How to Stretch a Dollar:
Making 90 Minutes of Content for £4000
A Guest Post by Ivy Jelisavac
My comedy series, Relationshit, was produced for just £4000 – but had name cast, got me into Reykjavik Film Festival’s Talent Lab, and was invited to ITVfest’s Network Notes. It’s out now on Amazon Prime [UK | US.]
Here’s how I did that.
While writing Relationshit, I actually went against the usual advice to write for the resources you have access to. Instead, I wrote something I wanted to watch, and tried to keep my producer brain switched off until later.
But once I had a workable draft of my script, I went through it, identified what the purpose of each scene was – and whether there was a cheaper way to get that point across without sacrificing impact.
This doesn’t mean that you need to reduce everything to its smallest viable form. It means that you prioritise the scenes that will have the biggest effect when deciding where to allocate limited funds.
CAST & CREW
Good News: Compared to many traditional professions, film professionals are much more likely to work on low or no pay if it’s a project they are passionate about.
Be respectful when it comes to how much you ask of someone – remember they’ll have to work to get their bills paid on top of the time they are giving to you – and find a way to make it mutually beneficial. This could mean hiring someone who wants to move up from a coordinator position as a production manager. Maybe your film is your DP’s first feature.
I explicitly stated in all my online crew calls that I was a full-time director (code for I know what I’m doing and the result will be worth the labor), I used to work as an AD which means that we’ll have humane schedules and well organized shoots, and that I’d rather saw my arm off than feed a crew yesterday’s cold sandwiches.
Many applicants stated their appreciation of those things when writing to me: No budget projects can be complete shit shows. Expressing that yours won’t be is the way to get good people on board.
Please don’t try to do everything yourself. Your film or series will be infinitely better (and be completed more quickly, and with less stress) if you get people on board who explicitly want to do the job you’re getting them to do – an editor who wants to be an editor, a set dresser who wants to be a set dresser.
I’ve written more in-depth about getting high caliber cast for your no budget production over at Raindance’s blog.
PRODUCTION IN GENERAL
Tap Your Network
Obvious but important. Think beyond the handful of people you interact with on a daily basis. I recommend literally making a physical list:
School friends. Work friends. Neighbours. Sports friends. Family. Look through your facebook friends, scroll through the contacts in your phone.
When you have a specific need, go through your list and consider who might have a lead. Often it’ll be someone who you wouldn’t have thought of without this exercise to jog your memory.
Ask with respect, but don’t be shy. People like watching and helping someone go after ambitious goals.
What Can You Offer?
When I made my first short in my hometown, people were so excited about the idea that a film was being shot there that they offered their help unprompted: Hosting cast & crew, catering on shoot days, cars, generators, locations. Newspapers approached me, a local festival invited me for a panel. If you live in an area that doesn’t have a lot of film, make use of that enthusiasm.
Relationshit, however, was made in London, where people are more likely to be annoyed at than impressed by the idea of a shoot near their house. I needed to be able to offer them something in return to make it a mutually beneficial deal.
In this case, I approached businesses with a barter: If they let us use their premises as a location, we would come back to shoot a promotional video for them. This is obviously a lot of work – it’s up to you to decide whether it’s worth it in your specific circumstances.
The good news is that in some cases, the owners were so used to filmmakers asking for favours without offering anything in return that they liked the respect we showed this way, and allowed us to shoot without even cashing in on their end of the bargain.
If your film is going to have local screenings, you could get catering in exchange for advertising; whether that’s banners, flyers, mention in the credits, or the prestige of an “official sponsor” title.
Perhaps you or your film has a large social media following – a shout out there could be valuable advertising.
A school type space might appreciate you teaching a filmmaking class.
Get creative, but remember to weigh the time investment against the value you get out.
What Cheap Thing Can Be Made To Look Like The Expensive Thing You Need?
We had a scene that was supposed to be a boxing fight in a ring, with an audience. Doing it exactly like that would have cost a ton of money.
Instead, we staged a ring in a gym, got a limited number of extras, shuffled them around each corner a few times so you wouldn’t recognize repeated faces, and used spot lighting and darkness deliberately to make the space look larger.
How can you think outside the box to substitute something expensive without sacrificing the result? What location you have access to could be dressed to play what you need it to be?
It Might Not Be As Expensive As You Think
It takes a lot of stress away while filming in public to have a permit, and often it’s enough to just “let them know” rather than “ask for permission.”
If you’re shooting on public property in London, use a handheld camera, and your cast & crew are 5 people or fewer, you may be charged less than £100 for a permit, and depending on the borough, you may not even be charged a fee at all.
Our scene in front of the police station – something I’d been sweating about – only required us giving notice to them and not obstructing the entrance!
When you’re shooting on no budget, you’re likely not paying your crew. If you want to keep morale up, you absolutely must feed them well. Fortunately, it’s sometimes actually cheaper to feed people well! Forgo ordering takeaway and please quit the supermarket sandwiches.
It doesn’t take much extra time and energy to prepare your own meals. My go-to during the colder season is a big pot of hearty, chunky stew: I chuck a bunch of potatoes and/or meat and/or vegetables and spices into a pot and go deal with pre-production while that simmers. Chili, lentils, and casseroles are equally easy and healthy. I’m a fan of slow cookers because you can set them and forget them – and if you eat meat, you can use cheaper cuts since this cooking process will make them stunningly tender.
In the summer, prepare a seriously loaded salad (don’t forget proteins!) and keep the dressing separate until serving time to keep it fresh. Remember that salad doesn’t have to mean lettuce. Define it as a ton of ingredients mixed and topped with dressing.
Please remember the crew members who have physical jobs (camera dept, lighting, grip) when planning the food – someone who moves hundreds of pounds of kit in a day can’t be sustained on soup.
Often shooting in Central London meant that we weren’t always able to drive ourselves because of congestion charges and/or no available parking. At the same time, large amounts of equipment meant we couldn’t take public transport.
If you’re in a similar situation, consider your options: Is it cheaper to use an UberXL as needed, or to hire a driver for the day? My Uber rating certainly plummeted when I started using the service for shoots – because the drivers didn’t love loading up bulky or weirdly shaped kit – but if I only needed two trips that day, it was the best option.
On days where we had location moves or traveled farther distances, it worked out cheaper to pay someone for the day.
Try not to make any creative team members (especially the director and DP) act as frequent drivers – they need to keep their focus and energy for the job.
Does your project have a mandatory, external deadline? If not, you’re in no rush.
I financed Relationshit entirely out of pocket, from my branded video jobs. I’d save up some money, shoot a few days, go back to work, repeat. The majority of it was shot over two and a half months. Some filmmakers shoot their feature on weekends over half a year or longer. That’s much more preferable than waiting to save up a chunk of money and not having shot a single scene two years later!
Recommended reading & listening
Mentorless Podcast: Deconstructing The Making Of A Web Series with Ivy Jelisavac
To stay in the loop, follow @relationshitTV on Twitter, like the Facebook page, or sign up to the mailing list on relationshit.tv.
Ivy Jelisavac is a director based in London. You can follow her at @becauseivy and see more of her work at ivyjelisavac.com