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Forget the low-budget movie. Forget Clerks and Slacker, two movies known for ‘costing nothing’ to make and going on to achieve critical and commercial success. They still cost over $20,000 to produce.
More interesting are the films made at a cost that is realistic to an aspiring indie filmmaker, the ones below $15,000 or even $10,000. How were they made? This article delves into four excellent examples. Other than box office success, the films mentioned below have a crucial and common characteristic: they all look good. Watching them, their low budgets are not easily identifiable, because of certain tricks deployed by their directors. This article takes a deeper look at the methods which lend these movies that high budget cinematic look, all the while keeping their budgets minimal.
El Mariachi (1993)
Directed by Robert Rodriguez, El Mariachi is the gold standard of micro-budget films, using DIY techniques to mimic the effects of large productions. In what is a phenomenal resource for film buffs and aspiring directors alike, Rodriguez has his own 10-minute presentation on YouTube where he brings you through the tricks he used during production, adding an interesting commentary and some memorable quotes.
“You can’t spend on anything. You have to refuse to spend … Think of a creative way to get around your problem and keep your money in your pocket.” This mantra of sorts kept Rodriguez’s budget to an impressive $7,225 in 1993. Taking inflation into account. this equates to roughly $12,944 in 2020, which is still miniscule. Rodriguez also remarks that he could have made the movie for $700 with today’s technology.
The writer-director refused to even purchase black paint to use on a worn guitar case, instead cutting to a shot of a different case used by another character in the film. Rodriguez only had one camera and would make editing decisions on the fly, shooting the same scene from different angles. This saved a lot of film and gave the effect that he was working with more than one camera. He would also record dialogue and sounds on location immediately after filming a scene and would cut away from faces if the dialogue was too fast and complex to sync. Other money saving hacks included using a wheelchair instead of buying a dolly, and using cheap lights bought in a hardware store.
These money saving techniques are only one facet of the movie that helps give it its cinematic look. More important is the atmosphere Rodriguez was able to conjure up and make feel consistent throughout the movie. The film’s location lends the most weight. The setting of Ciudad Acuna in North Eastern Mexico was a flawless call from the filmmaker. This typical Mexican city, with its old buildings, painted in bright contrasting colours, provides a ready-made cinematography that is charming and authentic.
While the acting in El Mariachi is not award worthy, it is passable, and the performers look the part. As the title lead, Carlos Gallardo puts in a good performance and was used in future Rodriguez films such as Desperado (although Antonio Banderas replaced him as El Mariachi), and Planet Terror. The level of acting from the men playing the bad guys may have threatened the integrity of a different movie. Yet, Rodriguez makes it work because these burly men, clad in thick moustaches and aviators look authentic. There is also little dialogue which helps stifle any distracting performance flaws.
You often find in movies quaint scenes with their own unique quirks. They may not add much to the plot, but they are memorable and lend character to a film. Rodriguez did this to great effect when he hired a local exterminator and part-time musician named Juan Suarez to compose a song for Gallardo’s Mariachi to perform in the film. While a small aspect of the entire project, it serves its purpose and hints at a further level of artistry from the man behind the camera.
Director Christopher Nolan acknowledges El Mariachi as a major influence on his feature debut. It gave him the belief that he could too make professional and slick looking films with no budget. In contrast to Rodriguez’s film, Nolan’s first movie is more serious and less playful. Where Rodriguez was happy to leave in small ‘mistakes’, Nolan wanted to push himself to the absolute limit in terms of making a film that was as polished as his budget of $6,000 (roughly $9,604 in 2020) would let him.
Nolan did utilise some of the same techniques discussed above, most notably the decision to make editing decisions while shooting, something vital when saving money on film. Yet, there are two major differences between the two movies. Firstly, Following is shot in black and white, automatically making the lighting set up less complicated, as well as giving the film an impressionist style. Secondly, Nolan, as the head of his college’s film society, had access to professional lighting equipment and a dolly.
The dolly is used very purposefully in the first scene of the film, and only then. Also utilised is a good quality shot gun microphone. The scene itself is simple, just two men in a room talking. Yet, the use of more professional equipment in the Following’s intro is important. The dolly signifies to the audience that the handheld look for the rest of the film is done on purpose for effect. Meanwhile, the shot gun microphone also lures the viewer into a false sense of security with its good sound quality, something Nolan may not have been able to achieve throughout the rest of filming. As he puts it himself: “By the time people realised just how cheap this film is and how bad it sounds, they’re already into the story.”
Nolan relocated to the United States and brought Following to festivals around the world to great success. The film’s non-linear storytelling has become his signature trait and is seen again in later works from the auteur such as Memento, Batman Begins, The Prestige and his most recent movie Dunkirk. Thus, Following can be seen as an early step on Nolan’s route to more complex storytelling, something which arguably reached its peak in Inception. Indeed, the name of one of the main characters in Following, Cobb, is used again for Leonardo DiCaprio’s lead role in the 2010 sci-fi.
Of all the accolades the film garnered, probably the most telling marker of its quality is the gap in funding and production between it and Nolan’s follow up, the bona-fide masterpiece Memento. To go from a film effectively made with friends, and minimal resources, to a $9 million budget movie that is still revered as one of the director’s best works is a phenomenal achievement.
Primer, made for $7,000 in 2004 (roughly $9,635 in 2020), is in my opinion the most impressive film on this list. It is a fully realised vision, one written and directed by, as well as starring, Shane Carruth. Like the others I have mentioned so far, it has developed a strong cult following. Yet, it has gone further by establishing itself as arguably the best and most accurate portrayal of time travel on screen. To add to this realism, Carruth decided not to dumb down the scientific language used by its engineer characters, trusting the audience to work out for themselves the details of the plot.
Carruth gives his film an overexposed look using fluorescent lighting, lending the film a green and yellowish hue. This, similar to Nolan’s use of black and white, provides a distinctive impressionistic look. As per Nolan and Rodriguez’ efforts, there was minimal footage captured overall. Carruth meticulously planned out each shot on a storyboard, completing Primer with a very low shooting ratio (shot footage to used footage) of 2:1. This is as opposed to the more common ratios which are generally between 6:1 and 10:1.
Carruth also composed a thoughtful and apt score himself, further eliminating production costs while keeping a sense of big budget production value. This low production cost to value was summed up nicely by Roger Ebert who wrote: “The movie never looks cheap, because every shot looks as it must look.” Carruth and his team were justly rewarded for their work with the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
Paranormal Activity has a slightly higher budget than the previous films mentioned at $15,000, which for me is on the cusp of where micro-budget turns into low budget. Yet, it had to be included as it has been cited as the most profitable film in history. Just to postface this comment, of course the film would not have earned nearly as much without huge marketing and investment from DreamWorks/Paramount. Yet, this takes nothing away from the fact that the main player in its success is the original $15,000 project that writer-director Oren Peli created. This same argument can be used for El Mariachi, which received significant investment in marketing and an upgrade in production quality. However, the original still holds its own and Rodriguez even makes the point that the version made with his original film in fact looks less washed out and degraded than the DVD version.
Peli saved most of his money by using a home video camera, which is essential to the film’s realistic found footage aesthetic and negates the need for a camera crew. The film was shot during a tight 7-day schedule, with editing done at the same time. The main actors, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, were paid $500 each for their work, while Sloat also helped with camera operation.
The film debuted at the Screamfest Horror Film Festival, where it was picked up by Miramax, before being acquired by Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks (Paramount own DreamWorks) and given a wide release. Paranormal Activity was a hit which spawned five sequels (a sixth is on the way in 2021) and became part of horror movie legend.
Technology has come along way since 1993. Peli’s no budget debut highlights this, as the filmmaker didn’t have to be quite as creative with money saving tricks as Rodriguez to make his movie. It does have to be said though that there was luck involved in the film’s success. It was the right film at the right time and captured the public’s imagination. But just like the other three films discussed, it shows what can be done not just on a low budget but a realistic and achievable micro budget.