Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Knowing when you're making a micro-budget film, or something entirely different

When I first was approached by Kevin Barker to help him and his wife Amy Miller produce Last Kind Words we discussed shooting on a micro-budget, or at least under $100,000. As I read the script I felt like that would certainly be possible. After all, most of the action takes place in a forest and on a farm. The script I learned was written to be filmed at the lovely Mook Farm in rural Kentucky which was owned by a friend of the family. The idea was that our small crew and cast would stay at Mook while we shot. It seemed easy enough. At the time, I was shooting Dave Boyle's Surrogate Valentine, on a much smaller scale. Piece of cake, I thought.

Director Kevin Barker discusses a scene with Brad Dourif in Last Kind Words
However, several factors quickly changed that vision of low-budget ease into a much more complicated procedure.

  • Director's Vision: To make Last Kind Words for the cost that we hoped for we needed to take a visual approach similar in look to Blair Witch Hunt, or some other down and dirty project. However, this wasn't Kevin's vision for the film. As he spoke with his cinematographer it became clear that Kevin wanted to highlight the beauty of Western Kentucky and to make a film that was genuinely great to look at. This would require a much bigger crew (of course, we settled for only a slightly bigger crew) and a larger equipment package. The plan was just to use reflectors in the forest, but eventually we paid for a few extra generator days to be able to have better lighting options. We also needed to have a jib shipped out from Los Angeles (cheaper than renting one locally), a condor, and other toys. Fortunately fellow producer Amy Miller agreed with Kevin's vision and was able to make some financial magic happen to get some additional cash for the project.
  • Travel Costs: It turns out that we couldn't stay at Mook with our expanded crew so we had to look elsewhere. The nearest hotel that could accommodate us at a decent rate was over a half hour drive away. Because we were an hour and a half from Louisville we even had to put up local crew. Almost all of our crew came in from elsewhere, however, because we didn't have the network needed to get willing low pay crew from nearby. We had crew from New York, California, Utah, Arizona, Kansas, Nebraska and a caterer from Virginia. We rented out an entire motel for the crew which turned into quite the party, but the crew travel/lodging costs alone was $20,000.
  • Mr. Brad Dourif: Once we started talking about spending more to make it more of a "real" movie, we started talking about finding a name actor for the lead role. Brad Dourif was an early consideration and his agent was really great to work with. However, he insisted on a rate quite a bit higher than we had budget for, so we had to make an adjustment there. Dourif delivered a dynamite performance and having him in the role certainly helps as we sell the film.
As the producer it was my job to keep abreast of these expenses and to warn Amy, who was handling more of the investor side of the team, about them as they arose. I had several nights when after number crunching I had to knock on her door to bring her more bad news. The news was always, "If we want to make this movie like we're currently making it, we're going to need to do this..." (followed by something that would cost more money).

But we always agreed that it was worth it to try to make the movie the way we wanted to make it, as long as we could figure out how. Thanks to a very skilled director (Kevin), a very crafty Executive Producer/Producer (Amy), a brilliant cinematographer (Bill Otto), a skilled 1st AD (Eric Sheehan) and a great cast and crew, we were able to endure a very hard and taxing shoot and make a pretty good film. 

This is not what micro-budget filmmaking looks like.

As I prepare projects now I make the considerations above before moving forward. It's important that everyone is on the same page as far as vision goes. If we had wanted to make LKW on a micro budget we could have. We could have shot in upstate New York or another rural area that could actually house us, that would be closer to a film center where we could easily have gotten equipment and crew. We could have given it a down and dirty look without jibs or dollies. But, then again, the film ended up costing much less than most (though more than we initially planned) and its beautiful look and high production value is one of the strengths of the finished film. 

The key lesson, however, is simply don't think you will be able to have a slick, polished looking film on a micro budget. If your vision is to make something stunning, you have to budget for it.

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