This article is part of a series on how to make films on a small budget, based on the documentary Vanishing Borders. Please check out Becky Harris’s article on how to make a micro-budget poster, Shannon Roe-Butler’s article on how to make a film website, and Carly Mangus’s article on how to create a micro-budget movie trailer.
Back in 2009 I decided I wanted to make a feature documentary about immigrant women living in New York City. I wanted to tell stories that would put a personal, female face on immigration and that would explore how immigrants transform this country and are in turn transformed by their experiences here. Being an immigrant myself, I was passionate about the project. Passion is something one must feel before launching into a project with a budget that would make an indie film seem like a Hollywood project. In my case, I made Vanishing Borders for $20,000. That total covered everything from preproduction to festival submissions. In this article, I’m not concerned with how one gets the needed funds (in my case it was a mix of grants and personal funds) but rather with what to do with the money once you get it. How do you make a high-quality feature on such a miniscule budget?
1. Hire a passionate, early-career crew.
You probably feel so excited about your project that you think Sofia Coppola and Mira Nair would want to collaborate with you if they only heard about it. The reality, though, is that the people who will be interested in working with you are early-career filmmakers who are looking for challenging work and that heavy-hitter, the feature, to go into their emergent IMDB profiles. In my case, I could only offer my crew food and transportation alongside the promise of payment if the film ever made any money (not likely for a documentary about women of color, but that’s a matter for another article). It may yet make money, of course. We are launching our festival submission process as I write this. However, that is not why my amazing four-person crew signed on with the project. They joined me because they felt a connection to the film and to the women’s stories and because they were hoping to expand their filmmaking expertise. It sounds a bit utopian, but you need to find people who are in it for the experience, not the money. Those people exist, and if you believe in your project, you will find them. Just be upfront in your advertisements that you cannot afford to pay anyone, and you will hear mostly from people who are OK with that.
2. Be ready for chaos to ensue.
No matter what glossy stories they tell in DVD special features, film production of any kind is messy. You have a plurality of artistically-minded people working with capricious technology in rarely cooperative environments. When you have a substantial budget, you can improve some of these circumstances. With no money, you can’t. Not only are you unable to film in a studio or use the highest-quality equipment, your brave and adventurous crew of early-career filmmakers is bound to make mistakes. As are you. You can perhaps mitigate the chaos, but there is no avoiding it. What you can do is let your crew and actors/documentary participants know from the start that this will be a complicated, sometimes insanely stressful, process. Try to create the kind of dynamic in your set that embraces mistakes and mishaps with patience and generosity. Since everyone is going to mess up at some point, be kind about it. Remember that your crew is working for free because they, too, believe in your project.
3. Be patient. It will take a while.
If you’re working on a micro budget, chances are that you are not a full-time filmmaker. Any feature film takes time to complete, but a film made by someone who has other professional commitments is going to progress particularly slowly. My film spent four years in postproduction because I was in the midst of my Ph.D. when I started it. I was also, being in my thirties, hearing my biological clock tick away. I am now a faculty member at Michigan State University and the mother of two boys who fill my days with laughter and wonder. Do I wish the film had been finished earlier? Sure, but not at the cost of its quality or my sanity. If you want to make a good feature on a micro budget, it’s going to be a long road. This is something you need to clearly discuss with your crew and actors/documentary participants. When I started production, I had no idea that it would take as long as it did. Everyone involved has been incredibly patient, but I wish someone had told me how long it would take so I could have warned my crew and participants in advance. I have stayed in touch with everyone through the years, sending updates on our various successes and setbacks and keeping them connected to the project and to each other. This communication has made the wait manageable for them and for me.
4. Become a researcher.
If you cannot afford to pay your crew, it is unlikely that you will be able to hire experienced professionals to make your website, design your poster, create your trailer, and run your social media campaign. You need all of these for a feature, however, and while you’re probably able to edit your own film (as I did), you are likely not fluent in HTML and InDesign. This is where you need to find middle ground. In my case, I hired brilliant undergraduate students from the Professional Writing program where I teach at Michigan State to create the film’s digital presence and promotional materials. Although these students knew how to code and design, they were not part of the film world, so I did extensive research for each piece of the puzzle. For example, I looked at dozens of documentary websites and selected the best ones, summarizing what I liked about each and what we should emulate in our own site. I shared the links to all the surveyed sites with the web designer, and then we worked together all summer creating a website that we’re both immensely happy with. Again, be patient. It takes time.
5. Accept the fact that your film is not going to be perfect.
With your equipment and location limitations, your early-career crew, and your long road to the finish, your film is going to have some technical issues. In our case our cinematography is impeccable, but shooting sound in New York City with fair to middling mics is a labyrinthine task, and the result is not as pristine as I would like it to be. Does it matter? I don’t think it matters much. My particular film rests on the four women’s stories, and those stories are spellbinding. Yes, there’s a hum here and a siren there, but audiences are unlikely to notice them. If they do notice, they are unlikely to care if they’re caught up in what they’re watching. As with any other film, if we don’t care about the characters, we won’t engage. It’s just that in a micro-budget film, the characters need to do more of the heavy lifting to make audiences forgive or entirely miss the technical imperfections, so choose your story and characters wisely and don’t obsess over minor technical mishaps.
6. Submit to the right festivals.
Yes, we are, of course, submitting to the big names and so should you. We may get lucky and hopefully you will as well. However, we are also submitting to festivals that are looking for the kind of film we’ve made. In our case, women’s festivals make up a substantial portion of our submission list. With the dearth of women stories told by women, our work is likely to stand out at women’s festivals in ways that it may not in other places. With your micro budget you will not be able to apply to a hundred festivals, so keep in mind the places that are looking for the kind of work you’ve done. They may not be as well-known as other places, but they may be able to give your film a lot more attention when you screen there. After all you’ve gone through to get this feature done, there’s nothing better than sharing it with people who are genuinely excited about it.
I’ll close with our micro-budget trailer in case you’re curious:
Good luck, micro-budgeters! You’re in for a long, slow, wondrous ride. Here’s to your Hollywood ending.
To learn more about Vanishing Borders, visit their website, like them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Also, check out Becky Harris’s article on how to make a micro-budget poster, Shannon Roe-Butler’s article on how to make a film website, and Carly Mangus’s article on how to create a micro-budget movie trailer. You can visit Alexandra’s profile here.