The Secret to Low Budget Film Making
Actually, the two secrets.
I've worked on a number of small shows, from the simply low-budget where I was paid on the lowest tier union contract, the one specifically crafted for producers that don't have any money to throw around, to micro-budget shows where I was paid less than I would make frothing cappuccinos, to all deferment shows where I was paid nothing at all.
Some of these productions ran like well oiled machines; some were agony for producers and crew alike and this had next to nothing to do with available funds. Despite all the warnings from college professors and indie rags about the difficulty of getting a good crew for little money, it's not actually that hard provided you do two things right.
Film crews, even crews full of seasoned professionals, will strip naked in the winter and crawl miles over dirty broken glass* provided you remember two things: food and paychecks.
Simply, you must feed your staff. You must feed them tasty, hot, professionally prepared, abundant food and you must feed it to them on time, everyday. No matter how small your show, find someone with experience on big movies and have them handle your catering and your craft service. Do not be afraid to spend and even waste money in this regard. If it comes to a choice between catered meals and a second camera, or a fancy crane or an expensive location, put your cash into the chow. It will save you money and time in the long run.
The Crafty table must be stocked with hot coffee, bottled water and an abundance of beverages and snacks every minute of the working day. Lunch must have several hot choices, as well as salad, side-dishes and other accouterments and there must be enough of it so that the entire crew can eat as much as they want without risk of running out. Your crew must be able to sit down somewhere warm and dry and have a full thirty minutes to eat. Lunch must be served six hours from general crew-call time and not one second later. Do not serve pizza. If your shooting day goes more than twelve hours, you need to serve an additional meal. You should also serve breakfast if you can afford it.
The reasons for this are two fold, first, food keeps your crew well-fueled. Set work is physically grueling, emotionally taxing and the hours are horrendous. Making sure that your people stay fed, caffeinated and hydrated ensures that they will have the energy and the will to carry out your vision. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it makes your crew feel valued. It is the most obvious, most visceral thing you can do to let them know that their hard work is appreciated. It goes a lot further than a pep talk or assurances of how great the finished movie is going to be.
If you have any real budget to speak of, you will have a professional crew that expects to get paid. Paychecks must be delivered on time and they must be correct to the penny. There is no wiggle room on this. While the popular conception of American film shows us a world of glitz, glamor and wealth, the truth is that most people in the industry are working-class mercenaries that are doing it to make a living. They are probably taking a steep pay cut and enduring a major headache by working on your project. You have to show that you respect their experience and participation by paying them the correct amount and paying it to them when you say you are going to.
If your project is truly micro-budget and you are either paying your people a token stipend, (I did a show for $20 a day, which worked out to about $1.40 and hour), or if your crew is entirely volunteer, you must make up the difference in pay with food. The less your people are getting paid, the better you have to feed them.
This post is probably a let down to those of you that googled independent film making looking for tips on how to get your movie picked up for distribution or how to get slots at prestigious festivals. The truth is, how well your crew is treated, how much faith they have in you as a producer or director and how committed they are to your project, affects the entire endeavor. Keeping your crew on task and moving efficiently by force of will alone is going to burn you out, turn you off to your own work and make you unpopular with the very people that should be most behind you. Keep your people full and properly compensated and your production will be a thousand times easier.
Heed my advice, food and paychecks. Everything else will take care of itself. Here endeth the lesson.
*This is a metaphor any hyperbole. Do not actually ask a crew to do this.