THE LITTLE RED HEN

Once upon a time, in a small, cozy little house, a little red hen lived with her chicks. The little red hen worked very hard taking care of her house and her family. She was a happy little hen, and she sang cheerful songs as she did her chores.

The little red hen had three friends–a cat, a dog, and a pig–who lived very near her. Every day she watched her three friends playing, but the little red hen didn’t have time to play. She was too busy with her chicks and her house.

The little red hen started each day early in the morning. First she cooked breakfast for all her chicks. Then she made the beds and tended her garden. She cooked the meals, washed the clothes, and scrubbed the floors. She worked hard from morning till night.

But her three lazy friends–the cat, the dog, and the pig–never seemed to work at all. They went for long walks in the sunshine, lay about in the soft grass, and spent their time reading stories and playing games.

One sunny day the little red hen was outside working hard in her garden. She looked down at the ground where she was pulling some weeds, and she noticed some grains of wheat. “Who will plant this wheat?” the little red hen asked her three friends.

“Not I,” said the cat.
“Not I,” said the dog.
“Not I,” said the pig.

“Then I will do it myself,” said the little red hen.

The little red hen planted the grains of wheat. Soon the wheat grew. The little red hen looked at the growing wheat and asked, “Who will help me tend this wheat?”

“Not I,” said the cat.
“Not I,” said the dog.
“Not I,” said the pig.

“Then I will do it myself,” said the little red hen to her three friends.

The days went by, and the little red hen worked very hard farming the wheat. She watered the field and hoed the ground and pulled the weeds. Finally the wheat was ripe and ready to be harvested. The little red hen asked, “Who will help me cut all of this wheat?”

“Not I,” said the cat.
“Not I,” said the dog.
“Not I,” said the pig.

“Then I will do it myself,” said the little red hen.

The little red hen worked from morning to night cutting the golden wheat. When she finished harvesting all of the wheat, she loaded it onto her wagon. The little red hen looked at the wagon filled with wheat and asked, “Who will help me take the wheat to the mill to be ground into flour?”

“Not I,” said the cat.
“Not I,” said the dog.
“Not I,” said the pig.

“Then I will do it myself,” said the little red hen to her three friends.

The little red hen walked a long way into the village. She pulled her wagon of wheat behind her. When she got to the village, she went to see the miller. “Will you grind this wheat into flour for me?” asked the little red hen. “Oh yes,” said the miller. “This wheat will make enough good flour for bread for all your chicks.”

The miller ground the wheat into flour, and the little red hen set out for home. This time, in her wagon, she had a large sack of flour to make bread. When the little red hen came back to her house, her three lazy friends were waiting for her. She showed them the flour. “Now I shall bake some bread with the flour,” said the little red hen. “Who will help me bake the bread?”

“Not I,” said the cat.
“Not I,” said the dog.
“Not I,” said the pig.

“Then I will do it myself,” said the little red hen, and she began to wonder if the three were really friends.

When the bread was baked, the little red hen asked, “Who will help me eat the bread?”

“I will!” said the cat.
“I will!” said the dog.
“I will!” said the pig.

But the little red hen stamped her foot and said angrily to the cat, the dog, and the pig, “Oh no. I found the wheat. I planted the wheat. I tended the wheat. I harvested the wheat. I took the wheat to be ground into flour. And I made the bread.”

Then the little red hen said, “All these things I did by myself. Now my chicks and I will eat this bread all by ourselves!”

And they did.

The End

YOU DON’T NEED TO YELL

I was on a film shoot recently where I wasn’t producing or directing, so I was able to be a fly on the wall.  It was really a great experience to observe the daily dynamics of a film set that wasn’t my own.  I highly encourage everyone who is interested in making movies to visit someone else’s set.  Whether you are an actor, director, DP, Make-up artist, costumer, writer, etc.  It’s an incredibly educational experience.  No matter if you’re a Pro or a total Newbie.  And it doesn’t matter what kind of a movie it is.

The first film set I visited which wasn’t my own was Sean Penn’s THE CROSSING GUARD starring Jack Nicholson.  The second film set I visited was an amateurish indie shoot.  Each was on the farthest end on either side of the filmmaking spectrum.  One had over 100 crew people, endless trucks lining the street, a buffet of craft service that rivaled the best restaurants, while the other had none of that and just a handful of aspiring Production Assistants.  It didn’t matter though, because both had interesting dynamics to study and learn from.  So I suggest getting on any film set, anywhere, and just take it all in.  Compare how different directors work and how different types of actors work.  And do it as many times as you can.  It’ll help you better define how you’d like to operate your own film set.

Throughout all the differences, there was one thing I remembered that I’d totally forgotten about.  I forgot because I haven’t used one in years.  The traditional AD (either a First or Second Assistant Director).

Because I schedule everything ahead of time and manage all the administrative aspects of my shoots, I haven’t needed one.  But, I do realize that not everyone is as OCD as me, so you might need an AD or two.  And when you interview them, my advice is to keep an eye/ear open to how they communicate.

I’ve never been in a “How To Be An AD” class, but something about how most of them behave suggests they have learned to be stern, mean, loud, and generally irritable or irritating.  But it’s so totally counterproductive to behave that way in a job like that.

I understand it’s important to stay on schedule.  But there’s no reason to yell about it and to push people like a drill sergeant.  All that does is make people disrespect you.  Getting what you want is the goal, right?  There are two ways to accomplish that: the nice way and the mean way.

Try this exercise.  If you ask someone in a softer voice, “could you pass the ketchup,” the other person is likely to not think twice, and pass it.  Now, try it on another person and use a firm drill sergeant voice demand, “Give that to me.  Come on!”  You might end up getting the ketchup but that person won’t like the act of passing it to you.  And afterwards, they will likely hold some resentment for being treated like an inferior person.  And if they are continued to be treated that way, those tiny resentments will build up until they become so big that person will leave the set each night and never want to work with you again.

ADs who have been programmed to behave like Nazis will disagree with me, of course.  But never mind them.  The easiest way to get what you want is to figure out how to avoid conflicts from the beginning.  If you schedule correctly BEFORE you start shooting, you won’t need to worry about staying on schedule.  If you communicate with your make-up artist clearly, you’ll already know how much time each person will take, and you can plan for it.

If you use archaic ways of scheduling a shoot, just because everybody else does, or “that’s the way it’s always been done” you’ll have an outcome just like everyone else: over budget, behind schedule, etc.

But if you really take everything into consideration from the get-go, you can plan for it all.  Then, I suppose, you won’t need a professional AD.  You could just use an intern who knows how to communicate with people in a clear and respectful way.

HOW DISTRIBUTION CHANGED FILM: Part 4 of 4

Click here to read PARTS ONE, TWO, and THREE.

The STUCK! shoot was marvelous.

One of the best parts was the food.  See, when the cast and crew are only a handful of people it is possible to go to someone’s home for a dinner party.  You can eat superior food.  Feeding 42 people on a traditional crew likely means scraps and bulk-made meals.  And there is no intimacy about that kind of thing.  With a set like mine we eat homemade slow-cooked masterpieces every night.  We can sit around the same table.  It becomes a far more rewarding experience.

Like WATCH OUT, the STUCK! shooting days were just as efficient.  We’d work from 9 AM and wrap around 5 or 6 PM.  We worked every day with no days off.  It took less than two weeks to complete.

The reviews were amazing:  Film Threat writes, “Balderson just doesn’t make simple films, and this is no exception. It’s not in the words, or the plot or the story; but it’s in the air, it’s in the beat, it’s in the very soul of the work.” The LA Weekly said it was “Revolutionary.”  And UK Critic MJ Simpson writes, “Steve Balderson is the best-kept secret in American independent cinema. He makes his own films – which are unfailingly brilliant – and the rest of the world very, very gradually catches up with him.”

In February, 2010, the American Cinematheque hosted the LA Premiere of STUCK! at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.  The cast was there with me to present the film and do a Q&A after the screening.  One of the people in the audience mentioned that because all the actors were there, talking enthusiastically about this new way of filmmaking, it spoke volumes about the process.

I signed a deal with a sales agent who is selling STUCK! to buyers around the globe.

In the fall of 2010, I put together another top-secret film shoot and produced my film THE CASSEROLE CLUB.  A couple new stars joined the group for this shoot: namely Kevin Richardson (from the Backstreet Boys), Daniela Sea (from the L Word), and acclaimed stage actress Jennifer Grace.  We made the film in Palm Springs in exactly the same way we made STUCK! and WATCH OUT.  The entire experience is captured in director Anthony Pedone’s documentary CAMP CASSEROLE.

The shoot was a lot like summer film camp.  We rented a few vacation homes that would serve as the locations, and also would house all of us.  Staying together in the same place was magical.  Each day we’d gather to film scenes, and if any actors weren’t working, they would lounge by the pool, read a book, and basically turn their time on the set as a vacation.  This aspect of the shoot was the best.  I made sure that we’re doing the work we need to do, but it’s just as important for me to create an atmosphere that is a rewarding experience personally.

Each evening we would have a meal sponsored by one of the cast or crew, or friends and family.  Imagine being at summer camp and coming together over a meal and singing Kumbaya.  That’s exactly what it was like!  Only instead of singing Kumbaya, per se, several people would pull out their guitars and do an impromptu acoustic concert; or, there would be fun short films being made; or, night swimming and gazing up at the stars with a great conversation.

One of my favorite moments filming THE CASSEROLE CLUB came whenever we needed to do some exterior shots around the Palm Springs area.  We’d just jump in my car and drive around until we’d find the greatest place, jump out, film it, then rush back to the car and speed away as if nothing ever happened.  This is the kind of freedom I love work in.  It’s exhilarating.

THE CASSEROLE CLUB premiered at Visionfest`11 in New York City where we were nominated for 9 Independent Vision Awards and won 5: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Kevin Richardson, Best Actress for Susan Traylor, Best Production Design.  And the most overwhelming compliment came in 2012 when the U.S. Library of Congress invited the film to be a part of its permanent collection.

Making films in today’s distribution landscape is drastically different than it was even a few years ago.  It is very important to spend as little money possible to make your films.  If your film cost $200,000 that’s fine.  But maybe you could try to find a way to make two movies for $100,000 instead of putting all your eggs in one basket.

Be realistic when you’re planning your expenses.  Regardless of the storyline, regardless of the actors, stars or location, if you think your project will make $100,000 in sales, your best bet at sustainability is to make sure that project costs less than that.

These are just some of the ways the distribution landscape has changed the way films are made.

HOW DISTRIBUTION CHANGED FILM: Part 3 of 4

Click here to read PARTS ONE and TWO.

We began doing research on the best equipment to invest in, best sound package, and best HD camera (we judged each camera based on the level of color captured, best sound captured, and overall user experience).  Months later, we had the whole set up.

I was ready to make my next narrative feature.  And I wouldn’t need so much money after all.  By owning my own equipment, omitting unnecessary personnel and expenses, and keeping costs as low as possible, it would be possible to make a feature film for little more than the price of a used Toyota.

This also appealed to investors.  Distribution has changed significantly since the glory days of the million-dollar buys at Film Festivals.  That simply wasn’t happening any more.  A top sales rep told me, “no company is buying low-budget independently made films for more than $50,000 up front.  And if you get that much you’d be one of the lucky ones.”

The first project to test if my new renegade style of filmmaking would even work or not, was an adaptation of Joseph Suglia’s dazzling novel WATCH OUT.  Could I really make a feature-length movie using only two people on my crew, with me doing all the camerawork, and still make it high-quality art?

The answer was a big loud YES.

WATCH OUT, which became my third feature film, was shot in two weeks.  Our working days were incredibly light.  We’d start shooting at 9 AM and on a few days we were done by 4 PM.  It felt like summer camp and everyone had a ball.

The film was highly praised by critics as “One of the great cult films of all time, (MJ Simpson).”  WATCH OUT also premiered at the Raindance Film Festival in London to sold-out crowds, where it was nominated for Best International Feature.

A review in Film Threat wrote, “(Balderson) makes movies that are so gorgeous that it’s not unreasonable to say that, cinematographically at least; he’s the equal of an Argento or Kubrick in their prime. Some people have perfect vocal pitch, Steve has perfect visual composition.”

I repeated the road-show tour concept we did for FIRECRACKER and released WATCH OUT theatrically in 2008 to sold-out audiences in the “Stop Turning Me On” world tour, to promote the self-distributed DVD release several months later, where it debuted at #24 on Amazon.com’s Top 100.

The third and final installment of the WAMEGO TRILOGY on DIY Filmmaking (WAMEGO: ULTIMATUM) chronicles how we did it.

Once I knew we could do it, I decided to raise the bar a bit more and experiment with a cast of all well-known actors.  The production would cost and be the same = the film would be shot in my new renegade style, without permits and in a secretive manner.  There would be no equipment trucks lining the street, no craft service table, no excessive lighting or camera gear, no substantial crews, or anything to attract attention.  The cast and crew would resemble tourists, which would give the production the freedom to do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted.

With no make-up or costume person the cast would be required to do their own make-up, take care of their own costumes.  We’d all be staying in people’s homes, not hotels, and would have to accept there would be no cash per diem.

I approached several stars, some I’d worked with before, and others I hadn’t, and to my astonishment, they all agreed.

That project, my fourth film, became STUCK!

When I called SAG to ask them if they had special deals for projects under $50,000 they laughed at me and said, “It’s impossible to make a feature-length film for less than $50,000.”  They also said I “needed to seek professional help.”  Actual words.

But, they were wrong.  I had just proven it was possible with WATCH OUT.  I thought about telling them, but decided that they were just like those insecure filmmakers who needed all that phony “stuff” for passers-by.  Trying to educate SAG on the reality of the world was going to be a waste of time.

(To be continued next week)

TOP OR BOTTOM?

There are two ways to budget your movie.  The first, which is known as the traditional manner in which all movies are budgeted, is Bottom Up budgeting.  It’s the least effective way to budget a movie, but most everyone does it.

Bottom Up budgeting is where you start from ground zero with no idea what your movie is going to cost.  Then you identify all the people, jobs, things you think you need, and at the end you’ll have the amount that will cost.  There is software out there, which can help you down this path.  See this example of a traditional budget Top Sheet.

When using this software, you’ll scour an endless list of job titles, finding out there are jobs you never knew about, but that you must need, now that you’re thinking of them.  Yes, a Script Supervisor would be great.  $100 per day is a bit much so you plop in $20 per day.  Then you’ll go to the next job, plop in a new amount, and so on.  At the end of the list, the software will tally up all the jobs and expenses you typed in, and voila: you see the budget for you movie.  In this case, your movie will cost over $240,000.

But then you’re faced with the reality of trying to raise a quarter of a million dollars.  Which, if you can do it, great, by all means, have at it!  But, chances are in this economy it simply isn’t going to happen.  You might raise half that, or even less… but a quarter million?

I prefer to budget a movie using a Top Down approach.  This is where you start with an amount and deduct items you know you can afford, and do away with the items you can’t or don’t need.

Let’s say we believe we can raise $60,000 to produce the movie.  Or, let’s say we have already raised $60,000 and we’re not sure that’s enough.  I’m here to tell you it’s more than enough, and here’s how you’ll do it.

First, identify the items you must have.  Not things you think you need.  You don’t need a Script Supervisor.  Anybody on your crew can do it – since the job is required only when cameras are rolling.  If you’re making a horror film that requires visual effects, or special effects make-up, those items are mandatory.  So, write those down and subtract their cost (let’s say $7,500).  Now you only have $52,500 remaining in your budget.

Next up, fifteen people on the cast and crew.  Let’s say you’ll shoot for two weeks and pay everyone $50 per day.  Subtract $10,500.  Now you only have $42,000 remaining.  Can you get those people to work for deferred?  If so, you can add $10,500 back into your budget.  Need to fly them to the set?  Subtract those costs, or see if you can use airline miles and add those costs back in.

Hopefully you get where I’m going with this.  I’m thinking about expenses as if I were using a debit card.  Not a credit card.

I understand the general public would rather use a credit card instead of a debit card.  The traps of “buy now, figure out how to pay for it later” are easy to fall into.  But those people are usually in debt.

By handling your budget in the Top Down approach; you’ll know exactly how much money you have and can make realistic decisions on what you can afford.  And what you can’t.  Which will keep your movie on budget, and you won’t waste a cent.

CUT OUT THE FAT

If you have a backer with unlimited financial resources like, say, a pharmaceutical company, then this doesn’t apply to you (i.e. Studios).  But for the rest of the filmmaking world, think about this.  People cost time and money.  Even people working for free.

Every single person on your crew will cost a certain amount of money.  That amount varies, of course, because maybe you’re housing people at neighbors and friends.  But if you aren’t, you’re going to have to house them someplace.  Cheap motels aren’t free.  Some people have the ability to fly or drive to you, feed themselves, and bring their own bottled water to the set.  But will everybody?  Probably not.

The easiest way to save time and money is to cut out unnecessary crew members.  If you operate your own camera, you don’t need a camera person.  If you know about lighting, you won’t need a DP.  You don’t need a Gaffer, because anybody can hold the reflector or turn on the light.  Go for an intern.  If you have a DP or camera person it usually means you’ll add another dozen or so people automatically.  Most DPs and camera people can’t manage to hold the camera and also pull focus, change lenses, memory cards, download cards, etc., and they will usually request an additional person for each of those simple activities.  And all of those people will have NOTHING to do but stand there and wait for their specific duty.

By having the actors manage their own costumes and props, you omit the need for a props person, props assistant, costumer, seamstress, and whomever else those people “need” to assist them in order to do their jobs.  Of course, if you use a costume person, consider another area on the crew you can omit a person.  Can that costume person also manage being on Script during the takes (since they’d otherwise be doing nothing)?

By keeping on schedule and doing adequate planning ahead of time, you’ll also omit the need for a Second AD, and any other office-type person who would otherwise have nothing to do but sit around all day waiting to see if you’re behind schedule.

In addition to saving money, by omitting unneeded crew people, you’ll also save time.  The more people you have, the more time it takes for everyone to show up.  More people means less time in the loo (so “take 15 minutes” usually turns into “it’s been 45 minutes, we’re already behind, and not everyone has had a chance to use the toilet.”)

When an aspiring film student comes up to me and says, “I want to work on your crew, I’ll do anything, I’ll even pay my own way,” it’s very tempting to have them join the team.  But I’ve learned to draw the line.  While it’s helpful if one or two people come aboard under those circumstances, six or seven end up bogging down the set.

In addition to saving time and money, a smaller set is more enjoyable.  If you’ve never been on a film set before, you’ll come to love the days when hardly anyone is there.  Fat or thin, tall or short, the fact is, people take up space.

Add in equipment cases, bags, tripods, even at the barest minimum, it becomes crowded really quickly.  And, a crowded hallway isn’t as easy to walk down as an empty one.  Getting on and off the set, or in and out of the location is far easier when there are only a handful of people.

I know it’s exciting to have all your friends around to watch, and people willing to work for free, but please consider my advice and draw the line someplace.  If a person isn’t actually doing something useful, get rid of them.  Or select certain days on the schedule when they could be useful, and tell them to stay home on days that aren’t.