How to Shoot a Micro-Budget Feature Film Like Ed Burns
All my life I wanted to make movies. I studied films after school since I was twelve. I would go down the line of actors and directors filmography. I went to film school to learn the basics of filmmaking. Last year with a lot of hard work, and a lot of help from my cast and crew, and unbeknownst to him, Ed Burns, I made it happen.
After film school, I was struggling to find work. I live in New York and couldn’t seem to get consistent work on TV shows, let alone movies. I moved to LA for a bit on the promise from a friend of work on a popular network comedy. After months of living out there, the job never came. So I found work as a freelance cameraman for the local stagehands union.
One day a couple of years ago I read a book that literally changed my life, Independent Ed: What I Learned from My Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life, by Ed Burns. If you’re not familiar ‘Independent Ed’ is a book about how Ed Burns started from nothing and made his first film ‘The Brothers McMullen” in twelve days for around $30k. I read the entire book in two sittings. I like Burns, am from Long Island, love film, and around the time I read the book, was the same age he was when he made his first film. Reading this book gave me the inspiration to make my first feature film; Long Island Love Story.
Long Island Love Story is a film I shot last summer over the course of 11 days with a total budget of $6,000. It is a small 82-minute film about two brothers; Michael and Anthony and their relationship issues. Michael is bringing his girlfriend of 6 months; Amy, from Manhattan to Eastern Long Island to finally meet his parents and extended family, unbeknownst to him his high school sweetheart, Jess, will also be there. Things don’t go well with Michael and Amy meeting his big Italian family, and Amy leaves.
Giving way for Michael and Jess to reconnect. Michaels older brother Anthony has problems of his own. He recently finds out that his long-term girlfriend; Laura, is pregnant and she tells him she believes he’s too immature and that he will have no contact with her or the baby. Michael and Anthony have to rely on each other to figure out each other’s problems in this lighthearted romantic comedy. Things don’t go well with Michael and Amy meeting his big Italian family, and Amy leaves. Giving way for Michael and Jess to reconnect.
It was something simple, doable and wouldn’t cost a million dollars to shoot. I am pretty much a standard film school graduate. I have lofty ideas
for movies that I will most likely never get to film, mainly because of the budget. I believed that I could do everything else required to make a film, but I needed to maximize a tiny budget in the process. I threw a random number of $6,000 in the air for the film, and amazingly it was exactly what I needed to make my film.
In his book, Ed Burns mentions some rules he dubbed “McMullen 2.0” which were basically a set of rules for independent filmmakers to shoot by.
- Actors would have to work for virtually nothing.
- The film should take no longer than 12 days to film
- Don’t shoot with any more than a three-man crew
He mentions a lot more but these three were the catalyst for how I was going to produce my film.
I got super lucky where I ended up with four amazing actors who worked their asses off for me, and believed in me, and my vision. I can tell you first hand, if you don’t have your cast all in with the project, it will show. So I had my actors, who were ready to go. Next, I had to schedule the damn thing.
I wasn’t going to stick to these rules to the letter, but I was going to see if I could schedule the film to be done in 12 days. The majority of the film would be shot at my parents, house, and my cousin’s house. I shot in one of my actress’ apartments for a few scenes, as well as Central Park. We had one scene at a bar that we were able to shoot at for free late at night. We did some run and gun shooting at about a dozen amazing and beautiful spots all over Long Island as well. I did my best to make sure we optimized our time on set so we could conceivably get everything scheduled done on time. We ended up filming the entire film, including reshoots, in eleven days.
We did some run and gun shooting at about a dozen amazing and beautiful spots all over Long Island as well. I did my best to make sure we optimized our time on set so we could conceivably get everything scheduled done on time. We ended up filming the entire film, including reshoots, in eleven days.
As far as crew goes I had, including myself, four people on my crew. I had a DP, an audio guy who did everything for sound, as well as a standard grip/electric guy who would set up lights with me in between scenes. I had a hard time finding a crew that I could trust. My DP sent my script to a few people he knew, and they agreed to be crew, they didn’t get the script, wanted to change plot lines and characters behaviors and motivations, and when I told them no, they all backed out a month or so before filming began.
I also took another page out of Ed Burns’ playbook, by also starring in the film that I wrote, directed and produced. It was an insane amount of work, but none of that mattered. I was doing what I loved, and chasing my dream.
So I filmed my movie in eleven days, and it took about five months of post-production. How can you use what I did to finally make your own feature film?
Well, the first thing is you need to be fully dedicated to the work. I quit my day job to focus completely on the production.
- Find a dedicated group of people who will go into battle with you. I lost my other male actor about a month before production. Luckily one of my actors; the amazing Monica Cioffi recommended Ryan Gregorio to me, he was fantastic. A great scene partner, and presence on set. He really makes the film with the perfect balance of comedy and drama. Also, when some of my crew backed out, his brother Dylan, offered to help. So surround yourself with people who will have your back. It makes things much easier.
- Work your ass off during pre-production so you don’t have headaches while filming. If you’re the writer, producer, director you have to have an answer for every question asked on set. If you do the work inexpertly in pre-production, you will be able to tackle every onset issue in a quick and easy manner.- Create a budget that will work for you. $6,000 is an amazingly small budget. Being that Long Island Love Story is a romantic comedy, my budget was able to be that small.
The average budget for independent features is around $750k. At the end of the day, make sure you budget for more than you think just in case you need to spend more, on a broken light, cracked filter, etc.- I wrote Long Island Love Story to optimize what I had at my disposal. So basically, write something that you would actually be able to shoot.
Don’t write a futuristic space western if you have no logical way of creating that universe in a believable way. Shoot at friends houses/apartments, find secluded parks and points of interest where you live. Write something where the locations you need won’t cost you a dime.
- Favors. If you’re having trouble finding a location or crew or need help with anything, ask everyone. You never know who could own a barn you need to film a scene in or has a classic car you need. Asking for help isn’t a weakness, most times people will be willing to go out of their way to help you out. Some might help you just for the kick of saying that they worked on a movie. Never forget to be grateful to these people and give them a copy of the film when you’re done.
- Have fun. It’s a lot of hard work, with long days with tons of pressure. If you can’t find a way to have fun, they why even make a movie. I had so much fun making Long Island Love Story. I made lifelong friendships and memories, while I was working my ass off.
- Also, this is pretty obvious on but feed your cast and crew well. If you expect your cast and crew to work 8-12 hours for you, you have to make sure they are fed well. I’ve been on sets where they offer no craft services, and the mood on set is hungry, stressed, and angry. Feed your people. It keeps them happy, energized and in your corner. Pizza is cheap and easy, as well as pasta. Hopefully, you find people who aren’t gluten-free to help you out!
Not everything I mention will apply to you. I got insanely lucky with my production. We filmed a lot of pages in a short amount of time. We outran a thunderstorm to film at 4 locations in 3 hours. We filmed from 10pm-3am after working twelve hours in 95-degree heat earlier that day. You will have obstacles when you’re making a film with no budget, but if you can overcome them with ease, none of it will matter.
Some of my friends and family didn’t believe I had the follow-through to actually do it. Just remember that with all the hard work, there is a feeling of accomplishment when it’s all done.
Now that my film is done, I’ve submitted it to a few festivals, waiting to hear back. Ed Burns was rejected from every single festival before he jumped into an elevator that Robert Redford was in and basically begged him to watch his movie. Burns always said if someone did the same thing to him, he’d have to watch the movie.
Now all I need to do is jump in an elevator with Ed Burns…
– Jim Defalco @JimDefalco on Twitter
Edward Burns discusses Micro-Budget Filmmaking
Writer/Director Edward Burns sat down with us at the Sundance Film Festival 2013 to discuss why he loves the freedom that comes with microbudget filmmaking, the compromises that are involved when working with less money, why digital distribution interests him more than conventional theatrical, using social media (primarily Twitter) to reach his audience and why he enjoys it.
Filmtrepreneur Library: Required Reading
- Independent Ed: What I Learned from My Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life
- The Declaration of Independent Filmmaking: An Insider’s Guide to Making Movies Outside of Hollywood
- Like Brothers: The Rise of the Duplass Brothers
- Shooting for the Mob (Based on the Incredible True Filmmaking Story)
- Rebel without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker With $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player
- The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking: From Preproduction to Festivals and Distribution
- Produce Your Own Damn Movie!
- Get Your Free Filmmaking Audiobook
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Stuff You Need in Your Life:
IFHTV: Indie Film Hustle TV
Book: Shooting for the Mob (Based on the Incredible True Filmmaking Story)