Writer / Director
Oliver S. Milburn.
Casting is tough, no two ways about it. Like Emma said in the last blog, my first piece of advice would be to get a casting director. We didn’t/couldn’t, which made things a lot more difficult.
Of course, as a director you should know exactly what you’re looking for… a casting director is not there to cast for you. Their primary function, particularly at a low budget level, is the contacts and inroads they have into talent pools which otherwise you’ll have to work really really hard to access. Again, I’d say read Emma’s last blog about our experience trying to get (a) named actor involved, but basically if you don’t have a casting director you’re relying on doing what we did… stumbling luckily across really talented actors amid the ocean of profiles on services like casting call pro, spotlight and – shudder – starnow.
There’s no secret magic formula to casting, or to seeing the right person when they’re in front of you. It’s a case of seeing lots and lots and lots and lots of people and using a combination of factors to determine whether they’re suitable. What I would say is it’s not just the performance of the role on the day but also understanding of the character – once you’ve explained that character clearly. There’s no hard & fast way of doing it, but generally on the first audition we’d:
- Send a scene in advance, and have the actor perform it cold on arrival.
- I’d talk about my thoughts on the character and what I liked/was not so keen on in the first performance.
- Then we’d do it again with this new understanding of the character.
- I’d also ask the actor to prepare something – anything – for the audition.
Some people would give a great performance but not get the character, some would really get the character but the performance would be a bit off. It’d be a combination of logical deduction and gut feeling as to whether to call back for a second audition.
Its not just about how good they are, but how eager they are for the film. See my blog on crewing – basically the same principal applies. You want people who will go the extra mile because the extra mile will be needed.
Finally it remains to be said that the cast we picked were wonderful, both as artists and as people. I won’t go into individuals because I could talk a little on everyone, suffice to say if you get a chance to see the film, I hope you’ll agree there are faces there that deserve to become a lot more familiar to the public.
The crew! That integral part of filmmaking that largely goes completely unconsidered by your average movie-goer. Rightly so, of course, we go to films to be entertained. Most people may be aware of the director and/or producer, as well as usually knowing the key actors involved. Yet the crew can make or break your film in a technical sense and will certainly change its outcome.
Oh yes, make no mistake, that vision you have in your head? When you’re working on this kind of budget, it’ll never turn out like that. In many ways I prefer the way Harsh Light turned out, but it wasn’t what I’d visualised. The essence was still there – and that’s what you have to hope for. You may not get every one of the great shots you’d planned, you may not even get remotely close to the general aesthetic style you’d planned, but you can always wrestle that essence of what you’re trying to do from it. Again (yawn), this is hugely down to the script – and there are plenty of great low-budget films that look or sound like crap, to counteract the many many many huge blockbusters that look amazing but are actually horse-piss shoddy.
However, a good looking and sounding film will stand you in much better stead with festivals and distributors. I’m not going into individual camera pros and cons, as anything I say will likely invoke a flood of nit-picky technical corrections from any cinematographers reading this (they do that). There are plenty of comparisons online, but be grateful we’re in a new age of accessible, good-looking digital technology. All I will say is that it depends on how you want to shoot, both visually and in terms of the demands of the production. The popular ones for low-budget films at the moment tend to be either Sony Ex3 with depth-of-field adapter, Canon 5D or RED One, all of which give a cinematic depth of field in a digital system for a fraction of the price of film. However, its also worth checking out newcomer Panasonic AG-AF101 (fixing a lot of the flaws of the 5D for filmmakers), and recently I’ve spoken to a few DoP’s espousing 16mm with a heavy post-production cleanup. If you’re interested in the post technical, they’ll be more on this in my later post production blog.<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/5981422″>Red One, Canon 5D Mk II, and Panasonic Lumix GH1 Footage Comparison</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user1454713″>Birns and Sawyer</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>
Whatever you shoot on pick your crew carefully; and it’s not all about experience. In our case, we knew we had to pick people who would stick with the film through what was – without a doubt – going to be a difficult, long and tiring shoot. On the whole I’m pleased to say our crew were amazing. Many of them are still my first port of call when I have something new to shoot but, being awesome, they’re generally quite busy. Back when we hired them however, the vast majority were relatively recent graduates with no feature film experience in the roles we were hiring them for. Don’t get me wrong, most of these guys and girls were well trained and skilled as hell – you need experienced, skilled people. The trick is finding them at a time when they need the CV slot (rather than the money) you can offer them.
A showreel is very important when looking at any crew on the visual side. Insist on seeing previous work; the evidence will be there. This is the one place I think we occasionally slipped up, as once or twice we hired people who – while not lacking in skill – didn’t really see the level of filmmaking that we wanted to achieve and therefore found themselves a bit overwhelmed when it came to the crunch. There are plenty of good online crewing resources such as Film Crew Pro and Mandy, as well as some more expensive ones that may require less wading through of CV’s.
Most of the crew actually came from hiring two people with whom I shall forever work (I hope). This was the DoP (Director of Photography) Sam Stewart and the 1st AD Toby Tomkins. I could go into every crew position in detail since all are very important, but I’ll keep it to a little more about these two roles and you can extrapolate:
DoP: Sam was probably the least experienced DoP we interviewed. That said, he had a brilliant showreel. Anyway, when I described the film to Sam, he didn’t lean back in his chair, starch his chin and sagely utter ‘O.K.’. No, he seemed to suffer some kind of internal electroshock treatment and shouted “Oh my god that’s like my perfect movie you gotta let me do it!” From then on, every time I spoke to him he had new ideas, new workarounds for the kit and a constantly building excitement and enthusiasm. This is what you want, because in both pre-production and production he was 110% energy, even when the days were long and the food was scarce and a fetid miasma of other issues were surrounding us. Also – and equally importantly – when you see the film, you’ll notice that he’s pretty shit-hot at lighting too.
Sam brought with him most of the camera crew; they were all very skilled and used to working together. Often your ‘heads of department’ can do this and, as long as you think it’ll be beneficial, it takes the weight of finding them off your shoulders. So hire those guys first – your DoP, Art Director, Sound Engineer etc. In all cases see their previous work (or get recommendations where visuals don’t apply).
1st AD (or First Assistant Director): I have seen low-budget features which, by virtue of wanting to keep the crew small, have decided to go without a 1st AD. This is almost always wrong. A good 1st will stop you having to worry about all the stuff which – as a director – you really don’t want to be worrying about. These include (and all of these are genuine things I’ve been asked while directing a scene in the past): travel arrangements, sleeping arrangements, people falling out, people’s family problems, when a certain prop is needed on set, how you are transporting crew/kit/props/costume. The 1st basically becomes an encyclopaedia of everything to do with the production. They also take on a lot of the stuff you can reasonably be expected to answer, such as where the next camera position is, how many shots are in the scene, how long the crew need to take setting up the next shot etc etc – the list goes on. The 1st should have your storyboards, shot list and a time-based shot breakdown. They can effectively direct the crew – given that the creative/aesthetic elements should have been worked out in advance with the DoP.
I’d also like to mention SOUND and ART DIRECTOR briefly – get a good sound recordist. There is no excuse not to. Bad sound will ruin your film, and good sound design (which needs good sound) can make up for so much that is visually lacking (more on this later). We paid top dollar by our standards for good equipment for our very experienced sound recordist to use – he/she is AS important as any other part of the crew. A good Art Director/Production Designer is also hugely important, especially for a horror film, since they contribute hugely to the aesthetic style, and can take care of visual elements you may miss as a director.
So to summarize – mix skill with passion in your crew criteria, find references/previous work, be sure you’re going to get on with the person, and ‘crew up’ (i.e. allow people one rung higher on the ladder than they’d get on a higher budget production). Finally, make sure you like them all, you’re going to be spending a lot of time together.
Writer / Director
Oliver S. Milburn
For me the first draft is never the first draft; the second draft is the first draft. At first I basically write a script in which every character at every point in their dialogue says exactly how they’re feeling and what their motivations are. So, in the ‘first draft’ of Titanic, Jack would say:
“Rose, I’m really cold here in this water. I think I’m going to die, or at least one of us is. Your survival is more important to me than my own – so pure is my love. I’m letting go of the floating object now.”
And no-one would cry, except perhaps because they’d be smashing their heads in frustration against something very blunt.
That example is an exaggeration, I admit, but the point is that you need to understand the function of each scene, both as a means to move the plot along and a way to define your characters. I honestly believe that when the essence of a story comes to you, it is more of a subconscious process than any spark of genius you have. Various themes – a combination of personal feelings and events – have made a connection in your head and you’ve formulated the bare bones of a story. It is important therefore, to understand that story fully in your conscious mind, because that is the one writing the screenplay.
Needless to say no-one ever sees the ‘first draft’. The draft I present is actually the second draft, in which point I’ve gone through and replaced all the dialogue with a reasonable version of what each character might actually say. I’m sure I don’t need to tell most people, but don’t insult your audience. Allow them to work out character motivations themselves; allowing you to focus on giving your characters realistic dialogue. As Kermode has noted with regards to Inception, even ‘mass’ audiences these days tend to like a bit of intelligence in their movies.
I recently watched a film, I shan’t say which. In one scene a shot panned to a recently constructed wall with spaces for three windows. One of the main characters puts a window into one of the three window-spaces, he then leans out of the next window space and says “That’s one window in.”
WE KNOW! WE JUST SAW IT!
This happened repeatedly throughout the entire movie, with everything from character motivations to physical movements. The characters would state in no uncertain terms what they were doing or why they were doing it.
That is exactly what you avoid once you’ve done the ‘first draft’. Remember you’re making a film; the things you write in the description sections will be seen by the audience, so as long as they’re written clearly they don’t need to be reiterated in the dialogue. If for some reason they do, you hope the director will make that call. This includes emotions depicted visually. If a character has two sweets in front of them and is looking repeatedly, uncertainly, from one to the other, you don’t need them to say “oooh, I’m not sure which one to eat”.
Essentially, because this is film, things visualised are usually much better than things spoken, so try to tell as much of the story in the action as you can. Unless you’re Aaron Sorkin and can write mind-boggling dialogue – there are exceptions to every rule.
Writer / Director
Oliver S. Milburn
So as I said in ‘Concept’, I’d made the blunder of choosing a type of film which the market was soon to become saturated in.
That’s a good beginning note actually – think ahead of the curve. If you have an idea that seems really relevant now, by the time you’ve raised finance, shot it and finished it it’ll probably be a bit old hat. Learn from my mistake and try to think of what’s around the corner, rather than what is currently emerging. The first good idea you have is probably the one everyone else is having.
For now, don’t do robots, or containment. From what I’ve seen there seems to be a lot of robot scripts/talk flying around at the moment, not sure why. Now that writers are cottoning on to this whole ‘low production cost = high chance of being made’ thing, every writer seems to have a containment movie – generally involving torture – on the go as well.
Fortunately for me, in HLOD I never set out to make a ‘vampire movie’, but a movie with vampires in it. The focus was the revenge. It is an emotion, a goal, which is endlessly fascinating to explore. Sadly in films it is often used as an excuse for – rather than the cause of – extreme onscreen violence, but beneath the physical it is a brilliantly dark and complex idea. The vampire element just seemed to chime with so many of the themes of revenge movies; selling the soul, rebirth through blood… I could go on. I don’t want to spoil the more subtle plot-points, but it also allowed the introduction of a more physical complication to Dan (our hero)’s revenge.
So I had my idea. Emma (producer) liked it. I started writing…
For a brief aside – and a brief rant – on how I write go HERE. I didn’t want to put this in the main blog because, not yet being a well-established screenwriter, my tips on writing are possibly presumptuous nonsense and I’m not quite egotistical enough to include them in a piece which is supposed to be about micro-budget filmmaking.
The basic tip applicable to all filmmaking is that your film is only as good as your script and story. Don’t write the script yourself if you have no writing experience, and don’t assume that one draft will suffice. Redrafting – and I mean real redrafting, not grammar checking – is the key to getting the best out of your story. For example, at one point the ‘baddies’ in HLOD were just common housebreakers. They later became snuff movie makers because that was more interesting and posed far more complex thematic questions which could then be explored within the script. Also, handheld camera footage added another cheap production element.
It is important to tailor your writing with a knowledge of the limits of your production. Things like razor-sharp dialogue, naturally beautiful locations, ominous alleyways, cctv camera footage – all this stuff is your friend because its cheap. Spaceships, explosions and horse-riding are not. Again though, this does not necessarily mean containment.
Final note, I’m sort of anticipating people reading “only as good as your script” and thinking of recent films like Another Year and Monsters, both excellent films in which there was no ‘script’ as such. So I’d like to establish that by ‘script’, I mean the written or understood plan by which the director will work with the actors and crew to deliver the film. It is whatever best suits the film and (vastly) more often than not it is a screenplay. To address those two examples however, Monsters was a road movie in which – the director has publicly said – the desired form of dialogue was very natural. Improvised dialogue suited the production as well as the story, since the crew did not know where exactly each scene would be shot, but instead actually went on a road trip and stopped off at various visually remarkable sites. They had a written plan detailing which particular plot point and which emotional milestones must be reached in each scene and would improvise on that basis. So effectively, the form of the ‘script’ reflects the form of the movie – and would probably be an ill-advised method of making a film like, say, Michael Clayton. Similarly, the actors involved in Another Year have on several occasions mentioned that while the dialogue was improvised, the basic structure and goal of each scene was established beforehand in rehearsals. Again, this suited the natural feel of the film’s dialogue.
Hello to Jason Isaacs.
Oliver S. Milburn
If you’re going to make a micro-budget movie there are three things that you must do:
- Write a good script – for me the script is still the most important part of a film.
- Write a script within your means – no spaceships or monsters (unless you’re Gareth Edwards and can do that stuff), a very small number of locations and preferably a very small number of cast.
- Decide – very broadly, the borders are always blurred – whether you’re making something that is radically different or a commercial product.
The third was the problem. Do you make some enigmatic piece that’ll baffle the general public, turn heads at festivals and make less than your budget? Or do you try to make a solid, stylish genre film with a decent shot at distribution and a steady pace at which to start your career. (more…)