How To Make A Movie In Five Days
And why you should avoid it at all costs...
Whenever you see a story about a struggling or young filmmaker producing work, the focus is almost always on budget, and how the filmmakers pulled off unbelievable shortcuts to make something for nothing. Present company included. When Riverdale received international media attention, the focus on producing it for a couple grand over a couple days lead to my hiring for a TV movie, which eventually became Secret Liaison.
The flip side to that achievement is the stress and undeniable effect that 'Guerrilla Filmmaking' has on relationships and your enjoyment for the job. I've done this enough to know that it's no achievement to risk people's safety or push them to their limits without meals or reasonable pay. I am grateful for the crews that do show up and support me and others in low budget efforts, but I stopped doing these projects for five years because I've grown weary of the cycle. I came back for Ballet of a Lonely Heart because I knew everyone was out of work and on CERB, so there wasn't as much reason to feel guilty.
For Christopher Nolan's new film Tenet, which was finally released at the end of August in Canada, Warner Bros. Canada announced a new contest with ETalk Canada and Cineplex. The contest invited filmmakers to tell a story demonstrating their interpretation of time, without third part music and in less than a minute. Time is such an expansive and interpretable subject that coming up with a concept for the contest took time.
The original idea I had was to personify time as a kind of monster that someone is trying to outrun. As they try to escape Time, the character, they age until they are old and Time inevitably meets them. There were a couple problems with the concept. First, it was a bit of a dark interpretation. It was also challenging to cast the right people to age the character as they moved through the story. Finally, I realized I was having a hard time separating the concept of Death personified from my Time character.
At this point, I dropped it and decided to move on to other projects. Unfortunately, something kept me engaged. I just couldn't let go of the concept, and I felt a need to push on.
By the time I did have a concept I was happy with, I had about a week to produce it from start to finish. I started by sending the script to a few friends for feedback and asking a few people if they were free to assist on the filming. Most of my go to contacts were working or out of town on vacation. At this point, I dropped it and decided to move on to other projects. Unfortunately, something kept me engaged. I just couldn't let go of the concept, and I felt a need to push on.
I somehow managed to convince myself and a few others that if I could cast the right person and find enough people to help, I could get it done and edited in time. The idea was to show time as a stressful, anxiety causing governor of reality, and a character who would escape reality by immersing themselves in movies. This concept would play better in a segment before a movie, where the contest winner would play.
Here's my guide to making a movie like ours, and how I failed to follow my own advice sometimes. I certainly do not recommend attempting this, and you should know that I made this film as an experiment, and because I liked the concept enough that I knew I would want to work on it regardless of any contest. You should only attempt the extremely stressful passion projects when your heart will not let you stop thinking of them.
Step One: Finalize A Simple Script
Once you have a concept that you can easily manage with a tight deadline, you need a shooting script. In a normal pipeline, you wouldn't begin pre-production or set a timeline for release until the script is complete and ready to go. Then again, nothing about doing a film in five days is smart, so there's probably a good reason you're on a deadline, like a client breathing down your neck, a delay on approval outside your control, a contest deadline, or some other deadline say for broadcast.
In the case of 'Time Escape,' there was a contest I had in mind. I only knew of the contest two weeks before the deadline, and it took over a week to settle on the concept. For a short film or advertisement, writing a script quickly isn't usually a problem. Getting approval from partners if you have them might be, however. Making sure the script is good is another story. The more time you can give yourself, the better. Experience under pressure helps here, but so does flexibility and the ability to adapt on the fly. Stay loose, improvise when possible, and take feedback quickly and without hesitation.
Step Two: Beg & Borrow
Now that you have your script and hopefully a quick breakdown of what you need, the goal is to start piecing together a team and equipment. It really helps to keep your team small, and rely on natural light to stay mobile. Bounces, a good camera kit, a fast and efficient videographer/cinematographer and a swing grip/production assistant are crucial. If your film has dialogue between characters, you'll need someone for sound, even if that's a student boom operator and mixing on camera, documentary style. Of course you need actors, and when it comes to their hair and make-up, I advise having actors handle their own, particularly on a small set in the era of Covid. Then again, make-up artists are often the easiest crew to hire volunteer with a kit fee, and they are as fast and efficient as you need, so you may want to put feelers out for one as well.
Hopefully your film doesn't need period costumes or expensive props. For 'Time Escape' we needed both. Normally I'd recommend keeping your story contemporary, so you can find costumes yourself at a thrift store, in your actor's own wardrobes or at a department store. In our case, we needed rentals from film costume places that were not renting to small productions or offering discounts due to Covid. That meant a last minute doubling of the budget, with only half the costumes we needed to make the script work. One day from camera we were missing half our costumes and props, a lead actor (still) and the script would need to be completely revised.
All you can do when you hit a wall is be honest with your cast and crew, stay humble, apologize profusely, and ask for leniency when it comes to sending a final schedule or call sheet. Working with friends who understand what you're doing and why helps a lot. Finding people who are not working and are easily able to help you time wise is another great help. In film, you never know what someone's schedule is. Whatever you do, don't plan your shoot in the middle of the last long weekend of summer. That's a bad idea, trust me.
Step Three: Scramble Last Minute
Making lemonade out of lemons is a time honoured tradition in the film industry. Learning how to do it without losing too much of your story or your reason for making something is a learned skill, and takes time to master. All you can do is fail over and over and learn from it, as I do every time we do this. Some times I don't think I learn enough. After all, I keep putting myself in these ambitious, last minute positions over and over. Thankfully though, I have learned a thing or two about priorities and finding solutions to seemingly impossible problems. Rewriting the script to accommodate what you do have is key. Maintaining your theme and tossing out everything that is superfluous will guide you to the finish line.
Thankfully, I was able to rewrite the script at eleven o'clock the night before filming, and my lead actor was finally cast a few hours earlier, once I knew how I had to rewrite the production. Having flexible crew and cast was key. The new script refocused on fewer scenes, and created elaborate transitions connecting two scenes in groups, to eliminate one location and shorten filming times. It was a compromise to the ambitious scale, but not to the message or the quality.
Step Four: Schedule Realistically
When scheduling, you need to factor in travel, lunch, setup and strike time. Normally, moving locations takes half a day on its own, which is why it's best to plan for fewer transition. In my case, the variety of locations or 'worlds' was key to the story, which meant moving was essential. I had to simplify the location moves to film in one day, and again based on costumes available in the scramble above. I also needed rural and urban locations, which meant travelling at least once out of the city. Because of Covid, we were doing this in a small caravan of five to seven vehicles. It's not great for the environment, but safety is more important in the moment. Speaking of safety, even on a tiny set like ours, it's crucial to have a first aid certified crew member and a stocked first aide kit, as well as quick directions to the nearest hospital, as well as emergency contact information for your crew.
I am used to shooting quickly and efficiently outdoors. Since I planned ahead to shoot with natural light and bounces in almost every setting, and had battery powered lights for emergencies, I was only planning on a light equipment load to match my crew size. Don't put yourself in a position where you are slowed down by needing more help than you have, even on a volunteer shoot. Always ask your crew what they need, especially if you're new to working with them.
Get a call sheet out before bed time on shoot day. Your crew need to know where they are going and when they have to be there BEFORE they go to bed. This is non-negotiable. Unless you want to contact each crew member with a time and place before sending the call sheet, and make more work for you, find a way to get it done sooner rather than later. Getting the call sheet out before dinner is even better, because if you have to reschedule or add to the call sheet, you have time to notify crew before they go to bed. In our case, the call sheet went out eight hours before call times. That's not professional or confidence building. To compensate, I had to message everyone at ten o'clock to confirm their start time and location, which made the whole process more time consuming.
It really helps not to be the only producer or creative. Even on a very small shoot without an assistant director or production manager, you need one other person who can share the load under pressure and help you scramble. This person needs experience problem solving and probably working with you as well, to know what you need and what to prioritize. While you adjust the script, they work on the logistics, or vice versa. We got into trouble because I was doing both alone.
Step Five: Stay Flexible
Once you arrive on set, and hopefully everyone showed up on time ready to go, you need to check off the priority shots and get your scenes shot efficiently. Masters usually come first, followed by at least one cut in or close up. One of the mistakes I made as a younger filmmaker was not planning transitions in and out of my scenes. Knowing what comes next and what came before will really help you identify the most important things. You absolutely need a plan, but you also need to stay flexible with the plan.
With a film in five days, and a high level of experience, I try not to be too strict about what I need, and often wait until I'm at the location to block and choose my shots. If you're not comfortable with that, you absolutely must plan better in advance and visit the locations and note the lighting conditions, rain or shine. What is your plan A and plan B, should it begin to hale? This is Vancouver after all. Don't let little things trip you up, and turn disadvantages or mistakes into happy accidents. Remember, in this business, we turn lemons into lemonade.
If you can remember all that, you'll be in great shape for when the really bad stuff goes wrong. On every set, no matter how organized or professional, things can and will go wrong. Be prepared for the worst so you can manage anything. Some of the challenges we faced were limited time, a location snafu that threatened to derail the shoot and a time crunch and loss of light before we filmed our climax. Panic doesn't help anyone, so figure out what you can cut without losing out, simplify your shooting plan, change locations to the side of the road because it looks better, and reset your plans for the climax as a night shoot, using those battery powered lights you were smart enough to bring.
Step Six: Don't Forget The Fine Print
Once you actually have your little film in the can, and you're satisfied you can actually edit something out of it, don't be afraid to relax a few hours and get your bearings before jumping in the edit. You should start by organizing your footage into scenes and syncing audio before you get into the fun stuff. Even on a short timeline, this will save time later. Back up your work before you start editing to avoid that terrible and all too common disaster of losing your progress after all the hard work.
For us, the deadline was self imposed. I never really expected to win the contest I was entering. I knew I'd be up against special effects wizards and marketing firms sitting around like I was during Covid. The film I made had to be something I wanted to actually make first and foremost, and the contest was kind of like a push to get it done quickly, and challenge myself. Like any film challenge, you do the job for experience, fun and to push yourself. That said, I did want to submit something. At the last minute, preparing to submit, I decided to check the fine print again to see if there were any other editing requirements for submission.
At this point, I realized that I actually had until Monday morning- not Monday night, to submit. On the tight schedule I was on, that was a whole day of editing lost. Thankfully, I hadn't procrastinated too much and if I could get the final voice over done more quickly, I would make the deadline and only lose a couple hours sleep. I was able to connect with my lead actor and she was gracious enough to accommodate me after midnight. The backup plan was to record myself, which wasn't ideal, but it would do in a pinch.
So many things could have gone wrong that did not, and I was extraordinarily lucky to complete everything when I did, with as little trouble as I did. I was lucky and grateful for a crew that trusted me and didn't complain about the long day or the delays or the last minute decisions. I was fortunate to get yeses from crew that I knew could handle a tough day and were available. But I don't want to give all the credit to luck. I could not have done this even a few years ago without disaster. It took a level of flexibility and wisdom in selecting my team and concept that made the project work.
Know what you're getting into with a last minute project, keep expectations reasonable, partner with people who want to have fun and want the experience more than the result.
That's important to note because I was experienced enough and careful enough to avoid dangerous situations, to avoid angering people around me or failing my team by being unable to follow through. Know what you're getting into with a last minute project, keep expectations reasonable, partner with people who want to have fun and want the experience more than the result.
After filming and releasing the contest entry, the dust has settled. My little experiment cost me nearly a thousand dollars with a crazy costume and props budget due to the Covid issues and last minute scramble. I was a bit disappointed in that, given how much easier and more fun it's been to do this sort of thing in the past. Props were damaged, joints were made sore and I don't know if the film we made will really offer anything new audiences. I doubt it will advance my career. It was fun, it was exhausting, it was educational.
In the next few weeks, I plan on completing a longer version of the film that honours my vision. It won't be rushed or released quickly, but it will be gratifying to see the final product that was in my head. I'm even mulling the idea of shooting the missing scenes I wanted from my original version.
Should I dare to dream of pushing even more?