Recently saw a list of ten zero-budget filmmaking tips on the Raindance Film Festival website. And while I thought most of the tips were solid, I felt they needed tweaking, and a few were off base. Here is my reworking of the list taking into account that zero budget filmmaking is what do.
1. The Story is Everything — If your script sucks your film will most likely suck. If you don’t have some idea of the story you’re trying to tell as you begin shooting your documentary, your film will suck. And most importantly, if you don’t know how to tell a story in the editing room, if you don’t understand basic filmmaking principals like the three act structure, you film will ABSOLUTELY suck.
2. Location Location Location — you can find amazing locations for free or for very little money. It’s why I so often shoot at the Hotel Duncan in New Haven. Even the bare walls have character. But a plain white wall in your dorm room is not a location for a film, any film. Not even a film about a person stuck in a dorm room. It will only make yours look like the product of a high school hobby.
3. Capture as Much Footage as Possible — video is free. You can shoot for hours. Get the extra take, then the one after that. Get coverage. Give your editor something to work with. You’ve already put in so much time into this film, and you’ve only just started. Shoot more, then shoot more after that. (And as an addendum to that, learn how to use your lights. You can light a scene beautifully with one light. I’ve done it hundreds of times. Play with shadows. What’s unlit is just as beautiful as what you can see clearly. Study old photographs. Watch old films. Do your fucking homework.
4. Sound is King — it’s more important than your image. And no, you won’t be able to fix it in post. ADR is really expensive. Most unprofessional actors suck at it. And if you’re doing a doc, well then you’re completely fucked without good sound. Try to never shoot outside. If the mic has to be in the frame in a doc, no one cares. We care about what the subject is saying.
5. Great Music Can Save a Scene — there are so many cool bands out there in the same situation as you are. Find the music that’s appropriate for your film from a great unknown, approach them nicely, and ask for permission to use it. You might be surprised at the answer. And you will definitely be shocked at how the right music can make a good scene great.
Matthew Ryan wrote this haunting theme song for my film BROKEN SIDE OF TIME in exchange for me creating a music video for a song from his next album. A win-win situation no matter how you look at it.
6. Get Organized — I’ve argued that making a feature film is the single most difficult thing to do in the world. And I do believe that. There are a thousand things that can go wrong, and if you aren’t organized. If you aren’t ready, well, then you’re pretty much up the proverbial creek. You have seconds to make a decision. And this decision making happens a hundred times per day when filming. If you don’t have everything else under control, if you are not organized, then give it up now. Go back to talking about making a film at the coffee shop, because that’s all you’ll ever do. Know every shot, visualize the edit in your head, know when the street outside will be noisiest, when the sun is setting, etc. and so on. Be an all-knowing God, because after 30 minutes on set, you’ll realize you’re not. But you’ll at least be glad you tried.
7. Your Friends Can Not Act — Neither can your mom, your girlfriend, or your high-school play director. Hire real actors. Do a proper casting. And I’m not talking union here, but people who’ve done it before. There are tens of thousands of them out there. Otherwise you’ll have one bad line delivery after another, and we’re back to high school project.
8. Build a Following — social media is free. Work it. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. Find like-minded people. Tell them about what you’re doing. Compliment what they’re doing. Share their links. It works both ways and takes a long time, but if you show respect, you’ll earn respect, and a retweet from someone with 100K followers can help a lot. (And please, if you’re using KickStarter, absolutely back a bunch of projects before your ask for funds.)
9. You are a Filmmaker, a C.E.O., an Accountant, a Publicist, a Salesman — Unless you can afford to pay people to take these positions, it’s up to you. And trust me, you can’t afford to pay anyone. You are the only one who can guarantee the job gets done correctly. Filmmaking doesn’t stop at the wrap party. A film will become a two, three, maybe even four year commitment during which you wear all those hats and more. Like I said before, the hardest job in the world.
10. There’s No Such Thing as Luck — It’s work. A lot of hard work. But if you truly feel there’s nothing else you were put on this earth for, and you’re willing to put in 10 to 12 hours a day, every day, for years on end (not an exaggeration, kids), then it’s also the most rewarding job in the world. Just don’t expect to finish your film, get into Sundance, and be entertaining four-picture deal offers from the majors. You’re more likely to win the lottery.