Hello and welcome to the first installment of "This Movie Ain't Gonna Shoot Itself," a bi-weekly look at the nuts and bolts of independent filmmaking. To be clear, I'm not talking about $2 million budgeted, My-Big-Fat-Greek-Wedding-type independent movies or $20 budgeted, three-guys-and-a-camcorder-type independent movies. I'll be looking at the middle ground. Movies like El Mariachi and Clerks, which are tiny by Hollywood standards, but huge to the people actually making and paying for them.
Specifically, I'll be looking at Hide and Creep, a comedy/horror movie I'm in the process of shooting right now. I'll also try to give you as many details about the process as I can. Because I hate behind-the-scenes stuff where some guy says "so, we raised $2 million, then we lit the set and shot the first scene with a 25mm prime at f/2." Wait a minute. I'm as interested in lenses and f-stops as the next guy. But I'm really interested in exactly how one goes about raising $2 million dollars. Without holding somebody at gunpoint.
Your humble narrator, shooting on location in Prattville, Alabama
If somebody asks me how we're financing Hide and Creep, I'll say, "On my MasterCard, which has a $16,000* limit. If you're interested in financing a movie, you can apply for your own card at MasterCard.com." Straight answers and no skimping on the details. Please call me out if you catch me doing otherwise.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. I should probably begin with the "why" and get to the "how" a little later.
I started writing my first feature-length movie script early in 2003. Actually, it was my second, but it's the first one I finished. The initial draft was called American Zombie**. It was short, maybe 75 pages, and I finished it in February.
I don't think I've ever written anything quite that big before. 75 pages isn't long, even for a movie script. But, for me, it was massive. I felt like I'd just written War and Peace or something. It really hit me when I printed it all out and bound it with those little brass fasteners they use to hold scripts together. I flipped through the pages and thought, "I really did it. I wrote a whole feature."
I had a couple of filmmaker friends read that draft, and I got a lot of feedback, especially from Chris Garrison, who would eventually sign on to act in the movie. Garrison gave me something like 12 pages of notes on my little 75 page script. I read his notes, considered them for a few minutes, and put the notes and script away. Then I sort of forgot about it all for a few months.
Until Alice came into my life. Some local filmmakers were shooting a modern retelling of Alice in Wonderland and asked me if I'd like to help. They had seen some of the short movies that Chuck Hartsell and I had produced in the past. I ended up taking a vacation from my day job (web developer for a malpractice insurance company) to work as assistant cameraman on Alice for nine days straight, 10 to 15 hours a day, in Alabama summertime heat. And I loved it.
Jimbo Roberson, 2nd Assitant Director on Alice's Misadventures in Wonderland, seen here taking care of location sound for Hide and Creep
I'd never worked on anything but the smallest of small movies. Chuck and I call ourselves "Crewless Productions" for a reason. Alice, on the other hand, had a huge crew. Huge to me, at least. I was assistant cameraman. That means there were two people on the crew whose only job was to take care of the camera. We had an assistant director, a second assistant director, a script supervisor, one or two location sound guys, an executive producer... probably 10 to 15 people on the crew every day we shot. It was very different from what I was used to, but, like I said, I loved it.
Then I went back to my day job.
After nine days of living the movie life, it was unbearable. I mean, on a movie set, there's always something that needs to be done. And there's not really any bureaucracy. The director or producer says "go do that," and you go do that. It's an efficient system. My day job, on the other hand, is just like Office Space. It's all bureaucracy and you can't get anything done because ten vice presidents are running the show, each with a different idea of what my job is. So I spend days at a time waiting for word to come down on high about what background color we should use for our web pages.
I spent the first couple of hours of my first day back at work just staring at the computer monitor. Then I realized what I needed. Another movie. Another feature. Something big enough to keep my mind off the tedium of my day job. I finished the second draft of American Zombie in two days. By the end of November, I'd finished the fourth draft, renamed it Hide and Creep, and "locked" the script. I was ready to shoot. Screenplay-wise, at least.
I doubt Hide and Creep could have had more humble beginnings. In autumn 2002, Chuck and I decided we'd shoot a short movie as a birthday present for our pal Ces Marciuliano, who lives in New York, since we couldn't make it up in person. So we put this little three minute movie together about Chuck and his brother, Chris, trying to call Ces on his birthday while they're fighting off zombies in their basement. It cost about two dollars to shoot and we had the tape in the mail to Ces the next morning. We named the movie Birthday Call.
Chuck does the dirty work in Birthday Call.
We got in touch with Ces the next night to see how he liked it. He and all the people at his birthday party agreed it was the best short they'd ever seen. Keep in mind, they'd all been drinking. Still, it was nice of them to say. Even sober, Ces encouraged us to get the movie around to people other than him. It went on to play in three film festivals and is probably now our best-liked movie. We even got a positive review of it from FilmThreat.com.
Birthday Call went over so well that Chuck and I started talking about making a zombie feature. Yes, that's right. We find a tiny amount of success with a short and immediately milk it for all it's worth. We're so George Lucas now. But there were some practical reasons why we thought an Alabama zombie flick might be a good first feature for us.
- We assumed the cast would be mostly local. If we set the movie in Alabama, the actors wouldn't have to spend time and effort disguising their accents.
- We knew we'd shoot in Alabama. Setting the story in Alabama meant we'd have an easier time with locations.
- We thought doing something in the horror genre might give us a target audience. There are horror film fests, horror web sites, horror video distribution companies... It's always nice to have some idea what kind of viewer might be interested in seeing your movie.
- We weren't sure how to make actors look like zombies, but we figured it'd be easier than werewolves or space aliens.
- Chuck wanted to learn to make fake blood. An Alabama zombie movie would surely give him the opportunity to do that.
Zombie movies are, of course, a staple of the indie film world. We hoped our particular brand of dry, small town humor would help distinguish our effort from other living dead flicks, especially the classic zombie works of George Romero, Sam Raimi, and Peter Jackson.
After we had a basic idea, I started getting ideas for a few scenes I'd like to include in the movie. I wrote a short synopsis of each scene on a sheet of paper. For example, Chuck mentioned the hunters in Night of the Living Dead who seemed to enjoy getting to shoot and destroy zombies. I thought we could have a couple of scenes with hunters in our movie who didn't go hunting on the weekend so much as they went to a "clubhouse" in the woods to watch dirty movies and get away from their wives. And when the zombies attacked the hunters, they'd be at a disadvantage, because they're not really that good with guns. Might work.
I heard a tape a couple of years ago of an apparently drunken preacher delivering a sermon. He's laying into his congregation about how lazy and good-for-nothing they are. It was bizarre and pretty funny. From that, I got the idea for a scene where a preacher who is slowly turning into a zombie decides to tell his congregation what he really thinks of them before he kills himself.
If you've ever been to the South, you know that people around here love barbecue chicken. And you always hear how every kind of meat "tastes like chicken." I figured there must be an opportunity for some zombies to be hunkered down in a barbecue restaurant, eating chicken in lieu of humans. Plus, I knew of a cool little barbecue place that might be a good shooting location.
Mmm... tastes like humans.
After I had collected thirty or so scene ideas like these, I started shuffling them around and trying to find an order I could put them in to make a story. There are plenty of respected screenwriters who'll tell you this is a terrible way to write a script. But, at this point in the process, I was just trying to amuse myself as much as anything.
I got the scenes in an order I was pretty happy with and started writing the actual first draft of the script. I found out that screenwriting is pretty easy if you already have an idea for what should happen in all the movie's scenes. The trick is coming up with the scenes. If you can do that, I'd say you're already 75% of the way to a completed first draft.
I typed the script using a program called Movie Magic Screenwriter 2000. It does all the "by the book" formatting for you, which is important if you're writing for Hollywood. Even though I'm writing for myself, I like to use the accepted style because a script formatted this way tends to time out to about a minute of movie per page. So, if you shoot a 120 page script, the finished movie will be around two hours. The other thing I like about Movie Magic is that it works on both Macs and PCs. So I could work on the script on just about any available computer. If you want to try out Movie Magic, you can download a free demo.
I also think that a typed and properly formatted script is easier to read than, say, one written in longhand on a legal pad. And even if you write the script completely in a vacuum, actors and crewmembers will have to read it at some point. Might as well make it as easy as possible.
If you're interested in screenplay format and don't want to spend money on fancy software to do it for you, check out the guidelines at http://www.oscars.org/nicholl/format.html. You can use this information to format a script using any word processor. Or even get old school and write your script on a typewriter.
Last I heard, any movie considered to be a feature must be at least 70 minutes long.*** I tried to keep my script as short as possible, so 70 pages was my goal. It's a comedy, and comedies usually play better if they're not too long. Also, the longer a script is, the more time and money you have to spend shooting it. So a shorter script would be less of a strain on our resources, which I expected to be limited.
I mentioned Chris Garrison earlier. After reading the first draft, he had several insights, the most important being that the story wasn't very focused. There were something like 60 characters, and many of them only showed up for a single scene. Not surprising, since I was more concerned with coming up with humorous situations than well-developed characters in that first draft.
Chris Garrison -- script doctor, seen here acting in Hide and Creep.
Based on his feedback, I re-worked some of the scenes and whittled down the number of core characters to eight or so. I found that having fewer characters makes it easier for the reader to get interested in the situations. They get to know the characters and will hopefully be more concerned with what happens to each of them. From a production standpoint, it's nice because it means less casting work.
Thanks to the help of Garrison and others, I really found the movie in that second draft. I eventually wrote third and fourth drafts, but the changes in those drafts were minor for the most part. I'd guess 80% of the second draft is in the version of the script we're shooting.
In many ways, screenwriting is the easiest part of the movie making process. You don't need a lot of expensive equipment, just some time and some ideas. It helps to have some collaborators, but you can write a script all by yourself if you choose to. After I finished the zombie script, I found myself already in pre-production. Which, in many ways, is the hardest part of the movie making process.
Originally appeared at MoviePoopShoot.com on February 5, 2004.
*Since paying off Hide and Creep, MasterCard has continued to raise my credit limit. Which tempts me to make movies with bigger budgets.
**In hindsight, we should have stuck with American Zombie. Hide and Creep found many fans, and many of those fans hate the title.
***I've since heard from some industry folks that they're looking for features that run at least 90 minutes. When finished, Hide and Creep clocked in at 85 minutes, which was apparently long enough for our original DVD distributor (the Asylum) and the Sci Fi channel. In fact, Sci Fi even trimmed a couple of minutes from the movie to allow for more commercials.