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Breaking (Down) the Budget

Low-budget can mean anything from a few hundred grand to small change and some pocket-lint. But no matter the size of your lump sum, what’s the smartest way to spend your money in low-budget filmmaking? Conor McMahon talks to directors Brian O’Toole, Paul Ward, Eoin Macken and himself…

Budgets are strange things. From the few films I’ve produced, I’ve always found them difficult and frustrating to put together. It’s impossible to tell how much most things will cost. How do you know how much footage will be shot or how much food will be eaten? And without accurate figures, how can you ever make a definite budget? I’ve also found it odd that on bigger films a budget is put together when they don’t even know exactly how it’s going to be shot, or how the director plans on staging certain things. But in the end, a budget is something you need to get things moving, to convince people it’s possible so you can secure finance.

The other thing about budgets is that a lot of people won’t talk about them. They don’t want people to know how much their film cost. And it’s understandable. If you’ve made a film for 100,000 and you say it cost 500,000, chances are you’ll probably be able to sell it for more on the market. It’s often only at the very lower end of the spectrum that people will proudly declare that their film cost a week’s wages, and use that as a selling point. The zombie film Colin that was shot earlier in the year and was apparently made for £40. Another example would be of course El mariachi, which used the fact that it only cost $7000 as a selling point.

In the age of digital filmmaking it’s easier than ever to pick up a camera and go out a shoot a film. But how much money do you need to do it? The answer is often whatever you have and whatever you can get.

Memoria

– Dir: Brian O’Toole – Overall Budget: €25,000 – Filmed on 16 mm

– Dir: Brian O’Toole
– Overall Budget: €25,000
– Filmed on 16 mm

Budget Breakdown

For stock we used 25 x 400ft cans at €130 a pop – €3,250. We shot on an Arriflex SR3, so equipment and lights, including a 21-day rental of an underwater camera casing – €15,000. Processing and Telecine to Digibeta (both in Lisbon, at a very, very accommodating place called Tobis) – €2,200. The remainder went on travel expenses, food and some beers. No one got paid a dime.

Do you think having more money would have helped?

Brian O’Toole: I’m not sure it would have made much difference to the actual film. But it would have been great to be able to pay people for their hard work. I’d have taken more time over more money, though.

Were there any advantages to having less money?

You have to think very creatively to shoot effectively on a low budget, especially on film.

What kind of favours did you pull to get the film made?

The cast and crew worked for free. Various bands played a fundraiser for us. We got money from parents and friends and the use of some cool locations through friends of the family.

Where should your money go in a low-budget films?

For me, it’s visuals. There’s no reason low-budget films have to look ugly. And quality gear is key. After that, quality food. It keeps people happy.

Did you write the idea for a low-budget? If so, what did you take into account when writing the script?

Yes, the whole project was geared towards the budget from the get-go.

Would you make another film at this level, or do you think it served as a training ground for something bigger?

I learned a hell of a lot. Of course I’d like to make something bigger, but I’d do it again. I just love making films.

 

Fur Coat and No Knickers

– Dir: Paul Ward – Overall Budget: €22,000 – Shot on Z1

– Dir: Paul Ward
– Overall Budget: €22,000
– Shot on Z1

Budget Breakdown

Camera equipment for the 17-day shoot and pick-up days – €3,500. Sound equipment for the same length of time – €3,000. Lights rental for the same –  €2,800 We rented tracks for a few days of the shoot – €500. Most of the locations were free but we paid for a few of the days – €500. Costume and props for shoot – €1,400. Catering for the whole shoot and pick-up days – €3,000. Office and accountants – €2,000. Post-production, Digibeta, travel – €4,600.

What kind of favours did you pull to get the film made?

Paul Ward: All the cast’s fees were deferred, and nearly all of the crew and most of the fees for the locations, editing and sound mixing were all deferred. The songs were a huge favour.

Where should your money go in a low-budget films?

Get a really good camera and DOP and as many lights as you can stretch your budget to. And also insurance as it makes everything so easy and it’s better to get the best.

 

The Disturbed

– Dir: Conor McMahon – Overall Budget: €1,530 – Shot on Sony Z1

– Dir: Conor McMahon
– Overall Budget: €1,530
– Shot on Sony Z1

Budget Breakdown

Location for the 6-day shoot – €550. Camera for the 6-day shoot – €150. Travel – €50. Food – €230. Post Sound – €200. Mini DV Tapes – €60. Effects – €90. Digibeta Tapes – €200.

Was the film written for a no-budget?

Conor McMahon: On this film I used the old rule of no-budget film – take your actors to one location and chop them up. I actually just booked a house down the country a month in advance so it gave me a deadline to come up with a story and get everything organised.

Did you have much cast or crew to deal with?

We had three actors in total and three people on the crew, including myself, so there was very little expenses for food or transport.

Having made a film already for €100,000, what was the purpose of going back to make a film for €1,500?

The film started out as an experiment in improvisation on film. I wanted to just focus on something simple that would allow me work with actors. I wanted to get away from the rigidity that often comes with having a large crew. So I didn’t have any intention at the beginning of how long the film would be or how it would turn out. I also wasn’t under any pressure to deliver a particular kind of film or make something that would sell. And it was quite liberating to make a film in that frame of mind, because the focus was just on the scenes and making them work and also having fun. So having no budget can be a big plus.

I think you can spend a lot of time worrying about what will sell and if the film will look crap if it’s made for no money. But I don’t think you should be asking these kinds of questions. If it turns out crap, just don’t show it to anyone.

Do you need a lot of money for post-production?

Some people decide not to shoot their film because they hear about the costs for the deliverables that are required by sales agents and distributors. This can include legal documents, publicity material, copies of the finished product and additional copies for subtitling and dubbing. But the truth is, if your film is good, someone will foot that bill. So I wouldn’t worry about it when you’re doing your budget. Just focus on getting the film made, and if it works, someone will pick it up.

 

The Inside

– Dir: Eoin Macken – Overall Budget €4,000 – Shot on Sony Z1

– Dir: Eoin Macken
– Overall Budget €4,000
– Shot on Sony Z1

Budget Breakdown

The bulk of the money when on insurance, which was important considering the location we were shooting. The rest went on camera and lights, make-up effects, costume, and then food costs. But because the film was shot over only 5 days, we were able to keep the costs down.

Do you think having more money would have helped?

Eoin Macken: It would have in terms of allowing more time. When you’re making a film on a shoestring you can’t ask people to give up too much of their time if they are not been paid. More money also would have given us more time to experiment with lighting.

Were there any advantages to having less money?

There are, because you pull together people who believe in the idea of the project, the vision and they want to create something that they are proud of and can stand by instead of just working on a job.

What kind of favours did you pull to get the film made?

Most of the favours consisted of getting the location and cheaper equipment. Obviously crew and cast had to give their time. Making a film like this requires the coming together of many talented people. It won’t happen otherwise.

What do you think you should prioritise spending money on for low budget films?

The priority has to be the essentials. Getting the right camera and lighting and sound equipment is paramount. Without good sound and good compositions then what’s the point? You have to try and aspire to make the most of whatever you can afford or get your hands on but be smart about it. Food is a priority of course, you can’t expect people to work with you, no matter how much they are enjoying it both socially and creatively, if they’re not being kept warm, safe and well fed. Tea and biscuits will not suffice, it’s not fair to expect people to pay for their own food and petrol, or taxis, for example, if you’re shooting late or early.

Did you write the idea for a low budget? If so, what did you take into account when writing the script?

For The Inside, yes. I explained to Franco Noonan, my producer, that this was a film that could be done within a short time span, and with minimal cash. There is a looseness that comes with making a film this way that can really benefit it. Of course it can hinder the project but that’s why you should choose an idea or story that fits in with the resources that you have available. I find that this is a great spur because it forces you to create and think imaginatively, try different things and focuses your mind and energy on what you can do.

Would you make another film at this level, or do you think it served as a training ground for something bigger?

I see making films at this level as a training ground and useful platform to experiment with ideas. The Inside my fourth feature. The first, Christian Blake, was made for less than €8,000 over 18 months. (The budget went mainly on food!) It showed at the Galway Film Fleadh and then sold in the AFM and released across the US and Canada on DVD. The documentary The Fashion of Modelling was made for about €1,200 and was picked up for an hour slot by RTÉ 2 and the feature Dreaming For You was shot in New York for €700. That screened in Galway last year and is doing the festival circuit this year.

This article first appeared in Issue 132 of Film Ireland Magazine.