BIG BRAINS - small budgets: DIY Filmmaking Advice

BIG BRAINS – small budgets: Anamitra Roy (Diamonds in the Sky, Five No Budget Films, Memories…of a Dead Township)

Anamitra Roy was born in 1988 in Bandel, West Bengal, India. Roy obtained his MA in Film Studies from Jadavpur University in 2010. He published one of his several alternative literary bulletin’s named ‘Byas’ in 2007. In 2008, Roy developed his collection of poems named ‘Shabdoprokriyakoron’. The format of this book is a benchmark of alternative publication in Bengal. Also in 2008, ‘Little Fish Eat Big Fish’, the first no-budget filmmakers’ collaborative out of India, was born. ‘Little Fish Eat Big Fish’ took DIY Filmmaking in India to the next level. In 2010 direct to DVD releases of indie films were successful for the first time without aid from corporations or the mainstream film industry under the name of ‘Five No-Budget Films’. Roy was the editor for the entire season and made his own short ‘Jean-Luc Godard Had No Script’ which gained popularity in the following years. The film was made for less than $10. ‘Memories… of a Dead Township’ is Roy’s latest short film that was literally made for $0. In 2012, Roy and Sriparna (his spouse) launched the crowdfunding campaign for their debut feature film named ‘Diamonds in the Sky’ which is widely known as  ‘The 0ne Rupee Film Project’. The project went on to create waves across India. It was the first time that a marginal film had a major following and buzz. Roy continues to focus his talents on his media to ensure that the story is told properly and professionally.

I come from a completely different background than most of the filmmakers in this series, who hail from Europe and America. When I started filmmaking, it was an activity inspired by political thoughts and motivations. We were a group of artistes working outside the mainstream; trying to find the alternative in different mediums like writing and painting, trying to cause turbulence inside the illusive equilibrium. Through the course of various events, somehow we came together and discovered that we are equally disturbed about what goes in our state, or in our country for that matter, in the name of good cinema. Yes! We did watch some real good cinema before that.

You know what good cinema is, right? I mean the kind of cinema that inspires another sensitive soul to make a film of his/her own or the kind of cinema that tells you that cinema is not a medium meant to be a mere tool of moneymaking in the hands of the big fishes belonging to the entertainment industry or, in fact, cinema and mass entertainment does not always have to mean the same thing, or cinema is an art form and not essentially the evolution of circus or the three penny opera full of spectacles — does this make sense to you? If not, please stop reading. Go, find and watch a cinema that would help you connect with what I’m trying to say. Only then we can proceed. Otherwise, there’s a chance that things may start to seem like Hieroglyphs after a while.

So, we were in no mood to agree with what’s being promoted as cinema in our country. It was 2008-09. We decided to make films of our own and on our own. All we had was a miniDV; secondhand at that too. Some of us could afford hiring a PD-170 or Z7P, some could not. None of us had actually ever heard of DIY filmmaking. We used to call ourselves no-budget filmmakers (‘We’ refers to our currently dormant filmmakers’ forum named ‘Little Fish Eat Big Fish’). “No-budget film”; we actually kind of thought that we had coined this term. We thought we were being innovative with terminology because we never heard anyone claiming their films to be ‘no-budget’ in India. In 2010, we made five short films and came up with a DVD entitled “Five No Budget Films”. By that time, thanks to Google, I already knew that this was a global trend. It was the final year of my masters at Jadavpur University. I proposed ‘no-budget filmmaking worldwide’ as the subject of my dissertation. While I was looking for filmmakers to interview for that paper, I came to know about Michael W Dean. I found out that this guy wrote a book named $30 Film School, but I didn’t even have money to buy it. So, I requested a copy from the author and managed to get a digital copy of the book for educational purpose. Then I came to know that this guy had also made a film called “DIY or Die: How to Survive as an Independent Artist”. That was the first time I heard the term ‘DIY’ in context of films.

So, DIY filmmaking advice, I guess I have already mentioned the first and the most important piece of advice from my side — watch good cinema or quality cinema. You need to be a film buff to become a good DIY filmmaker. You’ll need to understand the chemistry behind the mysteriously engaging illusion of reality being created on the screen. It’s not only the story. If you have a good story you can just sit and write it down and publish a book or a novel on your own. If story was the only important thing, would we have watched Maya Deren’s “Meshes of The Afternoon” or “At Land” after this many years? Making a good film takes more than just a good story. It takes knowledge of and about cinema.

Remember, if you are a DIY filmmaker, you probably won’t have a distribution deal or some marketing guys to keep promoting you. With proper promotion, industrial trash does become cult, but you, my friend, do not have that option. So, you genuinely need to make a good film, or even better, a unique film. And to make a unique film, you’ll need to know what has and what has not been done already in the history of film as a medium. Story is of course an important aspect, but not the only one. There are several good films in the world where the story is not much different. For instance, if you take up a genre and start watching, you’ll see the same elements and motif being repeated over and over again. But still, the films bear distinguished identities. Or you can study remakes to get a hint of what else is there in a film that plays a decisive factor for the spectators before celebrating or rejecting it.

The second piece of advice would be; you need to be a well-read person at least, if not a scholar. Of course, you can just get out with a camera and shoot anything you find interesting; it does not necessarily mean that you should. This advice applies especially if you are planning to work with fiction. Say, you have a character, now; does he scratch his forehead while he talks? Where does he keep his hands normally while listening to somebody? If you are building it up, you need to be conscious about these. You’ll need to understand behavioral psychology. Not only that, you must have good eyes and perception in terms of what reveals what. For instance, an ashtray on the table in the office of an entrepreneur in the 70s won’t be the same as the ashtray on the table in the living room of a millionaire in 2014. Or in certain cases, it can actually be the same ashtray and that little not-following-the-obvious may reveal a lot about one certain character in a film. The more you read, watch and experience, the more these gifts will come to you.

My third piece of advice is, learn to read a film as a text. When you achieve this, making a film or creating a convincing world inside a film will become much easier for you. You need to know what you are showing and why you are showing that and not showing something else. If you can move or replace one object or change the position of a light without causing damage to what you are trying to convey, your setting is probably not perfect. Your concept probably has not developed to that point when you should start shooting. Take it to that level. Turn it into your obsession. You are creating it. You’ll know when you reach there. If someone asks you, “why did that character die” or even “you could actually cut there. Why did you pan?” you should know the answer.

Additionally, I would like to suggest that there should always be an alternative source of money otherwise you won’t be able to carry on. If you can make money with your film, there’s nothing like it. But until you get your hands on the cash, you should never even think that you are going to make money, ever. Accept the reality and keep on telling yourself, “I’ll never be able to profit from my film. Making a film will only cause me to lose what money I have saved.” Proceed only if you can accept this. You may actually make a little money if things work in your favour, but you cannot be sure. You cannot count on it. Miracle can never be a part of your plan, rather you should start freelancing. If you can make a feature film, you surely have some skills which can help you get paid. It may be writing and/or some technical skill required during post-production. You should consider looking at it professionally. This way, you’ll be able to be in touch with the medium of your preference and stay up-to-date on the latest developments, even when you are not making your own film.

The biggest obstacle for me has always been money. I’m basically a writer. So, when I started working on my first short film, I already had concepts for several features. We approached it in a planned manner. Firstly, “DIY” has never been ‘Do It Yourself” for me. It was more like “Do It Yourselves”. We had a gang that we built up on our own, as I mentioned earlier. Even if I forget about the forum, I was always working with my girlfriend (now spouse) Sriparna. She has always contributed a great deal to all of my films. That’s why I should actually say, “our films”. The miniDV camera was actually owned by her and without that I could not even start thinking about making a film ever. None of us could. I was in grad school and I never really enjoyed the privilege known as pocket-money. An elderly friend, who later became a member of the forum, sent some financial help for our first short film. It was a docu-fiction based on the life and works of Subimal Mishra, the most prominent anti-establishment author in Bengal; a living legend almost. We could not complete that film due to unbelievably, exasperating noncooperation on the part of the author. As it was getting delayed, we moved on to our 2nd short film. We needed to create some response or an audience, so to speak, before we could think of making a feature. My father is a veteran theater activist and he probably understood my urge. So, he took care of the bills which were like $10 (600 INR). Thus “Jean-Luc Godard had no Script” was made. This film gave us a lot of mileage. It was never sent to any film festival, but it was a part of our 2010 DVD which we distributed 150 copies in Kolkata International Book Fair. So, that was the beginning.

We came up with three such compilations in three consecutive years. I made ‘Secret Footage’ in 2011, which I’m not really satisfied with. Sriparna made ‘Two or Three Things about Visuals’, which received mostly positive feedbacks. In 2012, she made ‘Replica’ and I made ‘Memories…of a Dead Township’. Both of these films were largely appreciated by our audience, the people who actually matter to us. So, by 2012 we had already created a circle of 500-600 people, most of whom were ready to pay to watch what we make. Also, in 2011, we had worked on an army documentary on a ridiculously low-budget and a 3-person-crew. That experience made us reach the state where we will be able to handle the production of a full length feature film. But money was still causing the pain. So, we launched a fundraising campaign with a catchy name; “The 0ne Rupee Film Project” at the end of February, 2012. In the six months that followed, we interacted with more than 10,000 people, mostly via social networks and sometimes face-to face. We raised about 30% of what we thought was needed and started shooting. We did not rent any audio equipment or hire a recording crew. We had to finish the film with whatever money we had. The film was to be shot in the four biggest metropolitans in India and then a couple of remote sea beaches and a small town.

In April, 2013, while we were shooting in Mumbai, the funds went null. We didn’t have the money to hire an executive producer; neither did we have the kind of experience to make perfect estimates of future expenses. The only way of knowing how much funds was going to be required was by continuing with shooting and deducting the total expense from the amount that was raised. So, we posted a first look on YouTube and launched another fundraising campaign on May 15th. We had to make the target amount look feasible to the prospective contributors, so we cut it down to 50% of the initial pledge. I’ll edit it myself, I decided. We raised the rest of the amount in 30 days and finished shooting the film in another 60 days after that. The final cut was ready by October 10th, 2013. By that time, we had 250 contributors who contributed financially and/or took part in the production and worked voluntarily.

In the last 800 days or so, the initiative was featured or mentioned in almost all the leading newspapers in the country. I don’t know what happened after that. It was big. It actually had turned bigger than we could ever imagine. We were in talks with the biggest distribution network (partners with Scrabble) that endorses independent films in India. We could not proceed with what we had, i.e. a narrative cut without proper colour correction or proper sound. We kept on trying, until the last saved penny ran out, to get someone who would take it up and help us with finishing the post-production. We got three collaboration offers, but somehow things did not work out. We talked to the bigwigs. They never said “no.” They said “maybe” or “it’s too intellectual for the general audience to enjoy” or “It’s a meritorious film, but with all due respect it’s not for the theaters or not something we are looking for at this point of time” etc. It took until middle of June, 2014 when we were finally left with no money in the bank. Literally! So, we started freelancing again in July. At this pace, I know we’ll be back soon. The film will be back. And when this happens, there will be some serious noise that some of those bigwigs may not find amusing. We are like $4000 away from that day (plus two months).

In this process, the biggest realization that I had was, independent film is a farce! It’s actually a tag used in the larger film market to announce or identify a film in a certain manner to attract a financially able niche audience that consider themselves to be culturally superior or elites, so to speak. It has nothing to do with creative independence of the artist or the maker. If you are compromising in terms of content or form or shaping it up in a harmless way that it would help you get heard or reach a wider audience, I’m not talking to you. I’m not even interested. DIY films are more like, “I don’t have money and I don’t give a damn about it. I make films because human beings breathe and the cloud causes rain and I’m perfectly OK with the fact that I’m not the next Tarantino or Rodriguez”. I guess Jim Jarmusch never pasted a glued label on any of his films’ DVDs and we never had any option other than doing it ourselves.

The first film that made me realize that I was watching something different was “400 Blows”. Inspiration, I don’t know, everything seems to be an inspiration; all the good and bad films that I have watched till date or all the things that I’ve read, all the lives I’ve touched, all the pains and pleasures I have had; life, in general, I believe, is the source of inspiration for me. I cannot name just one guy or one filmmaker as such. Truffaut gave me the first experience of looking at cinema differently. Of course without the writings of Bazin or Peter Wollen or Andrew Sarris and many others, my understanding of films would have been left incomplete. Godard gave me the pleasure of almost having sex with cinema. He was a big influencing factor, but that does not mean John Ford was not, or Sergio Leone or Corbucci was not. I was entertained by Bunuel’s films and also by Hitchcock’s films at the same time. From Fritz Lang to Werner Herzog, I cannot disown anyone. Orson Welles to… you know what I mean. The story of how De Sica used to work has inspired me, also the situations that Panahi or Kiarostami worked in does the same. How many could I possible name? Farrokhzad, Mehrjui, Fellini, Bergman, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa or even Miike, or Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen or John Abraham and his Amma Ariyan, Mani Kaul or even Kamal Swaroop. I’ll just confuse myself and the reader if I keep on listing names. So, we better leave the inspiration part here.

The DIY phenomenon is certainly a significant one and it was actually kind of foreseen. Jean Cocteau said that film would only be an art when its materials would become as cheap as pen and paper. Maya Deren said that she made films for what Hollywood used to spend on lipstick. So, bringing down the essential costs of film production seems to be a demand of the last century to which the market responded. Truffaut said, “The film of tomorrow appears to me as even more personal than an individual and autobiographical novel, like a confession, or a diary.” Not unexpectedly, the unorganized sector of filmmakers appeared with their own stories. Truffaut also said, “The film of tomorrow will not be directed by civil servants of the camera, but by artists for whom shooting a film constitutes a wonderful and thrilling adventure.” So, it was not unpredicted that this unorganized sector would be mainly dominated by artists. Hilariously, here’s another statement the same man made long ago, “The film of tomorrow will resemble the person who made it, and the number of spectators will be proportional to the number of friends the director has.” Was he trying to say that everything would be democratized and people would have access to the necessary tools but marketing and distribution would still be a pain? Did he actually say that or am I just seeing it there by mistake?

Now, since the noise is too much and getting heard seems to be a real problem, why should a DIY filmmaker put in that much effort and come up with a feature? Is it really worth it? Everyone would have their personal answer to this question. It’s a basic and critical one. I think this is the factor that distinguishes a natural filmmaker from a wannabe. Writing a novel and spending a whole year or so in the process, is it really worth it, especially when you don’t have a big publisher or the money to promote your book once it is published? Now, if this is the question, a common man with even the minimum IQ level would not go for it. But natural writers do that often, don’t they? I guess the same applies here as well. The guy who loves making films would just go for it and the guy that’s running after fame or money would stop and reconsider.

Everyone will find their answers.

Everyone does, especially when to be or not to be, that is the question.

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