In 2013, I wrote and directed my first feature film; ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ is a neo-western which told the story of Cleo Callahan, a teenage sharpshooter who strives to avenge her older sister’s untimely murder. The film was produced with a tiny budget of $18,000, raised through crowd-funding and our own money. Eschewing the conventional wisdom of making shorts or music videos at the start of my career, I came out of film school (where I learned a lot about screenwriting and precious little about directing), went straight for the throat and decided to make a feature. It had always been a dream of mine to be a director, and I reasoned that my best shot at that particular throne was to get started right away.
‘Darkness’ premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2015, and went on to play seventeen international festivals before being picked up by Netflix and being released on VOD in the U.S. It was the culmination of three years of work, starting from the blank page of the script all the way to the finished film. There’s no singular correct way to make a film, of course; the whole operation, especially at the micro-budget level, seems to run on luck and grit alone at times. But if filmmaking is your dream, then you might be interested to hear how I went about it, and what trials and tribulations I encountered along the way. There are filmmakers all over the world; don’t forget to check out BUCKiTDREAM and get inspired by some cinematic kindred spirits!
Start with the Script I maintain that you can’t teach directing; you can teach techniques, but they are in actuality largely useless once you’re in the trenches. If you want to direct, you’ve got to write; I see the director’s job as an extension of screenwriting. The best thing about making an independent film is that you don’t have to answer to anyone; this allowed me to take my time with the script and make sure it was as good as it could be. When I was writing ‘Darkness’, I thought the key to making a successful low-budget film was giving it a unique identity; so I came up with making a contemporary western set in Southern Ireland, with two teenage girls as the leads. We pitched it as ‘No Country for Mean Girls’, which started as a joke, but soon became a valuable tool in helping to sell the idea to people. If you can find a similar genre-bending hook, it’ll help you stand out from the crowd.
But Keep the Budget in Mind The other reason the western genre appealed to me was that I knew I could shoot it in my hometown area of County Kerry. A lot of locations would be available to us for very little cost, and more importantly, there was a crucial sense of confidence from shooting in a place I was familiar with. Everyone has some access to an interesting or unusual location. Maybe your family runs an abattoir, and you could set the whole film in there. Maybe there’s a really evocative forest near where you live. Whatever it is, have a think about what you could utilize to give your film an edge and make production easier for yourself and your crew.
Cast the Actors Actors sell films. Aim high with your casting, and remember that no door is ever fully closed. Once you’re happy with the script, draw up a list of actors you’d love to work with and then chase them down. Not literally, of course, but every actor’s agent information is available at IMDb, and most will at least respond to your queries. Be prepared to wait, as getting a script in front of a named actor can be an arduous process; but sometimes you can get lucky and land a big one. While writing the film, start becoming aware of who’s up-and-coming in your local scene, track them down, buy them a coffee, and pitch your film. Most actors care largely about good roles and less about budget. Also think about the design of the cast and how they all play off each other. On ‘Darkness’, I considered how the looks and temperaments of our three fantastic leads Emma Eliza Regan, Emma Willis and Brian Gleeson would work together, and made sure that there was constant chemistry between them.
Then Cast the Crew Many people forget that you must also cast your crew. This is especially important for a low-budget production when your crew might be working for very little or nothing at all. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should work with your friends, either. You’re looking to work with a group of highly-talented people who are in it for the long haul and aren’t going to complain or try to undermine you when the going gets tough. We were very fortunate to have a talented, harmonious crew on ‘Darkness’, and the work that they put in shows in every frame of the film. Your most important collaborators will be the Director of Photography and the Editor; Tommy Fitzgerald and Conor Fitzpatrick took those respective roles on ‘Darkness’; we had all met at film school and had worked with each other in the years leading up to our first feature.
The above is only scratching the surface of the behemoth of independent film production, but hopefully, it’ll give you a solid foundation for your own low budget feature. Find ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ on iTunes or Amazon to check out the finished film, then keep an eye on BUCKiTDREAM and look out for the second part of this guide to ‘How I Made a Feature Film for $18,000’, coming soon to a BUCKiTDREAM blog near you!