It’s Just Some Extra Zeros
What motivates someone to decide to make a movie? Why would anyone want to
consider such an impossible task? Why do you?
Some of life’s questions don’t have easy answers. But new filmmakers and even
veterans often have misconceptions about the process. Sometimes it helps to
step back a little and view things from a distance.
Years ago I lived in a small house near downtown Santa Barbara, California.
I was recuperating from the ordeal of completing photography on my first feature
and must admit I was kind of spaced-out and exhausted as a result. After the
last day of shooting on my film I’d ended up in the local emergency room in
a condition so weak that a simple head cold had brought me to my knees. A strange
feeling to be admitted as a patient in the same hospital I’d been shooting in
several weeks earlier!
At home one day, I looked out the front window and saw a bunch of trailers, motorhomes
and trucks pull up. Someone was making a movie at the high school across the
street. I’d be able to spy on them from a safe distance. I could watch someone
else go through hell for a change!
The film crew marshaled their vehicles into position and scurried over the
high school athletic field like ants at a picnic. The crew size and number of
trucks told me the budget was probably a reasonable 2 million or so. I secretly
monitored their daily progress with a pair of binoculars and soon picked out
the DP, the key grip, the director, etc. The production manager was one of those
“screamers” who tried to control the crew by talking louder than they could.
The director seemed intent on playing the role of a director rather than actually
leading the production and delivering some kind of vision. As they always do
in the second week, I watched the grips throw their lunch on the ground in disgust and
a young, insecure actress (a redundant phrase if there ever was one) stomped
her feet and threw her script at the director. Production assistants drank beer
and smoked pot behind one of the trucks. A camera assistant was fired for unzipping
a changing bag full of raw stock in broad daylight. Nothing unusual here, all typical stuff. Then,
everything stopped. The trucks and some of the crew were there, but filming
had stopped. What happened? I had to find out.
I spotted the screaming PM walking,(quietly now) down the sidewalk with a
radio in his hand. I asked him what was wrong. “Ran out of money” he
said. Coming from my own recent experience I said, “How could you do that!”
“How could you let this happen? You’re the PM, you have to finish what you’ve
started. You cannot give up!” The man’s demeanor told me he just didn’t
care and I quickly started to dislike him. Four weeks into a five week shoot
and everything was lost. All that money, sweat and bruised thumbs for nothing.
“Couldn’t pay the actors and SAG shut us down.” he said.
It’s easy for us to think we could have saved the production. We don’t know
the details - maybe it was impossible to save it? I think not. There’s always
a way, there must be a plan - somewhere. As much as I love to bad mouth
SAG, it wasn’t this nutty labor union that stopped the production. It was
a failure of the filmmakers and no one else. I mention this story only to illustrate
how impossibly hard it is to make any movie. It’s difficult for most
movie makers to realize that it makes absolutely no difference how big a budget
is. A 150 million dollar production can go under just as easily as a two hundred
thousand picture. I remember an old friend of mine who was the PM on a $100 million
James Bond film several years ago. While on location in the Mediterranean they
went over budget and ran out of money. After a two month shutdown, the bonding
company stepped in, replaced everyone including the director, and the film was
ultimately completed. (This happens more often than you think!)
The important lesson to remember is that the problems you encounter on a production
are the same regardless of the budget size. You can just as easily go over budget
with million dollar stars as you can with hundred dollar Ultra Low Budget actors. On a low budget film,
100,000 feet of film is never enough. Big budget productions may have a million
feet and still run out of raw stock. True, there is a budget level below which
a film cannot be made, but the challenges you face and the kinds of problems
you deal with remain the same no matter what the budget size is.
It’s just some extra zeros.
Next Article: How
I Made My First Feature Film - Chapter One