Monday, September 8, 2014

Keep My Brother* - The Dreaded Ultra Low

"I know not at all what may be coming, but be it what it will, I'll go to it laughing"
-Moby Dick

It started with a budget. It always starts with a budget.

Yes, I know, it is probably more accurate to say that a movie starts with a script; and, if we were to get philosophical (or technical) it actually started as an idea.

With all due respect to my fellow script writers (and I have written more than a few), for me, it starts to be real when I prepare a budget. The budget is not just the number, it is a game plan for how to make the movie.

Another truth is, for all the budgets I prepare, very few raise the money.

This guy, Mike*, had written a film that he would be the lead in. Additionally, he had raised the total budget he was going to raise, which was much less than $100K. He had access to a nightclub for two weeks while it was closed for vacation. Unlike most "free locations" the director was the General Manager of the club, and we were able to have it for absolutely free.

When I first broke down the script, I agreed with Mike it should be twelve days if we were going to come in on budget. However, a closer look, and I did not believe the breakdown or the schedule. In an email I now joke with Mike about, I told him that I was sending him a 14 day schedule because I did not 'believe a 12 day schedule was possible.'

Mike said he would try to raise the additional money - about $20K - for a 14 day schedule and some adjustments. However, he found that he would not be able to raise that additional money until after we would be shooting the film, so it would have to be 12 days. Twelve days for a 98 page script.

Something had to give. In fact, a lot had to give.

Here is where the process of matching the script and logisitics to the reality of the budget begins, and this is an important lesson in films that pull off low budgets, and those that don't.

If we were going to get this done, we needed some adjustments, and the fact that Mike was flexible about so many things allowed it to happen.

First, I wanted to go with a small crew, paying key positions decently so we would make a good film and move fast. Second, I wanted to limit company moves, so that I could put money needed for vehicles, gas and parking toward making the movie.

Toward the latter end, we built two offices within the club to save  moves, and Mike agreed to move two scenes to the club so we need only shoot one day in his apartment, instead of an awkward day that would have been one and a half day with a company move. Neither Mike nor I thought these were bad compromises that hurt the story. In the end, we shot nine days at the club, one day at his apartment, and one day at a friend's apartment. All absolutely free.

The Ultra Low is a budget I always said I didn't want to shoot, not because my fee would be less (which it would) but because it meant too many interns in positions that should be paid, not enough paid prep time for positions I needed (like AD, and DP prep), and basically a lot more work for me in addition to less money. At 56, the additional work, having to do everything I normally do PLUS a lot of what I normally assign to others, is just usually not worth it to me.

However, Mike seemed like a realist right from the beginning, Some things you just go with your gut, and my gut on Mike was a guy who would work with me every step along the way, and I turned out to be right.

I decided to do this blog now, while it is fresh in my mind, so it serves as a guide for those doing these new VERY low budget projects, on the types of adjustments that must be made, how to move money from one line item to another, and how to make the most of your resources.

Let me be clear - you win or lose as a team. I can bring all my experience and expertise, but without cooperation from the director, and some key people working out, it simply does not happen.

To paraphrase Star Trek's good Doctor McCoy, 'Dammit, filmmaker, I'm a line producer, not a magician.'

The next key was having faith in people in some key positions. As it turned out, I was able to bring on those key people and work with some people who I had known for a long time, and also got lucky in some other positions. More on that in the next post.

*Folks on this film were great - using first names only because don't want to publicly share info some people might prefer remain private, like their names.

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