Sunday, July 15, 2012

Jim Lounsbury: Shooting the Breeze

About 15 years ago I met brilliant, independent film maker Jim Lounsbury. So impressed was I with this man and his talent that I married him. As he is currently producing, not one but two, indie feature films, I asked him to talk about independent film and how people nowadays get a film into production without studio money. He replied - "I wrote everything I know down in an essay on the topic. Will that do?" I know this essay has done the rounds all over the net, but in case you missed it, and are interested in indie film... I'm reprinting it here.   You can follow Jim's work at

How Budget Strangulation in Independent Cinema can Create Orgasmic Returns

Jim Lounsbury - Eponine Films and Policy Pictures.

Independent film, for generations, has been built at the crossroads of financial limitation and innovation. One could argue that somewhere in the interdependence of this relationship is found the mysterious alchemy that good art makes. This assumes that financial limitation creates innovation, in the way that erecting walls around a prison drives the creative thoughts of convicts. At the very least, financial limitation is one factor that can lead to innovation, and innovation can lead to great art. I have been party to their manifestation enough times to believe in these principles, but more importantly curious enough to ask the question, "Why do these principles exist, and how can we embrace them to independently create moving pictures that are truly moving?"

Of course, financial limitation can be measured in degrees, and I am engaging in this discussion on the basis that a $1M+ film has both enough resources to fund the practicalities of making a film in the current climate, and limited enough resources to inspire innovation, allow liquidity in the creative process, and aid in the formation of a tight family of filmmakers united by a singular vision.

It is easy to find examples in history where films with limited budgets far exceeded the reach and cultural impact expected, not to mention the financial returns, dollar for dollar, they represented. It is much harder, however, to wade through the considerable and tragic pile of independent films that did not 'break into' the zeitgeist, for they are lying half assembled in boxes, gathering dust in basements and - after having been through the trash compactors of funding bodies, financiers and distributors - have now become decaying, albeit passionately conceived, landfill.
SIDEBOX Easy Rider - Under $400,000 Vanishing Point - Just over $1M Two Lane Blacktop - $875,000  American Graffitti - $700,000 Mad Max - $400,000 Samson & Delilah - $1.5M Sex, Lies & Videotape - $1.2M, Swingers - $250,000
For this reason, we will look at examples from successful independent films that were made for less than $2M, to determine from a creative perspective the rule book, tool box and leadership strategy for creating an independent film in this budget range that has the best chance of connecting with it's audience.
One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree.
"Which road do I take?" she asked.
His response was a question: "Where do you want to go?"
"I don't know," Alice answered.
"Then," said the cat, "It doesn't matter."
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
As independent filmmakers, it is our responsibility to develop a clear idea of where we are going, and actively search for an innovative path to get there.
1. Embrace Chaos
From Swingers, to Blood Simple, to Pepi, there is a level of chaos that comes from working with smaller budgets. A level of energy. An organized chaos that becomes the template for the creation of the work. For instance, in Swingers, Doug Liman chose to shoot the bar scenes in an actual bar while it was open, because he didn't have money to build or rent the venue. He pre-lit the seat where Heather Graham was going to sit, and then shot it from across the room… Many of the patrons of the bar didn't even know a scene was being shot, and by embracing the chaos, Liman gained a sense of authenticity in the scenes.[1]
Even in larger budget films, such as Iñárritu's Babel, or Coppolla's Lost in Translation filmmakers reach for the authenticity of documentary style acquisition, opting to shoot the contextual underpinnings of their films in the actual environments, cinema verité.
Rather than trying to control everything, it is essential to allow a level of chaos to infuse the filmmaking process. Capture reality wherever possible.
"It was really Doug's (Liman) idea to use this documentary cinema vérité approach. His whole approach was, "Don’t make Party Girl with half as much money, make Clerks with ten times as much money." He was taking all these chances. Of course, to us at the time it looked like he was kind of flying by the seat of his pants, but ultimately the movie looked really good and we couldn't have gotten that kind of energy or authenticity if we had done it any other way…"[2]
John Favreau re: Swingers
2. Form a Tight, Small Crew
There is not only a level of mobility and flexibility that comes with a smaller production team, but a level of intimacy and connectedness. In order to create an environment where actors can settle into their characters, and the crew can be mobilized to take advantage of opportunities that arise, a small, close-knit yet independent production team can be more productive, and more resourceful than a larger, and more dependent, team.
This is never more apparent than in the recent Australian success, Samson and Delilah, the recent Australian feature, shot and directed by Warwick Thornton, who shot with a crew as small as 6, and rarely more than 12 throughout the shoot.
"There were no grips, no gaffers, no cranes and not too many lights on set… Money creates problems. You know, films turn into these sort of big circus and clown shows in a sense and it was important for me just to have that sort of personal space with the two actors and be able to direct that way. Not to direct through a crew."[3]
Warwick Thornton re: Samson & Delilah
According to sociologists Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith[4], there are six fundamentals of collaboration that are necessary for high performing groups:
- Small numbers of people -- Typically less than twelve
- Complementary skills in group members
- Common purposes for working
- Specific performance goals that are commonly agreed upon
- Shared working approaches
- Mutual accountability amongst all members
Their study extends to the differentiation between "real teams" and "extra-ordinary teams" citing that a "real team" is a group with complementary skills, equal commitment and who are mutually accountable, and an "extra-ordinary team" is a real team that also has a deep commitment for one another’s personal growth and success.
It could be quite useful to have cast and crewmembers, prior to the formation of the team, write a one page outline of why they want to be involved in the film, and how the film will benefit them, professionally and/or personally. This exercise would provide a strong platform for leadership, as it would ensure that there are fewer unspoken expectations from the process, and will give insight into the potentially lateral skills that might be available within the team (ie. the sound recordist might have a witty and ironic writing style that could be utilized to blog about the production while on the road).
3. Develop a Style Born of the Limitations
In a vast majority of independent films done on low budgets, the style was innovative due to the filmmakers embracing the limitations of lower budgets. Using the challenge as a point of stylistic innovation.
"As we got closer to production, I said, 'we should shoot colour, because nobody is going to watch a black and white movie.' But Scott said, "If we shoot colour we are going to have to rent an entire light package because we can't use the store's fluorescent lights.' And I said, 'So if we shoot black and white, we can just us the store lighting and some keys? Fuck it - shoot in black and white!"
Kevin Smith, re: Clerks
In the case of creating films that would typically require more resources, such as road movies or action films, rules must be put into place that will serve the dramatic purpose of the film, and will keep the production within the available budget. For instance, a road movie is typically about upsetting status quo, and the need to escape, so the choice to shoot the majority of dialogue from within the car, to emphasise the confinement of the characters, could serve the dramatic purpose of the film, and therefore magnify the themes.
During the production of Easy Rider, most of the film was shot outside with natural lighting. While this can be attributed to the film being a road movie, at the time Hopper said all the outdoor shooting was an intentional choice on his part, because "God is a great gaffer." The production used two five-ton trucks, one for the equipment and one for the motorcycles, with the cast and crew living out of a single motor home.[5]
In contemporary filmmaking, there are an increasing number of tools available to the modern filmmaker. It is in the creative and innovative use of these tools that can create a seismic shift in the possibilities available on a modest budget. A great example is Slumdog Millionaire, during the chase sequence at the beginning of the film, Danny Boyle opted to use a combination of traditional film cameras and stills cameras with HD capturing capabilities, to capture the dynamic coverage needed to create a muscular, fast paced action sequence. These cameras also allowed Boyle to capture footage in a surreptitious and non-invasive way within the slums of India in a way that didn't draw attention to the filmmaking process, using passers-by as extras, which added to the authenticity of the film.
"We just wanted to get in the middle of everything, while preserving a natural, unscripted energy: If people see a stills camera, they don't think it's recording live action."[6]
Danny Boyle, re: Slumdog Millionaire
4. Cultivate Ownership and Shared Risk/Return
There is a spirit that exists within the fabric of successful independent films, a cohesion of purpose, a relentless ambition and a shared passion by the cast and crew.
According to author and sociologist, Dan Pink, people in the work force are looking for ways to invest themselves into what they do, and are increasingly willing to give up the "security" of a regular wage, for the freedom of working as free agents, on projects they are passionate about. Furthermore, people are given the opportunity to share in the rewards of their own efforts, whether in personal or entrepreneurial endeavours, they are more productive and more heavily invested in their work, creatively and emotionally.[7]
It seems rational to deduce that in "independent" cinema, this trend is also occurring. Therefore I see a need to create models where cast and crewmembers alike share in the relative risks and rewards of creating an independent film.
Robert Connelly, in his white paper, Embracing Innovation: a new methodology for feature film production in Australia, states that, "In order to negotiate a workable industrial model for wages on lower budget films we need to find a reasonable combination of award minimums and a meaningful share of the film's income," and while this is a common contract arrangement for 'above the line' creatives, this structure could be implemented for 'below the line' crew members as well, and fits the road map for independent film creation.
5. Plan to Involve the Communities in which you Work
It's hard to place a price tag on the value of community involvement in a film project. In my own short film, Echo, we approached the Ku-ring-gai Council to help us with permits and access to the National Park for a sequence we were filming, which involved a young boy falling from a small boat and drowning.
To shoot the sequence, which involved a dialogue scene in a vehicle as well as underwater photography, we also needed a small boat and permission to close down one of the roads leading into the park. One of the workers for the Council became involved in the film, and helped us with all manner of things. If I were to tally up the dollar value of her contribution, which included running food to the crew, standing on the road holding a stop sign, standing in as an extra, getting us a discount on boat hire from the local marina, and coming to work two hours early to open up the gates to the park for us, it would have run into the hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.
In the end, all it cost me was a thank you letter and a copy of the DVD, sent to the Council. Her reply to my thank you letter was "no… THANK YOU! I never knew what went into making a film, and now I've had the chance to see what goes on behind the scenes. It was such a great experience. We just watched it in the office here, and everyone loved it… Well done!"
This is just a small example of how community involvement can be a mutually beneficial addition to any film's resource base, particularly if shooting in rural or small communities where a film can make a big impact, socially, culturally and economically.
6. Make Use of Available Resources
With all the social networking, and Internet connectivity at the fingertips of the contemporary filmmaker, it opens up a variety of ways to source things you may need for a film shoot. From props to wardrobe to specialty vehicles, it can often be easier to find things within your social network than it could be to go out and buy them.
One advantage that Independent productions have is time. Without the typical constraints of more commercial productions, Independent films often have more time to, say, spend on pre-production, the editing process, or to build a groundswell of market support online. Filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen, while making Blood Simple, discussed the process of using people who were committed to the process and the film saying:
"We didn't pay anybody anything. Well, we paid them the minimum. That’s the one thing I always say when people ask about this type of thing: it makes more sense to find people who don't necessarily have the experience doing what you want to do, but who you think are ready to do it and shoot for longer, than it does trying to find some four thousand dollars a week DP who you think is going to save you time and allow you to shoot for a week less. It doesn’t work like that. That was the philosophy that he [Mark Silverman, line producer] brought into the movie and it was really helpful for us."[8]
7. Create a Process that Aligns with the Tone of your Film
This is a relatively esoteric concept, but I believe the emotional context of a creative endeavour directly feeds the outcome of that endeavour. As a director, you begin to see that creating a tone in conversation with your actors, a dialect you use with your crew or a way of phrasing things to a cinematographer effects the tonal outcome of the film you're creating. This is why you try to keep actors a safe distance from crew chatter to reduce the consciousness of artifice, and why you may give a cinematographer more or less direction about coverage in a scene if you want a corresponding amount of chaos in the capturing of that scene.
From the start of the pre-production process to the final day in post, it is important to realize that the choices you make affect the tonal outcome of the film. It's a natural process of human creativity to match the emotional and psychological tone of our deepest creative investments and It's not uncommon for filmmakers to discover parallels between what's happening on screen and what occurs in the lives of the cast and crew.
The important thing is, to understand that this occurs, and to be aware of your power to choose what tone or approach you are going to take in the creation of your film. For instance, if you're creating a road movie about taking risks, challenging status quo, and embracing adventure, then you would create a context for the cast and crew where you would expect them to take risks, embrace adventure, and exhibit a level of anarchy at times.
8. Implement a Marketing Plan From the Beginning
Marketing an independent film in the current climate can be heartbreaking, as filmmakers, film festivals and studios alike are increasingly forced to embrace a commercial model if they are going to survive. This form of big-budget advertising has been met with diminishing returns over the past number of years, with an increase marketing budgets required to capture the same market. But yet, on the other end of the spectrum, there are incredible opportunities for 'cut-through' in niche markets. Jeff Levick, AOL's president of advertising and strategy, says of the Internet market, "niche is the new mass," and even big business is trying to find out how to engage the market by appealing to small pockets of people around similar interests.
In other words, they're trying to implement what the Independent's do so well…. Match a production with a niche market and build a relationship with that market around the film.
"Today’s audiences say that online word of mouth has become one of the most important elements of their movie decision-making, and Paranormal Activity is certainly benefiting from that shift in behavior," said Amy Powell, senior vice president of Internet marketing at Paramount Pictures.
Find ways to interact with your market from the beginning. Develop a following on Facebook, on blogging sites, get someone to twitter about the production. Start a behind the scenes video diary, get people to engage with the filmmakers about the making of the film. Tap into an existing market for your film online, and in interest groups that exist in the real world, ie. create an awareness about your road movie within collectors groups.
One marketing idea that is being implemented for rock concerts and bands by Posse ( is to allow members to earn a commission for each ticket they sell to concerts or merchandise that is sold through links from their website or Facebook page. This and other similar engines exist to raise awareness, promote and spread the word about your film, but a strategy needs to be started as early as possible.
9. Get it Done
Creating a film is better than not creating a film, so never stop energizing the process. Don't let a week go by without achieving something, no matter how small the victory. Call a production designer. Go to a bookstore and collect reference images. Watch films that move you and break them down. Read the script. Make notes. Read the script again. Map the emotional arc of the film. Find the drama in every scene. Take photographs of things that inspire you. Go to an art gallery and find an artist who makes you feel like you want your film to make people feel. Read the script. Buy a box of crayons and find your colour palette. Find musical references for your film. Stop people in the street and pitch your film to them. Call an editor and get their perspective on pacing. Read about independent filmmakers who are making films and how they are doing it. Tattoo the title of your film on your arse. Get inspired.
I am an independent film-maker first and foremost. I have always cut my own cloth.
Mira Nair
It doesn't matter what you do. Just keep building momentum for the project.
Find a way. Get it done. No excuses.
And Finally…
Filmmaking is an art form that is a natural extension of our need to communicate through stories. The films we choose to embark on must be personal and grounded in our own personal ethos. It follows that they will be crystallized through our increased understanding of the world.
By expanding our experiential database, even in non-film related endeavours, we inform the stories we tell. Sometimes the best thing for the creative process is to step aside and refresh our creativity. Obsessions cannot often be controlled, but they can be held at arms distance for a few minutes while we gain perspective.
There will be setbacks. There will be triumphs.
Feature films are often born through a persistence of vision, a determined and dogged resistance to compromise, and a knowledge that the film you are making is an essential volume in the lexicon of stories that "must be told".
My view is that limitations are a necessary evil in the creation of moving art. There is a gutteral resourcefulness that comes from the exhaustion of creating. Reaching for that last piece of inspiration is the key to finding the inspired thought, the right shot, the perfect tone. The job of a director is to limit his choices, after all, to choose the correct way to illuminate the story, capture the emotional moment, create a reality just as vivid as what is going on around us. Film is reality too, and the experience an audience has is real. It's tangible. And if you embrace the limitations that come with Independent filmmaking, and look at them as empowering, there is inspiration there for the taking.
There are more stories that must be told. It might as well be you telling them.
[1] Horowitz, Josh. The Mind of the Modern Moviemaker. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2006.
[2] Lowenstein, Stephen. My First Movie: Twenty Celebrated Directors Talk about Their First Film. New York, NY. Pantheon Books. 2000.
[3] ABC News Online "Low-budget masterpiece pulls focus on Indigenous problems" by Rebekah van Druten Posted May 12 2009
[4] Katzenbach, Jon R., and Douglas K. Smith. The Wisdom of Teams. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2003.
[5] "Easy Rider: 35 Years Later"
[6] Mackay, Mairi. Shooting 'Slumdog' in Mumbai, City of Extremes. 12, January 2009.
[7] Pink, Daniel H. Free Agent Nation : how independent workers are transforming the way we live, 2nd Edition. New York, NY. Warner Books, 2007.
[8] Lowenstein, Stephen. My First Movie: Twenty Celebrated Directors Talk about Their First Film. New York, NY. Pantheon Books. 2000.

Watch the short film "Possessions" directed by Jim Lounsbury.

...found by The Scout.

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