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Low Budget Pioneers

  • Written by  Evan Musgrave
  • Thursday, 26 July 2012 22:34


Jonathan Clancy has a look at how some now famous directors managed to keep to low budgets in order to get their first foot on the ladder.
In light of all the great films being made today, with such limited resources, we will be taking a look at a selection of the most interesting films made for peanuts by some of Hollywood’s finest, while getting advice from two of Ireland’s top directors.
Michael Lavelle, writer and director of Mummy’s Little Helper and I Hate Musicals! – The Musical, advises that practical experience is key and that your learning really begins as you film, ‘Practice. Shoot, shoot, shoot. Then edit. Then show it to someone. You can read all the books you want, talk all you like, but nothing replaces actually making films. Play. That’s where it all started, don’t lose sight of it.’
All of the following films demonstrate this mentality. Made for little or no budget. Some are even lacking the more basic resources such as decent actors, lighting, or continuity. None-the-less they all exhibit the raw talent of their auteurs. They may not be pretty but they’re a clear illustration that you should never let anything hold you back from making your film.
My Best Friends Birthday (1987) – Quentin Tarantino.
What Tarantino has since referred to as his ‘film school’, was a feature film shot on 16mm for roughly $5,000 over the course of four years. Tarantino co-wrote and directed the rough and ready comedy, which rotates around the adventures of two friends planning a party. The infamous director’s debut is poorly acted (Tarantino included), looks awful and suffers from the fact that half of the film was destroyed in a lab fire. 
What remains, however, of the pieced together footage fully demonstrates the maestro’s flair for dialogue. As the film begins we are dropped in on a conversation where Quentin’s character describes how his suicidal urge at the age of three, following the death of rock star Eddie Cochrane, was cured after he watched a very entertaining episode of The Partridge Family. This opening, of perverse off beat humor and pop references, leaves no illusions as to whose film we are watching.
Various other, stylistic, elements that the director would later become synonymous for are also present, such as kung fu showdowns, seedy underworld figures and a slick soundtrack. Though the film didn’t have much effect on Tarantino’s career, in terms of notice, it still allowed him to demonstrate his unique writing style. Many of the scenes in My Best Friend’s Birthday have since been recreated in his later movies such as True Romance, Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. What remains of the film can be seen on youtube.
Dead Right (1993) – Edgar Wright
Shot on SVHS in the Director’s hometown, when he was only 18, Dead Right is a slapstick parody and homage to the action-cop movies, like Lethal Weapon and Dirty Harry, in which a renegade detective has to hunt down a serial killer. Much like Tarantino’s debut, Dead Right looks tacky, consists of mainly amateur actors, and suffers from some dodgy sound mixing and lighting. However, Wright’s humor and directorial style shines though, particularly in the inventive and surprisingly entertaining action sequences. 
What makes the film so impressive, despite the technical limitations, is that Dead Right never shies away from ambition, managing to be an earnest homage to the action genre. Nifty editing and inventive choreography allow the shoot-outs and fight scenes to be both visually satisfying and enjoyable. This technique for clever action choreography, despite limited resources, can also be seen in the brilliant paint ball episode of his TV series Spaced. Wright’s flair for comic book violence and looney-toon humor is also exhibited in later productions such as Shaun of The Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Hot Fuzz, in which Dead Right can be viewed on the DVD extras.
Michael Lavelle – ‘Embrace your limitations. If you have to shoot a scene set in the Congo but you need to shoot in Amsterdam find a way to make it work. Put yourself in the smallest box you can and then find a way to still do what you want, within those limited confines.’
Bad Taste (1987) – Peter Jackson
The Oscar winning and highly acclaimed director of The Lord of the Rings, King Kong and The Lovely Bones, filmic debut was a gross-out horror comedy about a group of alien investigators. The movie features such cinematic delights as an exploding sheep, vomit drinking aliens, and a zombie getting his head blown off only to have the remains of his brains gobbled up by a cannibal with a spoon. Ah, the fine art that is the motion picture.
The writer/director and his friends made the film over the course of four years, shooting largely on weekends, with Jackson also taking the role of producer, editor and special effects artist. The film initially ran up to $25,000 but was given a helping hand, towards the end, from the New Zealand Film Commission to ensure its completion. Not only did Jackson have to overcome the massive obstacle of creating a special effects, heavy, movie on the fly (his mother’s oven had to be used to bake the alien masks) but he also had to overcome a massive narrative issue, as the lead actor for the original short film pulled out, midway, because his religious fiancé disapproved of the film’s content.
Jackson overcame the problem by transforming the short film into a feature, in which the original scenes were, later, integrated as a subplot. Jackson’s debut is an entertaining, though sometimes stomach-churning, experience. The director would follow on the b-movie road with the perverse, black comedy, Meet The Feebles and, quite possibly the goriest film of all time, BrainDead, before moving onto Middle Earth. Of course, in terms of low budget successes, we could fill an entire blog with just horror movies along the lines of The Evil Dead, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity.
Terry McMahon, whose highly acclaimed Charlie Casanova was made for less than €2000, reiterates the basic mentality for creating your own movie. ‘Stop writing generic, imitative, scripts based on movies you’ve seen before. Delve into your secret fears, grow some balls and weave your embarrassing truths into a narrative.’
Clerks (1994) – Kevin Smith
Made for a somewhat modest budget of $27,000 dollars, Clerks is a perfect example of a director working with what he has. In Kevin Smith’s case he had a bit of money (from selling a lot of his comic book collection and maxing out eight credit cards), a bunch of friends willing to act, and the convenience store he worked in. Filmed over 21 consecutive days, Smith’s debut film revolves around a day in the life of two disgruntled shop clerks.
The film manages to be quite decent looking and well put together, thanks to the fact that it’s shot in black and white, most of it is set in one location, and the scenes consist largely of the lead characters sitting around and having in-depth conversations about Star Wars, annoying customers and porn. The film’s, hilarious, foul humor has featured in almost all of Kevin Smith’s movies since, with the likes of Dogma, Chasing Amy and Red State. Though Clerks is, arguably, still his best.
Michael Lavelle – ‘Never listen to anyone’s advice if it goes against what you feel.’
El Mariachi (1992) – Robert Rodriguez
One of the most, highly, renowned low budget successes (and rightfully so), El Mariachi is a slick and extremely, impressive, thriller. Rodriguez shot his ambitious action movie in Mexico on a budget of $7000, which the young director famously earned by participating in experimental, clinical, drug testing. Despite its limitations, the film is stylistically shot and features some very impressive stunts, clever action sequences and brilliant off beat humor. 
Following the success of the movie, Rodriguez fully engraved his image as a pioneer for low budget film making by creating the Robert Rodriguez 10 Minute Film School, a tutorial video illustrating how the film was made and how such a movie can be replicated for cheap. One notable quote from the director on cost cutting states that ‘if you start to spend, you cannot stop anymore.’ Rodriguez later went on to make major blockbusters such as Desperado (a sequel/remake to El Mariachi), Sin City and Spy Kids.
Terry McMahon – ‘Don’t wait for permission. Film it on your f***ing phone if you have to. With so much modern technology there are only two categories remaining – those that do and those that don’t. There’s no excuse to be in the latter category anymore.’
The example set by the above filmmakers is clear. Make a movie and make your mark. Doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect, just go for it. Other great examples include Christopher Nolan’s The Following, David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Richard Linklater’s Slacker and John Carney’s Once.
To help himself stay focused McMahon tattooed on his arm ‘The Art is in the Completion. Begin.’ But you could just, probably, write it down on a piece of paper or something…

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