a movie, your first feature film, do it as cheaply as humanly possible. Dirt Cheap, okay, I mean the bare minimum of what you can do to get your movie finished and made, because a lot of filmmakers will show up and go look, I've got $200,000 for my first movie, I'm like, Well, if you have $200,000 for your first movie, you better pick a genre that's really marketable, you probably better pick a couple stars that are going to be involved. So you can at least get some basic sales off of that. And if you don't do that, you're going to be destined for failure. Because even Sundance winners and big big movie, no big fan of Sundance Tribeca, South by Southwest, full blown winners in audience winners and best of shows, you know, for you to read, read, get the $200,000 back on a let's call it a drama, or a comedy or a drama at or something that's not genre based. extremely, extremely difficult and I think a lot of filmmakers make that big Mistake right up front. And when they finally do do that, and they completely fall on their face, they're discouraged. And never make another movie again. And I don't want to see that happen to you guys. So try to make your movie as cheap as possible. And you know, you could take Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, rich, Richard Linklater, Spike Lee, all of these guys, all their first movies were very inexpensive. But obviously the famous one, which is Robert Rodriguez, a $7,000, Kevin Smith at 30, or $27,000, he put on his credit cards, all that kind of stuff. And I'll use this as magazine example, use myself, you know, we made the movie for under $25 million, we'll release the final budget once the audit is done. But we made the movie at a place where we feel comfortable that we can recoup our initial investment. Now that could be half a million dollars. That could be $5,000. Nothing Meg in general, but just a general statement. Because if you have a certain star, or a certain genre or a certain thing, and a half a million dollars, and you know you can pre sell or sell certain territories and things like that half million dollars makes a lot of sense. If you know you're going to probably get 1.5 back for it. But if you're going in with a drama with no stars at 100,000 200,000 $500,000, budget, good luck. It's, you'd be one of the few and when I say few, I can count them on my hands. If I could even think of movies, that blue out of the water at that kind of budget range when they're first starting out. But what you need to do is embrace your limitations. Do what you can do very well. So again, I'll use Meg as an example. You know, my limitations, which were and limitations I set on myself. I knew what I had, I knew what kind of cast that can get. I knew what kind of locations I could get. I knew what camera I can afford that I could have complete control over as opposed to getting a free Alexa, which would have brought all sorts of, you know, headaches of financial headaches, as well as technical and logistical headaches for this kind of movie. And I just, I just fell right into what I had access to. You know, I'll go back to mariachi, you know, Robert had access to a full Mexican town. So he made a movie about a full Mexican town. Kevin Smith had access to a convenience store. And he made a movie about a convenience store. Richard Linklater made a movie called slacker. What did he have access to Austin Austin back in the 90s, which is not the pool hip Austin, that it is today. He just made a movie about his backyard. And that's another thing you guys have to understand. You should make a movie that is close to you. That is your experience your perspective on something. There's been a lot of convenience stores and movies in the history of film. But no one has ever done it quite like Kevin Smith. It was his perspective, his rawness of what it's really like to be a clerk. And that was his that was his truth. Same thing goes for a go to Richard Linklater and slot and slacker. He wanted to show what these people and this town was like, from his perspective, his voice. And if you start going back and watching all of the first movies of a lot of these great directors, they're going to they're going to a lot of them are going to be very close to home. They're going to be you know, I'm sure there's an there's the occasional, you know, oddball out like the following, you know, by Chris Nolan. But it was still something that he had, he used what he had access to, which was a 16 millimeter camera, and he shot it on weekends for a year, you know, so he definitely embraced his limitations, and tried to make the best thing he could, with the limited tools and an experience and locations and everything yet, but a lot of these other people who really kind of break through, they are telling a story that's very true to who they are, and where they come from. And that unique voice is what people are looking for. They're not looking for an eye. Like if I went out right now and make clerks no one wants to see that movie. And that's what happened with like when Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs came out how many rip offs of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction came out after that. I mean, it was ridiculous how many tried to be hips, the hip, kind of movies came out, but it wasn't authentic, and audiences can smell that. And when you find something authentic, something with some heart, something that that rings true. That's when you break out man. So that's why clerks My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you know for you know, which was one of the biggest independent films of all time. Sure, it wasn't done on a little low, low budget, but it wasn't a studio movie by any stretch. That movie made to $300 million. Why? Because Nina the director, writer wrote from Her heart from her experience from her voice. No one had ever done a movie like that before. But then of course, everyone could relate to that movie, because of the story and how she was able to write it. But again, it came from her life experience. She's got to have it Spike Lee's first movie was all about his experience in New York, what it was like to be a black woman in New York in the late 80s. And that whole experience something that no one had ever seen on screen before. So boys in the hood, another one john Singleton's first movie, is a masterpiece. And it was it completely rings true to the experience he saw that he grew up with, and no one had really talked about it, you know, they did collars, you know that. That movie by Dennis Hopper, and Sean Penn, about the gangs in you know, South el, and you know, South Central and all those areas, but no one was really, it was kind of very Hollywood II, as opposed to boys in the hood, then when you watch boys in the hood, you will tear up, you will go Holy crap, it was so powerful. It was like an atom bomb going off in cinema when that came out, you know, from a 23 year old Why? Because he was authentic to who he was, and his experience. And that's what I want you guys to kind of look for when trying to make your first movie, find something that's authentic to you, that only you could tell that story in mind you. You like, Oh, well, you know, I work in a in a video store. Well, you know, nobody works in a video store anymore. But you work at a convenience store, oh clerks has already been done? Well, maybe you could tell it in a different way from your experience, from your place where it maybe has not been told in that way. You know, there's been a lot of movie, there's been a lot of action movies in the world. But it all depends on the kind of perspective you put on it. And what your voice is, what your your message your theme is. And I think as when you're first starting out, it's the easiest thing to do with a feature. You know, I've done my first shorts were very ambitious, very action packed, very true. But I'll be honest with you looking back at some of those movies, I'm like, you know what, there's just something missing. For me as an artist and being critical of my own work, I'll go back and go, you know what, there's something missing there. Maybe I was onto something, maybe I wasn't, I don't know. But Meg, for, for what better or worse, I really love this as Meg, because it's a really authentic view of what I was seeing through the eyes of Julie, you know, and what she was going through as an actress in LA and I had been very close to that world. And we've all seen movies about actresses, and actors trying to make it in Hollywood. But I don't think anyone's seen one like this before, because it's a very unique perspective, a very unique, authentic view of this world. So that's what I was trying to do. And I did it again, on a budget that I feel comfortable, I can get a return on. So look around you and find out what you have access to. And then you start building your story around that. That's exactly what we did. With this as Mac, we started looking and taking inventory of everything we had. So I'm like Alright, we have an edit suite, there's going to be a scene with an edit sweeten it, because as good production value is the edit suite that we added to the movie in you know, we have houses or you have your house, my house, how many rooms can we do how many things we could do great. We have a car, we have these cards? Great. I have some friends with houses. Great. And then I have all these actor friends of mine. Great. That's a resource. Let's use that. Okay, then I have all this that I bring all my camera gear great. And then that's how we were able to construct the story of this is Meg within the limitations of what we had access to. And clerks did it. mariachi did it. slackers did it. And a lot of people will go well, how about like district nine? You know, Neal cams, a great little short, that got him his first feature. Now, I'm going to argue with it and have a paranormal activity. Okay, great. So I'll argue with you that those two movies were not, quote unquote, from, you know, like a little personal movie. But if you look at district nine, what did it do? Neal set the movie in South Africa, an alien invasion kind of movie in South Africa. I've never seen that before. Have you know, now would have that movie still had the same impact if it was set in Chicago? or New York or LA? I don't know. I personally don't think so. I think one of the charms of that movie is because it's set in South Africa. And why is it set in South Africa? Because guess what, Neil South African, and he felt like he wanted to put something from his experience. So he melted his experience with a really cool sci fi story. Now that was the other thing I'm saying the kind of stories I'm talking about are either going to be dramas, comedies, dramas, even actions but And sci fi, if you look at some Sundance winning movie called sleep dealer by Alex Rivera, that's a movie about basically immigration. And, but he threw a sci fi twist in it. He's a Mexican filmmaker, and he decided to throw his experience, as you know, day laborers and not his experience. But the story of day laborers, but he threw it in with an insane sci fi twist to it. And again, he just twisted it, but used his original and his authentic experience to tell that story. And it's his voice. And that's well The other thing I want to tell you guys, I'll argue that district nine, sleep dealer, paranormal activity, those also are genre movies. So genre, kinda is different than what I'm talking about the drama is the comedies that even the actions but action, sci fi, Hor, those, those are genre genres. And because of those, those are much easier to sell and don't need as much of as an authentic voice as a drama or comedy does. Now, look at district nine. District nine had a very authentic voice mixed in with a sci fi movie, and it was a huge hit. So we mixed genre with authentic voice. And that's something that you guys could do as well. genres are going to be much genre films are going to be a lot easier to sell a lot easier to get out there. And it all depends on what you want to do with your filmmaking career. If you want to go down the festival circuit, you want to make personal films want to make big blockbusters, I you know, it's up to you. Robert Rodriguez made mariachi which was an action movie, which is a genre movie, but was very authentic to his voice, which is in his backyard, which is a Mexican town. He's a Mexican American filmmaker, and he was using his authentic voice his experience to make his genre movie. So to review a little bit of what we just talked about, make your first movie is dirt cheapest possible, the cheaper, the better. Because if you're able to make a movie for 15 grand, you should if you know even remotely what you're doing, make yourself 30 grand off of that. And then the next one you can make will cost 30 grand and then off that 30 grand, maybe you can make 50 or 60 grand off of that. And then you can start growing and growing and growing. And then you can start jumping budgets, once you start figuring the process out a little bit. But trying to jump in right away with a huge budget when I say huge budget $100,000 for someone's never directed a day in their life is a lot $200,000 that's a lot of fucking money, excuse my language. And I know a lot of filmmakers just want to like oh, I'm got my big budget, I'm gonna use all these tools and stuff like that Don't be idiots. Try to do something small First, if you can, if you can execute something on a smaller scale, tell a good story on a $20,000 budget on a $15,000 budget on a $10,000 budget, then you have a much, much better chance of telling a good story and making it look good. When you have a bigger budget. There's a lot of things that you don't think about when working on a bigger budget. But if you do something small, that might work better and I'll use myself again with Meg as an example. You know, we raised a good amount of money to make the movie but it was a number that we felt very comfortable with. I could have easily tripled or quadrupled that kind of budget and made a much bigger movie. Because I have 20 years of experience under my belt. I've directed four or $500,000 music videos and commercials and things like that in my career. But I decided no I'm not going to do that. I'm going to strip it down to the bare bones and Mike look this is about story. Let's see if I can tell a story that I'm proud of before I start jumping into the next big project. Don't be in such a rush to jump into these bigger budgets guys all right, learn from the lessons of Robert Rodriguez Kevin Smith, Spike Lee all these guys that started Richard Linklater that started out with smaller smaller budget selling very personal stories because that's what will take you to the next level and the next level and the next level after that. And again, there always are those people who who are the exception but generally speaking, I don't know of any examples of people who who made a drama or a comedy or a drama at at a very you know, it robust budget with no stars or anything like that involved and was able to be very successful with it. I know of many people who did genre movies, horror movies, action movies, I mean, Eli Roth, Peter Jackson, all these kind of guys. They did genre movies and and that's how they got noticed and how they broke out and started their career. I mean, we can go all the way back to Martin Scorsese's first films. Who's that knocking Which was completely from his experience all his short films, most of his early short films were based around his experience, which is his his experience in the streets of New York, in the 60s and 70s. Growing up seeing the mobster seeing the thing that was his authentic voice. And that voice he's carried on throughout his career jumping in and out from that his next movies and other gangster movie because he's so good at it because he understands that world so well, but that's his authentic voice from where Martin Scorsese came from, then he didn't mean streets, then he starts jumping into something like taxi driver. Then he jumps into Raging Bull, and these other movies that aren't his personal stories anymore, but his personal stories are what got him to the next level. And that's what I'm trying to tell you guys. You should look at. And I know a lot of you going well, Alex, I don't have a personal story. I live in Podunk. Wherever. Not a lot of stuff happens here. On mic. Perfect. That's exactly where your story is. What if something happens in that little town with those characters, those people that you know so well, that you might have never seen on screen before. Again, slacker. No one had ever seen that world before. You know, boys in the hood, no one ever seen that kind of world before. Clark's no one ever seen his partake on that world before. Same thing with mariachi. So guys, I hope you learn something out of this podcast. And I hope you take some of the advice I've given you out here. Hopefully it makes sense to you, and will help you along your, your journey, as filmmakers, as an author, and as artists, and I hope you guys can launch successful careers as filmmakers, which is what we're all trying to do. We're all trying to do that we're all trying to make a living doing what we'd love to do. And hopefully we can look at others who have done it and taking their careers to levels that we can only dream of. So I'm going to put links to all of the movies that I've talked about in this episode in our show notes at indie film hustle.com forward slash 116. There also be a great little video about 10 minute video on lessons you can learn from filmmakers in the 90s when you're making your first feature film. So definitely check that out guys. And as always, please head over to filmmaking podcast calm, and leave me a good review on iTunes, and really helps me out a lot guys. And I want to get this out to as many people as humanly possible. And also I've got a bunch of great stuff coming up at the syndicate, we're going to be uploading a ton of new courses, as well. So check that out as well indie film syndicate.com. And finally, guys, I wanted to ask you, if you want to ask me something. So I'm going to start creating a little a little section either I'm going to do it in its own podcasts, or I'm going to do it at the end of podcast, depending on how many questions I get. But I want you guys to send me some questions. If you have a question that you're just dying to know. And you really wish you could ask and get an answer to and you think I can possibly answer it for you. email me at IF H [email protected] That's IF H [email protected] And that will just write me a question going, Hey, this question and this question and I'll do a podcast episode, answering those questions alone. And hopefully that will help you guys a bit. So you could either do it, that'd probably be the best way to get a hold of me with it. So ifhsubmissions.com. So keep that hustle going. Keep that dream alive. And I'll talk to you soon.

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