A Side Door into the Industry
by Nick Aquilino
“The game has changed, and it’s harder to get a foot in the door, anywhere. I think the wave of the future is to get a camera and some editing gear and start shooting a movie.” —Albert Hughes [director: Book of Eli, From Hell]
Ultra low-budget, or “guerilla,” filmmaking is an underutilized entry into the world of feature filmmaking. Filmmakers often overlook this method of breaking into the industry, but it’s an easier approach than many other alternatives.
Let’s review the historical precedence of successful filmmaking careers that started out with ultra low-budget features.
John Cassavettes was a guerilla film pioneer, though many would not traditionally associate him with it. Cassavettes began his filmmaking career in the late 1950s. His first feature as a writer/director, the black-and-white Shadows (1959), uses techniques now associated with modern indie films. These techniques include natural lighting (black-and-white is generally more forgiving than color), improvised scripting, using actors who are new to the business, and creating a gritty feeling of life on the streets.
Later, Cassavettes revealed that the script for Shadows was actually composed of scenes improvised by those on his team. To fund his early productions, he raised a few thousand dollars pleading for money on a radio talk show. After a ten-year gap, Cassavettes attempted more low-budget features—Faces (1968), Husbands (1970), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), and Opening Night (1977). He reached the prime of his filmmaking career in 1974.
The underground filmmakers of the 1960s were undeniably influenced by Andy Warhol’s Factory, which churned out ultra-low budget work in much the same manner that he had previously cranked out prints of soup cans and Coke bottles.
Warhol’s primary lieutenant was Paul Morrissey, another frustrated filmmaker who, like Warhol himself, wanted to make Hollywood movies, but settled for making low-budget features. Morrissey’s works include Flesh (1968), Trash (1970), Heat (1972), Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula (1974).
But Warhol and company would become more famous for their marketing stunts, like showing Chelsea Girls in a theater on 42nd St. in the middle of the porn district. To increase the value of their features, they made watching their films an exclusive event, virtually guaranteeing an audience who wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
Next up was Susan Seidelman, who worked on low-budget films in New York beginning in 1982. Her first feature, Smithereens, was made for $20,000 and burnished her place in the halcyon days of guerrilla filmmaking. Her actors and actresses were all solidly entrenched in the low-down and dirty punk movement. The clubs and even the bands of the moment, like the brilliant casting of Richard Hell of the bands The Voidoids and Television in the late ‘70s, as a character based on himself.
Of course, the world remembers Seidelman as the director who cast Madonna in her first feature, Desperately Seeking Susan.
The scene changed a bit with the coming of several new players in the 1990s. Kevin Smith (Clerks), Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi), Richard Linklater (Slacker) and Christopher Nolan (Following) are a few examples of the relevant filmmakers who started out way back when and are still working now, on big budget movies.
Each made their early films on a shoestring. These films launched their careers, eventually taking them all the way to the A-list.
The key to making this leap was choosing the right script that only required what was within reach. By limiting themselves to very simple locations, a few friends as actors, and a bare minimum of props, they succeeded in ways that other writer/directors never could.
In 1999, The Blair Witch Project gave the world a new perspective on low-budget features. Co-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, having had a string of four previous flops, decided if this production turned out to be another disaster, they’d leave the business.
Keeping the script basic and allowing the actors free reign to do whatever they wanted with their characters, the filmmakers suddenly hit on a surprise success—a film which could be made for $30,000 and gross in the neighborhood of $100 million.
This was by no means a simple task, as it took months of preparation and a huge investment of time and energy to create an online, viral marketing campaign for the film. The combination of an Internet-based campaign along with a powerful concept and minimal expenses proved to be a winner.
Their success was echoed in recent years with the popular Paranormal Activity, made on a shoestring and, based on its enormous reception at the box office, turned into an on-going franchise.
The upshot? Success is achievable with a start in low-budget films, and aspiring filmmakers should consider this path a viable option to make it in the business.