The Masochistic Existence of a Microbudget Filmmaker
August 17, 2015
“So much to lose, so little to gain” is a phrase that tends to echo in my mind every time I take on an indie film. Make no mistake. I love movies. Making them is the only thing I feel fully passionate about on a professional level. And I’ll never give up. But to be a moviemaker today sometimes feels tantamount to being a modern day Job. You know, the guy from the Bible? The guy God kept bitchsmacking until Job broke down and said, seriously God, WTF? The reality is making microbudget movies are beyond tough. Soul draining, misery laden exercises in frustration and disappointment. Think I’m being hyperbolic? I’m not. After a decade of making feature films, not a single feature I’ve made has come close to earning me a living. But at the same time, I feel each brings me closer to the end game. It’s all a game of patience and persistence.
I once received a phone call from Peter Hyams, director of 2010, Running Scared, and End of Days amongst others. He was a friend of a friend, and I convinced him to call to talk shop. Can ya believe it? He gave me one golden bit of advice. “Breaking into the industry isn’t much different than being a prize fighter. You’re going to get hit, and then again and again. And it’s only the ones that can keep standing that will make it.” I’m in the tenth round of the fight. And my face is bruised beyond reason. But I’m not about to take that fall.
It’s a different world of filmmaking then the one Kevin Smith was discovered in back when he debuted Clerks in 1994. That was a time when far fewer were making features and an indie filmmaker had a fighting chance to get seen. No longer. We’re in the youtube generation. And everyone wants to be a star. Cameras are affordable, and the world of the indie auteur is legion. In this environment, how the hell can you stand out? I’ve seen good work go largely unnoticed and amateur work get viewed by millions of people. It’s a whole new ballgame.
All I can write is what I know. I made my first feature, Dark Chamber, between 2001 and 2006. Despite my ambition, I was green. I gave it everything, and I learned from it. Dark Chamber was my crash course education in filmmaking. I hoped for Sundance. I ended up in regional fests. But you know what? I wouldn’t give up that experience for anything. It opened some doors and led to the next production. The only fighting chance we all have is to keep moving, keep working and learn to say yes to most of what’s offered. One project tends to lead to the next. One festival introduces you to new friends and faces of those like minded to you.
I love writing, I love acting, I even love editing, but directing? On this budget? Forget it. Most everything that can go wrong, probably will go wrong. You’ll find yourself in a constant state of compromise as you struggle in jest to accomplish a far more meager version of your grand vision. As a director, I don’t yell, holler or cause the drama that so often accompanies sleep deprived people who are living pay check to pay check. I might not have much to offer the cast/crew in terms of financial compensation, but I appreciate their time and friendship more than they know. Always let your crew know how important they are to you. They’re the reason your opus is happening. I once heard a story of a colleague of mine who pulled a knife on a crew member during a dispute. Not surprisingly, he hasn’t made a film since that cold day in the mid 90s. Regardless of what horrible happenstance find you, there is always a way to get through it.
And if you think making your movie is tough, wait until you go searching for distribution and the public. Distributors want production values, star power, and movies of a certain genre. If you don’t have any of those things, you MAY still be fortunate enough to find a label, but the likelihood is you won’t make a dime back. Then there’s the public. You’d swear John Q. Public has no clue that not every film is made for fifty or more million dollars. No matter how many countless hours, blood, sweat and tears you’ve put into your work, he’s there to tell you how much you suck, the movie sucks and why you have no right making movies or breathing air to boot. If people can see past the production values of Clerks, I still have faith the public has it in them to appreciate resourceful no budget filmmaking. Sometimes they just need context. I try never to fight the haters. I just engage with them respectfully. If some of them knew your story and the budget behind the movie itself, they might just embrace it. After all, what is Clerks or El Marachi without the stories of Smith and Rodriguez behind them?
It’s now Summer of 2015. I have three movies that were professionally released to DVD, a part time job with my favorite distributor, and my newest feature, Caesar & Otto’s Paranormal Halloween comes out this Fall. I’m not there. But I’m a lot closer than I was. To be an indie filmmaker so often means disappointment, compromise and heartbreak. But if you make the most of it, give your work your all, it WILL lead to more opportunities. I don’t know what the future holds, but for the first time, I’m too busy too care. And it’s a great feeling. I’ll be hosting a podcast entitled Production Hell starting in September and I welcome you to tune in to hear stories from fellow filmmakers about the trials and tribulations of filmmaking in the modern era.