Two Filmmakers on the Risks and Rewards of Making a DIY Film
By Tracy Clark
Everything was run like a well-oiled machine; leaving one with the impression that this was not a DIY [Do It Yourself] production team at work. Perched on the camera dolly, with tracks laid neatly and evenly on the pavement. The bubble was dead center on the level-stood writer/director Desmond Hall, Director of Photography, Peter Konczal and 1st Assistant Camera, Shawn Kim. The camera was not your usual DIY. “cheapo” 16mm Bolex, but a professional 35mm Moviecam. This was a feature production which the cast, crew, and the many onlookers crowding Mott Avenue in New York City took seriously. Assistant Director, Jose Molinari-Rosaly barked orders for the cast and crew to follow in preparation for the next take. “Action,” and the actors took off running down the street, the camera in hot pursuit. Several takes later, the shooting day was over and In Black and White was just a few days away from being in the can.
“The key ingredient is surrounding yourself with the right people,” said Jon Gold, producer of In Black and White. Together, Hall and Gold were able to secure the financing for the project, write the script and assemble a cast and crew in roughly five months. “We took the tack that it’s probably more efficient to hire experienced people who know what they’re doing because that’ll save you more money than hiring less experienced people.” Most filmmakers considering DIY believe that an experienced cast and crew will strain their meager budget, but what they don’t take into account are the hidden costs of the inexperienced such as under or overexposed film stock, broken or lost equipment, production delays, and costly mistakes.
“We thought we were going to have to shoot in Super16!” exclaimed Jesse Feigelman, write /director of Snapped, a quirky romance about slacker kids in off-season East Hampton. “We had some great people in production who were able to secure a great deal on renting a 35mm camera and getting a fantastic package.” By shooting in 35mm, both Hall and Feigelman have increased the value of their productions and have elevated themselves to the big leagues. “A lot of distributors are against Super16,” added Feigelman, “Even if you already have the blowup and they don’t have to pay for it, they can see the degradation in the quality.” With so many other filmmakers doing DIY in 16mm and even Hi-S, having a film shot originally in 35mm gives a DIYer a leg up.
As more and more frustrated writer’s don director/producer caps, the industry has experienced a glut of DIY productions, particularly at a time when the role of the distributor has changed and most are producing their own films. Why go to the trouble and the expense? “You take the risk to realize something that is greater than yourself,” said Desmond Hall. In Black and White is a comedy that explores race relations in America and is based on a short made by Hall and Gold’s Box Drinks Films in 1996. “You could take that money and you can do a whole lot of things with it that aren’t exactly as speculative as filmmaking,” stated Hall. “When you go into filmmaking, I think you really have to move someone on the other end. Whether it’s to laughter, pain, or just understanding something. I think that’s what you really want. Otherwise, you go buy a Ford Explorer.”
The DIY’er takes a huge gamble making a film in today’s marketplace because it is crowded and no one, other than his investors, has a stake in the film’s success, or failure. The studios have the resources to invest in a number of projects at the same time. If one fails they can count on another one succeeding. The DIY filmmaker has his one time at bat and failure can be economically devastating. “I had to make this movie,” asserted Feigelman of Snapped. “There was no real decision; there was no other possibility or choice.” DIY’ers have to be committed to the project completely and unconditionally since the process can take months or even years. The Brothers McMullen took Edward Burns nearly a year to get through principal photography. Desmond Hall and Jon Gold spent three weeks shooting In Black and White, Jesse Feigelman’s Snapped wrapped in five weeks.
Making that commitment to the project is the first step and for Feigelman, it was the only step. “I think if you give it too much thought, you will not make a movie. If you think about all the people, and all the things, and all the physical limitations that are against you, any sane person would not make a film.” DIY is not for the faint of heart. Production costs for both of these films were reported as “under a million and climbing.” In Black and White may be in the can, but Hall and Gold face spending hundreds of thousands in post-production, while Feigelman, whose film is completed, expects to spend thousands in promotion for the festival circuit. “Just sending a print to a film festival costs about $700,” confirmed Feigelman.
The script is the key to successfully completing a DIY feature on the scale of Snapped and In Black and White. With a solid script, recognizable talent is more likely to sign onto the project at SAG minimum in order to play a good role. “We were able to attract fairly well-known, experienced and excellent actors such as Harold Perrineau, Jr., Romeo & Juliet, Smoke, Lonette McKee, Cotton Club, He Got Game, Anthony De Sando, Kiss Me Guido, and Francie Swift,” said Gold, who gives credit to Hall for his exceptional writing and directorial style. “You don’t cast like that as first time filmmakers,” asserted Hall. “There were some really talented people who came on board and we were very fortunate. They’re not names like Tom Cruise, but these people can flat out perform.”
Performances can make or break a DIY effort and hiring talented actors can benefit the production, not only by saving time and money shooting excessive retakes, but in having names that distributors and festival programmers recognize. Although Jesse Feigelman cast Gaby Hoffman (Everyone Says I Love You) and CK model, Johnny Zander, as his leads in Snapped, he also cast actors that he considers up and coming. “We weren’t forced into just using names. Some of the actors were just incredibly talented.“
There is a downside to using professional actors- their schedules. “One of our stars, Harold Perrineau, Jr., we had to work around his schedule,” admitted Hall. As a result, they had a narrow window of opportunity, squeezing in all of Perrineau’s scenes into the two weeks he was available and to set their start date at the beginning of his availability. “Setting that date for when you’re going to start shooting means everything,” said Hall. “All of a sudden it’s a rallying cry. We’re going to do it on this particular date, so here we go and everyone rallies around that and get things done.” No time to put things off and procrastinate under those circumstances.
“A lot of people won’t give you money if you don’t have a definitive date to start shooting,” added Feigelman. “They feel that they can always postpone. Like the [need for the] money is not dire because you don’t have a specific date.” To start the process, Feigelman, Hall, and Gold agree that a date must be set and the filmmaker should get everything in place in preparation for the start of production, with or without the money in the bank. “To start the process rolling you have to put your foot in the water before you can actually swim, and that was one of the things that we did. We set a date that we were going to start shooting with very little money in the bank and just through confidence or stupidity, I don’t know which one it is, we just told everyone we’re shooting on this certain date. It instills a level of confidence in you and then they invest the money.”
Avoiding the guilds and permits is a myth that DIY filmmakers should ignore. SAG, the Screen Actors Guild, and I.A.T.S.E. will work with low budget filmmakers. However DIYers who cannot afford the I.A.T.S.E. rules should not sign a contract. There are many union members who are willing to work below scale because I.A.T.S.E. cannot guarantee year-round employment. SAG, on the other hand, has low budget agreements that allow filmmakers to pay members $75 a day and defer the rest. New York City permits are free provided the filmmaker has proof of insurance, which must be purchased anyway in order to rent equipment. DIY filmmakers no longer have to employ guerrilla tactics by stealing shots before a police car turns the corner.
Not all scripts and writers can go DIY Desmond Hall and Jesse Feigelman made short films that had a successful festival run before making the transition to features. “We spent four years writing the script for Snapped and a little under a year to finish the film,” admitted Feigelman of the long process to bring the script to the screen. His short, Maintenance, featuring Maria Bello, ER, went to the Locarno film festival and other festivals in 1994. Feigelman has worked in feature sound recording for six years with credits including, The Myth Of Fingerprints and Love Walked In. Hall also has an impressive production background, working extensively in commercial advertising. By learning from his mistakes and also experiencing how In Black and White played to an audience as a short, he was able to test audience response and determine what moved them.
A century ago, W.E.B. Dubois said, “‘The greatest problem facing America was the question of the color line’ and it still is,” asserted Hall whose film deals exclusively with the issue of race. Evidenced by the number of racial attacks in recent months, Hall has hit on a hot-button topic. “You figure a man’s gone to the moon, women have been able to vote, Tupperware was invented, and still, race is almost the number one issue right now. It seemed like something that needed to be talked about.” Tackling a subject that is important to the filmmaker is the main reason to go DIY Hollywood is not interested in making films that are about something so much as the industry is interested in making money. As a result, the DIY filmmaker has the freedom and the responsibility to communicate through his films in a way that Hollywood cannot.
“We showed the script to more conventional sources, the studios and some distributors, but it’s very difficult to get something made unless you’re tied in with the studio or have some deal with the studio,” expounded In Black and White producer, Jon Gold. “The only way to really get your film made the way you want it to be made is to do it yourself.” A difficult subject like race or a strong character piece that would be of interest to a niche audience is not the type of projects Hollywood embraces. With Hollywood films having to run the gauntlet of test audiences and marketing machinery, most DIY projects would require massive re-cutting and re-shooting to fit the mold. “I had to direct and I had to have final cut,” said Feigelman. “That was the only way I was going to make this film. Even though I’ve made a bunch of shorts and they’ve placed at festivals, no one was going to take the risk of putting that amount of money on a first time filmmaker.”
“We put this together with the mindset that it was going to be a low budget independent film and that we were going to do it on our own,” stated Gold. Low budget does not mean low quality or cheap. Instead, it means making a film without waste. The studios can afford to shoot hundreds of thousands of feet of film, knowing that a little under 10,000 feet is needed for a 90-minute feature. Hall, Gold, and Feigelman had to plan extensively to avoid unnecessarily wasting footage and to make sure that every penny spent ended up on the screen. “We knew how much money we had and how to get the film made within those parameters,” said Gold. “I think for first-time filmmakers, it’s good to be able to have the opportunity to do it the way you want to do it.” Hundreds of thousands of scripts are written and only a small percentage are ever made into feature films. To have the opportunity to make a film, Desmond Hall regards it as a privilege.
“On the low budget side of filmmaking, I think the limitations are sometimes blessings,” admitted Feigelman, who considers the four-year wait to make Snapped an advantage. “One of our assets-that didn’t seem so at the time-was having so much time to really tighten the script and really hone it. So when we were actually shooting, plot problems or dialogue problems were never really an issue.” With limited financial resources and not being able to rely on a car chase or gratuitous sex or violence to distract the audience from a weak plot, DIY filmmakers have to serve the story. “You find that by not having too many toys and too many devices that cloud your vision, you have to tell the story in the simplest way possible.”
The DIY film is usually seat of your pants filmmaking, requires total preparedness and complete knowledge of the script. “You really have to be able to just accept your decisions because you don’t have any time to second guess yourself,” said Feigelman who had to settle with “weeklies” rather than dailies due to time constraints. By the second week of shooting, he was not able to see dailies of what he shot until he wrapped production. “Whatever we shot was what we had because all the actors had gone back to Los Angeles. We couldn’t fly them back out again.”
There must also be a separation between the writer and the director side of the filmmaker. S/he must be flexible enough to accept his financial constraints as the writer and creative enough as the director to use his limitations to his advantage. “The first thing is, and it’s painful, is to kill the writer,” confessed Hall. “You have to kill the writer because the writer loves what he wrote and then as the director, you have to respect the spirit of what the writer intended.”
A true separation of writer from director is extremely important during rehearsals when the actors begin to breathe life into the words on paper. The first impulse for the writer is to keep each word as it is written, but the director must interpret the performance. “Once in rehearsal, I think that’s where the magic starts,” confirmed Hall. “You have to curb your ego and let the actors take over. It’s a word here or there that makes the whole thing their own and lets it come to life. Once they own it and bring stuff to it, it changes everything. And also, you need to listen to them when they say they can’t say something. There’s a reason why they can’t say it. If the fault lies within them, then it’s your job as director to get them to get there and say it, but if the fault lies in the script, you instantly have to say, ‘Screw the words, what is right here?‘”
Successful DIY is having the courage to take the risk and to bring experienced others along for the ride. There are things that the filmmaker can and can’t control. Filmmaking is an expensive challenge that should be approached with caution and determination. Robert Rodriguez may have made his film completely DIY. Many filmmakers are following in his footsteps to make a film at “Used Car Prices,” only to find an industry that is no longer interested. DIY is a high stake gamble that requires guts, stamina and a willingness to blow it all for the dream. “I have a pretty damned good day job,” confirmed Hall, “but it’s a day job. We all can relate to what a day job is. I desire to be free of that day job to pursue what is my ‘bliss.’ If I hadn’t done this film, I’d be sitting at my day job, doing what I do, and its okay, can’t complain, luckier than a whole lot. I’m not teaching and I’m not digging a ditch.”
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