Tuesday, May 15, 2001

No Budget Nightmare

Submitted by Natalie McRae

I came into the film industry completely by accident. Last January I was finishing up a class in music production and was setting up my career to follow that path when my teacher asked if I would help out with an independent film he was involved in. The production manager he hired was busy with another project for the first part of shooting and they needed someone to fill her position in the meantime. I took the job without hesitation, thinking, "How hard could this be?" Well, it was a lot more work than I expected, but I loved it. There were dozens of picky details to look after, a few tense moments before and during shooting, and, of course, the long days - or nights, in our case. We shot through the night for two weeks. It was totally fun, and we had a great group of people. I learned so much and hoped that I would get another chance to work on a film.

My opportunity came about a month after we finished the shoot. In mid-March I was reading a local arts paper when I saw an ad for a director's assistant and a production assistant on a local indie film. No pay, but I was anxious to work on another project and build on my resume a bit. So I met with the director and was hired as his assistant.

I was impressed with him at first. He is a very high-energy guy and genuinely enthusiastic about his script - two important qualities, I think. However, right off the top he talked about doing his movie for no money. He told me about all the people he knows who were happy to donate their time, skills, and property to him. Then he asked me if I wouldn't mind finding funding. That was a bit of a surprise, but I looked into it and found a few places that might give us some grant money. One source had an April 2nd deadline which gave us just over a week to put together all the paraphernalia they required, so we were a bit rushed. Still, it was all packaged up on time except for the required clip of any previous work the director had done. That is where everything stalled. The director said that he was just going to send the application in without the clip, and I told him it was no use - they would just toss his application in the trash without it. So he said he wasn't going to bother sending it in at all, then, because he didn't feel that he had anything worthy. After that episode he returned to his stance of doing the film with no budget, and he told me the legend of El Mariachi.

Next up was the cast and crew meet-and-greet and script read-through. It was scheduled to be held at a local media co-op, which we scoped out one afternoon. The director planned to use the co-op's A/V equipment to show some clips from scenes he had shot in the fall. Where was this footage when we were applying for the grant? He also planned on serving appetizers, which we went shopping for a couple of days before the meeting. His idea of appetizers was a tray of the large muffins from Costco, which he planned to cut into quarters. I told him that I was against that idea, but he said that's what people had to expect when they're working on a no-budget movie. I disagreed and suggested that maybe his girlfriend, who is doing the catering for the shoot, could cook up a dinner for everyone since the meeting was from 5-9pm. But he didn't agree, and we left Costco with the muffins.

At this point I was getting uncomfortable with his approach to the actors and crew. He was intent on the point that he was going to do this film for no money, and I felt he was taking advantage of everyone's generosity with their time, talent, and equipment.

But the meet-and-greet and read-through turned out to be a fun evening. The director had forgotten to get the keys to the media co-op, so we moved the meeting to a local tavern. It was a really lovely place, and we had the entire top floor to ourselves, complete with a fireplace and sofas. The director paid for a couple of pitchers of Coke, except for five dollars worth when one of the actors chipped in. I was amazed when the director took the five dollars, but it furthered his point about spending no money on the movie.

A few days later, the director asked me to come with him and one of the actors to go location scouting. I picked the director up at work at four-thirty and we met up with the actor and were on our way. We drove around the city for five hours, stopping here and there so the director could videotape the areas and discuss the scenes that would be shot there. Then he said he was done and wanted to go home. No food, no drinks. Just a very theatrical, "Thank you so much for your time and patience and goodnight." My stomach was not impressed. If I ever work on a movie for free again, I am going to have a contract stating that I am to be fed every three hours. And I'm going to charge for mileage.

I also need to mention that, while we were driving around, the director was asking the actor if he could get a plane to do some aerial shots for a couple of the scenes. The actor explained that his pilot's license had expired and he had to pay $500 and put in a few hours in the air with a supervisor to renew it. The director asked if he could come up with a camera while the actor was putting in these hours, and they could do the aerial shots for free, since the actor needed to fly anyway. To my amazement, the actor said he'd see about arranging that with the supervisor.

Following that debacle, several administrative issues started coming up. As we approached the first day of shooting and were getting everything ready I brought up the subject of insurance. The film involves several stunts, as well as borrowed high-end vehicles and sound and video equipment. The director avoided talking about insurance until I told him I was going to phone around for quotes. At this, he launched into a tirade about how our society has become rampant with lawsuits, and how ridiculous it all is. I agreed, but pointed out that although everyone is his friend now, that would not be the case if someone got hurt or if equipment got broken. I also said I was not willing to be held personally liable for anyone's safety, nor for any damage to the equipment.

It was then I told him that I no longer had time for his project. I did find someone to take over my job, and warned her about things that needed to be addressed - like the insurance. Hopefully she has better luck than I did, though I don't see the movie being shot any time soon.

As for me, I'm currently without a project, though I have signed on as a permitee with the Director's Guild and have put in some time with them. I do enjoy the work - it's a fascinating industry and I've met so many really talented and interesting people, and learned so much. I can't wait to have another film to work on, though you can be sure I'll be a lot more cautious about signing up.

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