Why It Is Completely Possible to Create an Excellent Film for $500 or Less

Yesterday, I just announced my crazy-ass goal to the world of creating 5 films and 5 novels in 5 years.

Today I will debunk the myth that you need money in order to create, a concept I go into detail about in my book Smashing Limits, which will be launching soon. (This applies to virtually anything, not just film.)

IT IS COMPLETELY POSSIBLE TO CREATE AN EXCELLENT FILM FOR $500 OR LESS

How do I know without a doubt that this is possible? Two reasons.

Reason #1: El Mariachi

Reason #2: Following

El Mariachi. Robert Rodriguez. Rebel without a crew.
Image Credit: anotherplotdevice.com

Now, if you follow Robert Rodriguez or Christopher Nolan at all (and I do), you may be able to cite the budget of each of these films. Rodriguez’s (what the hell is the apostrophe-S rule here?!) debut feature film, El Mariachi cost him $7,000 to make. However, if you have read his book Rebel Without A Crew (and I have, at least until the part where he was already successful and it got boring), you will realize that about $6,500 of this $7,000 budget went toward film expenses.

MAKING FILMS THAT ARE NOT FILMS

That’s the great thing about living in the digital age. We can officially tell film to go f$&$ itself, and dump it for the new hottie in town: digital.

Is it more important to you to make a “film” or to make a “motion picture”? Because last I checked, if you make a movie using a digital format, it’s still a picture, and it’s still moving. Is celluloid more important, or is telling stories more important?

EL MARIACHI WOULD HAVE COST AROUND $500 TO MAKE IF RODRIGUEZ HAD ACCESS TO DIGITAL EQUIPMENT

El Mariachi was made in the early ’90s. If Rodriguez had made it in the 2010’s, and had access to digital equipment, it would have cost him around $500 to make. That’s because he wouldn’t had to have bought film to expose, and then paid to process it. Everything in the digital process is entirely reusable (and therefore also better on the environment.) The only cost inherent in digital is in the equipment itself. So go hit up your wedding photographer friend to use his DSLR and lenses and go make an effing movie. And try not to scratch those lenses. (As a side note, this is exactly what Rodriguez did, too: he borrowed a camera from a friend.)

Christopher Nolan’s Following.
Image credit: whatculture.com

Christopher Nolan made Following for even less: $6,000. And most of that went towards film costs. So same thing. It probably would have cost him less than $500 to make today, digitally.

How did these filmmakers make these films for so cheap? Both of them volunteered their own time and were blessed to have other like-minded people join their team and volunteer their time as well.

In other words: where there is a will, there is a way.

Each film started in the mind of one visionary artist, who pursued his dream, and led a group of other people who wanted to be a part of a great cause: making a film. Nolan spent six months with his actors rehearsing on the weekends before they shot, and he shot primarily in friends’ homes that were made available to him for the purpose of making a movie.

Probably no one who helped them thought that either of these two films, or directors would go so far. But I’m sure that none of them regret their decision to be a part of something that turned out to be so awesome.

BOTH OF THESE NO-BUDGET FILMS ARE BETTER THAN LARGER BUDGET FILMS MADE LATER BY THE SAME DIRECTORS

Why is the title of this article “Why It Is Completely Possible to Create an Excellent Film for $500 or Less”? Why not just  why it’s possible to create a film for $500 or less? Because creating a piece of crap for $500 is not impressive. I’m not interested in doing that, and I’m sure you aren’t either.

Both of these films, El Mariachi and the Following, are among my favorite films from these directors AND my favorite films of all time. Both directors later went on to make films that I liked a whole lot less and which were made on a much larger budget. In my opinion, El Mariachi is a better, more entertaining movie in every way than Desperado, its sequel, which was made on a $7 million budget, and had a big-name star playing its hero (Antonio Banderas). The Dark Knight was made on a $185 million budget, but I think Following is hands down the better film. (Although I am a huge fan of other Nolan films like Batman Begins and Inception.)

WHAT IS NEEDED TO MAKE A GREAT FILM IS NOT MONEY, BUT VISION

What is the magic ingredient to make a film excellent? Hollywood, as well as practically all the wannabe filmmakers I know, seem to think it’s money. Here are a couple of reasons why I know that this is not true:

Reason #1: Waterworld

Reason #2: The Dark Knight

I just threw The Dark Knight in there because I think it sucks. And if you like it, you can bite me. (Not literally, please.) (Needless parenthetical #2: I mean, Batman, fighting dogs? Making jokes about battling cats? Please. Not to mention his widened cowl conjured up images of Dark Helmet from Spaceballs.)

What creates great art is human ingenuity, creativity, and a will to create great art. Sometimes having a smaller budget even inspires the filmmakers to get more creative, and to think about possibilities they wouldn’t have otherwise thought of.

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE WILL

To create great art, what is needed is the will to do so. I take the liberty of slightly modifying a quote from Batman Begins (one of my favorite movies of all time):

“Budget is nothing; the will is everything.”

It starts in the heart and mind of one person. Someone with the vision of something wonderful. Then that vision spreads to others who get involved on the project. You can’t pay people to create greatness: but you can inspire them to.

CASE STUDY: WHAT I’VE LEARNED FROM MAKING TWO SHORT FILMS THIS YEAR ON NO BUDGET

Anything under $500 I consider not low-budget, or even micro-budget, but no-budget. In which case, I’ve created two short films this year that qualify for that moniker. The first was Brains Vs. Brawn

I spent about $150 out of my own pocket making this. The main reason why I was able to make this film was the awesomeness of a few friends of mine: Antonio Nunes and Travis Richins, who served as D.P.’s for the film, and used their own equipment. We were also blessed to have the owners of two locations, The Ozz and Yamato Japanese Restaurant, volunteer their facilities for free. In addition, I was fortunate to work with some awesome actors who volunteered their time, including one of Great Britain’s finest: Jonathan Rogers. (I’d like to think that I’m doing my little part to help the British invasion of Hollywood.)

The second short I made I did for less than $50. I wised up after the first short, which I feel I splurged a little on. This time there was only one location and one actor: me. (That saved me from running around trying to convince people to act in my film.) The crew was tiny, with only Travis Richins (D.P.) and two of his friends, Paulu and Diego.

HOW I INTEND TO MAKE MY FIRST FEATURE FOR UNDER $500

How does this all tie into the “5 Years 5 Novels 5 Films” dealio? Simple. I plan to use what I’ve learned from making my two shorts and make an even way better feature film for under $500.

My primary purpose in creating the shorts was quite frankly, practice. (Although we are sending them to festivals, too.) Practice is our most important ally as filmmakers, writers, actors, or whatever it is that we do. What I did was create something that is better than a university for myself and the actors and crew that I worked with. Thinking back, I really only made two fictional short films in film school. And they both sucked. (I made several documentary shorts, though, as I was sort of steered in that direction by my professors, who liked the first documentary short I made.)

I spent thousands of dollars on film school. I’m not saying I regret it. On the contrary, I encourage everyone to get as much education as possible. Teachers, even lame-ass ones who know less than you about the subject (this type seems to be quite common these days), can give you something invaluable and well worth your tuition: a deadline.

You see, for about 5 years after graduating from film school, I didn’t make a single live-action fictional film. (Although I did make an animated short film, which was a whole lot of fun.)

It was only this year, after losing 40 pounds and reading Steven Pressfield’s War of Art, that I decided to take my writing and filmmaking into warp drive. What does getting in shape and reading War of Art have to do with becoming a filmmaker? Hopefully without over-promising, I plan on launching a free ebook soon all about the process. Plus I’ve got an article I will be posting soon on the link between exercise and art.

Be it sufficient to say that increasing my testosterone level and getting off my lazy ass has helped me go from moping about not having a budget or not getting a “break” to taking matters into my own hands and making my dreams a reality. Stick around if you want to see what the final product turns out like, and see what I learn along the way. (Make sure to sign up below for updates.) Hint: the feature film I’ve written is a psychological, ontological thriller. (How’s that for a mind-f#$%?!)

If you have ambitions, whether to make a film, write a book, or who knows, even open an authentic Japanese Shave Ice stand like my friend Dan Purdon did, rather than complaining about not having a rich uncle or getting a “lucky break”, why not instead get to work, and start turning your creativity into reality?

I’d love to hear about the projects you are working on, so feel free to tell me about them in the comment section below!

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11 comments

  1. I wish I was undertaking ambitious projects like that…
    Very admirable stuff!

    1. Thanks Andy! I guess what’s important is that you are doing what you love…which I can tell you love watching movies by your blog! Sometimes I wish I had more time to watch all the films that I want to.

      1. I certainly wish I had more time…

        I would really like to go back to school for filmmaking and screenwriting but it’s hard to put a successful IT career behind me to do so. I wish I had more time just to make films, experiment.

      2. Christopher Nolan had a full time job while making Following. He only shot on the weekends, so it took a year to film.

        I cringed when I first found out about that. I thought “How is that possible?” Then I thought “Why am I not doing it?”

      3. That is highly impressive, actually. Makes me wonder why I’m not doing it too…

      4. I wish I had Nolan and Rodriguez’s tenacity. I guess this 5 year plan will see if I do!

  2. Someone who liked Begins more than Dark Knight? Interesting…

    1. I consider Batman Begins one of the best movies ever made, and The Dark Knight as one of the most mediocre ones every made. Batman Begins is about entering the mind of the hero, Bruce Wayne. Why he chose to become a hero. Bruce Wayne is relegated to a side character in TDK, just like he was in the Tim Burton Batman flicks.

  3. I do love your passion and I agree with you, vision is key to success. I wish you much success and look forward to your progress.

    1. Thanks so much. I am inspired by the vigor with which you pursue big goals that are important to you…which happen to be things l love too: movies, books, and travel!

  4. […] I know that I don’t need it to make great work. I’ve already had one filmmaker cite my $500 article as an inspiration for him to go out and film. That makes me very happy. Screw not only Hollywood, […]

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