Monday, January 27, 2020

Making a Low-Budget, DIY Film Part 4: Stop-and-Go

When it comes time to actually make a movie, that's when the reality starts to set in. You've written your script, even looked at the resources that you have access to, and mentally prepared yourself for taking that first step back in to the creative process.

Then it comes time to get together all of the people and stuff needed to make the movie. And this is where it can become heartbreaking.

In making Unknown Number, I'd decided that I wanted to kick things up a notch, to make the production a little more polished and professional than my previous DIY efforts. This may sound a little contradictory, since the whole point of micro-budget DIY filmmaking is just to make the movie with whatever you have access to and get it done any way you have to.

Well, yes. But you have to remember, this is my 28th short film since 2006 (which doesn't even count the dozens and dozens of short films and features I made prior to film school, going all the way back to 1993). Each time you make the effort of embarking on a movie, it's only natural that you should want to make it better, in some way, than what you did the last time.

And one of the ways in which I hoped to do that on Unknown Number was to hire a videographer. My thinking was that by hiring someone who had access to professional level equipment, and who could handle the tasks of shooting and lighting the film (as well as all post-production services), I would be able to take the production up a few notches as I'd hoped.

I want to stop here for a moment to make something very clear: I am in no way disparaging the work done by my collaborators on previous efforts. On my previous films (and, it would turn out, on Unknown Number too) I have used my own cameras to shoot the movie. Often, I handle the duties of cinematographer myself. In some cases, this has not posed any particular challenge. For example, on my last film, The Survivor, I directed and shot the film since I was not acting in it, and given the relative simplicity of the shots, it was not especially difficult. In contrast, when I made the film before that one, Mercenary, I faced a unique set of challenges. In that one, I play the lead role, and I was directing and shooting it as well as an entirely one-man operation. For that film, I was able to set the camera up on the tripod in the hotel room to get the shots that I needed of me on the phone, sitting on the bed, etc. Where it became especially difficult was when I was filming myself walking around the streets, and had to mount the camcorder on the end of a "selfie stick" designed for lightweight smartphones. I made it work, but it was a tremendous compromise in terms of what I was able to achieve with it.

Those are exactly the kinds of compromises I was hoping to move away from with Unknown Number. And to do that, my first step was to look into hiring a cinematographer. I was put in touch with someone who had been recommended to me, but never heard anything back in response to my inquiry. This was very disappointing, and I'm not sure what happened. But it did momentarily give me pause as to whether or not I would continue with the film. This was one of the first strikes I encountered in that department.

Once I had accepted that I was going to have to return to using my own equipment, I spoke with my wife, who has shot a number of my films, as well as taking charge of the responsibilities of the art department in various capacities. She agreed to shoot the film, but I also did not want to ask too much and overload her with production design responsibilities as well.

Once again, I found myself seriously debating whether or not to even continue with the film. This is both one of the luxuries, but also one of the curses, of making a DIY movie. Because it is very easy, tempting even, just to pull the plug on it when you begin to encounter these kinds of compromises and challenges. As I mentioned earlier, there is always a part of me that wants to do better than I did last time.

After further deliberation, I reached out to my father, who had also shot many of my earlier films. He's a photography enthusiast, and I thought he might have access to a DSLR camera that I'd be able to borrow for the shoot. He didn't, but he agreed to shoot it for me using my camcorder. This would also allow my wife to take on the production design responsibilities without any other considerations.

There was one other issue: I had reached out to a friend and voice-actor with whom I've worked a number of times in the past ten years, about recording a voice-over for a character who is heard only through the phone. He was interested, but wasn't available for some time. The challenges I described above happened largely in that interim. At the last minute before our recording session, I decided to pull the plug on Unknown Number.

At this point, you might be wondering why I bother with this at all if it results in all of this back-and-forth. Well, like I said in a previous post, when you feel the time is right to make a movie, you get into action to make it happen. All of the compromises and challenges on top of that are things that need to be dealt with, but there also comes a point where you have to ask yourself whether it is worth trying to continue at all if there are too many compromises to be made.

You see, I've made this choice in the past, to plow ahead with making a movie even when the project becomes greatly compromised by the circumstances surrounding the production. Sometimes, when you go this route, you can step back and look at the results and realize that it didn't turn out half-bad. But after the last couple of films I'd made, I really did not want to repeat the process of making something on such a limited amount of resources. I wanted to do better.

So, at this point, Unknown Number was dead in the water. I wasn't thrilled with the decision, to be sure, but at the time I made it, I thought it was the right one. However, as the next several days passed, I found myself thinking about the project, and whether it was really the best choice just to let it die this way. I just couldn't shake the feeling that it might have been a mistake, after all, to pull the plug that way, rather than moving ahead.

I wish I could say that I had some big revelation, some big "a ha" moment in which everything crystallized, in which I picked up the camera and decided to go back out there and make the movie!

Well, it's not exactly like that. Rather, I came to the realization for myself that if I let Unknown Number go unmade, I would eventually come to regret the decision. Even if it was the easiest solution in the short term, I knew that, long-term, I'd be sorry I didn't do it when I had the chance.

This is something else that I can't stress enough about making a DIY movie: timing is everything. Everything. This is probably true even in Hollywood (think about how many times we read about films simmering for years on the back burner, or stuck in the purgatory of development hell). When you're making a movie entirely on your own like this, with any expenses self-financed entirely out of your own pocket, your personal life circumstances are inextricably linked to being able to make the movie. And when you have the opportunity, when all of the other elements are there that you need in order to do it, that's when you have to strike. Because there's no guarantee that everything will come together like that again.

So, after some hemming and hawing, I decided to move forward with Unknown Number again. This time, there could be no turning back...

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