How to be a no-budget filmmaker and NOT be a douchebag. / by Stefanie Sparks

It’s hard to be a filmmaker and not be a douchebag every once in a while. There I said it and let me be the first to admit that I myself have fallen victim to douchbaggery when attempting to make my vision a reality within the constraints of modern day capitalism and the explosion of production in NYC.

What can I say? I’m no Lena Dunham, heck; I’m not even one of those girls from Broad City (Abbi and Ilana, yeah, I know their names). There isn’t some magical Judd Apatow-type (there’s really only one Judd Apatow) waiting to discover me and legitimate me overnight. For the rest of us, it’s a grueling, uphill, heartbreaking battle every single day to get our films made and there are so, so many of us. Okay. That’s the state of things. So what? As Sinatra would say (the documentary I watched about him a few months really got me into the guy), “That’s Life”. That doesn’t mean we don’t all deserve to tell our stories but I think the key to it all is learning how to support one another. I’m working on this myself. It’s hard.

The best no-budget films I have seen in the last few years: (let me list them here: Foxy Merkins, Red Flag & Tired Moonlight) were all made with crews of less than four people! Four people! These are all such emotionally honest, brilliant in their own unique way films and they were made by four, count that, 1-2-3-4, people. Hmmm.

So what does that mean for the rest of us chumps? I don’t know. Tread carefully, friends.  I went through a tough time, to put it mildly, after my first feature film project. I spent a LOT of time searching for answers from other no-budget directors and I questioned everything I had done up until that period in regards to how I made films. Events that unfolded during Cathy Coppola forced me to. Trust me, I’m no fan of self-reflection and I prefer to think if there’s anything I might know something about it’s got to be filmmaking. But I had to reflect. I had to talk to other directors. I needed answers.  I got them.

Be wary of those who question your filmmaking “chops” because you only have 10k to make a feature film and you want to work with a small crew. Chances are, these folks are super talented but they aren’t the ones to help you make your little no-budget film. You see, there are many, many reasons why people chose to work on other people’s films and only about 1 out of 100 people you might meet through a Mandy or CL ad actually give a rat’s patoot about your little no-budget film or your vision.

Some folks go to work on film sets because they don’t want to work in an office. Yeah, it’s that simple and it is a legitimate alternative to cube life. Some of them are working on sets so they can get into one of the unions. Some of them just want to prove that they have huge cocks and that they can hang with the big boys (most of these folks are women, actually) and of course there are some that are simply working on films for the money. None of these folks will be happy on your film set. That doesn’t mean they aren’t awesome filmmakers. They just aren’t the ones for you.

But I still haven’t gotten to the part about how you, as a struggling no-budget filmmaker can avoid douchbaggery when making your own films. That part is simple, in theory. If you promise to pay people for their work on your set, pay them. Pay them the amount you told them. Take five minutes and print out a deal memo and have them sign it. Have them send you a receipt (you will get audited by New York State at some point so be prepared, keep your receipts and don’t let ANYONE tell you that it’s not necessary). 

Be nice to people. Just because they don’t get what you are trying to do or don’t understand how you could possibly make a film for less than 200k doesn’t make them a bad person. It just means they aren’t a little crazy which you have to be to make no-budget films.

Find good interns and treat them well. Nothing makes the process of no-budget filmmaking better than a couple of eager film students that really, really want to get some experience and work on your project. Try to pay them, even if it’s just $50 a day and a Subway sandwich. If you seriously can’t pay them, find out what they really want to do (edit, art direct, etc.) and let them do it on your film AND give them a cool title.  Titles are free. But be careful; don’t go making your intern the executive producer. I could tell you about the time I made a Russian Lit professor a “producer” on one of my films but that’s a whole other blog post entry.