We made a movie, called Black Soup for 10,000 dollars. We shot it in Budapest, in 14 days, filming on 11 locations (!), had a bunch of great actors in it, guns, blood, luxury apartments, aerial shots, and even a helicopter. It premiered to a packed house (over 450 people) on a Friday night at a film festival, went nationwide in theaters, produced a popular film soundtrack album, inspired a great music video, gained amazing national media attention, including plenty of TV, and is basically already a cult phenomenom. It would be hard to find anyone living in Budapest who hasn’t heard of Fekete Leves. When we started everyone thought we were nuts and today no one believes we actually pulled it off.
But how we made this all happen is a long, long story (which probably starts with me soaking in the smooth talk of Elliot Grove at a lo-to-no weekend some years ago). It shall therefore be the subject of another article (or short novel).
This article is about ten important lessons I learned while producing the whole fun crazy mess.
*** Breaking News***
Black Soup is screening at Raindance on Saturday September 28 at 8:20pm
1. You have to know what you are doing
This is sort of obvious. Maybe I should have come up with a better heading for this one.
What I mean is, some experienced film professionals do need to be involved. People who have made movies before. Talented people need to be involved. Some key positions will have to be filled with people who know exactly what they are doing. And as a filmmaker you need to be very honest with yourself about exactly what you do know, and what you don’t know.
Also, you and the entire team need to have a lot of contacts and general street cred, all of which will become largely exhausted by the time you are done. Director Erik Novák was able to bring in a majority of the key cast and crew because of very positive earlier working relationships.
These are the things that will make all the difference between making a cute but crappy student film, or making a real movie.
In the end, talent attracts talent. We were very fortunate in getting talented actors, hardworking crew, good partners enthusiastic Raindance interns, experienced financial advisors, fashion designers, and amazing local musicians to all come on board and join the ride. The wave kept growing and different wavelengths kept strengthening each other. Or maybe they were just afraid to be left out of something that seemed very cool and underground.
2. Make your weaknesses your strengths
When it turned out that one of our main leads has to suddenly leave the shoot of a dramatic therapy scene, our director (Erik Novák) instructed him to throw a major freak-out tantrum and get sedated by the doctor. It turned into an amazing scene.
Obviously you are making a lot of compromises when you don’t have money in what is essentially an extremely capital-intensive business. We decided from Day One to make Black Soup with nearly no money, and built up the production accordingly. We made a list of our resources (e.g.: we can get a security van, we can get a helicopter). We developed the story around these elements. We decided to go for a realistic look, which we could film quickly: two hand-held cameras, no lighting, and lots of improvisation. In the end it gave the movie an original and bold feel, kept the dialogues fresh and funny. What was on the big movie screen in the end was different to anything anyone had seen before in Hungarian cinema – thankfully in a good way.
3. Be technically prepared and know the consequences of your decisions
Oh, your friend has a RED camera that he’ll let you use? Great, but say good-bye to that initial vague idea of editing the movie together on your laptop.
Your DoP wants to shoot at maximum quality? Well of course he does. Get ready to buy a shitload more of external hard drives than you had budgeted.
Someone forgot to check the FPS setting on the camera and filmed a whole day at the wrong frame rate? Say hello to an extra week of conversions and a whole array of sound issues you will never understand.
All I can say is, think everything through three times, and discuss with at least four people from different parts of the production workflow.
And sometimes be brave enough not to listen to any of them.
4. Think outside the box
The film industry has a very structured method of working. People in the biz are used to chain of command, assistants, independent departments, and the usual workflow. It’s almost like a religion – people just believe it to be the Law From Above without ever questioning it. By turning a lot of this upside-down you can really save time, money, and foster creativity. But at the same time be prepared to lead by example and pick up the garbage along with everyone else.
For us, while searching for our DoP we immediately hit a bunch of stonewalls. Your average DoP dreams of billions of megawatts of lighting, mile-long dolly tracks, 300 meter cranes, 100 day shoots, a harem of focus pullers, and some new camera and lens set not available on the continent yet. Guerilla low-budget filmmaking just isn’t very exciting to the DoP rock star. After much searching we were able to find our man, Balázs Dobóczy, who immediately starting coming up with solutions instead of just whining about what we couldn’t afford. I cannot praise him enough, because his positive, think-outside-the-box, old-school attitude filtered down into the entire camera crew, and made the director’s job so much easier. He won’t be winning any shiny awards for Black Soup, but a few of us are forever grateful.
One place not worth thinking outside the box is SOUND. This is half your movie. Think about it, plan for it, make sure it gets recorded well, and make sure that you give your sound guys ample time in post to work on it, after your picture is locked. Good sound remains a mystery to most filmmakers. Everyone wants great sound but doesn’t have the faintest clue about the process. So until you crack the code yourself, you will need a sound professional you can trust.
5. You are building long-term relationships
When making a movie like this, you are asking for a lot of favors, making a lot of deferment deals, and getting a lot of free help. Everyone will have their own reasons for getting involved: no work at the time, looking to break into the film industry, they like your endearing smile, they want to give back to the industry and support young talent, whatever. Most will be amazing and you will work with them for years to come, some will whine and bitch and do a great job nonetheless, and others won’t show up after the third day. That’s just how it works. But what you should always keep in mind is that you will be expected to call these same people when you are offering paying jobs as well. It’s simply bad etiquette to only call on someone when you don’t have money to pay. So pick your team well, and make sure they are up to the task, because you will owe them one – for better or worse.
There will be times when you will ask yourself: why the hell am I doing this? What seems like a little fun ten-day shoot somewhere in the future suddenly turns into a very real and scary first day. Money becomes needed when you least expect it (or have it, for that matter). There will be huge problems during post-production, your director will be in a state of continuous nervous breakdown, and all will seem lost.
Essentially you are making a very unfair trade-off of putting in lots of extra work to make up for a lack of money and manpower.
Less money = more work.
There were times when I swore that if my phone rings one more time, I would throw it out the window and walk off into the woods. But then you take a deep breath and make another 17 phone calls.
People will be looking at you for immediate solutions to problems you didn’t even know about, you will sleep very little, and you will feel like the first person in the history of filmmmaking doing the simultaneous jobs of producer, financial controller, C-camera operator, driver, on-set psychologist, and janitor. Meanwhile your wife and/or girlfriend(s) will be very upset that not only are you working day and night, but you’re not even making any money while doing it! You will have to write contracts, explain things to policemen and angry neighbors, negotiate creatively, and in my case, wash fake blood caked into the tiling of a new luxury apartment with a toothbrush. (Literally.)
But in the end you will rise to the occasion and do whatever needs to get done, and meanwhile earn the respect of your entire crew.
And if you are the type of person that insists on sleeping ten hours a night, filmmaking is simply not for you.
7. Stay honest
It’s tempting to act like a big Hollywood mogul and make vague references to film festivals, talk about theoretical career trajectories, position your low-budget feature like it’s some multi-million dollar U.S. indie, and promise everyone eternal fame if they sign on the dotted line …………….. right now. When putting a movie together there is a fine line between Scam-artist and Devoted Supporter of the Arts.
I believe in keeping it real. Tell everyone you have no idea what this will be, the gross income will be somewhere between minus ten thousand and plus one million, and you are all in uncharted territory together. Make it a team effort.
We aimed to be very diligent in making fair deals with everyone up front. In our model every key position earned a piece of the pie, leading to a total of 100%. Percentages go quickly and at the end of the day everyone will think that their work deserves more, so I cannot stress enough the importance of making these deals up front, before you start shooting. Also make sure to put aside for post-production – more than you think you will need. (Your editor and post partners will save your ass more than once. Let me give a special shout out to our editor Manó Csillag, who saved our ass at the last minute many o’ times.)
8. Back it up in writing
We were lucky to have a Raindance Budapest intern fresh out of law school with a dream of a career in film. She wrote and administered all of our contracts with actors, talent, and crew. (Getting everyone to then sign these contracts is an ordeal that requires a lot more attention than one would assume.) After the shoot, she got a gig thanks to my recommendation doing clearances for a big American production shooting in Budapest.
We were also lucky to be able to bring in a company called Freeway, a Collection Account Management Agency with an office in Budapest. Collection Account Management Agencies make it their job to collect all revenues a film makes and disperse them according to contract. It’s tummy comfort for everyone afraid of big bad producers withholding profits or getting creative with their accounting. (Consider it an insurance policy on your honesty).
Did I mention to get insurance? Get insurance. When your very careful and well-mannered crew has essentially trampled the location you were shooting in, you will thank me for the advice.
9. Get Lucky
I could tell you what geniuses we were in how we consistently solved everything amazingly at the last second, but at the end of the day sometimes we probably just got lucky.
Honestly, what are the chances that our coproducing partner ZLS would be filming another movie, at the same time as us, in a private hospital, just like the one we needed? We worked out a deal where they filmed the location during the day, and we filmed by night – with the same camera equipment. The cameras essentially never stopped working for two days.
When we were filming on location illegally, no one called the cops. When the cops did show up, we had permits for the guns (thanks to our great SFX and weapons professional). And when for our final scene we flew a helicopter above a downtown Budapest apartment building at the crack of dawn on a Saturday, no one shot at us.
I guess the braver you are, the more you get lucky.
10. It only works if its fun.
You have 40 people working for free, getting up early, or shooting all night, waiting outside in the hot/cold, inside all day with no natural sunlight, eating cheap food… you get the point. The moment the producer turns into a Nazi, the director throws a hissy tantrum, or your actor whines about not having Starbucks on set, the atmosphere and mood can suddenly turn from I Love Filmmaking Camp into Slave-labor Gulag. Luckily with Black Soup, it was for the most part all shits and giggles. We laughed a lot, and since the shoot have probably had more crew parties than we had shooting days.
So what’s next?
Now that we have written Hungarian filmmaking history and are done basking in the glow of our fifteen minutes of fame in a tiny little insignificant European country, we find ourselves battling the noble fight of self-distribution and preparing to take the movie to international markets.
But I am still learning my lessons on that front; therefore I will have to tell all about self-distribution in my next article (or short novel). And trust me, there is plenty to tell, because making the movie really is only half the trip.
The Raw Data on Black Soup:
Original Title: Fekete Leves
Runtime: 93 minutes
Director: Erik Novák
Director of Photography: Balázs Dobóczy, H.S.C.
Edited by: Manó Csillag
Music Composers: Viktor László, Arthur Grósz
Cast: Zoltán Perjés, Zsolt Nagy, Simon Szabó, Hermina Fátyol, Gábor Máté, Zoltán Herczeg, András B. Vágvölgyi and many more.
Production company: Krez Film
Produced in association with: ZLS productions, Sysplex Media
Production partner: Raindance Budapest
Producers: Daniel Kresmery, Csanád Darvas
Executive Producers: Gábor Kutyik, Péter Deák, Manó Csillag
Coproducers: Tamás Csutak, Lajos Nagy
Original Sountrack available on ManaMana Records:
IMDb page: www.imdb.com
Watch the trailer:
24 Sept – 5 Oct 2014 Piccadilly Circus, Central London