When it comes to the really crazy ideas, like making a feature film with zero prior experience and for less than the price of a semester of film school, sometimes all it takes is one other person to say, screw it, why not? That's how, a few months of begging, borrowing and dealing later, first-time director Jean Benoit Lauzon and I found ourselves jumping straight into the deep end for our feature film debut "Gore, Quebec," which came out DVD, iTunes and online platforms on October 14.
With only a few thousand dollars to our names, and a cast sourced entirely from Craigslist, our little slasher film about the blind date from Hell in Quebec cottage country wasn't just a microbudget production, it was nano-budget. But somehow, miraculously, we made it through that first weekend. And even more miraculously, everyone came back for the next one. Repeat that a few more times, and eventually we had a finished film, and all it cost us was a little (OK, a lot) of sleep, and $7,000 all-in. (We have receipts.) And while it'd be near impossible to run down everything we learned in the process, here are some of the most important takeaways from making a movie for a fraction of the craft services budget on a typical Hollywood production.
1. Dream big.
Why did we make a feature for our first project, instead of playing it safe with a short film, like pretty much everyone we encountered suggested? It was a question we even asked ourselves whenever we ran up against problems, either due to a lack of budget or experience. But those brief crises of conscience aside, the answer was simple, because we knew that if we were going to be calling in all our favours, we might as well make it for something we actually had a shot at getting noticed for when it was all over. And when we finally got on set, we realized something: it doesn't matter how many zeros you've got to play with, you can always use more. More money, more hours of light in the day, more coffee (always more coffee...). So go big or go home, right?
2. Keep everyone happy.
It's one thing to happily toil for free on your passion project, it's another to ask complete strangers to do the same. Meanwhile, our cast had to convincingly play lifelong friends, even a set of twins, with extremely limited rehearsal time. So fostering a sense of community was crucial: we all stayed under one roof, ate together, and hung out at the end of 16-hour days. And while I'm not suggesting everybody sat around singing "Kumbaya" for the entire shoot, keeping people happy meant listening to their ideas, appreciating the skills they brought to the table, and making sure they knew they were part of a team, not just cheap labour.
3. Know how to get the most bang for your buck.
The only way to make a movie for this little is by not paying people what they're worth, and that's definitely nothing you'll ever see us bragging about. The hope is that if you're up front about what you need, treat people right, and offer them something in return (like their first leading role or a showcase for their skills), they'll see the value. Still, we knew we had to be smart with what little money we had. So when it came to allocating our limited funds, they went primarily to three major categories: sound, makeup, and equipment, ensuring that every penny can be seen onscreen (especially all those gallons of fake blood). When you don't have much to spend, you're forced to learn how to budget wisely.
4. Improvise everything, except the acting.
It's an old cliché that when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Well, when you've got no money to even buy a hammer, every problem on set looks like a dream-crushing, production-shuttling nightmare. So out of necessity, we learned that when we hit the inevitable snags that every production runs into, those problems has to be solved with creativity, not cash. When our boat (a key set piece) broke midway through the shoot, the entire ending had to be rewritten on the fly. And when we spent precious pre-dawn hours hauling a generator into the middle of the woods only for it to break too, it had to be rewritten again. But to make a movie for $7,000, you have to be prepared to improvise. And just as crucially, be decisive. We had to get what we needed and move onto the next scene -- before something else broke.
5. It's more important to get it finished than perfect.
During pre-production, there was all the time in the world to tweak. But once we got on set, perfectionism had to take a backseat to getting the movie made before we ran out of time and/or money. We all worked as hard as we could to make "Gore" something that people would be proud to put their names on, but more importantly, to get it done no matter what. We didn't go into this to just make one movie or strike it rich, we all did it to hopefully help jumpstart our respective careers. And you can't do that with a half-finished film.
6. Write to what you've got.
I didn't just decide to write a slasher movie because I'm a big horror fan, but because I knew it was the best way to keep the cast and money manageable for a pair of first-time filmmakers. So I wrote parts with minimal dialogue we could play ourselves to reduce costs. We prominently featured our free (and gorgeous) locations in Canadian cottage country. And to keep equipment rental fees down, I wrote in a 15-minute "found footage" opening. As it turned out, it's a fun little bait-and-switch: you watch this amateur home video and think you've got us pegged, then the "real movie" (and real movie camera) kicks in and hopefully takes "Gore" to another level. That's because we ran down all the assets at our disposal -- not just cash -- before we started and developed a script that would make the most of them, not vice versa.
7. Surround yourself with like-minded people.
Besides how little we spent, one thing that never fails to amaze people is that, with the exception of our cinematographer and the actor who played our crazed killer (both fellow producers), the rest of the cast and crew were assembled off Craigslist. It probably helped that we were realistic about what we were looking for and could offer, but on a production this small, we didn't just need solid actors, we also needed people who shared our DIY attitude, who would be willing to hold a boom or help us lug equipment through the woods. The key was looking for people who were just as hungry to prove themselves as we were. And out of all the things that had to go right to make a movie for $7,000, that's where we lucked out the most.
If you're interested in learning more about "Gore, Quebec" as well as how to support the microbudget indie film, check it out on Twitter.
An earlier version of this story was written as part of Raindance Canada's Indie Tips series.