Wednesday, May 27, 2009


I just watched this over the weekend. It was recommended to me by our director, Barbara, and let me to tell you: it. Blew Me. AWAY.

It’s a horror movie written and directed by Pascal Laugier, who previously made the fairly well-received but pretty standard ghost story St. Ange (which on DVD, for some reason, is called House of Voices.)

With Martyrs, though, Laugier went all the way. There’s an introduction on the DVD in which he apologizes four times for making this movie. And he doesn’t need to, because it is an excellent film. Yes, it is ultra-violent. But unlike many horror films, the violence here has a point. You could even say the violence IS the point.

I don’t want to say too much, because this isn’t a film review site and this should be seen without any spoilers. But the reason I wanted to talk about Martyrs is because it’s a fantastic example of low-budget filmmaking. Okay, imdb says it cost $6.5 million, but it follows many of the same principles: The movie takes place in one location. It has a very small cast.

Most importantly, it has a strong story. There are about four or five major plot twists, and each time one of them happened, I had NO IDEA where the narrative was going to go next. For a guy like me who’s pretty jaded about structure, that is an impressive feat. Laugier takes our expectations of story, turns them upside-down, then throws them out all together. At one point, something happens and my friend John and I turned to each other and said, “This movie has to be over, there’s no other place for the story to go.” But then we checked the clock, and we were only halfway through.

This is what you want to shoot for with your movies – something that surprises, that challenges, that makes you pay attention. You may not get there, but it’s always better to try.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Bang for Your Buck

Yesterday, I showed the current version of our trailer to an executive producer that has run several reality shows. Even though we’re still tweaking the sound and I told him we’re a low-budget film, the first thing he said after he watched it was: “That does not look low-budget.”

For a production like ours, this is a huge compliment. Once you start working in movies, you realize that everything is measured the same benchmarks of quality. If you’re shooting an action scene, you’ll be compared to “The Matrix” and “Die Hard.” Your special effects will be held up against the likes of “Lord of the Rings.” Your actors will be weighed against Meryl Streep and Denzel Washington. You might only have $15, but the audience will still expect an experience that costs $150 million.

If you’re making a low-budget movie, it sounds like there’s no way you can compete. And ten years ago, that was true. If you didn’t shoot on 35 mm film and you couldn’t pay ILM for your special effects, you were clearly a crappy B movie. But thanks to technology advances, you CAN turn out a product that can be held up to the standards of the best that’s out there. Here’s some things we did on “Fugue” to make the most of what little money we had:

1) BE SMART. Right from the beginning, we limited ourselves to what we knew we could pull off. We set the story in one primary location. We kept the cast small. Any time we had a hard-to-execute/potentially expensive idea, we tried to think of a better/cheaper way to do it WITHOUT (and this is important) sacrificing the story or quality. When you’re looking at your own projects, be brutal. Can the car chase be a foot chase? Can the outdoor rain scene be set against a wet window inside the house? There’s usually a cheaper way to do everything, and often times the restrictions will improve your scenes.

2) SPEND WISELY. Certain things you have to pay for; it can’t be avoided. One our production, one of our biggest expenditures was actor’s pay. Sure, we could have used non-SAG performers, but the actors we had were great. They’re interesting. You believe them. That makes you feel like you’re watching a “real movie” as opposed to a webisode shot with your buddies. When you have to spend, make sure it’s for something that’s important, that you’re going to see on screen, and that gives you a lot of value. Example of something that wouldn’t be wise spending: renting a grip truck. You probably won’t use half the things in there, and you’ll agonize about where to park it every night. Figure out what specific items you’ll need, and rent accordingly. You’re not going to use a dolly or a jib every day, so why pay for it. If it’s not on the screen, it’s not worth paying for.

The only exception to this: food. Good food is the best thing you can have on a low-budget set. It keeps people happy and keeps them working. But be smart about what you buy – go to Costco to get jumbo sizes, pick generic brands for things like chips and crackers. Inexpensive does not always equal bad.

3) PICK THE RIGHT GENRE. As low-budget filmmakers, there are certain things you’re not going to be able to pull off. Remember, you are being measured (however unconsciously) against the best of what’s out there. If you’re making an action movie, folks will expect “Die Hard.” Make sure you can give it to them before you start rolling cameras. One of the reasons we chose to make a psychological thriller was the genre wasn’t limiting. There are all kinds of movies (Blair Witch Project, Open Water, Wolf Creek) which have had huge success even though they had no big-name actors and tiny budgets. This is because …

4) GOOD STORY IS CHEAP. People want to be entertained. This has been true for thousands of years. If you can give them a good story and get them invested in your characters, they will forgive the lack of money and polish. Look at Blair Witch – nobody cares most of the movie is on video, because you’re freaked out for those stranded kids.

This includes being clever with your story – if you can’t pull off a car chase equal to The Matrix Reloaded, don’t even try. Think of a way to stage the sequence in a low-budget (but still clever and exciting) way. Spielberg didn’t show the shark in Jaws because he was being arty and cool – he did it because the damn robot didn’t work. So he got creative, and people stuck with him because they were caught up in the story.

5) TRUST YOUR AUDIENCE. Despite what many reality shows would have us believe, films aren’t show and tell. Not every little detail has to be on camera. In fact, a lot of times it’s better when they aren’t. At the end of Rosemary’s Baby, (SPOLIER!) we don’t even see the title character. They knew they couldn’t put crazy contact lenses or rubber horns on a newborn and have it look cool, so they didn’t show it all. And guess what? It’s WAY SCARIER. Give people just a hint of what you’re trying to say, and they’ll usually fill in the rest, and in a much better way than you ever could.

6) DON’T SKIMP ON PRODUCTION VALUE. Cinema should be cinematic. Even though most of “Fugue” takes place in a small house, the backyard features a steep, overgrown hill that looks like it wants to murder you. We set many scenes on this hill, because it makes the movie look expensive, and it cost us nothing. Use whatever you can to make your movie look big. If you live in the city, put a scene on the rooftop with the skyline behind you. Figure out what visuals your movie leans toward, and figure out how to maximize them.

7) BE HONEST. This is probably the hardest one to achieve. Making movies is HARD, y’all. You get up early, you’re on your feet all day, and after 14 hours on set, all you wanna do is go home and eat a pizza. But at every moment, from writing the script to editing the scenes, you have to be honest. Is this working? Does it look low-budget? If I were watching this in a theater, would I think it’s stupid? If the answer is even slightly “yes,” you have to change it or take it out. As annoying as it may be, I promise you can think of a better way.

When we were watching the first cut, there were a couple lines a character said at the end to justify why they did what they did. I never felt 100% about it, and even though the actors did a fine job delivering it, it still feels hammy. Those lines have to go.

Obviously, you can’t do all these things all the time. We certainly didn’t on “Fugue.” But the more you can keep these in mind and focus on making something that measures up, the better your film will be.

Monday, May 18, 2009

First Cut

On Friday, we watched the first cut of “Fugue.” It was 2 hours and 20 minutes, there was no music or special effects, but for the first time, we could really see we had a movie. And already, in this over-long, rough state, we can see that it will be good!

I don’t have any kids, but it felt very much like witnessing a birth. You spend months working and planning and hoping, but until you meet the little being, you really don’t know what you have. And we definitely have something that will not only resemble a movie, but will actually be something we can be proud of. Having worked on a lot of dumb reality shows for the last six-odd years, that’s saying something.

Thoughts on seeing the first cut: there’s a lot more comedy than I expected. We had purposely written in some funny moments, so there’d be a break from the scares, but there’s a lot of parts that are much funnier in the film than they were on the page. This can be credited entirely to the actors and the directing. They took a few words and no real rehearsals, and created something quirky and memorable. When you’re on set, you only see little snippets of the story at a time, and it’s all broken up over various days. But seeing the performances cut together, you really appreciate how difficult it is to track a character’s arc. Our actors have not only done that, but they also came up with unique touches that really stand out.

Our plan is to meet again this weekend and watch the cut scene by scene, giving specific notes to Stephanie, the editor. Then she’ll work on those for a few weeks, we’ll watch again, and the process will continue. We’re still hoping to have a locked cut by the end of the summer, but we’ll see.

Right now, I’m just happy we’re making a real movie!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

To SAG or not to SAG

So you’ve decided to make a movie. Congratulations! You’ve picked the single most expensive medium there is to express your artistic vision. (Or, God forbid, to attempt to entertain people.) You’ve got a script, you’ve got filmmakers, but now you need the wonderful people who will bring your words to life: actors.

If you live in Los Angeles, there are plenty of actors to choose from. That guy ranting to himself on the street corner? He’s an actor. The woman who took your lunch order? Also an actor. The lady in the car behind you, reading a highlighted copy of Waiting for Godot while she should be watching the road … you get the idea.

When you’re making a movie, one of the first questions you have to answer in pre-production is whether or not you’re going to use actors who are in the Screen Actors Guild. For those who don’t know, this is the huge union that represents players in all filmed formats, and makes sure they don’t get taken advantage of. Unfortunately for you, you’re an indie filmmaker with no money, so you’ll probably be the one getting taken. To the bank.

Yes, you can use non-union actors. But since most of the good actors are in SAG, trying to make a solid low-budget film without them is a bit of a Catch-22. Unless you cast yourself. Which, unless you’re Mel Gibson or Kevin Costner, is probably not going to help.

So you’re casting SAG actors. In our case, we happen to have a lot of filmmaker friends, so we asked around to find people for our specific parts. As we were doing that, we began talking to SAG about making “Fugue” a union picture.

You see, if you’re making a feature, SAG has very strict rules about how their actors get paid. First, they WILL be paid. Up front, in cash. No matter if your budget is ten dollars or ten million. The days of deferred pay for low-budget features are gone, my friends. You could fudge things and try to make it for the Internets, deferring the pay, but a) once you show it anywhere outside the Interwebs, the actors must be paid immediately, and b) their rate is eight times what it costs to pay them up front.

Bearing all this in mind, we decided to sign the SAG Ultra-Low Budget agreement. This lets us hire SAG actors at the rate of $100 per day, and we can take the movie anywhere we want. But no so fast – as an employer, you also have to pay workman’s comp and unemployment insurance. “But I’m a low-budget filmmaker!” you cry. “I’m not even paying myself.”

“Too bad,” responds SAG while reclining on a large pile of money. (Actually, what they said was much nicer and more useful. Sometimes I can’t resist a caricatured villain.) What our rep Margaret told us was – guess what? There are payroll companies that specialize in low-budget films. For a low one-time administration fee, those companies will process your paperwork, send the checks to SAG, make sure the unemployment is taken care, and even act as the employer of record for tax purposes. Literally, all you have to do is send them the check.

Our company was NPI, and I recommend them highly to anyone wanting to make a film. They answered all our questions, turned around paperwork fast, and were generally nice and helpful.

One more wrinkle I found interesting: once you sign a contract with SAG, you are required to send them a percentage of what you plan to pay the actors in your movie. This is so if you skip town without paying your performers, the actors get paid something for their effort. Here’s the thing: SAG holds this money in an interest-bearing account until you send them the final cast list and budget, usually once you’re done with shooting. Once they get that, they send you back the deposit within four to six weeks.

But the whole time they have it, they’re making money off it. For a small movie like ours, it’s not that big a deal. But for a $40 million rom com? In which the actors’ salaries are at least half that? We’re talking millions in interest. Which, in the age of Bernie Madoff, seems kind of shady to me. Especially because the actors still have to pay dues every year.

Other than that, we had a pretty good time being a SAG signatory. For more specific and certainly more correct information, you can check out If you have any questions for us, feel free to ask. I’m by no means an expert, but always willing to share our experience.