Want to make a movie? No problem. All you need is $15 million, Gene Hackman, and some Hollywood friends. Or you could fire up your camcorder and call some less-famous friends. The latter method should reduce the budget by several million-nearly $15 million, actually. My first video feature, Love Bites, was produced for less than $300.
Even using video, producing a feature on a near nonexistent budget requires a lot of creative cost management. Three quick tips: beg, borrow, buy and return.
Your thrift can’t start too early. Every feature begins with a script. An excellent script costs no more than a terrible one. So I set out to write a script every bit as good as-if not better thanithose in Hollywood. A good script can compensate for a low budget/low-tech production, but no amount of money can turn a bad script into a good video.
Of the 17 months spent making Love Bites, five were consumed creating the script. Once I got the idea for a vampire feature, I immediately considered two questions: Was it a script I could write? Was it a script I could produce?
To answer the first question I had to assess my screenwriting skills and my knowledge of vampires. I realized didn’t know much. They say you can only write what you know, so I was at a
big disadvantage. Fortunately, there’s a cure for ignorance: research.
I wanted to tell the story of a young vampire-one about 50 years old. Since becoming a nosferatu in college, she’s had some difficulty completing work on her degree. Thirty years and almost as many schools later, she’s still trying.
I spent a couple of months researching Vlad and his ilk. I read several books, including, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula-the bible of vampire literature. I watched more than 30 vampire movies, from Nosferatu (1922) to NearDark (1989).
I noticed some conventions within the genre and learned what to avoid from watching what’s been done. I was also able to consult an acquaintance, a professor, who was an expert on vampires. After awhile-and some inspirations of my own-I decided, yes, this was a script I could write.
But was it a script I could produce? If not, I’d be wasting my time. I knew the budget had to hover close to zero, so I’d have to avoid faraway locations and special effects I couldn’t do myself-cheaply. That’s why I gave up on my two-headed people from Uranus script.
My vampire story was set at a college because I was living at one at the time. Besides, its Gothic architecture was both appealing and appropriate.
Fake Fangs, Burning Buildings
I had to know myself and my limitations as a producer, even before I began acting as screenwriter. I knew that burning buildings and car chases were out of the question, so I couldn’t write a script calling for either.
I knew I’d have an abundance of college-aged actors, but few older adults. This meant the vampire could never do anything severe enough to warrant the intervention of the college administration or the police. So I was stuck with a vampire who couldn’t kill anyone.
I also worried about the need to show the vampire biting people’s necks. The fake fangs I could afford-plastic jobs for 59 cents-would just look too low-budget. I decided my vampire wouldn’t have fangs. There’s enough horror in the idea of one person biting another without showing the teeth at work.
I also decided to shoot the biting scenes from angles that wouldn’t require real biting-much to the relief of the actor-victims. Grappling with these questions and finding solutions I could live with led me to decide that this was indeed a script I could produce.
While writing, I was careful to look at the script through the eyes of its future producer: mine and me. All but two characters were college students-the ideal role for college students to play. Scenes were set with real locations in mind. I set as many scenes as possible in one place to minimize the problem of lugging equipment, cast, and crew from one location to another.
In Love Bites, 17 of 50 scenes take place in the vampire’s dorm room. The idea was to shoot scenes out of sequence and get all done at once at each location.
Work Real Good for Free
Another good reason to craft a nifty script is to impress the people you’re asking to work for free. This seemingly impossible task is made easier if you appear well-organized and pack a superior script.
I expected people to work on my video for two reasons. One was friendship, as a favor. The other was professional interest. Some people would see Love Bites as a good career move. These people would be those most interested in the quality of the script and production.
I discovered that working with people with varying motivations could be tough. Working with friends could be enjoyable, but if they were totally unprofessional they’d waste my time. On the other hand, if the professionals were prima donnas I couldn’t stand, was it really worth it? Remember, I was working for free, too.
The most important position I filled was the assistant director, a professional I had worked with on smaller productions. We’d established a chemistry of cooperation and respect, and we always had fun. I knew her professional TV production ambitions would bring quality to the work.
Confident in the strength of my crew, I called for auditions. Maybe I should have yelled. Only 20 people tried out for 39 parts. In retrospect, I should have had a smaller cast, but at the time I was operating under a principle I learned writing high school plays: Sometimes the only audience you get is family and friends of the cast.
At the mid-September auditions I told participants they had to be available three evenings a week for four hours, and eight hours a day on Saturday and Sunday. We planned to finish shooting by Thanksgiving-ready, I hoped, for a February 14 screening. That would be perfect. Love Bites on Valentine’s Day. And what’s more, the moon would be nearly full.
Red Shirt, Green Shirt
One problem I didn’t anticipate during scripting was wardrobe. I surely will not overlook that headache in my next treatment.
I knew professional screenwriters didn’t include apparel specifics unless vital to the story. That’s the costume designer’s job. But I had no such beast. I just planned on the actors wearing their own clothes.
Thus, I learned the hard way that any script not bound for Hollywood should include everything of relevance during production.
For instance, screenwriting books tell you to leave out camera angles and movements, suggesting that’s the job of the director. But you’re the director, and will have to add these notes to the script at some point anyway. May as well get it done early.
I found that expecting my actors to wear their own clothes played havoc with continuity. Since I had no continuity director, that meant it played havoc with me. As production wore on I was constantly confronted with the problem of what actor X had worn in scene 33. He couldn’t very well start the scene in a red shirt and end it clad in green.
Haircuts were another problem. Just a regular two-inch trim would become incredibly noticeable if an actor went from pre-cut to post-cut to pre-cut in the same scene.
In my next script I’ll indicate wardrobe even if it means noting “Tom’s wearing a Jackson 5 T-shirt and red pants.” If the actor shows up from the start wearing an Elvis T-shirt and green pants, at least I’ll know we’ll always need Elvis green for 5 red.
Go Ahead, Shoot
The first month of production went so well I couldn’t believe real moviemakers spent millions of dollars and couldn’t stick to schedules or budgets.
One of the few problems I’d encountered was a small amount ofjealousy between my lead vampire and the rest of the cast. I’d probably invited such problems by not requiring her to audition as everyone else had. She was, however, perfect for the part
Most of my other problems involved cast members tarry or unavailable for shoots.
The actress playing the vampire’s roommate called one evening to say she would be late-but present-for that night’s shoot. An hour-and-a-half into what should have been a two-hour session, we decided to wait no longer. Just as we packed away the last of the equipment for departure our lady-come-lately entered the scene. She didn’t get a chance to apologize; icy stares cut her off.
She did apologize later, but felt we owed her an apology for the cold shoulder treatment. She said she was doing this video to have “fun.” Fun?! Great, now I’ve got to make sure everyone’s having fun. In addition to everything else I’ve got to be a cheerleader.
“We’re not here to have…” I thundered. That’s when I realized I was getting a little too tyrannical. And for the rest of production I kept in mind that she and the rest of the cast and crew were there to have fun.
Then the roof caved in. Actually, it caught fire.
Blaze of Glory
One evening my lighting director failed to show. In his absence, I opted for a catch-all bounce-the-lights-off-the-ceiling setup.
After take five, some of us thought we smelled smoke. After take seven we could see the ceiling tile above a light beginning to blacken. We repositioned the light; an actress, trying to be helpful, fanned away the smoke.
During take eight, the fire alarm went off.
My helpful actress had fanned the smoke toward the smoke detector. We would have to evacuate the building, but first we had to deal with thousands of dollars in borrowed equipment lying in a common hallway. We secreted the stuff in a friend’s room nearby, and fled.
When the fire department arrived, I told them where they’d find the fire. A few moments later, I went back and told them how it happened. They were relieved; they’d suspected arson. Arson? How could anyone hope to get away with arson in a brightly-lit public hallway?
While I was chatting with the fire department, my assistant director and three key actors were having a meeting of their own. They decided it would be best if we stopped trying to kill ourselves attempting to wrap production by December, when our leading lady would be leaving us. We should, they thought, recast the lead so we could continue shooting into February.
A mutiny! One little fire and they on me.
Our vampira took the news well. We changed, and plodded on. Of course switching vampires mid-scream meant I had to throw away 11 of the 27 completed scenes. But my cast was right about the pressure quotient. I was convinced of this even after another actor quit because of the prolonged schedule. This change was easier to deal with. I simply wrote him out of the script.
Into a Nearby Boneyard
By now the script seemed to be changing daily.
Originally I’d put vampira’s boyfriend and two other characters on the school swim team. But when it came time to shoot the swim scenes the thought of spending $25 for matching trunks no longer appealed to me. (Used trunks are not something you can return.) I decided to transform them into three friends swhnming.
Good thing, too. The resulting bellyflops would have convinced no one that these men were seasoned swimmers.
Another scene called for a pair of chancters to watch a soap opera. The soap opera plot didn’t matter as long as it involved a woman who didn’t really love her man. For copyright as well as comic reasons I’d planned to shoot the soap myself, but as production wore on the task of producing this video within a video began to change from a lark to a burden.
Fortunately I ran across two friends who’d produced a silly soap spoof called Days Till We Die. I plucked a relevant section, secured permission, and inserted it in my own work. Voila.
Like a good horror film producer I’d planned to shoot a number of scenes in the cemetery. We didn’t have pennission to shoot in the cemetery, but then again we rarely had permission for anything.
When we arrived on location, I instructed everyone to start looking for an electrical outlet. “That’s your plan?” the cast and crew demanded. “Just find an outlet in a cemetery?“They were not impressed with this plan, nor did they find an outlet.
That night’s shooting was cancelled. We tried again months later, this time armed with a battery-powered sungun and a set of car headlights complete with car. This time lighting wasn’t a problem. Snow was. It hit the mike so hard it nearly ruined the audio. The actors didn’t like standing and sitting in it much, either. Tough. That’s what they were not paid for.
Not everything turned into a problem.
One scene in which I worried about insufficient lighting-the sungun’s batteries were dying-looked great. It was the most touching love scene in the video and the soft, dim light actually contributed to the mood. Some of my other favorite moments were more intentional but I was still surprised to see how well they worked.
The big special effect in Love Bites is when a vampire victim sees his reflection fade. I shot the actor peering into the mirror, looking puzzled. Then, keeping the lights and camera stationary, the actor stepped out of the shot and I rolled tape on his “disappearance.”
In post-production I faded between two decks, one rolling the scene with the actor and one without It’s a simple trick but,combined with a few haunting chords on the soundtrack, quite effective.
That’s a Wrap
Of course the cast and crew were right about the improbability of finishing production by December. The actual wrap date was a bit later. April 29 in fact.
Fortunately, I’d been editing as we went along, and the sound director was able to compose and perform a fabulous soundtrack in a day and a half. Thus, we made our adjusted screening date of May 1.
Two full weeks before the end of the semester-and the departure of the audience from campus-we had a video.
Dan DeFabio is an independent video/filmmaker from Baliston Lake, New York. He’s currently writiiag comedy scripts and producing a documentary on alien abductees.