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Death of the Budget

Here's a thing: I just made two feature films this year. Yeah, my knees are shot and I'm battling an almost-daily exhaustion that I don't recall having experienced before, but now, well, we're two down and it's only just stepping toward the end of June. Before the end of 2013, I'll have made one more, giving me the magic number of three.

Monopoly Money [Explored]

So what happened? Why did I do it? What does it mean for other indie filmmakers?

This past weekend, I've been hanging out at Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF), catching movies and shooting the breeze with some of the most lovely people I could have hoped to meet. It sounds very slushy to say it, but it's true. A weekend in the company of some inspiring yet humble folks is a helluva R&R session for a filmmaker just coming off the ropes of two fast shoots. And it struck me that I'd been hurting from the UK film game for a while, that my time and experiences of shooting films here (or trying to shoot, as was too often the case) had left a scar on the roof of my mouth.

And yet, as I sat in the audience of films like Svengali (a wonderful little charmer by the way), I was quietly encouraged by the reverb that was coming back from the filmmakers, talking about their work. The fact is, much of what I caught at the festival were films made out of sheer and impossible love. The kind of love that we refer to as passion. These were people who, even when they had budgets far north of the pitiful ones I've been shooting on, were still having to rely on the love and belief of those around them, just to get their movies made. As it turns out, heart is always what counts.

Here's another thing: Man of Steel (which I actually enjoyed) cost an approximate $225m (£146m) to make. Of course, you can cut a healthy fat slice of that to one side for marketing (although the wince-inducing product placements reportedly took the burn out). A film like Greg Hall's Communion (on which I served as the Associate Producer last summer) was shot for sub-£10k. Bounce that back to US dollars, and that's still not a dent on the zeroes game.

Okay, okay. So what, right? Big movies cost big bucks. Whatever. There are a ton of micro-slash-no-budget-movies being made all the time. And just like their behemoth-budget counterparts, some are good, some are terrible and most are just so-so. And whilst it might not always seem like it, there aren't that many big-spandex-tent-pole-movies being shot.

So what's the point? Why am I pulling these comparisons? Okay - so things that cost a lot to make are made less. Things that are much cheaper are made much more frequently. But here's where the budget can't make shit better - the story. Yes Prometheus, I'm talking to you.

A dictionary definition of empathy tells us it is: Identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives. You could say that's also the definition of the core of every good book or enjoyable film out there too.

Without empathy, everything sucks. Without fail. I literally can't think of one film that I liked where I couldn't empathise with at least one of the characters. You can extend that to literature, to music (who doesn't love the blues?) or even just a great anecdote, reeled off by a once-stranger in the room.

Having empathetic characters is pretty damn important. Much the same as in a friendship - when something's rough, we turn to a friend who 'gets it.' There is unity in sharing, and we all want to be that friend too. And so 'getting it' is pretty important in storytelling, much as it is in real life.

A good screenplay has to tell a story that invokes empathy from its audience. I mean, that's the secret, right? But like any good soup-gone-bad, you add too much and you end up losing the sense of the ingredients that went into it. So keeping it simple seems to make the most sense. Of course, I don't mean basic (that's just boring), I mean simplicity as an art - and that's where talent comes in.

So here I am, talking about simplicity and empathy when it comes to crafting a film, and as it turns out, you can do that in no-budget films. You can do it (relatively) easily. I mean, it takes time to get there of course (I threw everything at my early screenplays, and I mean everything), but that's where craft and skill come in. Like a lot of things in life, knowing what to say yes and no to counts for a lot. But you have to trust your gut on it - and that takes a little time to sink in.

Okay, let me try and scoop this into something cohesive here - what the hell does a budget matter when you're focusing on shooting small, uncomplicated stories that are threaded with a heart? Well, the budgets help to feed everyone (ask that of anyone on set - food fucken matters), and they help to get people from A to B to Z. The rest can be worked out and hustled.

Of course, actors and crew, I get it. Nobody likes working for free. I know. Believe it or not, neither do indie film directors. And on the flip, nobody really likes paying for indie movies to be shot (not when Man of Steel takes up all the theatres and you're forced to think up another way of getting folks to see it). So what gives? We want to shoot them with a budget, but who gives budgets to first, second, or third time filmmakers? Not too many people, actually. I could recount war stories on raising budgets, but I wouldn't be saying anything new. The short version: it sucks. Crowdfunding, the golden saviour is as hard (if not harder) than having meetings with money people. Go chase a million-dollar-budget with little commercial success to your name and you might as well be building a boat made of cheese to sail to the Antarctic. Your chances of getting there are about equal (depending on the cheese of course). Now tell everyone that wants a 'paid job' who isn't already, you know, earning bank on 'paid jobs' and you have yourself a classic catch-twenty-two. So what's the answer?

I don't know.

Simple as that. Nobody has an answer that will fit for you. They can only tell you what they did. And all I know is, I fought hard to get anything close to resembling a career, and that after hanging out at EIFF with some cats doing pretty awesome things, they don't have the answers either. All they seem to do is balance up the jobs they love with the jobs that pay and hope that somewhere in between is the sweet spot. Kind of like everyone, I guess.

So why shoot three films in one year? Because I can make stuff that (I hope) is dipped in empathy and decorated in simplicity. And I don't make them because they're cheap (which on a purely financial sense, they are), because they actually end up costing me a lot. And by that I mean time and focus, friendships and social engagements, normality and access to day jobs (you know how many times you get Googled when you apply for a job? Who wants to employ a broke filmmaker to cut their grass or serve in their bar?).

But here's the rub; when you shoot like I do, everybody tells you how to do it. Even now, four movies deep (five if you count my amateur splutter-start), folks will say take your time, or move on to something bigger. Everybody is an expert in the life that isn't their own, right? Okay, so I don't always agree with a lot that people say to me. That's not news, really. But let me ramble on.

First, taking time costs. Take time when you need it of course, but only if it's going to make something better. Some people need to take time, others work off of instincts. It's the same as some people like to stroll, others like to run - you'll get there in the end as long as you're moving. There's always the trip hazard of course, but there's also the risk of getting stale.

Second, go bigger? Bigger what? Who says that's always an option, and even when it is, is it always better?

I'm not stupid of course. I'm not rushing these movies out so I can just churn out some sub-quality movies that will just fester as I turn down opportunities that pay. I'm just trying to tell good stories using sharp senses and making sure that I'm learning from each one as I go. Shooting three movies in one year is my way of fighting the rot that can creep in and making sure that I have a body of work that will stand alone once this is all done.

So whilst access to budgets (or lack thereof) will always dictate certain films, just because you're broke is never an excuse to not tell your story. And it's also not an excuse to not make it. I made that mistake over and over on Nina Nobody. In the end, I learned from it.

So here's what I say - screw the budget. Whatever you can get, take it. Whatever you can raise, use it. But don't let it dictate how many films you'll make in this life. There are enough factors that will get in the way, but the mythical budget conversation is old, dated and some other generations rhetoric. And when you get a fat budget, good! You earned it! Other filmmakers, let's support those that get paid to do this, because, you know, it hurts. A lot. A little cheer keeps the runner going, remember?

But more than anything, don't let the numbers dictate how good or bad your film will or won't be. Money doesn't buy empathy, or even a good story - humans aren't built that way. But if you're still not convinced after all my chest-beating here, and you still want to work out how to get money for your feature films? Here's my advice - tell good stories well. If you do that, the rest starts to take care of itself. And yes, even the rebirth of the budget to pay your actors and crew. And sometimes, even yourself.