When I set out to make this film, I did not have a budget. I did not have a producer doing producer things. I put everything on my credit cards and just went for it. I only found out how much I had spent on the shoot when it was time to do taxes the following year. When I left home on Friday morning at 5am to drive to San Francisco, I told my wife to be on call to bail us out if we get arrested anytime during the weekend as we were shooting without permits. Now, it’s going to premiere at MAMI Mumbai Film Festival in the ‘Discover India’ Section. So how did we pull it off?
1) Write what you have
You have to write the story backwards. Write a story keeping in mind the resources you have. If your friend’s mom has a vacation house in Alibaugh, write a movie set in that property. Nowadays you don’t even need that. There is AirBnB. If your friend owns a business, set the story in that office/shop. We all know few people like that. Don’t have too much action in the film as they are hard to do and are time consuming.
In my case, I started with the idea of a road trip with two people. Shooting in a car. I happen to live in LA and have driven up and down the pacific coast highway to San Francisco many times. There are countless beaches with not a single soul in them. So I set a bunch of scenes in such beaches where we could shoot quickly. And that’s how the story of 417 Miles came to me.
2) Make the movie with friends
It will be really hard to expect a stranger to go on such a crazy adventure for no money—and with the risk of getting arrested multiple times. 417 Miles would not have been possible without my friend Fidencio Casas, who shot the movie. We were working together in the same post production company in 2014. During the production of the movie, especially the first weekend on the road, he did the heavy lifting. I had complete faith in him, which allowed us to shoot in a really guerilla manner. Sometimes I couldn’t stand behind him to look at the frame because people around us would know that we were shooting a movie—instead, we looked like of bunch of tourists taking photos on their DSLR. We also shot in Virgin Airline plane, San Francisco Airport, San Francisco Pier, Monterrey Bay Aquarium. It was important to me that my no budget film is not confined to four people in a room.
3) Don’t have a big crew
We were a two person crew. Because the car had space for only four people, we couldn’t even have a sound person. We did the sound ourselves. I would not recommend it though. I had to spend money to fix the sound in the post. A Cinematographer and a Sound Person are the two most essential crew members. Try to have a few friends help them out on set. They don’t have to be film people. In fact, non-film friends are more helpful because this is all exciting for them. They are thrilled to be part of the making of a film. Film friends are jaded.
4) Use only Natural lights
If you bring lights to the set, it makes the crew big, and it makes everything more expensive and slow. Use the sunlight and lights inside houses. If your actors are doing a great job, and you framed things interestingly, people will not care if it’s not lit like a Emmanuel Lubezki movie. Nowadays a camera like Sony A72 can capture beautifully in low-light situations. Or try to write movies that happen in bright daylight.
5) Fuck Coverage
Coverage is the most safe and boring way to shoot a scene. It also can be time consuming to shoot the same thing again and again. Since we don’t have money or time, use master shots and two shots as much as you can. In the case of our film, both the director and the Cinematographer happen to be editors. It really helped a lot because we shot only what was necessary. There are a couple of scenes where we shot only one take. What you see is all we got. Also it makes editing the first cut very easy as there really aren’t that many takes to choose from. After we finished shooting, I did not look at the footage for a month because I was afraid that something must have gotten fucked up somewhere and we’d lost the movie.
6) Embrace the flaws
When you make a film like that with no money and no permits, it will not be perfect—in fact, far from it. So many things will be beyond your control. When you look at the first cut, there will be many things you will hate. There will be something odd in the frame. Sound on one mic would be inaudible. You’ll notice camera shakes for a couple of frames in a really good take. I could go on and on. It’s OK. You are practicing right now—the next one will be better. When I watched 417 Miles on a big screen for the first time last month at a Film Festival, I wanted to kill myself. All those flaws become huge on the big screen. It will happen to you. Be proud that you made it to the big screen and are screening with filmmakers who have made indie films with $50,000 and think they made a really low-budget feature film. By the time you make your $50,000 feature, you will be a master. Just watch the early mumblecore films of Joe Swanberg and watch the Netflix show Easy to see how far he has come. Same with the Duplass Brothers.
7) Shit Happens. Move on
The location you had in mind suddenly can’t be used. Happened to us. We had a great bar in Hollywood reserved the day after Halloween at 2pm. When we got there, there was no bar. Halloween night was so crazy, the city shut the bar, and revoked it’s license. Shit happens. It gave the crew time to relax for few hours and have a great lunch before we got to the next location.
8) Don’t be an asshole
This is the most important advice. It’s very obvious but you would be surprised. The only way bunch of friends and actors are going to take a leap of faith at your crazy ambitious idea is because they like you and wanna help you. This is a advice to be followed everyday of your life in this industry, but especially so when you are starting out. Success will most likely turn you into an asshole down the line anyway. Always volunteer to help your friends. Lend them your gear all the time. Your friends should feel like your gear is theirs too. This advice is more pertinent in the U.S. because people are very particular about having boundaries here. In India, friends take each other for granted; we assume our friend’s gear is always available to use.
I made this movie inspired by the mumblecore movement that started in Austin by Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass Brothers, which was later picked up by Joe Swanberg in Chicago. If you see the early mumblecore films, usually it’s set in one location or a road trip. And the story (if you can call it that) happens over the course of a few days. I would recommend watching a lot of them. It’s not for everyone though. Most people are not keen on them. In recent years, with its newly found success and acceptance, making a mumblecore film is not that cool as it is happening a lot. All the directors I mentioned are making movies with Hollywood stars. However, I feel if you tell a true heartfelt story it will surpass the trivialities of the genre and rise above the noise and stand out.
I would recommend watching Mark Duplass’s Keynote Address at 2015 SWSX.
I would leave you with a Alex Karpovsky quote from 2013.
“If you want to make films, the excuses are definitely running out on you”
It’s been 3 years since that quote. I think the excuses ran out of the window after the iPhone 6S launch last year.