Lessons Learned on a Microbudget Horror Film

By , posted 15 April 2011

Werner Herzog famously stole a camera he'd officially won in a film competition in order to make his first few films, feeling that it was destined to be his. With his admonition that in the age of digital cameras, anyone could make a film if they chose to do so, a few friends and I decided to write and film a micro-budget horror film.

The director had a professional full-time job creating corporate commercials, and prior to this had already filmed two short films he had written himself. It was my involvement as a psychotic tenant in the latter of these that prompted me to offer my services writing instead of being in front of the camera, and this began an initial period of three months where we would ping emails backwards and forwards during lunch hours discussing plot developments, ideas and the outline of scenes we wanted to include.

Initially the wish to include a wide circle of friends in the writing process seemed like a good and tactful idea, however it wasn't long before we were all at cross purposes and the plot would develop a certain way in one private conversation and then be presented to the rest of us as a major revision when we had a scheduled catch-up. It also didn't help that the director didn't have a fixed idea of what he wanted, just some key scenes that he wanted including and tied together. Eventually I had to cut the others out of the process and hammer out a synopsis that would at least give the chance of working on a coherent storyline, at which point the other collaborators politely bowed out.

Lesson 1: Decide on the structure first, the overall aims and themes and then get writers to work on assigned sections: it's easier to dovetail these than to have different people rewriting eachother's sections and including ideas that jar with your own.

The director started casting through his own net of contacts and listings in local advertising directories. The response to this was initially very good and we were able to secure the lead, a trained Polish actress and model quite quickly, although her hardworking schedule that also fitted in a day job was a challenge to work around and largely dictated the shooting sequences.

The director received so many potential applicants, all of whom had good amateur, or in one case professional, acting experience that suddenly the script demanded extra parts. These were easily written in, and to be honest, some excellent new directions and plot depth emerged from developing some of these roles. However, one by one the prospective candidates turned it down, and when a candidate was secured, filming was almost finished and the bulk of the additional material was dropped due to scheduling issues.

Lesson 2: It may not be very "guerrilla", but don't fix the shooting schedule until all the parts are cast. Enough will happen with natural accidents, schedule conflicts and acts of God to force revisions without creating extra work for parts that never make it in front of the camera.

The bulk of the film concentrated on the online relationship between our heroine and the other protagonist, a lonely introvert addicted to internet strip shows. As we wanted to capture the somewhat unreal nature of webcam shows, we gave a camera to the lead actress to film her "online" sections, and edited these into the footage to produce a "conversation" between the two actors. In retrospect, these are the best things about the finished project: unhindered by a film crew and unfamiliar surroundings, she was able to produce lots of takes of an incredibly emotional and genuine nature which gave us lots of material to select from.

Lesson 3: giving actors the space and time to rehearse outside of what's usually a day or afternoon shooting schedule can really make the difference to a performance.

As luck would have it, I ended up directing the penultimate segment, and finally appreciated the hassle and stress involved in getting footage shot on schedule. Despite some careful planning, there were a few continuity hiccups we needed to iron out, and by the end of the day I was so exhausted that a couple of the shots got rushed and I think maybe a five minute break to restore stamina and another take might have had a better result.

Lesson 4: Don't underestimate the time it takes even with a limited production - to shoot a scene. You can never have too much planning and mentally rehearsing the shoot can sometimes highlight a few snags you can iron out before running into them headlong during filming.

These are just four lessons learned on a comparatively long and hard-worked project, but already have helped streamline and improve the preparation on our next project, which we will be commencing on in earnest shortly.

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