Thursday, May 27, 2010

Mark Stolaroff on The No Budget Film School

What is your background in film?

MARK: I'm 45 and my father was a shutter bug--he loved his Nikon still camera and Bell & Howell Super 8mm movie camera and I fell in love with film then. In high school, waaay before it was cool, I used to make films (on Super 8mm) instead of doing written book reports, and no matter how bad the film was, since you were the only kid doing one, you got an 'A.'

In college at The University of Texas in Austin I kind of chickened out on film at first, majoring in Business since it was so much more of job-oriented degree. Fortunately, UT had a tremendous undergraduate film program, one of the best in the country at that time (the mid-80's) and one of the only ones with enough money to accommodate 16mm projects in the first production classes. You were supposed to major in film to be able to take Film Production, but I took all the pre-requisite classes and snuck into it. I was in a program called Business Honors at the time, and I had flexibility in my schedule.

I made several films at UT, but after I graduated, chickened-out again, going to New York and doing two years in Investment Banking as a Financial Analyst. I eventually moved back to Houston and started a legit theater with an old friend, but won an internship to work on a film that was shooting in Houston. It was a made-for TNT MOW starring Treat Williams and Glen Ford.

After producing theater for four years, I quit to pursue film, working on a few local films before I realized I had to move to LA, which I did in the Fall of 1994. My first jobs were at Roger Corman's Concorde/New Horizons, where I quickly worked my way up (that's how it works there). On my first film (which starred Martin Sheen and F. Murray Abraham) I was a PA the first week, and then I was bumped up to Location Manager on week two!

I moved up the production chain of command and over the next couple of years AD'd several low-budget 16mm features, and UPM'd an AFI short film which eventually won the Academy Award for Best Short. In 1997 I was the first hired at Peter Broderick's new company Next Wave Films, a company of the Independent Film Channel that provided finishing funds to exceptional low-budget features, including the first films of Chris Nolan, Joe Carnahan, Amir Bar-Lev, and several other talented filmmakers. I worked there for 6 years until IFC pulled the plug.

This was a tremendous experience where I was able to see the entire scope of the filmmaking process, from script to collecting revenue checks from deadbeat foreign distributors. I probably watched some part of more than 2000 films submitted to us, and since we also produced 3 films from the beginning, read many scripts, too. I oversaw the company's investment in each film, many times becoming the postproduction producer once we got involved. We also repped all of our films, so I was involved in putting together festival strategy and selling the films to distributors. We took 7 films to Sundance, 5 to Toronto. Most of our 13 films were released theatrically. After Next Wave, I formed Antic Pictures with two partners, Ron Judkins and Molly Mayeux. Ron and I produced Henry Barrial's Sundance Screenwriter's Lab project True Love for $50,000, and while Henry and I were traveling to festivals with that film, he pitched me the idea of Pig, the film I am in post on now.

Why did you create the No Budget Film School?

MARK: NBFS was born out of a couple of experiences. While I was at Next Wave, Peter and I developed a presentation on digital filmmaking just as the first wave of films made with the new DV cameras were coming out. We put together clips from these films and were invited across the country and around the world to give this presentation. While at Next Wave I also taught digital or low-budget filmmaking classes at UCLA Extension, Maine Film Workshops, and The Learning Annex.

After shooting True Love, I was surprised by how many things--tricks and mistakes included--I learned making that film and was asked by Filmmakers Alliance to give a presentation on anything that I wanted. I put something together that took into account a number of these "lessons." I received some great feedback from that presentation and decided to put together a series of classes designed specifically around no-budget filmmaking--the idea that you are going to make a film with whatever money you have available to you, no matter how much (or how little) that was.

I wanted to stress the differences between successful no-budget films and other types of films, and point out the priorities--where filmmakers should spend the majority of their resources, money and time, since one has to make some pretty hard choices. I was amazed at how much filmmakers stressed over things that from my Next Wave experience, I felt were irrelevant, (things like camera format), and didn't put enough thought into things that were vitally important, (performances, story, uniqueness). NBFS is the culmination of my experience at the theater in Houston, my time at Next Wave, and my work producing, and I keep it current by continuing to be a student of the "art of no-budget filmmaking" as well as a teacher.

How important is it to have a 'name' talent in a low-budget movie these days?

MARK: I've always felt like it was irrelevant, at least when it comes to "no-budget" filmmaking. If you're spending $500k or more, (maybe even $200k or more), it becomes a lot more important, but if you are making your film for $5k, $20k, or $50k, and the goal is to launch your career as much as it is to get your money back, then I don't think names are important and they will probably make your experience much more difficult than it would be otherwise.

The history of successful no-budget filmmaking, and by that I mean films that were successful on their own and that also launched careers, is filled with films without names. It's easy to spit out a quick list just off the top of my head: Clerks, Brothers McMullen, El Mariachi, Following, Pi, George Washington, Footfist Way, Primer, and on and on. Look at all the low-budget NEXT films at this year's Sundance. With the exception of one or two, none of them had names. Look at Joe Swanberg, the Duplass Brothers. The great thing about most of these films is they launch their no-name actors' careers too. Those no-names become names! Ed Burns, Mark Duplass, Paul Schneider, Danny McBride, etc.

What's the biggest mistake that filmmakers make when making a No Budget Movie?

MARK: Maybe it's focus on things that don't really matter in the big picture, and for me the easiest one to pick on is the filmmaker's obsession with camera/format/production value (as it pertains to the look of the film).

For so long filmmakers would think they needed to shoot film, or they needed to shoot on an F900, or now that they need to shoot on a RED. None of that is really important, in and of itself. You'd think the success of Blair Witch 10 years ago would have closed the case on this thinking, but these misconceptions are still out there. Frankly, you can shoot on toilet paper if it matches the aesthetic of your project. The audience doesn't care. Paranormal Activity? $108 million domestic gross shot on a prosumer HDV camera.

Going along with this decision to shoot on the best format possible, rather than the one available to you, is that most filmmakers have to rent that equipment, which takes away one of their biggest advantages, the one studios would kill for--free time. If you own your camera and you have access to your locations and actors, you can design a project where you take your time making the film and getting it right. And I can assure you, if Woody Allen, one of the most prolific filmmakers working today needs to re-shoot a third of his film each time, you--the filmmaker who is just learning--will probably benefit from a little trial and error.

As for production value, so much more of it comes from things other than the camera/format choice--there's production sound, production design, make-up, wardrobe--and any one or more of these will be particularly important depending on the movie you're making. Good sound, of course, is important in any film. If you can't understand what a character is saying, who cares if they were shot in 4k?

What's the smartest thing a filmmaker can do before embarking on a No Budget Movie?

MARK: Prep. The old adage of Good, Fast, and Cheap--Pick Two is at play here. If we know we don't have any money and we want our films to be good, then we have to throw Fast out the window. The only way to get Good and Cheap is to spend the time prepping your film. You can find ANYTHING if you spend enough time looking for it. That might be a free piece of gear, a free location, a great crew member willing to work for nothing, anything.

No-budget filmmaking is about Beg, Borrowing and Stealing. It takes time to beg and borrow, (I won't comment on stealing!), and you can't be afraid to ask. You need to take the time to get your script as good as it can be, to find the best actors for the roles, and to put together the right team to help you. As far as production is concerned, probably the most important element to prep is Locations. You really can't do proper prep until you lock down your location and can scout it with your keys. Your location determines so many other things, and while you might be able to find a last minute 1st AC the night before you shoot, it's a disaster waiting to happen if you haven't nailed down a location right before you shoot. In LA finding a good location is particularly hard, since it's very difficult to get anything for free and because you need a permit (which can be expensive) to shoot in LA. (Well, if you take my class, I can show you how to get around that one!).

What lessons can a No Budget filmmaker take away from today's Hollywood?

MARK: Wow! That's a hard one. I spend a good deal of time teaching what I call The Alternate Universe of Filmmaking (coined by Peter Broderick), whereby the rules of Independent Low-Budget Filmmaking are exactly the opposite of studio filmmaking.

And as far as storytelling for independents, I'm a big believer in hitting them where they ain't. If you try to compete with Hollywood on their own turf, (like making a conventional romantic comedy), you're going to get clobbered. Hollywood seems to be teaching us that if you throw a lot of money at a problem, you'll succeed. That you don't need to be unique, you just need recognizable elements to sell a film.

I guess if I can come up with one thing, it would be that there's a core audience for every film. And the definition of a Core Audience is the audience who doesn't give a shit how good your film is. Studios have been making bad films that appeal to core audiences--large core audiences--for years. They may be 15-year-old boys or 15-year-old girls, but they can be very passionate, even about the worst films. Independents need to realize that there are core audiences for their films too.

And since making a good film is so damn hard--nearly impossible, especially on a no-budget--it is vital that filmmakers work hard to discover who that core audience is and figure out cost effective ways to reach them. And since these no-budget films won't have big stars in them or be based on comic book heroes, these core audiences will be small. They'll be niche audiences, not defined by demographics like "males 18-49". If a filmmaker can properly court the core audience for their film, they'll succeed even if they don't make a perfect film.

And finally, what's your favorite No Budget film ... and why?

MARK: Ok, this is an impossible question because there are so many. I could say Following, Chris Nolan's $12k masterpiece, which I worked on for 5 years and use as a case study in my classes.

But if I really had to think about it, I would have to say Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Not a no-budget film, per se, but definitely low-budget and considering they were trying to make an epic period piece, definitely not enough money to effectively pull that off. And one of the things that makes it so great as a no-budget film is they reveal that reality to you right off the bat. They enroll you in their impossible quest to make a big, studio movie with no money. The audience becomes a willing partner in the filmmakers' attempts at pulling off this feat. Right at the beginning, with Patsy rubbing coconuts together because they can't afford horses. HORSES! No horses, in a film about knights! Genius!

1 comment:

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