I began writing my first feature when I was 14 years old. I, like so many, was inspired by Troma films and B-horror (well, B-anything really. If it was cheap and counter-culture, I seemed to like it) and not only thought myself capable of a B-movie aesthetic, but was encouraged by the way these films comically embraced their own shortcomings. Because I was chiefly inspired by Cannibal! The Musical and The Toxic Avenger (neither of which were really horror films – Cannibal was more like a twisted Rogers and Hammerstein production, and Toxic Avenger was ultimately a brutal superhero flick), I ended up making a musical comedy adventure film about an obese teen named Miguel, in which the villain was Richard Simmons. Clearly, the content of the film did not and would not take itself seriously…
…but by God, the effort did. Imagine if you will: A 14-year-old idiot calls his best friend:
“Will, we should write a movie about like, fat people and put all our friends in it. You want to?”
“Okay, awesome – we should be able to use my parents’ camera and I think you can edit on computers now, so we’ll just do that.”
“But if we say we’re going to do it, I want to actually do it. Like, I want to make sure we finish this. It’s really funny.”
“We just thought it up, Frankie. It’s not that good of an idea.”
A year passed, but we slowly wrote it. It was sloppy, and my cowriter was barely into it, but that somehow made the comedy more cheap and innocent, and invariably, that much more fun. This was also 2000: the technology was younger than I was, almost too young to get an editing system running. Begrudgingly, and understandingly dubious, my little group of friends agreed to help in the effort, and we stacked the deck against ourselves by writing anything that came into our cute little heads. Special effects, big locations (and lots of them), a large cast, musical numbers, whatever – that original script was a heaping sack of delusion. Why did we do this? The same reason we were making a feature in the first place – we were too stupid to realize it was all impossible.
And like many projects I’m sure you’ve either tried to start or have agreed to be a part of, this “film” was dangerously close to fading away as that “stupid idea we had when we were freshmen in high school.” But one very important event occurred that took it from naïve idiocy to a potentially real production: I was introduced to Jon Hunt, a computer enthusiast who lived a few miles down the street. He was six years older than us, and in 2000, he already had a computer ready to perform large-scale video editing and even possessed some sound and camera equipment (well, more than my parents anyway.) And he was willing to build me a computer. And he was a brilliant music writer. And at his considerable size, he’d be a perfect addition to the cast if he was willing. Plus he had a full-time job and could drive! I was just lucky that he was at all amused by the comic work of a 14 year old creative zealot, let alone a piece that ripped on fat people so outwardly. I showed him some of my short works, which won him over, and suddenly we had just multiplied our resources.
We started shooting shorts for a variety of purposes. Sometimes for fun, but often for me or my friends’ high school projects. I think we were just motivated and excited to make anything, because we never really had. And every time we shot a new film, I would say something stupid like, “So, when we’re shooting Ten Pounds, we should shoot at such and such a place, with 12 cameras.” My friends must have wondered, “Does he still want to make that ridiculous movie?” Indeed I did, and Jon stuck by me, saving for a new Sony PD-150.
Another year passed. Now I was approaching 16. I was thinking about colleges and still dreaming of someday making my long, dumb, Troma movie.
And one day, there it was. The Ten Pounds camera, purchased preowned for a great price. We shot a couple of shorts with it until one day, it suddenly wouldn’t turn on. We cracked it open and bam. Salt water in the camera. There was no return policy. We were doomed.
Almost another year passed before Jon finally bought the camera the movie was really waiting for – the DVX100. The messiah of indie feature filmmakers. My friends were shocked when I called them all to meet up on the first day of shooting: March 22, 2003. My girlfriend Nina’s family owned a funeral home, and that’s where we were shooting. A Japanese character was in this particular scene, and our high school had some Okinowan exchange students in town. And since we honestly had no Asian people of any shade in our town or school, we asked the only male exchange student, Tamoya, if he’d like to be in the movie. I don’t think he knew what we were asking, but we showed up to his host’s house at 5 a.m., stole him, brought him to a funeral home, gave him a sword, and made him be in a bloody, weird movie.
I really hope he thinks that’s how America is for the rest of his life.
The scene came out alright, but was ultimately cut. Regardless, official production on I Need to Lose Ten Pounds had begun. Two years later, shooting sparsely on weekends, getting in trouble with the law and the local school system for the manner of our shoots, and almost losing our main actor halfway through shooting (he got bored, decided the effort was pointless, and quit. Who was able to convince him to come back? Jon Hunt. As if the guy wasn’t already useful enough) we finished the film. It was a moment I had fantasized about for nearly five full years. The film’s final quality was almost less important than its mere completion. That crazy script with the locations and special effects had actually gotten shot by a group of teenagers, with few compromises and virtually no cash.
I hadn’t even premiered Ten Pounds before I started my next feature. I was motivated by Ten Pounds’ completion, but discouraged by the time and emotional energy it drained from my life. I wanted to prove that I could do another full-length film in a fraction of the time and at a higher quality. A dopey conversation with friends about “hey, what would happen if a human and an ape successfully mated?” turned into A-Bo the Humonkey, a twisted satire on political correctness, college liberalism, and saccharine Hollywood trite. I played A-Bo, the half man, half ape, costumed in an awesome prosthetic by “Makeup Mark” Santos, who performed a full head cast at the Tom Savini School of Makeup. Cameras started rolling in January 2007, and we premiered and released the DVD in July of the same year. I had proven myself capable of shaping the headaches and heartaches of Ten Pounds into a low-budget filmmaking system which only led to greater things.
A-Bo was truly bizarre, and few people understood it, but those who did loved it. The experience allowed me to not only work with Makeup Mark, but the insanely talented cinematographer (and filmmaker in his own right) Doug Burgdorff; the hilarious and now quite successful Jake Emanuel; and most importantly, the solid-as-rocks main actors Ben Fisher and Jon Ryan, who would become mainstays on future Red Cow productions. (“Red Cow Entertainment” would be our “production company,” so named by Jon Hunt, who for years received new cameras and microphones at his dad’s house, attention to “Red Cow Entertainment.” I adopted it out of convenience. It means nothing.)
Let’s go into some methods and techniques we used and implemented to pull these B-movie memories off:
KNOW WHEN TO BE HONEST AND KNOW WHEN TO LIE
This is important. I’ll give an example.
“So how long will you be shooting at my petting zoo, and how many people will be here?” asks the location owner.
“We should be about two to three hours, and it will only be a cast and crew of about seven,” you reply truthfully.
“What’s this for?”
“The local high school video yearbook. It’s just a wholesome, fun little scene we’re shooting.”
You lie through your teeth. You don’t need to tell him the scene is less than wholesome.
Obviously you have to be honest about the way you’ll be exploiting their location, because he/she will be there keeping a steady eye on you. But if you start shooting the clean stuff first, or run boring rehearsals, they’ll eventually leave you alone and get back to alphabetizing the tranquilizers in the stock room. However, if you describe any plot or characters or details that are irrelevant to them, they may realize you’re the depraved ingrate you really are and call the whole thing off. I was once so close to having someone’s personal mansion as a location, but I gave too much of our plot away and she declined. So be smooth, very polite and articulate, and be no hassle to them at all. Remember, they have no incentive to let you do this other than personal kindness. Never tell the owner “your location will be featured in a real live movie!” They just don’t care.
Oh, and get your location release signed when you show up for shooting, before you even begin. That’s key. If they kick you out suddenly, you’ll at least be able to use the footage you captured legally.
CARRY THE BURDEN – IT’S YOUR MOVIE
None of this, “Come on guys, you committed to this! The film belongs to all of us!” because they’re not buying it, especially if it’s your first film. On my second feature, people knew I was going to finish it, but on Ten Pounds, for all they knew, I could get bored any day and just have a pile of useless, half-shot footage. For the most part, the only reason anyone would show up to your shoots (crew or cast) would be because it sounds cool or because they’re your friends and just want to be nice. So be nice to them!
Here was a common film school scenario I saw far too often: aspiring director recruits his/her cast and crew while totally playing macho producer, making them come back for followup interviews and whatnot, and then when shooting begins, all he/she wants to do is be the director. They don’t want to be the diplomat or the caterer or producer or anything but the guy or gal who plans out the shots. Well, guess what? Regardless of what your crew has committed to, you’re making a no-budget independent film, so that means you take on everything. The more you can allow these volunteers to only focus on that one little thing you need from them (to hold a boom or record the sound or play the lead role), the happier they’ll be to return to each subsequent shoot. Don’t delegate the role of producer. You are the producer.
INCENTIVIZE YOUR PEOPLE
So how do you get makeup designers and proper actors and people who aren’t just heavily bearded horror fans to help out every weekend? They need an incentive. Hopefully they just like your script. That’s the easiest way, and is going to be the most important factor any way you slice it. Apart from that, there are a load of actors and designers who need resumé work, and they’d love a feature on their resumé. So see if you can find ways to include their work or talent in the movie a little more than you might otherwise. This will increase their dedication and interest tenfold.
GET A GIRLFRIEND
This only applies to hetero men, but that said, every successful project I’ve been a part of has had a really cool, down to Earth, sociable, hard-working and steady-as-a-rock girlfriend attached to the director and piece, playing every role she can. I wish I could put my finger on exactly what this does for a production, but obviously a project’s success is based on the help and charity of those who love you, and who better than someone like this?
KEEP SHOOTING DAYS SHORT
I have good friends who shoot very long days for successive weeks, and they’ve had complete success. But if your script contains the kinds of locations, effects, and shot-for-shot scope that mine stupidly have, it’s the quantity of locations that will dictate your shooting schedule. So I could have, for instance, a very difficult location that’s only featured onscreen for a minute or so – but regardless, that becomes an entire shooting day, unless you can somehow group locations together. But because my total shooting time tends to be several months (most people can only commit to weekend shoots since, unless you’re a rich kid with nothing but rich kid friends, everyone has jobs or class), I don’t like to tax everyone with dreadfully long shooting days if I can help it. And there’s another upside to this – you don’t have to spend money on that most wasteful and pointless of commodities even the poorest of filmmakers seem to insist on providing: food. Do full stomachs appear on screen? No. Do they make people happier and turn in better performances? Debatable, but even if true, we low-budget fools could only afford discount pizza anyway, and pizza makes everyone just wanna hang out or go home.
Short days are easier to schedule, and it shouldn’t be too difficult to keep the day short if you keep moving.
DON’T GET SNOBBY ABOUT AESTHETICS
Good actors and a good script are the most important parts of your films, and they can and should be 100% free. But obtaining good aesthetics (and I don’t mean good camera work or competent lighting, a good DP should be able to capture these elements for free as well) is the quickest way to spend unnecessary money. Buying complex lighting kits, unnecessary camera equipment, or shooting on film will bankrupt us all.
DON’T GET CAUGHT UP IN SO-CALLED PROFESSIONALISM
This sums up a lot of what I’ve been saying – only concern yourself with what’s actually going to appear on screen. Too many young filmmakers are too concerned with their being perceived as professional filmmakers. Do whatever it takes to make the movie. Don’t bring unnecessary equipment to look awesome. Don’t have precious, private moments doing useless acting exercises with the cast while alienating your crew.
I’m preaching to the choir – I’m talking to people who make movies with titles like Control-Alt-Die and Terror Dactyl (copyright Frankie Frain.) The only thing stopping you from making your movie right now is a couple of phone calls to friends saying to meet you on Saturday. Just make the movie.
Don’t worry that it’s going to be bad – it’s your first movie, it will be. Who knows? Maybe you can fix the badness in post by cutting most of it out. Just get it out of your system.
Be too stupid to know that it’s impossible