INDUSTRY INSIGHTS: Making A Monster Movie... On No Budget!

By Kenneth Cran for The No Budget Report

The Millennium Bug is unusual for an independent horror film. While most indie horror films focus on killers or ghosts or zombies, ours focuses on a 35 foot tall monster rampaging through a mountain forest and later, a ghost town. Making a giant, Japanese-style monster movie is NOT what indie filmmakers typically do, because the genre is so specialized and requires numerous special effects that, let's face it, most indie filmmakers simply don't know how to do. However, in the spirit of the philosophy of "make a movie with the resources you have," we did indeed make a movie with the resources that we had available to us. Those resources were, in no particular order:

1. My production design/art department experience. I'm an artist, and I had done freelance feature and television work in San Diego for almost 10 years, including a stint with Public Broadcasting.

2. My special effects knowledge. You don't read Cinefex magazine since its inception in 1980 nor make clay animated movies as a kid without learning something!

3. Jim Cran's tireless planning and organization. Without a pilot house and wheel, ships chug along in circles. Jim kept us moving in an ever-forward direction.

4. Haunted house designing and building. No kidding! Jim and I had designed and built the Del Mar Fairgrounds Scream Zone Halloween haunted house attractions in San Diego County for three years before moving to Los Angeles.

5. San Diego State film school alums. Another good argument for film school! Our fellow SDSU Aztecs were a great resource, and they knew what they were doing. 

6. Experience both amateur and professional in production. It helps your credibility if you have been on a set prior to making a film and know how things are run. In other words, professionalism and experience were two of our key resources.

7. Passion, enthusiasm, passion, and enthusiasm. The most important of our resources! I cannot believe how often I hear filmmakers say about their movies, "I'm over it, I just want to move on." You had better LOVE your project, because you will be married to it for two, three, even four years. If you want a divorce after a year, you chose the wrong project.

These resources were easy because they were effortless. We had them. But we needed other resources, and we needed to ask questions to see if those resources were available or if we needed to rethink our strategy:

1. Do we try to use CGI or practical effects?
2. Do we shoot on location? If so, where?
3. What is the budget and how do we get the money?
4. Who will star in it?
5. What kind of camera will we use?
6. Is the script really ready?

CGI OR NOT CGI? The first question was reasonably easy. I don't know how to do CGI, and what's more, I'm tired of seeing bad CGI monsters and effects. So we created NO CGI Films and vowed we would not use any imagery created inside a computer. Plus, I had some experience building practical miniatures and animatronic monster suits, and had a reasonable amount of confidence I could pull off these kinds of effects.

LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION. Jim and I knew somebody that had a few acres of forested land north of Los Angeles, but after a weekend visit, we saw that the "forest" he had boasted of turned out to be mostly scrub. I had imagined a tall redwood forest for our primary location, and once we decided not to shoot on location, we knew we had to build our forest both in full size and in miniature. This created a real dilemma, because we didn't have that kind of resource (a large facility) in which to build or shoot a forest. After researching soundstages and laughing at the cost, we decided on a warehouse. We found an inexpensive one in North Hollywood, about $750 per month for 700 square feet. Inexpensive is a relative term, of course. NOTE: with the exception of a few exterior Jeep shots up in Los Padres National Forest, the entire movie was shot in this warehouse. And if you think 700 square feet is big, consider this--most apartments in Los Angeles are 1,000 square feet or more.

CASH MONEY DOLLARS. In terms of resources, money is always the one in shortest supply. So, what was the budget on The Millennium Bug? I'll end the suspense now: it was around $250K. Before you throw your hands up and stop reading, however, know that this cost was spread out over three years and includes deferments, and that we did not have the actual cash in the bank all at once. In fact, between the three initial main partners, me, Jim, and Mike Goedecke, our initial investment was $5,000 each. Since we all had full-time jobs and savings accounts, we were able to come up with this initial investment with only a modicum of difficulty, and only making deposits over the course of a few months. 

So, $15k got us the warehouse and materials to build the stage, workbenches, miniatures, monsters, and some expendables. Obviously, our crew was mostly volunteer, as was the cast. We did not carry insurance, and we did not indulge in sumptuous craft services. We were frugal to the Nth degree. It's important to point out, too, that we shot 90% of the effects scenes first and with this money. In fact, I think that all of our monster and miniature scenes cost less than the initial $15k investment. 

The rest of the money came in little bits and pieces over the course of the next two years. Family and a few friends who came on board as key production, notably Dustin Yoder, added considerably to the budget. We always had just enough to cover our costs. We did get lucky, too, when we shot and edited an industrial video for a marketing company that paid us $13,000 over six months. That was a fluke, but a happy one. At no time did we have more than perhaps $6k in the bank. And our shooting schedule was spread out over a year because we had to sign a one year lease for the warehouse. That certainly gave us time, and we didn't have to quit our day jobs. Unusually, we never used a single credit card during production. We didn't have to.

ACTORS MUST ACT. This was the best casting experience I had ever had. Our casting director Susan Papa and her assistants Susan Baker and Jason Bowers weeded out the respondents (we let all actors know that this was a non-union shoot, pay was SAG minimum, but deferred), and Jim and I only saw the best of the best. I'm not surprised that we got such competent actors, either. Actors in Los Angeles have to act, so they will work for deferred pay. Also, I have no problem asking people to work for no money, because I didn't pay myself, either. I just wanted to make a movie.

CAMERAS DON'T SHOOT PEOPLE, CINEMATOGRAPHERS DO. We needed to shoot miniatures at a minimum of 60 frames per second (aka slow motion) to make our monster look big (again, my knowledge of special effects was and remains an important resource). So, one resource we had was a Panasonic HVX 200a high definition "P2 card" camera owned by co-executive producer/compositor/special effects artist/etc. Dustin Yoder. The camera shot the required frame rate, but it had a fixed lens. That means the lens could not be removed. The problem with a fixed lens camera is that it generally keeps everything in focus, which screams video. So, we spent some of our budget and bought a Letus lens adapter and used fast prime lenses. This means that we were able to get a cinematic look for the film (the next time you watch a movie, pay attention to closeups of actors- is the background out of focus? If so, that's a cinematic look achieved via, most likely, with high speed prime lenses). 

One last thought on cameras--since some filmmakers are actually shooting with still cameras now, and even on iPhones (!), the excuse of not having the right camera is a poor one. Nowadays, everyone has access to some sort of an HD camera.

IT'S THE SCRIPT, STUPID. I had re-envisioned and rewritten the script from its original version, and made it more of a realistic endeavor to shoot. The original version of The Millennium Bug was way more effects-heavy and thus more complicated, with more monsters, more miniatures, more locations, and more overall complexity. This, finally, is the single most important part of the filmmaking process and a philosophy that you either get or you don't: Do not write what you cannot shoot with your available resources. Filmmaking is hard enough without the filmmaker first breaking his own legs and then setting fire to his own house, which is the equivalent of writing a script with which you have no resources for. In El Mariachi, Robert Rodriguez famously had a school bus scene because he had a school bus. If I had an old tool shed or access to three Shetland ponies, I would have written scenes around them.

THE BOTTOM LINE OF THE BOTTOM LINE. As Mark says here on his website and in his No Budget Film School seminars, utilize your resources. We all have them, whether it's a barn, seven acres of swamp, a '57 Chevy, thirteen red velvet sofas, an inheritance or a trained llama. Write a story around your resources. What you may find is that, ultimately, the greatest resources at your disposal are the people around you and their passion and enthusiasm. Nothing trumps passion!