Some Thursday Thoughts:
As humans, it seems like we need frequent reminders of what not to do. Even after we feel like we’ve learned lessons based on experience, time passes and we have to learn them all over again. These reminders can be gentle or sometimes they can come like a slap in the face.
That’s how I feel after wrapping production on my most recent Western THE FIVE. It was an experience that re-enforced so many of the hard lessons I learned while making the 12 Westerns in 12 Months and the conclusions I came to in the year that followed. However, it seems that I forgot some of those and needed a harsh reminder. So now that I’ve finished filming yet another low-budget Western (my 14th Western feature so far), I’d like to share my current thoughts as to why I don’t want to make another one like this again.
Perhaps the biggest reason, and one that has been proven time and time again during my twelve years as an independent filmmaker, is the limitation of who I can hire for my crew and choose for my cast. Yes, over these years I have been fortunate to meet and work with some great collaborators. But in terms of consistent people who I can trust, rely on, and truly enjoy working with, that select group could be counted on one, maybe two hands.
Regarding crew, it’s very difficult to hire good people with the kind of day rates I can afford with a low budget. Occasionally I get lucky and find a gem, like the sound person on THE FIVE who was very efficient, professional, and thankfully able to work with my budget during this time in his life. Many of my best people have rightfully outgrown these budgets. Example, my favorite cinematographer to work with was available to work on THE FIVE but unable to make the money make sense. I don’t blame him. This leaves me in a position where I must often work with inexperienced people and the results are rarely rewarding, often disappointing, and sometimes downright excruciating.
In terms of casting, I have been lucky to find some very talented actors who are at the point of their careers when making a low budget movie with me makes sense. That being said, I can’t think of a single film in the 26 features I have directed when I had the full cast I wanted. And the weaknesses are evident in the finished films in ways that make me cringe. The acting in my films has been good but always uneven. It’s nearly impossible on a low budget to have an entire cast of well-trained, well-prepared, inventive actors who have a good attitude unless you’re making a movie that takes place in one room with two people. I’ll share more thoughts on what I look for in an actor next Thursday. Moving on…
The company that hired me to make BLUE STEEL and then pivoted to THE FIVE told me early on that “it makes no sense for a film to start pre-production any earlier than 30 days prior to the first day of filming.” For big budget productions, that might make sense. Example, for TERROR ON THE PRAIRIE, we had four full weeks of prep in Montana before starting our four week shoot and that prep time included a full team of producers, assistants, set design people, and others working daily to plan everything. For a low budget movie with one producer, it’s a stupid statement. It’s ignorant to the process. With the kind of funds I had at my disposal for any of the 12 Westerns and THE FIVE, there’s nothing available to pay any kind of team for prep time. That means the prep falls mostly on my shoulders, doing the work of dozens, and therefore must be spread out over a much longer period. For CONTENTION, I’m trying to get as much prep time as possible, knowing that we won’t be working with much and that pre-production is essential to delivering a great Western series. I’ve tried to build a small team that works consistently during the prep period but even my most reliable people on set have little to no discipline or solid work ethic when they’re off set. Overall, I seek the kind of preparation period that is not possible unless I spread it out over several months of working on it myself, which poses other issues of how to remain sustainable during that time.
Even the people I work with don’t seem to really understand how difficult it is to budget one of these Westerns. I was provided a total budget of 20,000 dollars to make THE FIVE. Some of the 12 Westerns were made for more, some for a lot less. But take this into consideration for a moment… after the price of lodging, feeding, and gas to get everyone to and from set plus the cost of horses, guns, props, costumes, production insurance, locations rental, and day rates for a small crew, how much do you think there is left over?
The answer is nothing. And most of the time, I have to try to find a lot of that for free just to make sure we come in under budget. To say the least, it’s nuts to produce a Western on this budget and unless someone has had to do it themselves, they rarely have an understanding of how it works. I’ll give you an example. On THE FIVE, our makeup artist came to me halfway through production asking for more money. I’d asked her to help with a couple extra tasks on set, like clapping the slate, and she’d happily (I thought) agreed to do so. Suddenly, she wanted further compensation for this days later. I explained simply, “There is no extra money.” She insisted she be paid double what was in her contract. Again, I made it clear: “There is no extra money in this budget. If you don’t want to do the extra little things I asked you to do, then don’t do them and we’ll figure out a way to do them ourselves.” So then I was told she might not return for our second week of filming if she didn’t get more money. This put me in an incredibly difficult position. It was almost like blackmail. With a bigger production, I could find a replacement makeup artist but with only a couple days and not much to offer, I was stuck. Do you see the kind of position making these films puts you in? It doesn’t matter if you have a contract with someone, they can screw you in a heartbeat and the solutions are limited. Relating back to my first point, these budgets attract rampant flakiness and unprofessionalism. And even if some people working with me don’t really get how hard I try to squeeze every penny out of this meager budgets to make sure everyone is treated fairly, ultimately the one thing that matters is that the audience doesn’t know or care about what the movie was made for. When the film is released on Amazon or Tubi, they don’t know this was made for 20,000 and the film they watched last week was made for two million. They just want to see something good and it’s hard as hell to make something good that competes with those bigger films when that’s all you’ve got. 
As mentioned in my last weekly update for CONTENTION, the dilemma of wearing lots of hats on set versus delegating is a crucial problem on a low budget Western. I mean, even on the multi-million dollar TERROR ON THE PRAIRIE, I wore a ton of hats because I did everything I could to make it a good movie! Limited time, resources, and options for good collaborators forces me to do a number of jobs on these films. Some of them I enjoy. On THE FIVE, one of my actors said, “For CONTENTION, you’re going to need an assistant director.” My response was, “Have we ever been behind schedule? Have we wrapped any of these days more than an hour late? And most of them we’ve wrapped early.” I don’t mind making the shooting schedule, the call sheets, etc. because of a couple reasons: A. It takes a special kind of mind and a lot of experience to know how to properly schedule a film. B. I have a pretty good track record of keeping my movies on schedule and not wasting peoples’ time even while I’m also directing, producing, acting, etc. 
So there are some hats I’m happy to keep wearing but there are others I’d love to give up. I need a good props person, a consistent wardrobe supervisor, a great makeup artist I don’t want to worry about, a script supervisor who has my back, and a solid co-producer who truly has my back. Because a low budget can’t afford reliable people in these positions, the tasks often fall on myself and my collaborators, causing some of them to therefore fall through the cracks. On THE FIVE, one of my actors was also helping with props and wardrobe which I was very grateful for but on the sixth day of production when a key piece of wardrobe wasn’t there (and I hadn’t even been notified that it wasn’t found till we got to the scene), it was evident this wasn’t an efficient way to work. The answer is not a big crew. I’ve seen on films like TERROR how that doesn’t necessarily work. Even on that film, there were a lot of weak links. My answer is a select crew, my “Dirty Dozen” of the best, professional people. But that is not affordable with the kinds of funds I’ve been working with most of my career. 
During this most recent experience, I worked from morning till night every day of the week for four weeks till the start of pre-production, originally on BLUE STEEL and then on THE FIVE when it was chosen as the replacement project. During production, like the others involved, I lived and breathed the movie every waking moment and even spent a majority of my days off starting to edit the film. Since we wrapped on June 1st, nearly every day has been consumed with post-production and I’m only a third of the way through the edit. A busy week or two awaits me as I prepare the movie for delivery to the company no later than July 1st. The big question remains, is all this really worth my time and energy?
One of the reasons I made THE FIVE, other than the opportunity to continue my exploration of the Western genre I love so much, was to make a tiny bit of money to keep food in my mouth and a roof over my head the next couple months. I live a pretty frugal life and it doesn’t take much to keep my going but that little has to come from something. So far, writing and teaching online classes hasn’t been enough. So the idea of making another low-budget Western and putting a little cash in my pocket so I could return my focus to writing and working on CONTENTION was enticing. However, especially with the limitations I’ve detailed in this piece, the time and energy required to pull it off were not worth the compensation I’ll receive at the end. Ultimately, it took time away from all the other things I’m trying to do and added a ton of stress to my life. No film production is easy but after twenty-six feature films, I’m just plain tired of not getting decent compensation for the incredible amount of time and passion I put into these projects.
So what does all this amount to? I hope I’ve been reminded of the lessons of the last few years in a significant way and won’t have to learn them all over again. I hope that I can find a new method of making films that solves many of these concerns and get projects the proper funding. I hope I can move to the next level which I think I’ve earned over the past 12 years of low-budget, outlaw filmmaking. And mostly, I hope this sheds some light on my current situation since transparency and vulnerability is the only way we can learn from each other.
Photograph by Todd South from the set of THE FIVE