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As an instructor teaching directing for the past six years, including at FAMU, one of Europe’s most respected film schools, I have often heard the question: How much does it cost to make your first feature film? I listen as students cite the popular examples of successful self-produced debuts: Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1993), made for $27,000, or Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi (1994), made for $7,000. More recently, Paranormal Activity (2007) was made for $15,000. The list goes on.

There’s no magic number. I recently completed my first feature film, Confessions of a Box Man, for $30,000. But in fact, a first feature can now be shot on a smartphone for even less. Or making a feature might require no shooting at all, like György Pàlfi’s Final Cut: Ladies & Gentlemen (2012), which was made out of 450 film classics and played at Cannes. However, the real answer is that this question doesn’t matter. The more important question is the one I ask my students: Why do you want to make a feature in the first place? Are you making a film purely as a creative act, because you love the medium and want to explore your own voice or story? Or is your goal to be accepted into festivals, get distribution, and become a career director? In my experience, the answer to this question determines everything, especially when you consider that the overwhelming majority of all film school graduates, around the world, will never make a feature.

As I make films entirely because I love the act of creating, I decided to share some advice that will ensure that any young director can complete their first feature film.

1) Find your voice and trust your vision

While film schools and script workshops can be helpful, they also tend to employ those who believe unquestioningly that there is a right and wrong way to write a script and make a film. The problem is that if you actually have something original to say, or are inspired by a new way of seeing, it will most likely go unrecognized by others. In many cases your ideas might even be ridiculed, only to be praised later. True creativity is as rare as it is valuable because it can’t be taught. So while it’s important to listen to criticism, it’s also important to remember that if you’re truly fascinated by your own idea for a film, that’s likely the one worth investing in, even if it doesn’t come out the way you imagined, which is how we learn.

Directors who have this passionate belief in their own vision are often incredibly productive.

They are artists like Luis Bunuel, Werner Herzog, Jean-Luc Godard, and David Lynch, often misunderstood but completely on fire from their first films on. The opposite is true for those living under the shadow of the desire to be liked, accepted, and praised, be it by audiences, fellow filmmakers, or festivals. These directors tend to give up. When a filmmaker’s desire for success is greater than their love for the act of creating, they won’t have enough motivation to get through their first feature, especially on a low budget.

Teaser for Confessions of a Box Man.

2) Make as many shorts as possible and on budgets that barely exist

Writers rarely jump into writing a 300 page novel. They write short stories first, sometimes dozens of them. This is how you learn to write and find your voice. The same is true with filmmaking. I became good at directing because I made over 30 shorts, the first dozen of which had no budget. Working this way forced me to experiment, as I couldn’t rely on having access to collaborators or real equipment. I had to be imaginative. I was inspired by films like Chris Marker’s La Jetée: a 1962 science fiction made almost entirely by still photographs that Marker set to music with a voice over.

Working in this way, I had no choice but to learn all aspects of production, which included how to write, capture sound, light a shot, use a camera, edit etc. Purely through experimenting, I learned that I didn’t like the results when I employed conventional film grammar, screenwriting, or acting styles. They weren’t me. Who was I? And how would I discover that? As I pushed on, each technique opened up a new way of speaking for me, especially editing, as I began to mix my captured images and sounds with photos, paintings, commercials, and old film clips I grabbed online. In Confessions of a Box Man alone, I used over 400 such images and clips. This approach, along with learning how to work with composers and sound designers, allowed me to make increasingly abstract statements, which in turn gave me the ability to hone my own language that I eventually became fluent in. Thanks to these discoveries, made over a decade of making films, I had absolute confidence when it came to making my first feature.

Resolutions (2016): low budget short ($250) directed by Mika Johnson and shot by Marco Joubert. All non actors, crew of two.

3) Make your first feature with resources you have, not those you wish you had

On one level this is a no brainer. If your aunt owns a hotel, set your whole film there. Or say she has a sailboat, think Knife in the Water by Polansky. Or you live near a beautiful forest or a lake. Even better, you can use all available light. When writing and planning your first feature, you should apply this logic at every stage. Take Christopher Nolan’s debut feature film, Following (1998) as an example. The script was written and planned to be as inexpensive as possible, which included shooting on 16mm film and only on Saturdays, for over three months, as the cast and crew members had full time jobs. To cut costs, the cast rehearsed extensively, which meant few takes, and the crew used available light rather than professional lighting equipment. Friends and family’s homes became locations. With a budget of $6,000, Nolan’s first feature was an astounding success, winning major awards at international festivals, which in turn brought him fame.

4) Don’t make excuses

Study script breakdown, as this tool will be invaluable when it comes to planning and budgeting your first feature. If you can’t raise the budget you’ve calculated, either rewrite your script or use your phone to take still photos and record voice overs. If you don’t have a phone, draw your film on paper and write out the dialogue. If you don’t know how to draw, learn! Whatever you do, don’t stop making your film. Consider the story of Satyajit Ray’s first feature, Pather Panchali (1955). Rey had no money to make his film. But he was a skilled visual artist. After storyboarding his entire film, shot for shot, in watercolors, he approached producers, all of whom said no – over 30 of them. Ray then made every sacrifice imaginable to raise enough money to shoot a short preview of his film, which also failed to convince producers. His luck turned when he met the Chief Minister of West Bengal, who mistook his preview for a documentary film on rural Bengal. Thanks to a misunderstanding, Rey received government funds to make a documentary. Instead he made his debut fiction feature film, which went on to win eleven international prizes, including one at Cannes, and is today considered a masterpiece of Indian cinema.

Link to full feature: Confessions of a Box Man

In the end, while there are no guarantees when it comes to making your first feature, being passionate about your own vision, experimenting as much as possible before jumping in, and continuously building on your ideas using whatever resources you have, is the best method I know. Stay dedicated to this process and you have a good chance of reaching the finish line.

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About 

Mika Johnson is a multimedia artist who directs fiction and documentary films, music videos, XR projects and commercials. Long-term projects include The Amerikans—a web series featuring 15 short documentaries—and his recently completed debut feature: Confessions of a Box Man, the first part in a trilogy. Along with exhibiting his work internationally, Johnson presents, lectures, and teaches workshops worldwide. For more info: mikajohnson.com