So in the last blog entry I talked about the impossibility of trying to make the “next El Mariachi“. How costs have changed since then, how there was a substantial amount of hype surrounding its budget (and those of films like it), etc.

Now I’m going to try and sprinkle in some good news: you can still make a nano-budget film. Here are a few tips that can help you get there:

Write What You Own

This sounds very obvious, but it’s amazing how common sense flies out the window when people think about movies. Locations are the bane of an independent filmmaker’s existence. It’s rare to find an experienced location manager who’ll work for the wages you can afford to pay her, so your next best thing is to simply limit the number of locations you have to go out and find. What do you own or have free/cheap access to? Can you consolidate scenes that take place in different locations, into one location? Reservoir Dogs is a good example – most of the film takes place in one location – the warehouse. Primer was shot in several locations, but many of them were outdoors (no lights), and others were owned by the director. Clerks of course is the classic example – Kevin Smith’s boss let him shoot in the deli where he worked.

Lights = Inaction

New York City-owned exteriors (including parks and most sidewalks) are free. Many towns have permit fees, but others do not. In many cases the permit fees are pretty affordable. While there are definite trade-offs to shooting outdoors – you’re at the mercy of the weather and the local sound patterns – you do not have to do much in the way of lighting. Lighting takes time, even with a fast DP. This doesn’t mean that you’ll never need lights outside, or that you can get away with shooting without bounces, nets, rags, or flags to shape daylight, but these things cost less (and generally need less manpower) than lights do. Plus, exteriors can be very dynamic and can add a lot more production value than four white walls can.

Condense Your Characters

Clerks, El Mariachi, Primer, Pi and the plethora of mumblecore movies – hell, even “big-budget indie” movies like The Hurt Locker have one thing in common – they feature a small cast of characters. Fewer characters = fewer actors to pay, costumes to rent/buy for, props to deal with, mouths to feed, people to transport, etc. Plus, eliminating unnecessary or redundant roles helps clarify your story. Very few directors, John Sayles being a notable exception, can keep more than one ball in the air at a time. It’s much better to tell a story with fewer, more focused characters, than have a big “ensemble” mess.

Find a Producer

Behind every indie success story stands a producer who didn’t get nearly enough credit. Tarantino has Lawrence Bender, Kevin Smith has Scott Mosier, Darren Aronofsky had Eric Watson… the list goes on and on. You can’t do it all alone (why do you think there are so many brother teams in films?). Trying to will end up costing you money. You will also lose focus on your job, which is to tell the story. If you’re a producer, find a director who can tell your script’s story. Let each of you do their jobs. Every film I’ve worked on where the director was also the producer ran over budget. So did a few of the ones that had too many producers, but that’s another story…

Shoot During the Off Season

In New York City, winter and early spring (Jan. – April) can be pretty dead. There’s less usable daylight, it’s pretty cold out, and there’s often snow and/or rain to deal with. Depending on where you live, the off-season may be during a different time period (or there may not be one), but if you can stomach the conditions, you can pick up a good crew, equipment, and services for less.

Work Backwards From Distribution

Do you know who you’re writing for? Who your audience is? Does your film fit into a genre? Pretend you’re a distributor – how would you lure your audience to see your film? This is something a lot of first-timers don’t consider, and it can affect your budget in all sorts of ways. My own film Caleb’s Door was roundly rejected by many fests and distributors because it wasn’t horror-like or dramatic enough – it sat squarely between two chairs. As a result, I spent many more dollars than I should have in festival fees, screener for distributors, postage – it adds up. I could have upped my production budget by just a little bit and added some gore and prosthetic effects, and possibly shot the film in a scarier style. This would have SAVED me money later. If you can identify your fan base, you can use many different FREE or low-cost techniques to reach out to them (blogging, social networking sites, e-newsletters, showing up at conventions/interest groups/bars with DVDs) and get them hankering to buy your film.

Dumpster Diving – Or the Equivalent

This is not for the faint of heart, but I’ve picked up props, lumber and costumes by visiting dumpsters, business/store closeouts, recycling centers, and even asking neighbors for donations. If you’re diving, be careful – wear gloves, use a flashlight at night, be prepared for some harassment by passersby/cops, and obviously bring a handtruck or something to carry the loot off with.

Good Effects Can Be Cheap, but “Cheap” Effects Are Never Good

Visual effects – which would include animation, CGI, boom pole erasures, slow/fast motion work, etc. – can be planned for ahead of time. Same with physical effects – prosthetics, bruises, cuts, fog – anything that happens “on set”. The distinction is not so cut-and-dried, but you get the idea. The main thing is that you need to plan these things out before you shoot. Do some research. Ask some experts (F/X guys are very generous people). Rodriguez has been drawing comics since he was a kid. He storyboarded El Mariachi extensively, so he knew what shots would feature gunfire, squib effects, and slow motion. Joe Carnahan worked as an editor while he was making Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, and so he knew what he could get away with in post, and what he would have to focus on getting right during production.

Miracles Are Cheap

I’ve worked for many directors who had the entire movie planned in their heads, and wouldn’t adjust their vision to reality. So we spent lots of extra money on renting or building a location (or renting a specific car, boat, or prop) just so he could get that shot that was in his head. The truth is that sometimes you have to adjust your vision to your budget. The flipside is that if you are open to this, you will often be rewarded by something miraculous – the sun will come out from behind the clouds, another shot will present itself before your eyes, or the actors will come up with some great business – that’s better than you could have done on your own. And it will be free!

Another option is to change the script incrementally to reflect your locations. An example: in Caleb’s Door, one of the main characters is a former priest, who’s living in a somewhat run-down apartment (since he’s broke). I had a free location, with great light and a terrific feel to it. But the production designer kept saying that it looked too nice. I realized that the way out of this dilemma was simple: make it his sister’s apartment that he’s staying with until he’s settled. Two lines of dialog and I had a free location. I didn’t have to build or repaint anything, or find another location.

Rent or Buy

When looking at purchasing a camera or piece of gear, you should look at the total picture: how long is the shoot? What is the real likelihood that I will use this again? What else will I have to rent? Can I get a replacement immediately if it breaks? Can I rent it out (and do I want those hassles) when I’m not using it? Often times, you’re better off by renting a camera package than buying one. Today’s hot technology is next year’s doorstop (Panasonic DVX200 users now pine for a Sony EX3). The exception is a computer for editing – you’ll need something to work with throughout post, and beyond (for DVD duplication, QuickTime dubs, stills, uploading video to the web, etc.)

Economies of Scale

The classic Hollywood studio moguls understood that they could make films more inexpensively if they amortized the cost of resources – sets, insurance, staff, cast, equipment – over several films. Roger Corman’s studio still does it this way, recycling sets, creatures, actors, directors, etc. over and over again. Over the years, a few indie producers have tried to do something similar (buying long-term insurance policies, ganging features up back-to-back with the same crew and locations, etc.) with varying results. If you can find someone else to partner with on this level, you can save a LOT of money. I’ve always been wary of partnerships, though – just thinking about the conversation over who gets to shoot first. You may, on the other hand, find a production company that will give you office space, crafty, unit supplies, etc. for low or no cost.

Well, there are many more tips and tricks out there. What are some of yours? Email me. Tell me about your experiences. I’d love to know.