Make a No Budget Movie: Chapter Two

Film What You Have
February 28th, 2011

The old adage to “write what you know” has a counterpart in no budget film making: “film what you have.” By this I mean that, if you are unable or unwilling to spend any money on your film, then you need to take stock of your existing resources and weave your story from whatever fabric they give you. Those resources will include everything from potential locations, sets, props, wardrobe, and even your actors, who, for the most part, will not be actors at all, but your friends and colleagues.

For example, do you have access to a creepy old house or a filthy old basement? Then you have the basis for a horror film, or a thriller of some kind. Look at the landscape around where you live, find the places of drama and sweep. They exist everywhere. Location is an important part of a film, and will contribute a great deal to your movie’s look. The setting can be a “character” every bit as compelling as those played by your actors.

A dramatic location down the road from my house.

As for those actors, they too will drive your story. Casting, they say, is a major part of directing. Create your world from things in the real world and create your characters from real people – those people who want to be in your movie. Make their real character traits work for you. This will be easier on them as they try to act – maybe for the first time – and will add authenticity to your film.

Props will add texture. You may have to fabricate a few, but others may be found objects or prized possessions. Poke through your garage and your attic, sift through closets and open all those half forgotten drawers and cabinets in the kitchen and dining room. There’s tons of stuff lying around. Odds are that you’ll have plenty of objects that match your enthusiasms. For instance, if you’re into sports, then more than likely you have some sports memorabilia lying around. And if you’re into sports, then sports might just be the right subject for your movie. You have to care about your story, after all (more on that next chapter).

Of course there won’t be any filming at all if you don’t have a camera. If you can’t buy one, borrow one if you can, and don’t worry if it’s not the latest thing. The director David Lynch said that it doesn’t matter what kind of camera you use to shoot your movie. Use an old standard definition camcorder if that’s all you have access to. Make it work for you. The grainy image and video look can also become part of your story. In my case I was lucky, because the Canon HV20 was a great little camera. I still have it and still use it now and then. It was like a doorway to my own dreams, the missing element from my childhood ambitions. It was a joy to use, and I’m still astonished that these things exist at the fingertips of the average person.

I was lucky in something else as well, and that was that I work in the heritage field at a national historic site. Over the years I had been able to work with scores of historic “re-enactors,” people who dress in period clothing and recreate both daily life and dramatic moments from pivotal times in our history. As a history buff myself, I had picked up a few articles of historic clothing myself, just bits and pieces, but they would all prove useful. With these resources at my disposal – historic sites as locations, re-enactors as actors with wardrobe and props in place – I was determined to shoot a period film set during the French and Indian War. And I was determined to do so by spending no money at all.

In the end I broke my no money rule on two occasions. On the first, I picked up three cheap wigs at a costume shop. On the second, I bought granola bars and juice packs for the cast. This means my movie actually cost about thirty dollars. But everything else used for the film I already owned, borrowed, found, or fabricated from existing raw materials.

Next: Finding the Right Story