Sunday, January 26, 2020

Making a Low-Budget, DIY Film Part 3: But seriously, why now?

I really can't say why I decided to make Unknown Number at this particular moment. Sure, I could go on about getting access to a location, having all the pieces come together, etc. etc. etc. But none of that matters if it isn't the right time to make the movie.

Obviously, when you're self-financing a DIY short film out of your own pocket that will be shown on YouTube, you're not doing the project for the money. So you don't sign up to do a film like this because you have any expectations of trying to make any money. Hardly.

Why then?

Well, the only answer I can begin to provide is that, when you want to make movies, you want to make movies, and you will do what you have to do to make that happen. And a big part of that is striking when an opportunity presents itself.

I still haven't answered the question, have I?

Ok. Maybe I don't have an answer.

I'll mention a few things:

This is the first fiction film I've made since 2017. My last one was The Survivor, a dystopian historical fiction about a man struggling to survive in the wilderness after a catastrophic war had decimated the country. Sounds pretty elaborate? Well, not really. It was basically made with a single actor, and myself on camera and directing, using voice over narration to suggest the large-scale events off-screen.

This is a technique I've used numerous times before, and it's served me well in being able to tell stories on a micro-budget. But even this approach has its limitations, and I felt that I was pushing those limitations with that project and the one I made immediately before it, Mercenary (which I released on YouTube at the end of 2016).

Part of what made Unknown Number an appealing project is that it could be done with just a single actor (and I knew I'd step in to play that role). But at the same time, because it was to be shot in a controlled environment (the office), I knew that it would give me more freedom in trying out some new technical ideas and pushing myself to do better work than I'd done last time. In many ways, the project presented some of the same pitfalls and limitations I'd encountered with both Mercenary and The Survivor, but I wanted to push beyond those limitations and create something that would surpass what I'd done before. If you're not growing, it can be discouraging to feel like you're repeating yourself or treading water.

When I had the idea to go back to the well and film the script for Unknown Number, it had been nearly three years since I'd shot The Survivor. In the interim, I'd been working a lot in the documentary form, making short film history videos for YouTube as well as the documentary subject Cinevangelist: A Life in Revival Film, a portrait of Baltimore film historian George Figgs. Cinevangelist occupied a lot of my time over the past two-plus years, as I did an extensive roll-out and eventually self-distributed it via Vimeo on Demand (more on that in a later post).

After spending almost three years in the documentary realm, I suppose I yearned to return to making the kind of fiction film that was what primarily drew me to making films in the first place. Unknown Number presented that opportunity. And I hoped that after three years, I would have had time to re-charge and perhaps think differently about how to do things, which would then, hopefully, result in creating something above and beyond what I'd done before.

These are your hopes, anyway, when you go into a project like this. Obviously, you can't know exactly how things will go, or how things will turn out. But the more you do it -- the more you give yourself the experience of making the movies -- the better of an idea you'll have about these things.

I'll be honest -- going through the process of making a movie this way often brings up a lot of doubts and reservations for me. I don't know many people who, at a young age, dream of making micro-budget DIY movies into their '30s. I suspect many of us who do this started out with the goal of having access to the same kinds of resources as the filmmakers whose work inspired us. How many filmmakers describe watching Citizen Kane as the catalyst that ignited their desire to make films of their own? I know that was certainly the case for me, and hearing the stories about how Welles got access to the vast resources of RKO studios right out of the gate is the stuff of legend.

Of course, aspiring filmmakers only hear those exceptional success stories. And you quickly learn that very, very few filmmakers ever have that kind of opportunity -- even ones who may have been working in the industry for years, let alone on their very first film. Then it comes down to the question: do you really want to make movies?

If the answer to that question is honestly a "yes", then you will find a way. If you cling to the idea that you have to be like Orson Welles making Citizen Kane or Steven Spielberg making Jaws, you'll likely be disappointed and will walk away from it when those opportunities fail to materialize. You have to adjust in order to keep on going. And you keep giving yourself that experience so you can get better at it.

Maybe that's all the reason you need.

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