Location Location Location

You don’t write a story based on a location, or do you?

I’ll never forget the day I was having bagels with two friends, one a producer and one a director, and talking about story ideas. The producer had access to a college campus in the Caribbean – we could have free reign over it, since a family friend of his was the president or provost or something. He kept bringing story ideas around to the campus. “Y’know, if we set that at the college…”

Nor will I forget the sunken look on his face when I finally told him to lay off the Caribbean campus ideas. If  we wanted to make a film on a college on an island, we’d be better off shooting in Puerto Rico or the D.R. where flights from New York are relatively cheap. The location is the easy part, I told him, let’s write the best story we can.

I stand behind that, and yet locations have a way of inspiring. Of bringing joy, or creeping out. Last week I was up near the Vermont border and took a walk up Presbytery Lane, where the Presbyterian Church has a camp it is trying to sell. It’s full of weird vistas like this:

If these lawns could talk.....

If these lawns could talk…..

I thought about a young couple going to ask one of their fathers for money for their wedding and finding him on retreat with a bunch of Christian Brothers, telling them “No,” they can’t have an advance on their inheritance, and a tailspin of a plot that ends in a standoff with a hunting rifle. Also maybe a shaved-headed cult leader who welcomes visitors to stay in the one building but, whatever they do, don’t go talk to the people up the hill!

Both of these notions suit my long-term obsession, stories set in tourist destinations in the off-season. But notions don’t inspire. Visions do. Smells do. Cicadas do. Shadows do. Cheap but beautifully dated architectural flourishes do. Creepy old Protestant ghosts do.

It’s still a good idea to write the story first, but half of writing is dreaming.

Budgets and Crowdfunding: Why So Much? Why So Little?

I’m running a Kickstarter campaign this month, for a short film I wrote and am co-producing. It’s been a comedy of errors at times – the fund-raising, not the film. Although it looks like it’s going to succeed, it’s given me a reason to talk about low-budget filmmaking with lots of old friends in just a few weeks, and I’ve found myself on the defensive about the size of our budget, from both sides! From those who think it’s too low and those who think it’s too high.

I’ve said before that the best answer a writer can give when asked to work on a friend’s film is, “Pay me as much as you pay your soundguy.” That was a defense of the value of writing against downward budgetary pressure. As a writer-producer, though, I also know what it means to say, “Alright, I have a plan. We can actually do this.” That sometimes means being penny-pincher-in-chief, and the first pennies you pinch in a labor of love are usually your own.

Clerks (1994): Repeating these entrepreneurial "loaves and fishes" stories reinforces the idea that there's something wrong with a script if it can't be shot for next to nothing.

Clerks (1994): Repeating these entrepreneurial “loaves and fishes” stories reinforces the idea that there’s something wrong with a script if it can’t be shot for next to nothing.

Coming up with realistic plans for low-budget films is a process years in the making, and it starts with what you don’t do. Don’t launch any underdeveloped or half-conceived projects, and don’t leverage what assets you do have until you know the time is right. And I don’t just mean taking out a second mortgage on your house – but don’t do that either.

The other currencies in indie films, besides cash, are credits and favors. We’re all willing to help friends, and sometimes friends of friends or even well-meaning strangers, make their projects come to life. In return, though, we expect something, even if it’s just a “thank you” in tiny print in the credits, or an invisible token for a favor that might be redeemed if the stars line up.

If you have a friend who’s a lighting designer who likes you well enough to spend a Saturday doing lights for your most difficult interior scene, just for a tank of gas and a few slices of pizza, then he or she is an asset. Don’t use it unless you’re reasonably sure the film will a. get finished; and b. be something you’re all proud of. The relationship is more important than the favor, and a friendship is more important than your film.

You may find yourself making lunch for a music video shoot next spring just to repay that favor, but that’s my idea of fun! If a potential supporter is ever not enthusiastic about your content, then no hard feelings, this project might not be for them. Which brings me back to the first currency, money. Kickstarter takes a 5% cut of whatever you raise, which is worth every penny to both parties. It provides a ready-made platform for you raising money, but also gives your friends and acquaintances a guarantee: They’re happy to help, as I say, as long as they know it’s actually going to get made reasonably well. By pledging not to take their money unless you meet your goal, you’re letting Kickstarter guarantee your supporters that you’ll be budgeted right.

Around the time we were preparing to launch, Kickstarter’s founders announced that they were reincorporating as a “public benefit corporation.” It’s exactly the kind of move that makes the crabby old Marxist in my head I’ve been feeding since Rutgers bristle. Is that some kind of accounting trick? Well, whatever it is or isn’t, it says at least a little something about the company and what it’s doing with its profits. We’d been tempted by Indiegogo, which lets you keep whatever you raise, even if you don’t meet your goal, but we went with Kickstarter on a lark because they seemed like good-hearted fellas.

Knowing we were about to go live, I did what many fundraisers do, and started asking friends for donations for premiums: If you contribute this much you’ll get a free massage from my friend the massage therapist, that kind of thing. After a day of lining up support, I read the fine print and saw that Kickstarter forbids that! No third party products, only things that you the producer can come up with.

That seemed like a drag at first, a penalty for everyone just because some jerk once figured out how to unload junk magazine subscriptions by using a bogus art project. Now that we’re almost finished, though, it’s one of my favorite things about Kickstarter. It keeps it folksy! It minimizes the popularity contest aspect by cutting down the “who has successful friends with cool shit to give away” quotient. It forces you to be creative. I’m a food lover with a growing interest in home canning, and it is an upstate New York project, so we’re offering homemade “249 Productions” apple sauce. It keeps the price of a personal favor high. And it forces you to engage with your peers – not the crowd, your peers – who are funding you.

Those who wondered why the budget is so high were suffering from what I used to call the Blair Witch bug – back when people still remembered and talked about The Blair Witch Project. I still think it’s the scariest movie ever, but not when I’m walking in the woods: when I’m writing a screenplay! It convinced a generation of people that a film can be made for next to no money, and so if a filmmaker is short of cash then that’s just a flaw in his or her concept.

That’s what I mean by the euphemistic phrase “downward budgetary pressure,” the notion that free is the right fee for every service on your film, and cheap is the right price for every budgetary choice. Partly it’s because we all love repeating these entrepreneurial “loaves and fishes” stories. Not that there’s anything wrong with trying to make something out of nothing, but let’s agree as a profession, and as an artistic family, that some films just can’t be made that cheaply, but are still worth making.

When we launched this short, I had another script on my computer that had three locations: a bar, a living room, and a bedroom. (You can guess where my mind was.) It could all be shot in Brooklyn with donated locations. Well, that’s not the one that took off. The one that’s set in a remote summer house in autumn did. It has a director and cast excited about it, quite possibly because it’s better. It fulfills two of cinema’s oldest missions, it creates a unique “world of a story” and it takes the viewer on a trip – not to Cancun in high season, upstate in November; I’m not an absolute dilettante, after all. That’s why we launched, even though it’s more expensive, and I urge every writer-producer who feels creatively trapped by the limitations of the low budget imperative to invite that other voice to the table, the one that says “Wouldn’t it be beautiful if…”

As for the people who say your budget is too low, who wonder how you can make anything of quality unless you have the crew and resources of a union TV shoot, I’ve found myself wishing I could introduce them to the low-ballers. It’s true, that low budget shoots are prone to sloppy production values, and you can sometimes see the corners being cut in the final product. Very often the people raising this objection are in the industry, people whose bread and butter is making those production values, and sometimes you have to tune these people out. It’s like offering a cup of campfire coffee to an award-winning barista: He’s probably going to be a jerk about it.

If most independent cinema is going the way of non-profit art – that is, living on the largesse of benefactors, and I don’t see how it can be otherwise – then to ask, “Why so low?” is tantamount to asking “Why try?” “Why make art?” Should the husband and wife who own South, a bar in my neighborhood, stop doing their production of Shakespeare in the street every summer, because, y’know, the Public Theater already does that so much better?

Kickstarter also forbids offering remuneration for the money collected, and this makes the budgets you make when working with it the most authentic indie film budgets you’ll ever write. No gimmicks, no inflated numbers like: “We’re making a $40,000 film, with $26,000 of that covered by ‘in kind’ contributions, but if you have five hundred bucks we’ll put you in the producer’s pool.” There are very few ways to recoup an investment in a short film, and more than one potential supporter, after hearing my spiel, told me how much he appreciated my skipping all the language of percentage ownership and points toward our next feature based on the same material. All I said was, “We’re a bunch of artists. Here’s what we’re doing. Can you help us out?”

There are two ways to look at an independent film budget. You can write the best story you can and then try to find the cheapest way to make that story, and raise it, or you can look at how much you think you can raise and then write the script that can be done for that much. Each perspective needs a seat on the committee in your head while you’re staring at the blank page – and certainly while you’re at your desk raising money.