Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ultra Low in LA: JUST PRETEND week two

     JUST PRETEND is a smooth sailing ship, passing through some choppy waters without too much tilt or sway. Ten days have passed and we've made our day everyday and have been out by twelve all days but one.
     Eric Levy, one of our directing duo, sounded like he'd figured it out. "This is really about a $700,000 movie, isn't it?" We're shooting JUST PRETEND for under 100k. I told him it isn't, but it certainly is closer to a $200,000 movie. We have to compromise quite a bit when we're shooting for only half of the budget we should have. If we had just a little more money, we'd have a few more toys and a few more hands pulling the cart, which would make a lot of our set-ups move faster, and a lot of the directors' wishes easier to realize.
     This is the point that is often missed. I am frequently given a script and told that it is being planned for an Ultra-Low Budget or No-Budget, but the script has not been crafted as an Ultra-Low or No script. It's just they want to shoot the script they have for the money they can get. This is generally very hard.
     However, there are issues with "biggering." One of the reasons we're able to get a lot of the locations we have at the price we are is because we're small. We don't have a G&E truck, just a cargo van. We don't have trailers, honey-wagons, vanity trailers, or anything. I've been told by people in preproduction that they want to keep their small indie, with a big star, small. One project in particular was shooting in LA for around 700k and had a name actor playing the lead. The actor was low key and willing to work for a low rate, BUT he needed just a small trailer... and there it begins. A trailer driven by who? You could hire non-union drivers, but when the Teamsters drive by and see a base camp with trailers and grip trucks, they're going to stop. You will also need to rent base camp parking which essentially doubles your per location fees, and so it goes. There's quite a chasm between small and big, and once you've crossed over it's hard to bring your project back.
     Be sure to read my article It Starts with the Script before you start your No Budget project.

Brian Dietzen and Abby Miller in a glorious Exterior Day location.

Working the Neighborhood 
We are currently filming in a lovely neighborhood in Pasadena. It's on the edge of town so the permits are handled by FilmLA and not the city of Pasadena, which is a big break for us because we already had an LA permit. Because we're filming over night we had to get signatures and permission from the neighborhood, but even if we weren't I would've asked our Locations Assistant (Becky Miller who is kicking it) to go door-to-door in the neighborhood anyway. We'll be here nine days, so we need their support. Too often film crews come in, expect love and respect, without doing anything to earn it. By going door to door and talking to all the neighbors, telling them about our project, giving them our phone numbers, we've been able to have their help as we've needed to ask them for favors (please wait on the mowing, sprinklers, leaf blowing, sawing... etc). The people in this neighborhood are genuinely lovely and have been wonderfully helpful. Be nice to your neighbors, they'll (usually) be nice to you.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Complaining about CRAIG'S LIST and IMDB

Craig's List is very frustrating to me. On almost every movie I make I hire someone off Craig's List. It's an invaluable tool. Yet their system of letting their users flag and remove posts is ridiculous. Whenever I post in Los Angeles for free intern help, or even low paying crew positions, they are almost immediately removed. I think it's from union workers who are upset that I'm hiring people for such low rates. I've just accepted it now and expect it. If I post for a free intern it will generally be removed within five minutes. An ad for a low paid crew position might last a day. Craig's list allows posting for unpaid interns (that's why they have an unpaid category), it's just certain vigilante citizens out there would rather spend their time deleting valid opportunities for young filmmakers than actually finding work for themselves.

I have learned to hate IMDB. When I first appeared on IMDB I was so excited. Now I hate how important IMDB has become. My recent movie Surrogate Valentine has been playing to exceptional reviews and audience response. We're self distributing, so positive word-of-mouth is critical to our success. Yet IMDB's "weighted" user review system is out to get us. They won't disclose how their system works, but I imagine it's using the same technology that their "Kevin Bacon game" and "people-you've worked with" tool use to see if people who are rating your movie have ever worked with you before, or might know you. Well Surrogate Valentine has received 40 votes as of today. 3 ones, 1 four and everything else above a six or above, including 21 tens. Yet our IMDB score is 4! Our arithmetic mean is 8.4, but apparently the three people who gave us Ones, are the most important people in the world. It hurst us because IMDB has become a powerful word-of-mouth generating tool. A lot of people look there to see what ratings movies have before deciding to go see it - including myself.

Grrr! (You can rate it here, by the way: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1669277/)

User ratings for  Surrogate Valentine (2011

40 IMDb users have given a weighted average vote of 4.0 / 10
Demographic breakdowns are shown below.
Votes Percentage Rating
21 52.5%10
4 10.0%9
7 17.5%8
2 5.0%7
2 5.0%6
1 2.5%4
3 7.5%1
Arithmetic mean = 8.4.  Median = 10

Big guys stealing from the little guys

I recently highlighted Kyle Smith's Turkey Bowl which premiered at this year's SXSW festival. Very shortly after it premiered Warner Brothers dropped this bomb:

Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg Re-Team for Warner's 'Turkey Bowl'

Published: May 17, 2011 @ 4:03 pm
By Joshua L. Weinstein
Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg will reunite in Warner Bros. "Turkey Bowl," a comedy about an annual football game.
They last worked together in last year's Columbia Pictures "The Other Guys." 
It's a Ferrell comedy: broad, physical comedy and lots of cameos.
Warner has closed a deal with the writers, Scott Silveri and Robert Carlock, based on their pitch.
Carlock knows his comedy: He's executive producer of  "30 Rock," he wrote for "Joey" and "Friends," and he's a former staff writer for "Saturday Night Live," where he worked with Ferrell.
I certainly hope that Tribeca Films/ESPN, who bought Kyle's movie tries to get this altered in some way. They should at least throw a bunch of cash Kyle's way (and sign him to a development contract while they're at it).

Monday, May 23, 2011

Ultra Low in LA: JUST PRETEND days three and four

One of my highest recommendations is to get rid of any exterior night shots in your no budget script. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. Seesaw, which I highlighted below, has some very compelling night shots that seem to be lit only by the actor's cell phone as it's held close to her face. In general, however, night shooting is extremely expensive. Your crew and your lighting package will be too small to pull it off successfully. JUST PRETEND is just a step above no budget, and we have way more night shooting than we probably should. Our great directors, Juan and Eric, are learning to simplify their shots, and our amazing cinematographer, Matt Garrett, is learning to make grunge part of the aesthetic.

Amazing Interns: No-Budget movies thrive on free labor. A project like JUST PRETEND couldn't happen without interns. An intern is a student or recent grad who works for free in exchange for credit, copy (a copy of the DVD), food, and on my sets, Love. On some sets interns are treated like garbage. In my eyes they are people we should bow down to. They're often the hardest working people on the set, and they're doing it for free. Interning is the best way to start a film career (I got in late and interned for free when I was 30, married, with kids and a mortgage). For this show I was nervous we weren't going to find any interns until I contacted Drew Sugimoto who had worked with me for a few days on Surrogate Valentine. Drew not only came on board but brought four friends along. They all go to Cerritos College in Norwalk, CA. I love that we're surrounded by these illustrious film schools but we find such amazing people at Cerritos. If Cerritos is consistently turning out grads like the guys on our set it has to be held up in the same light as UCLA, USC, AFI, etc.

WE LOVE OUR INTERNS: Veronica Solorzano, Dustin Ong, and Yuki Hashimoto are killin' it!
We also have part time support from some other amazing interns who have been working tirelessly for us. In fact, one of those part time interns, James Grabowski, turns out to be our hero of days three and four, two overnight shoots. We clearly didn't have enough money for an exterior night lighting package and had planned on doing some bulking up on those evenings (but didn't have anything in the budget to cover it). Along comes James, however, who works in an (unnamed) studio lighting and grip department, and arranges for us to have this big supplemental package completely for free. Not only is James working as an excellent DIT but he's saving our shoot by bringing in all this gear at no cost.

Filming at night thanks to amazing intern support. James hooked us up with extra equipment including the Image 80 in the foreground.
Turns out we were able to pull off our first two night shoots, finish on time, and make our days. Our first day, which was our longest day of the shoot (almost seven pages), had to be simplified quite a bit, but we pulled it off.

You can't make an ultra low film without free labor, but I don't think I've ever had more impressive free labor than I've had on this shoot.

Filming Off Permit: Glendale is a notoriously tough city to shoot in off-permit. We were planning on filming night exteriors in both the front and back yards of a house in Glendale. I hesitated about whether or not I should get the permit but decided to forego. My location assistant (Becky Miller, more free support) talked to each of the neighbors around the house we were shooting at explaining the nature of the project, describing it as a special, personal project. The fact that we're so small helps. No one bothered us, and we know cops came by and knew we were there because we got a parking ticket. If a neighbor had complained we would've been in trouble, but because we were in with the neighbors, no one minded.

It's important to be courteous and real. On Surrogate Valentine we were filming in our friends downtown restaurant, Starry Kitchen, (go, and tell them I sent you), and across the plaza is a bar that plays loud music while they're open. I went across and asked if they'd turn the music off while we were shooting and they were very cool and did. Someone expressed amazement that they did it without asking for cash or anything (I think we brought them some cookies). Nguyen Tran, the restaurant owner (with his super cool and amazingly talented wife/chef Ti Tran), gave me one of the best compliments I ever received. He said I had the remarkable talent of not being a douche. If that's not something to put on a resume, I don't know what is. The point is, be cool, courteous and helpful and people will be willing to help you out.

Abby Miller is ready for her close-up.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Ultra Low in LA: JUST PRETEND days one and two

After two first days of ultra low budget filmmaking in LA, I'm happy to report we're still on schedule and budget. Shooting a feature for under 100k in Los Angeles is hard in some ways and easy in others. It's hard (meaning harder than usual) because of the costs of permits and locations and the expectations that people have about filming. It's easy because there are so many talented crew people who want to help out on a passion project, so many talented actors who want to work on something that will stretch them, and such a great infrastructure for filmmaking. 

Parking Mishaps: At no small cost I reserved parking for our first location through the film office which required me to announce our presence in a small apartment we were shooting in our first day. It cost us a bit less than $400 to have parking spaces held and the neighborhood posted for filming. Normally I wouldn't have done this on such a small project, but the location had bad parking and no room for the cube truck I thought we would have. Turns out at the last minute it was decided to work from a cargo van instead, and the van was able to squeeze into the poor parking and narrow driveway of the apartment. Meaning, it was $400 totally wasted. You try not to sweat the small stuff. But on the micro-budget we're working on, there is no SMALL stuff.

Directing team Eric M. Levy and Juan Cardarelli

     Quick Decisions Lead to Paying Extra: I'm currently saddled with two sets of Lenses and two sets of walkie-talkies. We have two lenses because one had some malfunctions so we were given extras. It was decided we needed the old ones for a specific wide shot. We had a runner pick up the now fixed lenses (Great job James Grabowski driving all over the Valley trying to find theses lenses) and drive them to our set an hour into the mountains... even though by the time they arrived it had been decided we weren't going to do the shot! Not only that, we weren't able to return the other lenses in time to avoid keeping them over the weekend. As for the walkies, I was upset that the rental house hadn't given us headsets and wouldn't include headsets in the rate he quoted. I called another place that had quoted me the same rate but WITH headsets. That rental house is in El Segundo, so when my Coordinator had to go home early that direction I asked him to swing by and grab the radios, not thinking that I wouldn't have time to return the other ones until they reopened on Monday. So now I'm paying two weekend days for radios I'm not using, at a cost that is just a bit less than what the headsets would've cost. Grrr! Again, don't sweat the small stuff.

Filming in Angeles National Park

     To Steal or Not to Steal: The next day we shot in Angeles National Park on a very expensive permit. To save money we scaled down to ten crew members (we were actually eleven -- I told our makeup artist that if any official vehicles pulled up to hide). Because of this the rental cost about $350 less, and we didn't have to have a Highway Patrol Officer stay with us at $80 an hour. Turns out the only Park official that stopped by came as we were packing up. He asked if we had a permit and when I told him yes he said, "Cool," and drove off. We could've totally stolen it! Yet, if we tried that park ranger would've probably shown up right as were were ready to shoot our first shot. Murphy's Law governs film shoots. It's tricky sometimes to know when to chance it and when to play it safe. Tonight we chance it.

It's easy to shrug off $300 here or $200 there, but in the first two days I can add up about $800 of expenses that didn't HAVE to occur. Of course we also saved money in places that we didn't plan on and our budget has room for these types of accidents, but still... it adds up.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Fundraising Brainwaves -- Silver Bullet Movie Poster

So, I think it'd be a good thing to occasionally talk about fundraising in this blog. That's the most common question I'm asked -- "Where do you get money?" I guess if I had a better answer to that I wouldn't be writing a blog about no-budget filmmaking. I'll occasionally write about creative ways to raise money that I've heard about or tried myself.

At SXSW this year a friend mentioned that he had purchased a limited edition of the poster of Joe Swanberg's movie Silver Bullets and that Joe was using the proceeds to finish the film. I recently shot Joe a quick email about it and he responded just as quickly to tell me more.

Joe has willed himself into legend status by being prolific. For the past six or seven years he's come out with at least a movie a year (Including such hits as Hannah Takes the Stairs, LOL, Kissing on the Mouth and Hannah Takes the Stairs). This year he got special awesome-points for premiering one movie at Sundance (Uncle Kent) then premiering another at Berlinale a month later (Silver Bullets).

Joe's poster is designed by ├╝ber designer Yann Legendre whose illustrations and designs adorn book covers, magazines, posters, and museums. Joe points out that he's designed the latest Louis Malle Criterion Collection releases. Joe ran a limited run of 100 signed screen prints and is offering them for $100 each. He used the money collected to finish shooting and for post production. The poster won the annual poster contest at SXSW.

This is a perfect strategy that might not work for anyone other than Joe who has both the cult following needed to generate interest as well as the ability to make movies for cheap enough to fund them through poster pre-sales. But it's also a great example of fundraising outside of the box. I funded a good portion of the very first movie I ever made, which was based on a Russian short story, by making presales at the annual Russian Language and Literature academic conference. Now that I think about it, that was pretty brilliant. I should do it again. What connections does your film have that might make a similar strategy work for you?

Joe mentions he still has a few posters left. If interested in purchasing one, simply email him: Joe@joeswanberg.com.


Just two more days until we start production on JUST PRETEND. I'm going to try to post a daily lesson learned. I've produced five or six features now and I'm always amazed at how much I learn every time. We'll see if I can keep it up. Don't expect anything too long.

So far what I've learned with my first feature shot entirely in Los Angeles is that even here people cheer on the little indies. You can't get away with everything, but if you're genuinely small they do their best to help you out. Our biggest advantage is the lack of a transportation department. Our only production vehicles are the gaffer's cargo van and trailer and my minivan.

Trying to get a permit in Burbank I was asked if we were the 2nd Unit and I sheepishly said, "No, we're first unit, we're just that small."

Sunday, May 15, 2011

SEESAW -- No budget cinema from Japan

I had the pleasure of watching Keihiro Kanyama's SEESAW at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. I actually went just to see VIA TEXT which was the short playing before the feature. VIA TEXT is a great short created by husband and wife Abe Forman-Greenwald and Lynn Chen, who are friends of mine and very awesome people (and the human's belonging to Julius, one of the best dogs in the world). The short was great (go Abe and Lynn) and happily the feature that followed the short turned out to be quite good too.

SEESAW follows the story of a young couple, Makoto and Shinji, in Tokyo. He's a former actor with a regular office job and she teaches Japanese. The title refers to a seesaw near their home that they play on and also to the structure of the movie. The first half is very happy, fun and care-free while the second is tragic and somber. We are given a glimpse of the tragedy that awaits us in the opening scene, so throughout the happy part we know what we're in for. The final moments of the film hint at a return to some kind of happiness for the characters so that we aren't left in despair. While I personally felt the film pushed the Happiness/Sadness envelopes a bit too far, over all I was very impressed by it. The film opens with a large birthday party that has a very naturalistic, Robert Altman feel. The characters are all likable, distinct and believable. The story is relevant and powerful, unlike some American no-budget films that sometimes have a tendency to read as pretentious.

As is my custom, I immediately sent off an email to the director to congratulate him and find out a bit more about himself and his filmmaking process. Turns out Keihiro is a true no-budget filmmaker of the highest order and that small, digital movies are becoming more and more common in Japan but seldom make it across the Ocean for audiences in the States to enjoy. Time to come up with a way to get these no-budget films from across the world (made without corporate or state funding) seen by the masses.

Keihiro directed as well as wrote and stars in the film as Shinji. But the film clearly lies on the very competent shoulders of Maki Murakami as the wonderfully perky and funny Makoto. We easily fall in love with her in the first half of the movie and are therefore all the more devastated as we watch her world fall apart around her.

The amazing Maki Murakami between takes.
Keihiro shot the film with a budget of merely $2,000. The main location is the couple's apartment, which is Keihiro's own apartment in real life. The park with the seesaw is in his neighborhood. All of the elements of the film were in place before they were written. This is a great lesson for the aspiring no budget filmmaker. Don't just write what you know, write what you have.

With that budget it is obvious that everyone worked for free.

He had a lot of rehearsals with his actors, and rewrote the script based on improvisation. I have seen this work successfully on multiple projects I have been involved with lately. It's a great way to get very naturalistic performances out of actors. Let them do what they might naturally do, then transcribe their actions into the script.

They shot on the very old school Panasonic DVX-100A, the last great SD camera. The camera was entirely hand held -- but never had a nauseating reality show feel, rather we felt like we were participating in the action.

Lighting Designer Yasuhiro Mutsuura wields a hand held light saber style florescent while
cinematographer Mizuki Nishida brandishes the DVX in the background. 

SEESAW is a great example of what can be done with just a little. The film won the top prize for a Japanese film at the Skip City Digital Film Festival in Saitama, Japan which is quickly becoming known as a hot spot for new voices in Japanese cinema. In summing up his experiences on SEESAW Keihiro tells me, "I have no regrets." What more could one say?

Follow SEESAW on Twitter at @seesaw_movie.

Maki introducing a scene from SEESAW at the Skip City Digital Film Festival. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

SAG Meal Penalties Can Make You Lose Your Appetite

I recently had to pay my first SAG meal penalty. Wasn't sure how much it would cost and had to look it up: talk about sticker shock.

SAG meal penalties incur every half hour after six hours from previous meal. There is a 15 minute grace period, so if you're just ten minutes over, it's no big deal. Afterwards, though, it's $25 each performer for each of the first half hours, then it's $50 for each half hour. On our shoot we kept two SAG actors an hour and a half over lunch -- that's three meal penalties (2x25 and 1x50=$100 for each actor). Since this was an Ultra Low SAG project the actors were just making $100 a day. So by keeping them over lunch we essentially paid them for a whole extra day of shooting.

The penalties are the same for all SAG actors, from Tom Cruise to extras. Technically, your crew should be given a meal penalty too. I'll talk about crew unions later.

The penalty is paid to the actors, with the usual percentages taken out for their agents, SAG pension and health, etc.

Lesson: Lunch at six hours. End of story.

UPDATE: Hey, I just checked my Ultra Low Budget contract and realized that it's just $25 each half hour, it doesn't increase. Also you're to pay a percentage, so if you're only ten minutes after the grace period you just pay that percentage, whatever that would be. Now, each SAG contract probably handles this differently, so the above scenario is for Ultra Low Budget only.

The SAG website states the breakdown is thus for the basic agreement:

  • for the first half-hour, or fraction thereof $ 25

  • for the second half-hour $ 35

  • for each half-hour thereafter $ 50

  • Check your own contract for specifics. It's there. Also, while they do expect you to pay P&H on meal penalties, they don't want it reported on the final cast list (for whatever reason -- probably because they don't assess dues from penalties).

    Great Project from the Front Lines in Libya

    I wanted to share this link to my friend Abdallah Omeish's film about the Libyan revolution that he shot over three months in his native Libya. I first met Abdallah when we sat next to each other at a Film Independent special screening. Sometimes when you go to these events it's easy to just sit and watch and leave, but it's worth it to get out of your shell and start talking with people.

    Abdallah has made several impressive and powerful documentaries about the Middle East. He has a skill for getting people to open up to him. Most of the films I work on are fun diversions. Abdallah makes movies that can have a serious impact on our world.

    This is a film that everyone should see.

    Filming cheap in LA

    Filming on the dime in LA is tricky because everyone is so film savvy. It's often hard to find anyone who is willing to just be cool to a small, no budget indie project. We have been looking at two different locations in State Parks (which are a great resource, if they state government doesn't shut them all down). One closer to town would let us film there IF we hire a water truck for dust abatement and provide our own porta-johns (even though there are permanent bathrooms nearby), and if we shuttle everyone in. We went about twenty minutes further out of town however, and found another park that (so far) has not required any additional costs, and is willing to work with us to keep costs down. When someone has their own Film Office to handle permit requests, you can pretty much bet they won't be particularly friendly to no-budgets.

    Wednesday, May 11, 2011

    JUST PRETEND, ultra low in LA

    Next week I start production on JUST PRETEND in Los Angeles. I've shot parts of two features in LA before, but this is my first experience shooting an entire feature in the sometimes non-film-friendly filmmaking capital of the world. I will be attempting to occasionally blog about the experience.

    One definite pro to shooting ultra low in LA is the large amount of eager young people willing to work for little, or nothing, in order to get on set experience. There are also a lot of very talented people willing to work at low rates to help out friends. I have found that in other places, where there is enough filmmaking to keep crew working but not steadily, you are hard pressed to find crew that will work for rates that small projects require. As one Utah based grip once told me, "I can only move as fast as my day rate is high."

    Our crew is working for essentially minimum wage. Most of them work on better paying gigs most of the time and are working with us either for experience or to help friends. Instead of the four or five person crew that most no-budget shoots have, we're pretty full at twenty. Twenty starts to be big enough that it's hard to steal things or to feel any different than any other film. That's something that we are trying to avoid.