The purpose of this blog is to share with the world the unique process and experience of making a low budget feature film. It’s a story of dedication and perseverance despite all odds. The film in question is Shutterbug.
Shutterbug is an independent, self-funded, no/low budget feature film shot entirely on location in New York City. As I write this, the film is in the final stages of post-production. There are various looming festival deadlines we need to meet.
The making of Shutterbug will interest many indie filmmakers who are turning to the internet for marketing and publicity. It will also interest movie buffs and anyone with an interest of what goes on behind the scenes. I hope that it will serve as a great inside view to what no/low budget filmmakers are dealing with in their productions, specifically at a time when the independent film industry is in difficult spot as many smaller distribution companies have folded and art-house theaters are struggling.
My parents are filmmakers, and I remember once finding a daily production log for one of their productions from the seventies. My mother would write about what happened on set, problems, various situations including intriguing details about the dynamics between the cast, crew and director. So I will approach this blog as an honest production log that anyone will identify with. With that said, I have some catching up to do as it’s more of a recollection! Here goes…
Shutterbug was conceived partly out of frustration. By 2004 - when I graduated film school (SVA) and had about ten short films under my belt - I was used to just picking up a camera, calling some friends and actors and making a movie. I was older than most my fellow graduates and was fuelled by a burning desire to make movies. I felt the time had come to make a feature film.
I wrote a script, made an eye-catching business plan including a DVD with pre-visualizations of scenes and character portraits, and together with my friend Shawn Rice , we started pitching to potential investors. Things went pretty well. We met quite a few people and generated interest. But for various reasons (that I won’t go into here) our efforts were interrupted and we lost all momentum. And over a year had gone by. Well in a goddam year I could have shot and cut the movie! So do you spend time trying to raise hundreds of thousands for a real budget, or just pick up a camera and shoot?
I picked up a camera.
It’s 2006. Together with co-producer and collaborator Rossana Rizzo , we invested in HD equipment, mainly the revolutionary Panasonic HVX-200. I wrote another script, this time utilizing locations that I knew we had access to for free or cheap in New York City. We recruited Nando Del Castillo , long time friend and collaborator – a striking actor that I had worked with on various shorts – Brett Molé, a film school friend and vastly talented filmmaker, and also Tom Greenman, an actor/producer who handled all our SAG issues and paperwork.
I mustered some savings, and armed with credit cards, we made a plan.
Shutterbug is the story of Alex, a photographer who is frustrated with his life, who is tired of meaningless fashion shoots, and who sets off to shoot his own work. When shooting the sunrise one morning, he looks into the sun and hurts his eyes. He starts seeing spots and blurs. When the blurs turn into a face… and then a person… a beautiful woman… the film takes a supernatural twist. Alex sets off on a journey to discover who this apparition is. A journey that takes him into the dark underbelly of New York City.
The film is based on a ‘Dante’s Inferno’ concept. The protagonist journeys through various circles of hell (being Brooklyn by night!) on an odyssey… following a muse.
Nando Del Castillo was to play the lead, Alex. Brett took on the best friend role of a frustrated writer. I cast many other actors with whom I had been lucky to work with before and had been greatly impressed with – Doug Barron, Frank Cadillac, Anna Gutto, Ivo Velon. For the rest we had to turn to casting sessions.
I love casting. It’s an incredible process of meeting hundreds of actors, who although might not be right for the specific roles of the current project, form a huge database to draw from for future films.
We were searching for a big supporting cast of about thirty people, not including a various extras. And we had no Casting Director – just the internet. I put casting notices on NY Casting.com – a great resource, mandy.com, shooting people and a few others I can’t remember… Being on a tight budget, I was looking for mainly non-union talent who were willing to work for free, but did not limit myself to that.
Casting took weeks of seeing literally hundreds of actors, scheduling them in timeslots and having them read with Nando and Brett. We held casting sessions in a basement night-club in the east village (which will remain nameless!). It was days of meeting new faces, experiencing talent, and meeting a myriad of characters.
New York is a goldmine of daring actors and it wasn’t long before we found a great cast. The most rewarding experience in casting is when an actor enters the room and the energy shifts. When it shifts in the right direction (for the role) then it’s elating. Two such discoveries were Ariel Blue Sky and Stanislava Stoyanova.
What crew? The four of us were the crew – Rossana and I shooting, Brett on sound and lights, Nando on practically everything else. We worked out of Nando’s van, which was quickly dubbed ‘the millennium falcon,’ driving around NYC with gear and crew in tow.
Nando has five kids, so his van is what he used to transport them, having made many road trips to Florida with the whole family. We took out the back seats and cleared space for our limited gear, a few lights, wooden dolly with pvc track, tripod, prop box, food (including a crock-pot that was turned on as soon as we got to the location to start cooking the food…) and other random items needed for the day’s filming. Nando drove, and I sat in the co-driver’s seat armed with an overflowing production folder. The others rode in the back seat, and Brett drove his own car.
We had wheels.
On days when scheduling was an issue, or at a sensitive location with a hard-out, we had good friends and colleagues come on board to help: Kat Rohrer of Greenkat Productions, Jonathan Tripp - fellow filmmaker from SVA, Will Hogan, David Anthony and a few others. Everybody gave up valuable work and time to pitch in, bringing skills and equipment as well as good will.
As casting continued, we all set off to collect props. We had no art director or production designer. Brett and I drove out to New Jersey and scoured flea markets on cold, sunny fall days in search of the right props, haggling with vendors. We got a clawed glove, a dummy camera and flash, various trinkets for a psychic’s parlor,
Rossana picked up other stuff from any NYC filmmaker’s prop haven: Canal Street. She found a crystal ball, specialized light fixtures, cloths and portable battery operated lights that would save us lighting rental fees.
Nando asked for favors from friends upstate and acquired a Road Closed sign, a neon beer sign, and recruited his friend and neighbour, Klaus to build us our dolly.
Locations were another issue. Fortunately, with a few years of living in NYC, I had some friends who were willing enough to lend us their private or commercial spaces for a limited time to shoot in, or find willing friends of friends with apartments and bars. Having made many shorts here too, I was used to approaching proprietors and seeking favors or negotiating low rental fees. We got many great locations this way. And then there was the Greek Cultural Centre that was very supportive of the film, allowing us to use their space as a studio were we shot a thrift shop scene, a hospital scene, a theater scene and also set up a greenscreen.
The largest part of our budget (next to union actor’s fees) was production insurance. Shooting guerilla style is all well and good, but it can be risky or dangerous. We were planning on shooting near fast moving traffic, on bridges, and late at night in deserted Brooklyn neighborhoods. The last thing I wanted was someone to get hurt and be left without medical assistance. So insurance was a must. And you need this in order to get a permit from the Mayor’s Office to lay down a tripod or a dolly.
I had set a date to start shooting in October – November 2006 and catch some of that beautiful NYC fall light. But pre-production was going slowly. As the pages of prop and locations lists multiplied, I realized that this was a very ambitious script… But we pressed on. The shoot date got pushed back to November – December (a total of 5 weeks). And pre-production would have to be done simultaneously as production, because I had no desire to shoot in a snow capped New York in January. The pressure was on.
We were far from ready. But production had to start, so it did. And I will leave the production phase for the next entry…