"How I Made A Movie For Under $1,000"




Part One - "Pre-Production"



        Shooting this movie didn't take long at all.  A couple weeks.  Putting it together (i.e. the editing) has gone on awhile.  Like six or seven years?  I don't know, I've lost track.

        There are reasons for this:  It was basically a one-man production, something I had to work on in my spare time.  I considered myself more of a writer/director.   I wasn't a "tech-computer-guy", didn't know much about the Cameras and the Editing.  There was a lot to learn

        So how did I get myself into this never-ending story?

        You write a script, try to get it read, spend a year trying to get it made.  No go.  So you write another, give it the big push, and... splatt!

        The fourth one clicks.  Of course, you had to throw in a little old-fashioned murder and a generous topping of lust and greed.  But it sells.  Some affordable "stars" agree to act.  Deal contingent upon Financing.  Oops, I said the F-word.

        "Blood Relations" finally gets made for $1 million.  Turns out okay.  2 a.m. showings on HBO and Cinemax.  Then it fades away.  But now you can get your scripts read by the studios.  Or by their "readers".  The underlings have to read 'em.  It's their job.  It's also their job to say "no".  I once knew a reader who was fired because, just a couple times, she said... "maybe".

        The Big Wigs don't want to hear about spec scripts.  They don't want to gamble on the UNKNOWN.  They can only say "yes" to a handful of projects, and those will come from major directors and stars.  And even then, the Execs pray that those pitches contain the words "remake" or "sequel".  Or at least "based on a true story".  

        Damn the torpedoes.  You write half-a-dozen more scripts, hoping for the chance to direct one of them somewhere down the line.  A few get optioned.  Again, the F-word.  Who wants to gamble MILLIONS OF DOLLARS on a movie?  And, unfortunately, movies cost MILLIONS OF DOLLARS to make!

 

                  



        And then along comes Digital Video.  Now you can have your own "movie studio" -- Camcorder, Computer & Software -- for just a few thousand dollars.  Suddenly that dream of directing your own script is within reach.

        So I begin plotting.  I didn't have money for a DV camcorder, but I knew the guy who managed our local cable station, and he'd just purchased a couple Sony VX1000 Mini-DV Camcorders.  He said I could borrow a CAMERA when it's not in use.

        I have some friends who perform at a local "cabaret".  Talented ACTORS.  They'll donate some time.  What else do I need?  I can write the SCRIPT, find some LOCATIONS, operate the CAMERA, and DIRECT, then EDIT...

        "Hear Ye!", I proclaimed from the highest hill.  "I'm going to make a 'full-length feature' for under a thousand dollars!"

        A thousand dollars?  I really couldn't afford to spend any more than that.  I have a wife and a couple kids, can barely pay the bills by playing music a few days a week and working other odd jobs.  Still, where there's a will, there's a way, or so they say...

 

               
 


        STEP 1 -- ACTORS.  Availability.  They were busy in the summer and winter.  It was now May.  I'd have all summer to write the script, then we'd shoot in September.

        How much time could I ask of them?  Not too much.  They had lives, a few had kids.  And they weren't amateurs.  They were used to getting paid for their work.

        Ten or twelve days for the leads, I told them.  Three days for the supporting roles.  And not full days.  Half days.  Four or five hours, that's all.  Come on, it'll be fun!  Of course I can pull this off.


        STEP 2 -- SCRIPT.  I had a drawer full.  Perhaps one of them... No, forget it.  The script would have to be tailor-made to fit these rather restrictive circumstances.  And what about the genre?  Thriller, Action-Adventure, Sci-Fi, Period Piece?  Of course not!  I've got a couple weeks to shoot, and no budget!

        How about Horror?  Maybe get some sex in there.  The movie might actually make money!  Yeah, we could get some teenagers, a deserted house out in the country, and after they "git nekkid and do it", they die!  Naw.  No cheesy exploitation, no sex-and-violence.  Been there.  Not what I want to do.  The cast wouldn't either.

        We're down to the staple of the independent food groups:  The small, character-driven, relationship piece.  Could be a Comedy?  But when you fall on your face attempting comedy, it really hurts.  Alright, it's a Drama.  But a drama with some humor. The quirky kind.  A little on the dark side, maybe.

 

                  



        STEP 3 - LOCATIONS.  We live in a SMALL TOWN in the mountains, which means (duh) the story will be set in a small, mountain town.  And we can use the TV STUDIO, work that in somehow.

        Need a couple HOUSES for interiors.  Ever ask somebody if you can use their house to shoot a movie?  But it's not that kind of movie, you explain.  It's just me and this little camera, a tripod, a microphone.  No lighting equipment.  And just a couple actors.  We'll take off our shoes, won't touch anything.  We'll be in-and-out of your house while you're running errands.  And that was pretty much the truth.

        I know someone who works at the HOSPITAL.  We could use a room.  Great!  A life-and-death struggle sweetens the pot.  A story derives its weight from the "what's at stake".  Life and death is the ultimate.  Alright!  We can kill somebody!  Or at least, seriously maim them.

        Gotta work on the story.  There are two actresses who I think are exceptional.  Build it around them.  Make it a family drama.  There's a little age difference between the actresses, not enough for mother/daughter.  But enough for step-mother/daughter.

 

               



        We'll get the step-mother in the TV studio.  She has her own cable-access show in this little town.  Loves to see herself on the tube, hear herself sing, maybe do a little preaching, Tammy Fay Bakker style.  The TV evangelical diva.  And let's say the father has money.  It's what attracted her.  She's hopelessly obsessed with her social standing.  Appearance is everything.                

        What's the conflict with the daughter?  An event in the past.  Gotta be really horrible, dreadful, extreme.  Remember, this is a movie!

        Okay, the daughter got pregnant toward the end of high school.  Step-mom can't bear the shame on the family name.  She covers it up, takes the girl away for a few months, fakes an illness.  The baby comes early.  They weren't prepared (a small clinic was the only facility within reach) and the baby dies.  The daughter almost dies.  She's left in a condition where she can never have kids for the rest of her life.

        On top of this, Mom covers it all up.  No one back home will ever know.  It will remain their little secret forever, a secret which will be quickly forgiven and forgotten.  Yes!  This is getting awfully tragic, which, in drama, is simply fabulous!

        The daughter takes off immediately after high school, won't ever come back.  She still gets along with her father, but HE will have to visit HER.  Years go by and...  Well, we've got to get the daughter back home again, don't we?  Let's see, we've got that hospital room...

 

               


        The daughter gets a phone call from a doctor as the movie opens.  Her father's been in an accident.  He's in a coma.  She'd better make travel arrangements, pronto.  There now, that was easy.  She's home again, and relations with mom are predictably strained.  How long can we work this?  Need another character or two in the mix.

        I have friends with an 11-year-old daughter, a good little actress who becomes the STEP-SISTER.  She was five-years-old when big-sis took off and never came back, and she hasn't forgiven her.  We can get some mileage there.

        Need a love interest!  Gotta have it!  But what's this guy do in this little town?  Writers are always looking for interesting occupations for their characters.  How about... Worm Farmer?!  I've written my last few scripts with a friend, and he contributed a good deal to this one.  He'd seen a documentary on the Discovery Channel about some guy who raises worms for a living.

        Worm Farmer?  I like it.  But let's make him a little more complex than a Country Bumpkin Slime Peddler.  He's from a well-to-do family back east, went to law school at their insistance.  Big fight with dad.  So he moves out to Idaho to raise worms for a living... just to piss 'em off!

        Worms can metaphorically work their way in-and-out of the story.  Eventually, she must decide whether or not to pull the plug on her father, return him to the earth, ashes to ashes.  We all have to "lie down with the worms" sooner or later.

        One more actor.  The daughter (Carrie) had a BOYFRIEND in high school.  He can be the character who runs the TV station.  And she happens to be there when the "worm guy" (Hutch) makes his appearance.

        Hutch has his hands in this box full of worms, the slimy critters squirming around his fingers.  He convinces her to join in, caresses her hands along with the worms.

                             CARRIE
So, umm... how long have you... been into worms?

                             HUTCH
Hey... are you married?

 

                

 

        The actress playing Carrie can ride a horse and a motorcycle, so... her character can do that, too.  And when Hutch calls her the next day, wants to come over and take her for a ride on his motorcycle, she says, "No, I'll come to your place."  CUT TO:

*  *

WHOOPS and HOLLARS as she comes galloping up the driveway at the worm farm.  Once or twice around the house.  SKIDS to a stop at the front door where HUTCH has appeared.  After a pause...

                               HUTCH
Nice entrance.  Now, does the horse enjoy that?

                               CARRIE
He loves it.  Wouldn't you?

Hutch reaches out to scratch its head.

                               HUTCH
Can I pet him?  Ughh.. he's kinda sweaty.

                               CARRIE
                     (to Hutch)
Yeah, I'm afraid I got him all worked up.  
Easy there, boy...

*  *

        He wants to show her around, but she walks toward the motorcycle, climbs aboard, wants to take it for a ride.  Just out to the road.  He objects, to no avail, watches helplessly as she rides away.  And keeps riding.  She's not coming back... for awhile.


               



        The weeks roll by.  Their relationship grows, gets serious.  He mentions something about "having a family".  She avoids the subject.  He doesn't know her secret.  Neither do we, at this point.

        Meanwhile, daddy won't wake up.  Step-mom's getting weird, taking pills.  People are tuning in to her show for the spectacle, to witness the train wreck.  She decides to lead the town in prayer in hopes of "bringing him back".  It's embarrassing.  And it doesn't work.

        I have a karaoke player.  How about this?  Get some shots of her, bed-side at the hospital, gushing into the mic, "How Am I Supposed To Live Without You..."  Or maybe, "It's Now Or Never..."  (I don't know about you, but this tweaks my funny-bone)

        Their doctor is a handsome fellow.  We start to see some chemistry there.  Or just raging hormones.  Let's have them embrace, even kiss, while daddy "looks on".

 

                

*  *  *  *


        On a couple occasions, we cut to Carrie relating the prior events to a gentleman in an office.  Is he a psychiatrist?  An officer of the law?  As a writer, you want to lead an audience along.  Don't spill it all up front.  Ration out those plot points.  Keep them on the edge of "what's going on here?"  But you don't want to lead them along for too long, or they'll just get frustrated.

        Anyway, we begin to see that a custody-case is in the works.  He's employed by the State.  Social services.  He's advising her in regards to getting custody of her step-sister.  We also realize that the story has been told in flashback.  And the "past" is catching up with the present right here as we head toward the finish line.

        The kid-sister wants to live with Carrie and Hutch.  The mother's not much of a parent these days, whacked out on her medications.

        The man tries to talk some sense into Carrie.  The mother has made it clear that Carrie's not taking that girl away from her.  She'll pull her act together when they go before the judge, he tells Carrie.  She's the girl's real mother!

        If they drag this through court, trashing each other in public, it'll be the worst thing that could happen to the girl.  She'll have to find another way.  Time to wrap this up.

 

               


        The nice thing about being writer/director/producer:  You don't have to answer to anybody.  You can have your characters say or do anything you want!  You can comment on politics or religion (touchy subjects if someone else is footing the bill).

        Carrie doesn't believe in God.  Or in anything, really.  Throughout the story, she's been looking for something to believe in... anything!  At this point, maybe it's time to try... Forgiveness?

        It'll be for the best if she leaves for awhile.  She tries to explain this to her step-sister (Devon) as they say good-bye...

*  *  *  *

                              CARRIE
I'm tired of fighting with her, Devon.  It's a losing battle.  Maybe your mom's right.  Maybe God has a plan.  Maybe there's a reason for all this -- though I can't imagine what the hell it could be.  But if we simply... believe... and turn everything over to... Him, then maybe He'll take care of...

                              DEVON
You don't really believe that, do you?

                              CARRIE
No, not really.  But I think I'm ready to believe in
something.  In being able to forgive.  It's the only way that anything good can come out of this...

                              DEVON
So you're going to leave again?

                              CARRIE
Not for long this time.  I'll be back...

                              DEVON
When?

                              CARRIE
I don't know... Christmas?

                              DEVON
Yeah, you and Santa Claus.  Maybe you can
catch a ride with him.

Carrie takes a long breath.  It's time to go.

                              CARRIE
Can I have a hug?

                              DEVON
No.

She tries to catch Devon's eye.  The girl won't look at her.

                              CARRIE
You're going to make this hard?

                              DEVON
Yeah.
                    (a pause)
Good-bye.

*  *  *  *

        Carrie has a farewell scene with Hutch.  He can't understand it, either.  She never levels with him.  On her way out of town, she drops by the TV studio, wants a word with her step-mother before mom goes "on the air".

        Carrie tries to apologize, to say "I'm sorry".  But the mother (who's supposedly the "righteous" one) can't find it in herself to do the same.  She begins laying into her step-daughter with the verbal jabs.  Carrie fights back.

        Remember the guy who runs the station?  He's been spurned by Carrie, and he's sick of dealing with the mom.  As he watches from the shadows, he gets an idea, turns on the cameras, sends their argument out "live" to the whole town.  Cut to SHOTS of various characters staring in disbelief at their TV's.

        All the dirty secrets are exposed as Carrie relives that "secret" from their past.  Hutch is watching, too.  The sexual escapades of the mother get some "air time".  There's a TV in the hospital room.  The father stares at it with vacant eyes.  Or are they?

 

              


        When the ladies are suddenly aware of the guy in the shadows, his camera focused on them... It's one of those moments where "time stops".  Deer-in-headlight expressions, wide-eyed fear.  We fade into the epilogue.

        That night.  Delores takes a handful of pills.  Now that everyone knows the truth, well, it's just too much for her to endure.  Why go on?  Oh what fun!  Committing suicide... out of self-pity.  It just doesn't get any better than this for an actor.  And she had fun with it.

      We could end it right there.  Naturally, our "little family" gets to stay together.  Gotta have a happy ending.  The little girl will be the child that Carrie never had.

        I've got an idea... a priceless shot.  How about, they get mom to the hospital before she dies.  And there she is, in the next bed, in adjoining comas with her husband.

The final voice-over...

                             CARRIE (V.O.)
She always said they'd be back together soon.
Turns out... it didn't take that long...

        The voice-over will continue into the final credits... Wait just a minute!  What are we going to do with our comatose couple?!  The Dueling Comas?  We can't leave 'em hanging.  Gosh... playing God can get so... tedious.  Who gets to live, who bites it.

        Should we wake up one of them?  Both?  Yank the plug on one?  Both?  Your first instinct says: He wakes up when she dies.  But that's too cliche.  Can't go with it.  Had to come up with something though.  Deadline approaches.  We begin shooting next week.