How I Made a Feature Film for Under £7,500 (or $8,600 for you American folks!)
Boy #5 is a horror feature film set and shot in Manchester, England. The feature marks the debut of first-time director Eric Ian Steele, an award-winning screenwriter and novelist who is the writer of the thriller feature film The Student currently on Netflix USA.
Blame Werner Herzog. Everything was going well until he appeared on the horizon like a magnetically charged cruise missile heading straight for us. Let me explain.
I was a produced screenwriter, looking for another way to get my films made. I live in Manchester, England but, thanks to the magic of the internet, had managed to sell two screenplays that got made into feature films in America. But with no agent, selling everything myself was tiring and time-consuming. So, seeking a straighter path to getting my films produced, I decided to take the plunge into directing.
I had met my co-producer and a cinematographer at a local film group. After doing my apprenticeship on a few short films for other people and myself, we secured the rights to a bestselling crime novel and starting planning to do a feature. We met with lots of potential crew members and chose people with whom we felt we could work easily. A “can do” attitude was essential.
But first, I thought, why not direct another short that was a little longer than usual... just to test how this new crew would work together?
This is where things got messy. Speaking of messy...
Behind the Scenes of "Boy #5" with Actors Laura Bennett and Lennon Leckley
“Boy #5” was an idea I’d had years ago about a social worker who takes a shy, withdrawn boy found on the streets into her supervision, only to find out that he is a very peculiar type of vampire. On the outside he looks human. But on the inside he is a mutation. However, having bonded with the boy, she grows to love him despite the fact that he is inhuman.
It was supposed to be easy to make with minimal cast and locations. But everyone I showed it to said it should be longer. They kept saying, “But what happens then?” or “I want to see more of that”. Taking this as a good sign, I expanded the script, worked out the character arcs and before you know it, we had... another feature!
Being short on cash, we looked into funding. Several months of research convinced us that we didn’t want it. The reason? When someone gives you money, they want control. I remembered David Lynch saying “Never surrender final cut”. So we didn’t. And out of the window went our funding.
Fortunately, I had a secret weapon. The script.
I wrote the screenplay so we could film it with a minimal cast, minimal locations, and minimal fuss. There were many repetitive scenes which emphasize the characters’ mundane lives. That also meant that we could shoot a lot of scenes very rapidly just by having the actors make quick costume changes to signify that it was a different day. I don’t like multiple angles or flashy camera movement. My plan was to stick to wide angles where possible so that the camera wouldn’t need to be moved at all. So I guessed we could make the film very quickly indeed.
In further preparation, I began studying Werner Herzog’s directing masterclass...
And that’s where it all went to hell.
Herzog, known for his idiosyncratic documentaries and hair-raising adventures in the Amazon, has a completely different take on filmmaking than most. He recommends walking hundreds of miles on foot and being a doorman or hostage negotiator as good preparation for directing. His words “It’s not the equipment, it’s you,” felt empowering. He is also a master at bringing films in well under budget. He refused to buy a director’s chair because it would save the production $85.
Following Herzog, I resisted calls to increase the amount of crew, using only between 4-8 people at most. We secured locations for free – the main coup being an office building that would also serve as an interview room and a doctor’s surgery. Most importantly, my co-producer already had all the equipment we would need.
We had done a rough budget and it scared me, so I knew that it was essential to save money. Having renovated several houses in my daytime job, I knew that something unexpected always crops up to increase expenditure. So we did everything we could to lower our initial costs. I haggled for everything, from salaries to props. I got some stuff for free just by saying we were making a film. Costumes were bought from cut-price stores and charity shops. We only had one extra set of clothes for each main actor. My family did the catering for free. I even haggled down the price of a mink stole we used for a dead animal for a £6 reduction. Every penny saved would come in handy later on. Sometimes it can feel a little demeaning, but you really do have to beg, steal and borrow to get the film done.
I set a date for production to begin, despite people telling me we weren’t ready. I knew we weren’t ready. But I also knew we would never be if we waited until everything was perfect. So I picked an arbitrary date and stuck to it. No matter what happened, we were shooting on that day.
And magically, things began to happen.
We held open auditions in the back room of a pub. Fifty actors turned up from seasoned pros to first-timers. We cast all the roles... and chose our leads.
And with one week to go we lost two of our lead actresses for a variety of reasons.
Just like that, we were in the merde.
(Pro Tip: Merde is a technical term used by French New Wave film directors)
This would happen to us again. The actress who played the Pram Girl in our film pulled out ON THE DAY of shooting. Apparently she was unhappy with being in involved in the movie due to its subject matter.
I began to realize things were never going to go smoothly.
Fortunately, we had filmed auditions. This meant it was easy to remember who did what. In the knick of time, we found replacements. When our first Pram Girl pulled out on us, I simply put that scene back to another day and called another actress who had impressed me who was free. Sometimes, when you try, the gods smile on you. So now we had our cast, crew, equipment, and locations.
The last hurdle was that the actor we had to play our vampire was under 18, which meant we had to get a child work permit. Thankfully my former job in public service prepared me for filling in the daunting forms. With literally hours to spare the council handed us our child work permit.
And the day before shooting, our cinematographer quit...
(Pro Tip: Crap is a technical term used by American film directors.)
Still from "Boy #5"
Fortunately, we knew someone from our old film group who knew about lighting. After some hasty negotiating to help us out with 14 hours to go we had a new DoP.
On the advice of my virtual mentor Werner Herzog, I decided not to use a shot list or storyboard. I’d done this before and it had not worked out too well. By tying yourself to a pre-prepared set of images, you run into problems when reality does not match your vision. You also miss some great shots that you’d never imagined before. So with only a scene list prepared by our PA, we began shooting in the offices.
I found out quickly that a film set is a highly pressurized environment. You are constantly running out of time. Our “scene list” was quickly revised, abandoned, and then rewritten. Inevitably we had disputes and fallouts. Egos had to be massaged and I found myself constantly smoothing out problems. I kept reminding myself of Herzog’s advice: the price of film is sleepless nights and humiliations. Even if you find it hard to suck it up and admit you were wrong (even if you weren’t) you must do whatever it takes to get the feature made. Failure is not an option.
I thought back to Herzog’s legendary battles with Klaus Kinski. Compared to that, this was a cakewalk.
One thing I wish we’d had was a script supervisor, because with nine costume changes continuity became a nightmare. Something that would cost us dearly later on...
After two days at the social worker “offices”, we began shooting the “care home” scenes at a friend’s house. By now we’d overcome teething problems with our crew, who hadn’t understood what we were doing because we hadn’t had the time to brief them all. On the plus side, we had rooms to spare for rehearsing, makeup and places for the cast to hang out.
Everything was going so well....
Then on day three we ran out of time.
That caused two problems. Firstly, the friend’s house belonged to his parents, who (it turned out) had no idea we were filming there and were not happy about it. Secondly, the house was going to be demolished.
That left us twenty scenes to film in one day.
(Pro Tip: Bloody hell is a term used by British film directors)
When things go wrong (and they will) it’s important not to panic. Or if you do panic, make sure nobody sees you doing it.
That night, after a 12-hour shoot, I sat down with my notepad and tried to figure out how the hell we could do this. By morning, I had a plan. Go back to basics. Film all the remaining scenes using two angles. Shoot one way first, then do everything from the other angle using the same camera and lighting setup. Two takes max. Next day, we began and, to my amazement, it worked! Sort of. We were still running out of time, just not so fast.
That day another happy accident occurred. We had a set invasion by a family of foxes. Acting fast to capture this moment, our cameraman managed to get our vampire interacting with the critters in one of the film’s most memorable scenes. A total fluke. But one we caught on video by adapting to circumstances.
Maybe sometimes good things do happen.
Behind the Scenes of "Boy #5"
We did some hasty on-set rewrites to merge some scenes together to save time and sped through scene after scene. But with two major SFX scenes to shoot, the light going down, and strict working time limits on our child actor, we had to hustle. Knowing that one set of costumes would be messed up by the SFX scenes, we saved those for last. Every vampire film needs blood. And we used a lot. So we knew this would be a one-take deal. Thankfully it kind of worked out. We got our final scene, plus two more cast deaths. Yay!
Directing is physically very tiring. You are constantly in demand and yet you have to also be the cheerleader, keeping everyone’s energy levels high. You have to think on your feet (literally) all day. Fortunately, my previous high-pressure job as a police sergeant prepared me for all this and more. I actually found myself enjoying it!
Then after a 16-hour shoot, I discovered we had to take one of our actors back home... 100 miles away! So the day that began at 8:30 am ended at 4:45am. But we’d filmed 18 scenes including one extra scene we hadn’t planned for.
We finished the care home with 70% of our film done. And we were under budget.
But one thing I’ve learned is that the longer the shoot goes on, the less likely people are to keep turning up, especially when they’re not getting paid a lot. Which made getting the remaining 30% a bit tricky...
The original script called for a busy town centre scene where out vampire stalks prey and a Goth nightclub scene where Marjorie meets a bunch of “wannabe” vampires. After the ordeal of the first two weekends, I’d planned to shelve these ideas, but my co-producer convinced me to do it. He also worked as a doorman and so was able to secure us a nightclub for a day. We paid it a visit and it looked workable.
That left the city centre...
How were we supposed to fill a busy town centre like Manchester with people. We’d need permits, have to close off streets, employ rafts of extras. The list went on...
Or... we could do it guerrilla-style. There was no way we could afford all of that. So the decision was made for us.
Breaking a scene in half to make shooting easier was a trick I’d learnt at the care home. So first of all on a quiet midweek night we recorded the first half of the “stalking prey” scene where the vampire is looking at people, just by shooting our young actor looking at things off camera.
Next, the cameraman and I sneaked into the city centre on a Friday night to record what he was looking at. You see a lot of things you can’t unsee in a town centre on a Friday night. Rats scurrying through the streets, fights, hobos, and much worse. It was terrific. We filmed real drunks, real exteriors and real club-goers, all of which I knew would bring a production value to the film that nothing could beat.
The nightclub scene required a cast of Goths. As luck would have it, I learned of a Goth festival happening right then. So myself and some of our young PAs donned our blackest clothes and went to a nightclub in a working church, where we were greeted by the leather-clad vicar and witnessed more interesting sights including a girl drinking her own blood from a bottle for us. We gathered contact details from the crowd and soon we had our Goth army.
Again, we shot the nightclub scene in two halves. First we shot the main actress and supporting cast having a conversation, then we shot the Goths occupying the bar. We even cheekily re-used our vampire (removing his wig and makeup) and had him stand at the bar as an extra. Several crew doubled as extras to pack out the room. The result was a crowded nightclub that was really almost empty. Success!
Behind the Scenes of "Boy #5"
The rest of the shooting days were taken up by smaller scenes -- exteriors of the care home using my own house. We re-created the care home bedroom by having the shot go so tight on the bed so nothing else was visible. If we lost the light, we simply moved the scene to night.
During these days it’s hard to keep everyone excited. People think spending two days on a movie set is fun. But try to get them to spend 3 weeks. Our unpaid crew began to dwindle. Key people dropped out. Work, life, and other commitments were starting to take over, and we could not pay people enough to retain them. We went from 8, to 6, to 4 crew and finally to just me and my co-producer. Fortunately, he’s also a cameraman and most of the exterior scenes had no dialogue. Another happy accident.
But as time wore on the practical difficulties of filming tiny scenes grew more and more difficult without the resources we’d started with. Each day as a microbudget director you dread “that” phone call – the person you were counting on can’t make it that day, so you can’t complete the scene. So I learned how to make blood and sometimes enlisted friends and family to help fill the gaps. My sister recorded some ADR when we couldn’t get an actress. I even got my mother to drive the production vehicle. Compromises became the norm.
But I kept telling myself we had to finish no matter what. No matter what happens, you simply must complete the movie. Without that, all your effort is wasted.
And with every day that went by the stress got less and less intense.
The gods were smiling.
In just 12 days, all the scenes in the film were done. That left some SFX shots, cutaways and establishing shots to complete the picture.
Exhausted but happy, I took a week to recover physically before diving into more uncharted territory... postproduction.
After shooting the film, we made sure we backed everything up. I am a total OCD completer finisher, so I made sure I never left the film all in one place. My co-producer and I backed the files up onto two hard drives and kept one each at separate addresses. When my co-producer went on holiday for 2 weeks I carried that hard drive around with me everywhere, paranoid that something would happen and we would lose the film.
As I said, I’m a completer finisher, so I spent the next month logging every file of video footage in a big notepad. Unfortunately, I soon discovered a problem.
Three scenes were completely ruined. Somehow (and to this day nobody can tell me how) the peaking graphs had been baked into the camera footage. Every part of these scenes, every frame, was unusable.
If you think getting people to the set in the first place is tough, try getting them back when they think it’s all over. Fortunately, the cast was terrific and that helped boost the morale of the crew. So we got just enough people back to do the reshoots.
Lucky for us, these reshoots were not care home scenes. Unluckily, they were the offices. I begged our way back onto the set for two more days.
And then our lead actor bust his lip open.
Behind the Scenes of "Boy #5"
He turned up for the shoot looking shamefaced and with an upper lip the size of a grapefruit. Just like a typical 15-year-old boy, he had been roughhousing and hit his face. But it was okay... we simply shot him from his undamaged side. I think we got away with it.
So the last day of (re)shooting began. Cue a series of disasters that began with our cameraman dropping out, our DoP not being available, and one of our actresses having to go to the hospital to care for her son.
There are situations where you have to get tough and get going. This was one of them. Somehow, we found another cameraman. Somehow, our actress made a herculean effort and managed to get to the shoot later in the day.
We were now on our third cameraman, second DoP, third AD, and had lost and gained four actors.
We finished off with some SFX shots. I prefer practical effects. CGI is lazy and rarely looks totally believable. So we made our “prosthetics” out of modeling clay and a knitting needle and painted it. A few composite shots, and we were done!
Just like that, it was over. I felt elated. We had brought the film in at only £5000!
And then everything stopped.
The part that nobody prepares you for as a director is after you’ve finished. On set, everyone is always calling for you or arguing with you or asking you questions. It’s exhilarating, stressful, and bloody hard work all at once. But when the shoot is over, you are left with a huge mess on your hands. And you begin to feel very alone.
Postproduction was a totally alien world to me. It was daunting to have to deal with technical people who spoke a different language entirely.
Fortunately, forewarned is forearmed. I applied the lessons of the film and of my previous work experience, as well as the Herzog masterclass. So I was prepared for the feeling that this was yet another mountain to climb. I had already learned that you do not need to know all about technology to direct. That is why you have experts. You only need to know precisely what you do not want.
The first step is always to begin. So I began by putting out calls for editors online. Meeting with a few I found their prices varied wildly. It was possible to spend double or even triple what it had cost to make the film. The sky was the limit. But I found an editor who had worked on a friend’s short film who was eager to work on his first feature. This saved us a ton of money, and he turned out to be someone I could work with and get on well with. This would be essential, because I ended up working very closely with him for weeks. Thankfully he was a very patient guy who put up with my demands (mostly) without complaint!
It’s an incredibly rewarding process to see an editor recut your film. It’s almost like shooting it all over again, but with someone who shares your vision to help you.
But now our ghosts came back to haunt us. My own inexperience as a director meant that I hadn’t noticed certain things - odd looks or noises from the cast, lapses in continuity and even failing to get a few shots altogether. Sometimes in our haste to finish a scene we had missed a cut here or there. Sometimes a camera angle didn’t work or looked awkward and we had nothing to cut to.
It was tempting to get disillusioned. But I began to realize that this is the process of filmmaking. You never have enough time or money. But if you are creative you can often get around a problem. If we didn’t have a certain shot for a close-up, we simply stole it from another scene. I remembered how Robert Rodriguez made El Mariachi, often zooming in during a scene to give himself more camera angles in the editing stage. We shot in 4K, so we were able to scale up the image at certain points to create our own new camera angles. It was no substitute for shooting on the day, but it saved us on several occasions from an awkward-looking scene. Our editor also worked miracles, and after two months we had a finished cut of the film.
Behind the Scenes of "Boy #5"
The hunt now began for a sound mixer and colour grader. I knew nothing about sound (and still know very little), but our sound recordist was a pro so I knew we had captured a good recording on the day.
What I found was that once again prices varied enormously. Again, luck smiled on us, and I met someone through a mutual acquaintance who gave us a terrific price and has been a pleasure to work with. I’ve always known sound is important, but I confess I didn’t know how important. It acts as a signpost to the audience as to how they should be feeling in any given scene, and it’s elevated our film to a whole new level.
It was tempting to ignore colour grading, but again I wanted the film to look professional and our editor convinced me it was worthwhile. If anyone I spoke to talked jargon, I did some internet research and found out for myself. It was a priceless education.
I was shelling out serious cash now. All the money we saved earlier on in the process came in useful. The haggling and negotiating, my refusal to pay for anything I didn’t have to, helped so much. We got the sound for 15 times less than my highest quote just by haggling. I was able to negotiate the cost of colour grading down to a similar amount. I even secured the rights to a pop song for our vampire nightclub scene using Pond5, an online music site, for less than £150. But the cost of postproduction was much higher than I’d imagined. I was glad now that I’d haggled down the price of that mink stole!
That brings us to the present.
The film is now almost finished. The sound mix and colour grade should both be done this week. I’ve seen the enormous difference a colorist can make and am so glad I decided to pay that expense. We even had a 35mm “grain” applied to the digital version. It looks so much more like a “film” now.
The entire film has cost about £7,500. That’s about $8,600. It is a full feature-length movie that we have funded without any outside money. The vision is our own. It’s also the first vampire movie ever set in Manchester, England.
Would I do it again?
You bet! It’s been an amazing experience. Herzog was correct every step of the way. My advice is to ignore the conventional wisdom and all the naysayers and to create your own method of working. Accept that everything will go wrong. Find creative solutions if you are lacking anything. Go guerrilla when you have to (just make sur you have insurance). Haggle for everything. And always keep costs to an absolute minimum because you never know when you’ll need more cash.
Now, all we need to do is release our movie. So I’m still busy researching film markets and distributors and trying to make contacts. I just hope nothing unforeseen happens to interfere with our plans...
But if it does, we’ll just find another way!
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