We wrapped a week ago. My first feature film as a writer/director/anything. The working title is Dinner Party Movie and that will definitely be changing.
It’s the most difficult thing I’ve done, the most I’ve ever given myself over to a singular pursuit — six weeks of intense commitment, devoted almost entirely to the single endeavor of making the film. And of course there was much work before that.
We shot 71 pages in 10 days, doing 8-10 hour days. And yes, there were some actual 8-hour days in there, which is hard to believe. Most people assume that an indie production will be 12-hour days, which I don’t really believe is sustainable for more than two or three days. The work will start to suffer and attitudes will sour, and then the culture will start to break down. At least that was my fear — we never really pushed it except for a single 12-hour day in the 2nd week.
People have asked me if it was “fun” and I always laugh and say no, no it was not fun, at least that’s not the first word that I’d use. Yes, there were moments of fun and joy and laughter and all that, every day. Making it with friends meant it was an infinitely more rewarding and relaxing experience. But, it was intensely overwhelming, stressful, and mentally and physically exhausting. Joyful yes, fun no.
The biggest difference between directing a short and a feature: I felt my role was much less about directing each scene with precision, but rather about steering the whole project in the right direction, tone management, making sure that each piece would fit into the larger whole — about seeing and feeling how the whole film would cut together, constantly cutting and re-cutting it in my head.
I learned that we can question just about everything related to production and budget. The going rates for things are always negotiable. You don’t need x number of crew. Most crew positions can be done without. Everyone knows this and yet hardly anyone really believes it or is willing to follow the premise to its conclusions and make something this way.
People told me that I was very calm and relaxed on set. Outwardly, I suppose I was. I’m not frantic and I didn’t yell or snipe at people. Inwardly, my God, a different story. I was waking up in the middle of the night panicked, waking up with crushing doubts about myself and the material, and often feeling like a complete failure.
Then there were the highest of highs, times when I felt like the work was very good and that the final product would be very good, and then I’d wade back into another eddy of anxiety and depression and back and forth for two weeks.
There were many moments of fun, joy, happiness, and excitement. But I could always feel the bear behind me. And now, to be free from the bear, is a sweet sweet feeling.
We start filming on Monday. It’s a 10-day production, over the next two weeks, with the weekend off.
This week has been a whirlwind of last-minute prop pick-ups, phone calls, meetings, waiting to hear back from rental houses and friends about what we can use and how much it will cost. Yesterday I spent the afternoon finalizing the shot list and our approach with the cinematographer, Zoe.
And of course, Costco:
We spent $406 on crafty and supplies and hopefully that lasts the whole two weeks. Most people understand that working on a micro-budget indie film means that they’re not going to get paid a lot and I am dearly grateful for their contributions. But you have to feed them! I try to get healthier options but the producer reminded me that some people like to eat gluten and sugar.
We got to the coffee section at Costco and were severely disappointed. I’ve never had Kirkland-brand coffee1 but I’m incredibly skeptical.
I found reviews online and it’s well-reviewed on Amazon but I started reading the reviews and they were all people saying “I used to drink Maxwell House and switched to Kirkland and it’s just as good!!!” So, no. Besides, I believe that even if Kirkland coffee was just as good as, I don’t know, Metric, it wouldn’t matter. The branding does affect the flavor.
But it doesn’t matter because we lucked out — the producer, Josh, emailed all of the local Chicago roasters and one of them finally got back to us — Metropolis is donating a 5lb bag to the production! That’s some seriously good coffee and I’m really overjoyed.
Part of making a movie, in my mind, is about the culture you create on set. Little things like having good coffee ready for people in the morning, they go a long way. Movie making is hard work. It’s really hard. But it’s not some crazy ritual of suffering — it’s a lot of fucking fun, or at least should be. Yeah, there are a lot of down times and yes, there are painful compromises at every turn (when you don’t have money), but there’s a real joy to working incredibly hard with a tight group of 10-15 people for two weeks straight. But, you better have some good coffee.
One compromise we made was not having a full-time makeup person on set, which led me to my first purchase of makeup, a jar of Laura Mercier translucent powder. The makeup person recommended it. Basically, you need to keep the actors’ faces from looking shiny on camera and this creates a matte look on their faces.
I was re-reading my dog-eared pages in Werner Herzog’s book and he said that he likes to carry a small makeup kit with him whenever he directs so that he can touch up an actor before a take if he feels like the actor needs a little more time to get ready, not unlike a baseball umpire dusting off the plate as a courtesy to a catcher after taking a foul ball to the body.
Besides saving money, going the DIY route with makeup saves time.
We’re taking the approach that if this film succeeds, it will succeed on story, performance, and interesting visual storytelling. It will not succeed because of breathtaking-ly beautiful imagery, incredibly meticulous set design, or high production value. Not that we don’t want it to look good. And I think we are going to deliver some truly striking images, but my goal is to move the audience with emotion, not abstract beauty.
My living room has been transformed into a holding pen for all of our props, crafty, and some lighting and grip equipment.
OK, I gotta make some last-minute rewrites and then load all that stuff into my car and drop it off at the location. We’re setting up the location house today and tomorrow, and maybe even stealing a few establishing or non-talent shots, then a table read tomorrow afternoon, and hopefully a few free hours to do my laundry and cook some food for the week.
Bang on, as my English friend says.
And thank you to all the people who have offered material and emotional support, lent us gear, gave us honest feedback and good advice, encouraged us, and said “yes” when others said “no.”
the Costco store brand ↩
Up to Appleton, WI today with the producer and a non-film friend to see about another house.
The movie takes place almost entirely in a single home, so getting the right house is important. It’s so much easier finding one location instead of 30 or 40 (like insanely easier), but it’s still a bit difficult to find a house that we can use for two weeks with our limited budget.
We’ve been mostly talking to people on AirBnB and they’ve been much more amenable to letting us use their houses, because they’re already letting people stay in them. Finding a homeowner willing to vacate his or her house for two weeks is almost impossible on our budget. An apartment would’ve been much easier.
That has set us further afield than Chicago, where rental rates are lower. On the one hand, this is more difficult because it means it takes an entire day to scout a single location and there are logistical challenges with production. Will the cast and crew be willing to go away for two weeks? And if we go outside the city, we need a second house to lodge the cast and crew.1
We’re treating it a bit like going away to summer camp. Yes, you’re working all day, but in the evenings you are sharing meals and drinks in the warm summer air, outside of the city and away from your day-to-day life. For some that will be too inconvenient, but for the people that join us, we’re hoping to create an unforgettable experience and forge friendships for life.
A conversation with friends on a summer evening is better than going home to Netflix.
And I really want the making of this film to be a special experience. It’s a low-budget affair and in a perfect world, it serves as a calling card for myself and the others involved, furthering our careers. Maybe on the next one, it’s a little easier to raise money…
But beyond that — beyond making a good film (which is nearly impossible) — I want it to be a fun, joyful experience. Something that people look back on and remember fondly. The best possible outcome is a good film and great memories, with the people we bring together forming bonds for life.
Appleton is a small city in northern Wisconsin, about 190 miles north of Chicago and 100 miles north of Milwaukee. About 70,000 people live there. The main street is thriving with shops, cafes, and a performing arts center. Away from the main drag are streets with colorful houses and big front porches. People don’t lock their doors there and the air is crisp and fresh.
We visited an occult bookstore with an in-house psychic and the book selection was wonderfully eccentric. Where else can you find a book on bird magic?
OK well I just found it on Amazon, but you get the point. And hey, it’s actually well-reviewed there, with 4.2 out of 5 stars, although one person did have this to say:
Sigh. As usual, a magical book with no balanced perspective on masculine/feminine energies. I really do not like metaphysical books that claim to be about balance and harmony while ignoring half of the energetic balance of nature. I was excited to get this book from both a naturalist and Pagan perspective but if a book gets such a crucial thing wrong, it makes the whole book suspect that to me
This was my favorite title:
I opened to a random page and found a chapter called something like “how to know if the spirit you’re talking to is really your loved one,” which yeah, of course, once you start to consider this seriously, there are some practicalities that have to be worked out, like ID verification.
Soon enough, all spirits will be given unique public keys on the blockchain and we’ll all look back and laugh at our archaic analog methods of spirit-ID-verification like giving your loved one a secret passcode that only they know before they die.
Fun fact I learned from Futility Closet last week: Houdini, who spent much of his career disproving psychic mediums, actually gave his wife a secret code, just in case he came back as a spirit (he didn’t). I don’t remember the episode, but it’s a great podcast.
After touring the town and calling our mothers for Mother’s Day, we went to a restaurant overlooking the Fox River, then drove back down to Chicago (after a stop for ice cream from Culver’s).
We’re aiming for a combined total of about 11-14 people, depending on the day, which is a very small production. ↩
I put together a template for a short film with a budget of $10k. It assumes two days of shooting, which would be anywhere from six to twenty pages, depending on how fast you can move and how many setups you have.
The columns update automatically as you adjust crew rates and how many days they are needed.
The numbers are not meant to be exact — a lot of it depends on what your production needs are, how many days you shoot, and how many favors you can call in. It’s definitely possible to make a short film for less than $10k. You can do it for under $100 actually, but if you’re doing that, then you don’t need a spreadsheet to keep track of the budget.
And knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn’t make a $10k short film. There’s no market for short films and I would rather put that money towards a feature film. If you’re going to raise $10k, why not raise $25k? If I’m going to do a short now, it’s going to be in the $500 – $3,000 range.
Click here to open the budget spreadsheet. To edit it, you have to save a copy to your own Google Drive.