Making people move

Rewriting the script today.

We did a table read on Wednesday. The beginning doesn’t work, the story takes too long to gets moving.

And I’ve been trying to figure out how to handle scenes where a group of people are talking and not really moving. Time to go to the well…

I decided it’s better to make them move more and talk less, to give them props, and let the characters inhabit and interact with the space more.

I re-watched The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and saw how Bunuel moves the camera and the characters around to say so much and play with the frame.

Once I have the thought that they have to move, it gives the scenes more life. Not just speaking words, but moving each other around, pushing and pulling with words.

And re-watched Rope as well, another dinner party film.

 

The stress of the big 3

Last night we looked at another location. I’m not going to post photos of it because the owners lives there (as opposed to just renting it out on AirBnB). It’s a promising option. I’m hoping that we lock down the location this week.

We’re working with Compass Casting for… casting. Auditions start and (with luck) finish next week. Two of the big three are close to complete. We’re still talking to DPs, which is the last of the big three things that you need to make a movie. Or that we need at least. I’m breathing a little bit easier now.

The most stressful time is when all three of those are complete unknowns and you’re talking to people but you can never really talk to them because you don’t know that you’ll have one of the other things in place, which means you can’t really be sure of your dates. I prefer to work linearly. It’s easier for me to hunker down and work through something. It’s very unnerving to work on three things that are all uncertain and all rely on each other.

I think that after the first time, it will be easier and I will be confident. My first short film felt like this, only 10x worse.

Tonight I’m going to see Hinds at Lincoln Hall with some friends so I can check out and relax a bit until it starts again tomorrow.

Wisconsin bird magic

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).

 


  1. We’re aiming for a combined total of about 11-14 people, depending on the day, which is a very small production. 

Breakfast, Windshield Wipers, Kinko’s

Yesterdays travels were long and we returned home at night. No rest though, we had to meet up with a friend to talk about our plan for casting the film (after a jaunt to Costco for a windshield wiper blade and sundries).

Had a few drinks while we talked about casting which had me just exhausted, so I woke up in a bit of a haze this morning and had to run out to meet some old friends for breakfast at my friend’s new apartment. He’s going to Barcelona next week for 10 weeks and the thought of that, I envy it.

The film has a weight and sometimes I wish I could toss off that weight and go to Barcelona and forget about it. But of course, I wouldn’t forget about it and how would I live with myself after such a cowardly decision?

These are good friends and we can only get together about once every two months, because of our busy schedules. I always feel energized after talking to them and I think about how much better life would be if we all lived within a few blocks of our best friends and could get together without planning.

After breakfast I emailed for about 4 hours, following up on yet more leads for a possible location (we’re looking for a single family home in Chicago or within a 3-hour drive) and putting together a table read for Wednesday to see how it plays on its feet.

I went to Fedex Office (formerly Fedex Kinko’s, formerly Kinko’s)1 to print out eight copies of the script.

The print job was messed up so I had to wait for 15 minutes while new copies were printed.

The very nice man who helped me filled the time with his thoughts on Avengers Infinity War, about which he had many detailed opinions and I tried to smile and nod along because I haven’t seen it.

 

 

 

Then I picked up snacks and drinks for the reading, put air in my car tires for another road trip tomorrow (this time to Appleton, WI), replaced the frayed wiper blade, and emailed invites to actors for the table read.

I love road trips.


  1. What a bad name for a store, Kinko’s. 

Paxton, IL

Drove down to Paxton, IL today to see about a house to make a movie in.

There’s a real joy to this part of making a movie, getting out and meeting people that welcome you into their home and are excited about helping you and then taking for hours about how the house isn’t perfect but it will work and now we can relax because of the 3 possible disasters that might derail this thing, one at least has a workable situation and if it all works out then we get to spend 2 weeks in a quaint town with good summer air with good people and the chance at at a transcendent shared experience.

And then we found this burger joint across the train tracks with a menu that I thought was a joke but it was real and the burgers were $1.20 and fries were 80 cents.

And sometimes I hate how flat IL is but then I think of that DFW line that goes:

Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.

Which is a very good line, to my ears at least, and I don’t know where I’m going with this except that there’s a real joy in doing things that are overwhelmingly difficult and it brings out emotions and fears and pleasures that I never knew I had, like when you do a new exercise and you get sore in muscles that you never noticed before.

Good night and look up Just Hamburgers if you’re ever in Paxton.

$10k Short Film Budget Template

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.

The Level-up Method of Filmmaking

Making a film (can be) complex.

Start with something very small, a microshort.

Then with each additional project, add another layer of complexity. If you’re feeling bold, you can add many layers at once. Too little challenge and you’ll get bored. Too much challenge and you might get overwhelmed (or rise to the occasion).

Either way, you can add something new every time you go out:

  • SAG actors
  • Asking other people for money (crowdfunding)
  • Getting investors
  • A bigger crew
  • Locations that you don’t own
  • Professional post-production
  • Insurance
  • Permits
  • A camera that you have to rent
  • Enough lighting equipment to require a truck
  • An art department
  • A composer (instead of free music)
  • Special FX
  • Stunts

You can also up the creative difficulty:

  • More developed characters
  • Blending improvisation with scripted work
  • A larger cast
  • More visual storytelling (or more dialogue-driven)
  • Adapting an original work
  • Challenging material
  • Risky, personal material

My sweet spot is where I’m pushing myself and it feels like there a real risk that it will fall apart but I’m also having fun and experiencing the joy. Suffering and stress don’t have to add up to unhappiness.

Pre-production stress

Last month I met with a DP to set a date for shooting a short film on June 10th. I wrote it and I’m going to direct it. And I’m producing it as I don’t have a go-to producer yet, a real partner to handle the big picture stuff of securing locations and finding talent and all that.

It’s not fun. I don’t hate it but it is not fun. What I don’t like about casting and hiring and finding locations and arranging all the resources to be on a certain day is this: it’s asynchronous. It’s a big spreadsheet with a lot of pending items. You can’t brute force it. You can’t spend 12 hours straight just knocking it out.

You have to wait for people to get back to you with someone’s email and then they do and you email that person and then you have to wait to hear back from them and they say “no, sorry, we don’t want you to film in our bar” and then you have to find another one.

It’s loose ends all over the place. Interlocking pieces that depend on other pieces, and endless if/else’s branching out in the rows and columns. It makes me slightly insane.

But there’s a date set, an immovable date slowly creeping toward you. Having gone through it a few times now, I know that on that date, everything will be there. Maybe not the way I hoped, but everything we need will be there.

The only thing that keeps me up at night is rain.

The possibility that it will rain on June 10 and that not everyone will be available for the rain date of June 11. Or that the Gods just decide that it will rain all that weekend and I have to decide if we’re going to make a mess in the mud and put everyone through a rainy production (if that’s even possible?) and scramble for tents at the last minute, or if we have to call the whole thing off and re-schedule.

On the bright side, it gets better. Going through this with The Deadline was crushing. There wasn’t a day from January 1 to March 22, 2016 when I didn’t feel like it was all going to fall apart at any moment. Now, it’s not so bad. It’s stressful, but I know that it will work out. If an actor drops out at the last minute, I’ll find another one. If the DP falls ill the morning of, I’ll figure something out.

You plan as best you can and then when shit goes sideways, you just take a deep breath and say “ok, what are our options?” It’s a kind of zen-like clarity that I actually enjoy in way. Once you’ve decided completely that you will make this thing happen, the setbacks don’t seem to matter. There’s no time to care or be angry.

The ship is moving and there’s no stopping it. When the ship springs a leak, do you jump overboard? No, you get a bucket and start bailing out the water. When your first mate mutinies, do you curse his lack of loyalty? No, you push him overboard and promote someone else. OK maybe this analogy is getting out of hand.

Anyway, it’s not life or death. It’s just comedy or art or whatever you want to call it. Once I’m done with this fucking spreadsheet, it will all be fun again.

How to Make a Short Film with SAG Actors (and not kill yourself)

UPDATE: I’m putting together a much more comprehensive guide to successfully navigating the SAG process. It’s written for low-budget indie producers and you can find out more about it here (and download a free checklist with every step in the SAG process). 

This post is based on my personal experience dealing with SAG-AFTRA’s Chicago local. Most of the information I got from attending a seminar for producers, run by Kathy Byrne, Director of TV/Theatrical here in Chicago, and from actually going through the process while making The Deadline.

This is meant to be a primer for working with SAG under the Short Film Agreement to address the most common questions that come up and demystify the process.

It’s not a complete explanation of every detail of the contract1 Read the contract before you sign it!

Disclaimer: Some of this information may have changed since last year and while I tried my best to get everything right, I may have misunderstood some things. This is not legal advice and is meant to give you an overview and a basic understanding of how things work. Consult your SAG-AFTRA local for questions and guidance.

(more…)


  1. For example, I’m not going to talk about how you’re not allowed to require an actor to be completely nude at an audition and that you must permit them to wear pasties or a G-string. 

The day before production

I feel like a child before a 3-day Christmas.

When I get excited with nervous anticipation, everything slows down and I have trouble focusing on one thing at a time.

I’m running around getting bottled water and snacks for set, withdrawing cash to pay for the lighting truck, buying a clipboard, reviewing tomorrow’s shooting schedule, taking notes on what I need to remember to tell the actors during their scenes tomorrow, passing out flyers to the businesses and residents that live next to the location so they know we are filming and have the producer’s contact info in case of questions, prepping the location with the art department, cooking a big batch of food so I don’t have to worry about breakfast and dinner for the next 3 days, and laying out clothes so I don’t have to make decisions about what to wear, and moving anything in my to-do list to after the shoots so my mind is uncluttered.

And playing tennis to spend the nerves so I can relax and will be able to fall asleep tonight.

Total commitment to a single project is an interesting thing, almost a religious practice.

 





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