I’m not a massive fan of Robert Rodriguez’s films, though there are exceptions: Sin City is a wicked, guilty pleasure and I love the genre switch in From Dusk Till Dawn.
His work that truly inspired me was… a book: Rebel Without a Crew. It’s the telling of how a young film-maker put himself through a drug testing facility to pay for the film stock to shoot a 16mm action movie (El Mariachi). But, more than the quirky story of how he got the funding for film stock, it’s his method that really inspired me. Basically – make a film with the resources you have to hand in the place where you live.
It’s interesting to note that he wrote this book at least a DECADE before the democratisation of filmmaking; that is, the availability of affordable DSLR cameras and MP3 sound recorders and home computers and hard drives capable of handling a feature film; this revolution has recently put the means of feature film production into the hands of the many. In the nineties, after I read his book, I went and invested in a 16mm camera, an Arriflex BL, an absolute brute of a camera that needed Arnie sized biceps to lug it around. I would never go back to shooting micro-budget films on 16mm film.
Anyway, I digress. Rodriguez’s major theory is this:
MAKE A FILM WITH WHAT YOU HAVE ACCESS TO!
Actors, locations, props. So, if you want to make a feature film… make a list!
What special talents do your actor friends have? What roles were they born to play? A politician? A homeless person? An overbearing aunt?
What locations can you gain access to? Nightclub? Paintball site? Factory floor?
What props can you get hold of? A Sherman tank? A human skeleton? A puffy chair?? (Check out the Duplass Brothers’ low-budget mumblecore film The Puffy Chair. They embraced Rodriguez’s method on this indy flick).
When you’ve made your list, go for a walk. Why? Because the ‘use-what-you-got’ method frees up your subconscious when it comes to the script writing. The thing is this: if you can write a story about ANYTHING, sometimes it’s really, really hard to make a start on that screenplay. However, if you have strict parameters to work with, suddenly you have material to work with. On my second micro-budget feature film Frettin’, I had access to an actor-friend who could sing and play the guitar, another actor friend who looks great in a suit and who plays great against the first actor, I had access to a narrow boat, a second-hand shop and a middle-class house… And you know what? Story-wise, I was on my way. Necessity is the mother of invention!
Once I knew I had these resources, I spent a couple of days walking the canal (where some of the film took place), thinking about the characters. A few story beats occurred to me. I used these way-points as the anchors for the plot. My subconscious supplied the heart of the film, my preoccupations and interests about friendship, family, life. The magic percolated through the practicality of working with what I had to hand!
These days, we can lay our hands on the digital means of production. On Frettin’ I traded my Xbox collection in at a high street trading store and bought my Canon 60D (which shoots 1080p) for fifty quid in real money, once the trade was done. The MP3 sound recorder was borrowed from a friend. The sound guy had his own Sennheiser microphone. We made a boom from an extendable painter’s pole and a blimp from a bird feeder and fluffy fabric!
That problem of having access to the means of production (the kit) is no longer a problem for today’s film-makers and artists. The real difficulty is sorting out everything in front of the camera (and under the microphone). So… try making the story spring from your resources. You might be pleasantly surprised with the results.
In conclusion: if you want to make a feature film, make a list; tally up your resources to hand; actors, locations, props. Then, go for a walk and let that list stew in your mind. If you’re lucky and get a good tail-wind, your subconscious will provide the rest when you come to write the screenplay.
Then, all you have to do is go and make it!