7 low budget movies that show how anyone can get their films made NOW
These writers, directors, editors, composers casting directors, and hustlers (all the same person), plus their “DIY” techniques revealed
Creativity is nothing without action and such action fueled by passion is how some of the best low budget movies have been made in and outside of Hollywood. (And if you haven’t been keeping tabs lately, the industry has been suffering lately from a “bad movie” problem.)
You read the success stories all the time of ambitious filmmakers who latch onto a dream, crank out a page-turning screenplay, then someway, somehow pull their small resources together and produce a collection of the most memorable films of our time. And low budget movies are often synonymous with cult-favorites.
But the stark reality is that the journey from ideation to celluloid is a tad bit more complicated…and a hell of a lot more stressful, because of something we all can relate to – money – or lack thereof.
Everyone is on a budget these days, especially filmmakers and producers, who curate the storylines and characters that entertain us on an on-going, nearly binge-worthy basis.
The average moviegoer is usually shocked when they discover how much money it takes to produce a major motion picture or episodic (and cinematic-scale) television series. For example, some of last year’s biggest cinematic bombs earned the dubious title because of their inflated production costs: Ben-Hur (MGM) with a budget of $100 million and a haul of $94 million; and Steven Spielberg’s The BFG which had a budget of $140 million but barely scraped a profit at $180 million.
You don’t need to be in the film industry to understand what a gamble the studios had made. Additionally, that means the producers, who cut the check for that production, expected to make back double or triple on their investment. Such tremendous expectations from studio heads usually results in most creative control resting with those same producers and not (as you would think) the director and writer(s). (Most recently, this is why Chris Miller and Phil Lord were released by Lucasvilm from the latest Star Wars Hans Solo stand-alone movie.)
This is why you need to take control of your dream, and start making your own film and on your own terms, now.
Look, I’m a filmmaker myself who’s working on my first documentary, so I can tell you, it’s far from easy. So where does that leave indie filmmakers seeking to produce low budget movies that hit the mark with audiences?
Aside from having no money (to even pay your own bills), lacking critical connections, having no track record (AKA “IMDB credits) or familial trust fund, I’m telling you, it is possible.
Take for example, Robert Rodriguez, who wrote, produced, directed, edited and composed El Mariachi for around $7K, which I’ll tell you more about below.
With a little creativity and the same level of commitment, vision and drive, you can produce a low budget movie / feature length film for a mere $15 grand or less. Check out these seven films that prove why the indie spirit has inspired some of today’s greatest filmmakers, and how it can get your Hollywood dream finally off the ground.
7 low budget movies that’ll inspire the next generation of filmmakers
Logline: Two former baseball players try to survive a zombie apocalypse.
Director: Jeremy Gardner
Creative Ingenuity: Jeremy Gardner said he had a dedicated “sleep in the mud” crew on his 15-day shoot for this low budget movie. The director prioritized getting only the shots that absolutely moved the story forward. Anything that could be cut ultimately was. All props were bought by Gardner two days before the film started, and the schedule was based around the availability of the characters and extras. Most of the budget for the film went to food and lodging, according to Gardner. The experience is documented in the film Tools of Ignorance: The Making of Battery. (Read more about Jeremy’s journey in Fangoria magazine.)
Logline: The life of a newlywed couple comes complicated when the groom’s half-sister needs a place to stay.
Director: Edward Burns
Creative Ingenuity: The film was shot like a documentary using only a Canon 5D camera. According to Burns’ Twitter, the budget for the film breaks down like this: $5,000 for actors, $2,000 for insurance, $2,000 for food and drink. With a three-person crew, Burns shot, using all available natural, light and edited the entire film with Final Cut Pro. Restaurant scenes were filmed during business hours with real patrons and not extras. Actors did their own make-up, hair, and wardrobe.
Logline: Four friends looking for innovation, accidentally discover time travel.
Director: Shane Carruth
Creative Ingenuity: Shane Carruth wore many hats on the crew to keep costs tighter than your skinniest pair of “skinny jeans”. He wrote, cast, directed, starred, and was responsible for the cinematography and music on the film. The on-set crew only had five people. To save on 16mm film stock, Carruth storyboarded every scene in intricate detail. The filmmakers used expired film stock, short ends, pretty much any kind of film stock that Kodak would donate to them. The sheer lack of funds makes the film a true, inspired classic because it is essentially a science fiction film but has no special effects. But here’s the best part of this low budget movie: the film grossed $425,000 in the US.
Logline: A slaughterhouse worker struggles to reconcile the emotional distress and shock of his job as he tries to provide for his family in South Central, LA.
Director: Charles Burnett
Creative Ingenuity: Burnett used all practical locations while shooting cinéma vérité style. The dialogue was minimal and the story is loose, with richly detailed vignettes. The film was shot on weekends between the years of 1972-1977. For actors, Burnett used novices from the neighborhood. Killer of Sheep was Burnett’s graduate thesis film and included copyrighted music that Burnett never cleared, because thought the film would never get distribution being a student film. These copyright issues had the film in limbo until 2007 when it was finally released. Like Primer, Burnett’s film made a relative killing at the box office: $340,000.
Logline: A traveling guitar player is mistaken for a criminal and must go on the run to hide from a gang that wants to kill him.
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Creative Ingenuity: Robert Rodriguez raised half of the money for the film by participating in medical experiments. He used a wheelchair for a dolly, lamps for lighting, and he dubbed all sound in post-production. He also did all of this with no crew. Actors helped him film the movie when they were not in scenes. His experience is detailed in his book: Rebel without a crew. The action thriller ignited Rodriguez’s career and made an astounding $2 million at the box office.
Logline: A writer follows strangers for creative material but soon meets a thief who takes him under his wing and lures him into a criminal underworld.
Director: Christopher Nolan
Creativity: Christopher Nolan shot this low budget movie on the weekends over the course of a year to maintain a full-time job that he used to buy 16mm film stock. To save time and cut costs, Nolan meticulously rehearsed the scenes with his actors so he only needed one or two takes, max. Rehearsals took place for six months, so the actors knew the scenes just like a play. (They are no second takes in live-theatre.) Other techniques that Nolan used included: using natural light, shooting everything handheld (except for one scene), and using his parents’ house for a location. Check out VICE’s must-see interview for more of Nolan’s “DIY” techniques.
Logline: A demon haunts a couple who just moved into a new suburban home.
Director: Oren Peli
Creativity: Paranormal Activity takes the #1 spot on our low budget movie list for its micro-budget of $15K, pioneering “found-footage” story-telling, and cashing in with nearly $200 million worldwide. The film was shot on actual, consumer home video cameras, which meant a dedicated camera crew was not needed. Many scenes were improvised instead of scripted. The director, Oren Peli, decided that believability was more important than gore. In keeping crew costs significantly down, the film had a strict seven day shooting schedule. In an interview with wired.com, series creator Peli stated that he couldn’t afford to pay actors with “names” but figured that there was an advantage to using unknowns because “a known actor would get in the way of the suspension of disbelief.” (Read more behind-the-scenes and the “making of” the Paranormal Activity series in our exclusive interview with Benjamin Steeples.)
I highly recommend watching these finely crafted, innovative low budget movies for yourself. Hollywood – and especially technology – is shifting dramatically, and with audiences growing tired of franchise films with big name stars, opportunities for independent films is starting to reemerge as they did in the 1990s.
The common thread with these seven, low budget movies is that they all have directors that willed them into existence. After you have the script you love like a child and plays gripping and vivid in your mind, indy-style filmmaking becomes more about innovation and problem-solving.
If you have an idea that leaves an indelible mark on your soul and consumes every minute of the day, it’s time to stop procrastinating and just create that series of moments, shot by shot. And when others can see your “vision”, there is practically no obstacle that can stop you.