When it comes to being a micro-budget filmmaker, you have to think outside of the box. In Stu Maschwitz’s great book, The DV Rebel’s Guide (reviewed in this issue), he talks about the low-budget action filmmaker having to deconstruct a scene based on what they want to see on the screen. If shot properly, amazingly expensive looking scenes can be created without Hollywood expenses. Stu’s concepts are all about thinking outside of the box and they do a good job of inspiring the low-budget and micro-budget filmmaker to really ask themselves what sort of movie they want to make.
In that book, he goes on to really talk about the give-and-take of truly guerilla techniques vs. more traditional methods of filmmaking. While many of the low-budget filmmaker’s techniques can be guerilla, when it comes to shooting scenes with no permits you can get some serious punishment if you haven’t weighed the pros and cons of doing so. (He’s quick to bring up that there are many times where the pros outweigh the cons, but you have to run your micro-budget risk/reward thought processes before each bending of the rules.)
Recently, I ran into a situation where I was reminded that, while some rules are meant to be bent and others are meant to be broken, there is one rule that should never be screwed with: the rule of writing things down.
Most of the time, low budget filmmakers will work with their friends to create their films. Because everyone is friends with one another, there can quickly be assumptions that everyone knows there assigned role. The truth is that NO one ever knows their assigned roles if they aren’t written down. And, when nothing is written down, people’s understanding of both their own roles and the roles of the other members of the crew skews sideways in a way that is very reminiscent of a secret passed along in a game of “Telephone” by twenty ADHD 3rd graders. (I don’t know why, by the percentage of ADHD individuals in America is something like 26%, whereas the percentage of ADHD individuals in filmmaking is something like 93%!) By the end of a few days of shooting, everyone is sure that others aren’t pulling their weight. Whereas, everyone thought everyone had one another’s backs when the shoot began, now there is a spirit of distrust and paranoia, because no one’s internal expectations are being lived up to.
And, if one of the friends was supposed to be the producer and assumptions were made that they would deal with necessary contracts, then this situation of confusion and paranoia can become deadly serious. If anyone is injured on a set with no contracts determining liability and personal responsibility, a lawsuit could easily be filed against nearly anyone. Even if these suits don’t come from your friends who may now be disgruntled because nothing was written down for your film, they could easily come from actors who are likely not as loyal as your crew is.
So, while you can think outside the box in many different ways, make sure that you don’t do so when it comes to writing things down and having basic contracts involving liability and job functions. (Five Essential Steps in Digital Video: A DV Moviemaker’s Tricks of the Trade is a great book that has a DVD full of contracts that you can customize to fit your film’s needs.) Writing things down will make sure everyone knows what the job functions are and what the actual schedule for the shoot will be, both of which will prevent tempers from flaring and will save your friendships. (And, of course, the contracts will protect your butt legally, as well as encouraging everyone involved to deal with the project in a more professional manner.)
When you get excited about a project, it can be the hardest thing in the world to sit down and write everything out properly ahead of time. However, if you can force yourself to do so, you will be empowering yourself to succeed in the world of filmmaking. This will help set you apart from many filmmakers who’ve had great ideas but lacked the discipline to make their dreams a reality by guarding against catastrophe and/or damaged friendships with proper forethought.