Saturday, April 16, 2011

"The Waterhole" by Nathan Cole

Nathan Cole, writer and co-producer of Reno, NV-based drama, The Waterhole, describes how his team used that rarity, a larger-than-expected budget.

His post is titled "The Film Budget Buffet":
The journey to getting our film The Waterhole made was a lengthy one, filled with false starts, long periods of waiting, and stress. Through it all there was only one certainty: there was always money to be spent. The cost to make a film is at the forefront of every producer’s mind, whether you’re a studio putting together a summer blockbuster or an indie filmmaker crowdfunding a micro-budget film. Reaffirming this is the fact that pretty much every filmmaker I have spoken to, aspiring or not, wants to know what our budget was. I know many independent filmmakers might disagree, but the budget affects most of the creative decisions we make. Money will not make a bad movie better, but it can make a good movie better.

The Waterhole was always conceived as a low budget film. How low of budget was never really known. At one time I thought it could be done for as low as ten grand, so when my co-producer, Daniel Menahem, came up with a sum far greater than that we thought we would have more than enough to make the film we envisioned with money left over. The reality we discovered is that if given the chance, there is no ceiling as to how much you can spend on a movie. Also, if you spend in one place, you will spend in another. A rising tide indeed floats all boats in a film budget… for the most part.

The one area where we were willing to spend money that we knew would directly affect the quality of the final product was on cast. The script is dialogue-heavy and character-driven. If the actors aren’t believable, the film is dead. We hired a casting director, Mark Tillman, a position we initially thought was a luxury (how hard is it to find actors in LA?), but it became evident early on that he would earn every penny we paid him. Mark was able to get us access to thousands of young actors in Los Angeles, carefully weeding out the ones that would not work and keeping those that had the talent to handle the script. Mark knew we weren’t interested in “names” but also kept in mind those actors that might be on the verge of breaking big. We had tons of casting sessions, which is a great way to get a feel of how different actors tackled the characters and to hear the dialogue read aloud. Mark also handled all the contracts and dealt with the managers and agents. All of which was incredibly helpful and time saving. Of course, the most important thing he accomplished was to get us our great cast.

Another position we hired that at first we were reluctant to spend money on was a line producer. If before we started you asked us what a line producer did, I would have not been able to tell you. Now I have no idea what we would have done without him. We met Michael Tarzian after he responded for a job posting. We had one conversation with him and realized how much we were in over our heads. Mike knew every last little detail of how to budget for and run a production. He was able to get a full crew, organize a reliable schedule and keep the whole operation running while not letting the spending get out of control.

This was not without a lot of back and forth from us as we tried to cut out line items from the budget that Mike fought to have put back in. For instance, anything we could do ourselves we did not want to pay for, such as location scouting and catering. It was a major pain, but we did those things ourselves. We did not think we needed a third AD, so we axed that position and were fine without it. One position we resisted at first was that of an art director. We thought that by shooting on location we would not need to dress sets or deal with props and what we did need we could manage ourselves. Mike persisted and we relented and allowed him to hire one single person to handle it all. Within one day the new art director had proved his worth by doing a great job transforming our locations into something unique. It was an eye opening experience.

The only problem was that by hiring only one person in the art department Daniel and I ended up in over our heads trying to keep up with the amount of work and constant attention needed to every seemingly insignificant detail. Making it worse is when we were needed elsewhere we struggled to move crew around to fill in for us. This was a lot of extra stress that could have inexpensively been avoided. At the end of the day having a good line producer let us experience making a film with, for the most part, a full crew. It could be argued that we could have achieved the same results without them. This might be true, but in terms of what we learned, having them was invaluable.

As we wrapped and headed into post-production, the decisions as to where we should spend money became harder to make. We shot so fast and dirty that the rough cut was a bit of a nightmare to watch. It didn’t take long to realize we needed to spend a lot more than we had left in the budget. The audio had issues and the cinematography, although fantastic, was too dark to be viewed in all but the most perfectly calibrated monitors. Despite our post house’s best efforts to deliver us a polished product it just wasn’t working. We needed more money to do a better color correction, clean up the audio, and do some ADR with the actors. In addition, we had to license several songs that were needed to enhance the tone of the movie. We had hired a great composer, whose cues really do a great job heightening the emotion of key scenes, but there was much more that we needed to prevent a film that takes place in a bar from getting too quiet. In the end we had to make sacrifices and were unable to bring the actors back into ADR and if I were to be nitpicky, the sound in some scenes is one of the areas we failed to completely make the production work.

The money you have to spend will almost always affect the choices you make and sometimes it will make them for you. On a low budget film you stretch that money as far as it can go, sometimes making artistic sacrifices, sometimes asking your crew to make sacrifices. You need to know your strengths and weaknesses and adjust as needed. You need to take care of the crew that are working for low rates and asked to do more than they normally would be required to do. Most of all you need to stay true to your vision. This is a very difficult balancing act. When people ask for advice I am usually at a loss. There is so much to tell, yet so little that may be of any use to any one filmmaker. Every experience will be different, and there is no right way to make a movie.

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