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The Making of a Micro-Budget Film: Pre-Production
by Andrew Said Thomas

Filmmaking is a delicate balance. As a writer and director one must balance their vision with what is inherently a collaborative art form. German filmmaker Werner Herzog has commented that making a movie is more like making music than creating any other work of art. To make a movie, you have to rely on a lot of people and those people I have broken down into three categories: those who will willingly help you for any number of reasons (experience, friendship ,etc.), those you'll have to pay, and, as a combination of the two, the friends in the industry who you will beg to work for far less than they are worth.

When I made my first feature, Drowning--shot over 13 days the spring of 2003--I leaned heavy on the “willingly helpful.” Working from a budget of around $2,500, all I could offer was meals, transportation and a copy of the finished product. I was able to avoid a lot of extraneous costs as I owned my own 3-ccd camera and was planning on editing the film myself. The obvious lesson here revolved around the question: how much do you as a filmmaker want to do on set? You already know or have accepted that you'll work for free, and everything you don't do either costs you money or you're going to help your friend paint his house next summer. For Drowning, while I had help from my co-producer Chris Ruszkowski and a general assistant, I was the cameraman, grip, gaffer, craft services

So, fast forward to the present where I am now on pre-production on my second feature Bruised Sky. We have a budget in place of right around $30,000 and what I have discovered is that it is a quick leap from $2,500 to $30,000. In other words, the difference between “no-budget” and “micro-budget” is having a staff, albeit one that is working way below their typical rates. For Bruised Sky, my producer Kirsten Malone and I have entered the stage of begging friends and tech-savvy acquaintances to assist us in this endeavor. We are, of course, working for free.

Could this film be made for less money? Of course. There are always elements that can be trimmed. While I am a decent editor, I wanted to pass that duty on to someone else for a multitude of reasons, the top two being: it's good to have a fresh set of eyes look at your footage and, secondly, if those eyes are being paid, they will work on a deadline. The two are equally important. If you are writing and directing anything, the benefit of fresh thoughts and ideas on a film outweigh the cost. As for time involved, our editor will be working after hours, but we will be able to hold him accountable for his time.

While every film is a labor of love, and one in which you dedicate much of your life to it, it shouldn't consume your life. After Drowning I was so exhausted from writing and producing it for the previous year that I didn't look at the 18 hours of footage for a good six months (even though I told the cast and crew that I'd have it edited 3 months after wrap!). The movie itself wasn't screened until a full year later. So the low budgetary price was clearly at the cost of timeliness.

The other pitfall of having people dedicate their time is that you are often at their mercy. If it's not their full-time job, their obligation to you can be less than ideal. Kirsten and I had initially set August for our target production shoot; however the more people that get involved in the project, the more logistically complicated it becomes--not to mention our own obligations and consistently shifting schedules and other intangibles.

Our initial intention was to begin casting around May 1. Then that deadline was pushed back to have a shooting script and budget completed by the beginning of May, but even that date has passed nearly unnoticed.

It's not that anything has fallen by the wayside, but for every alteration to the script there needs to be an alteration to the budget. The script started out as a light 60 pages and in the last two months it has grown to 85. This is still on the thin side, as the average Hollywood script is 100-120, but there are many scenes without dialog that will take up more screen time than the adage “one page, one minute” allows for. However the reverse can also be true, some scenes take a lot of description but almost no time in the actual film. And, of course, to further complicate any reliable estimate on final run time, there are scenes that may or may not make the film based on the budget. There is one scene in particular--a car crash--that we have discussed cutting due to the logistics and financing involved. The questions that arise around that scene are: Where do we get the car to smash? How much insurance will be needed? Will we need to hire a stunt-driver? And does this scene benefit the movie or could it be re-written to have the same effect on the movie but be less monetary intensive?

So now the budget is effecting the script. As a writer this is something even I am getting used to. I would like to work unencumbered and feel I should have final say as to what happens to the characters I have created, but that's rarely the case. In this instance, I have written 2 or 3 alternative scenarios, but have yet to stumble upon anything I'm truly satisfied with. However, I have enjoyed the process, because it has made me re-evaluate parts of the script and forced me to be creative when I had already moved into the mindset of doing simple revisions.

Bruised Sky as a script and story is a huge departure from Drowning, which was a sprawling 140 page behemoth. Drowning was the story of a high-school graduate living in a small town and coming to terms with his life there and his desire to leave it all behind him when he departs for college in the fall. Bloated and carrying all the hallmarks of a first script, it was a great learning tool. It had 26 unique speaking roles, which in itself was a logistical nightmare. And while my first film, like most first films, is far from perfect, it is something that I, like every filmmaker, needed to do. For new filmmakers who are scared to step out and risk falling on their faces, I say, in the words of the old Nike advertisement: Just do it. That's the best advice I can give, because no matter how well-prepared you feel you are, there is always going to be incidents on the set that you never expected.

So when I sat down to script Bruised Sky – now my third script – I had the benefit of knowing some of the tricks that worked on set, and what didn't translate as well from page to screen. If Drowning was word-heavy and verbose, I specifically set out to make a small script-- that of a man who loses his job and the emotional, mental and familial fallout that results. The script has 6 speaking roles and as many locations. This format works to depict the insular world of the characters, but should also benefit the production as I would rather work with a few dedicated individuals than worry about lining up the following days shoot and wondering if everyone is going to show up at call. Furthermore, one can never forget that film is a visual medium, so I also designed a story that would lend itself to visual depictions of the main characters' mental deterioration. (If you would like to see the original short film that inspired Bruised Sky, you can go to see it at: )

‘The less said, the better,’ has become a mantra for the film. Sure, you could write a script where all the exposition is spoken or discussed, and you could make a film like Tape in which there are three characters trapped in a hotel room discussing a series of events. And it can work, but you don't want to beat your audience over the head with obvious exposition. I want to make a film with visual allusions, tense moments and have characters defined by their actions rather than their words.

Back to budget again. Where of course does the money come from? For Drowning we held a pair of fund-raisers, some money came out of my own pocket as well as generous family members. For Bruised Sky, all we have is a budget and a drive. There will be fund raisers and we have access to a few potential donors who we have discussed the project with, but have yet to fully pitch it to them. We are in the process of putting together a finalized packet for them to review. In the coming months there will be more articles updating the process and status of the film. We will also post our pitch packet, business plan and budget that you can download and review here at Microfilmmaker Magazine.

In the end, through our work and struggles, a new film will be born. And, in the process, maybe a few more potential filmmakers will take heart and decide to just go for it. (And, of course, maybe a few more experienced filmmakers will laugh in remembrance of their own struggles on their early films.)

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