BIG BRAINS - small budgets: DIY Filmmaking Advice

BIG BRAINS – small budgets: Heather Donnell (Mom, Murder & Me)

Heather Donnell wrote, directed, and produced the murder mystery comedy, MOM, MURDER & ME (, which was an official selection of several film festivals, including the California Independent Film Festival, Los Angeles Women’s International Film Festival and the Bahamas International Film Festival. At the Idyllwild International Festival of Cinema in January 2015, the film was nominated for best feature film and Heather was nominated for best director. She’s currently writing her next two scripts and seeking financing for her next feature film.

If I can persuade you of one thing before you start making your film: Begin at the beginning, and invest in spending a long time and taking great care in making sure the script is killer. I see a lot of indie films where I’m shocked at the lackluster and downright confusing story, the clunky dialogue, and one-dimensional characters. If you don’t have a great script, you have no business shooting it. Have other working screenwriters review the script. Make sure they’re willing to offer up constructive criticism, and then be prepared to address the common issues that crop up. Develop a good sense of how to use film to tell a story. Enroll in screenwriting classes. Read a ton of books. Powerful and dynamic writing doesn’t just happen on its own because you have a good idea. Just because you know how to eat and you’ve eaten every day of your life, that doesn’t mean you know how to cook. Maybe you need to hire a screenwriter to do a polished rewrite. Maybe you need to pay a script consultant to review it. The script matters, people!

If you’ll actually take two pieces of advice, I’d say to develop a resourceful mind that knows how to solve problems unconventionally. Understand that you must rely on yourself and your own charm to get the job done! Remember, no one owes you anything. But, if you’re excited and passionate about a project, lots of people will help you realize your dream if it’s easy and convenient for them. You’ll be begging and borrowing, but hopefully not stealing. Just be very grateful to everyone along the way and ask if you can return the favor for anything they need.

You do need a little bit of money, but make sure it’s an amount that you can save up for. There’s no reason to go into debt for your film. If you’re a social media nut, you could try crowdfunding, but be warned that it’s far more work than it seems. I did it for a short film and was killing myself over the follow-up emailing and communications. I’m not the only one who feels this way. Ask around about how others ran their campaigns. Fundraising is a full-time job, and unless you have someone else to run it for you, I’d save your own pennies.

Lest you think that I can’t take my own medicine, I’ll say that I enrolled in a two-year screenwriting intensive where I met with my writing advisor, Mark Sable, an award-winning graphic novelist, twice a week. I wrote every day for at least two hours a day. I polished my feature script in the program and also wrote another script. Mark gave hard-hitting advice, and pushed me to make my script stronger than ever. But he also cheered me on with how much he loved the characters and story. I was also part of a wonderful writing group of screenwriters that met monthly. They kept me honest as a writer.

During that time, I didn’t go on vacation or eat at expensive restaurants. Some people buy a house or car, but I wanted to buy a movie! I funneled my savings into my film fund. I ran a tight financial ship, and if you’re going to produce your own film, you need to know how to do that anyway. Great budgeting practice! Manage a little movie called Your Life on an ultralow indie budget, and be creative about how you produce Your Life for very little money.

However, obstacles remained. The biggest issue was trying to decide what crew positions we could afford to pay. I had done eight short films where we hadn’t paid the cast or crew, but I didn’t think that it was fair (or possible) to ask someone to work 17 days unpaid. That meant goodbye to any casting director, art director, prop master, location scout, Craft services, set dresser, and so on.

We whittled it down to just a few key positions and managed a rotating schedule of film school interns. That meant that the two other producers and I did everything else. When everyone else went home for the night or had a day off, we just kept working. I think I slept five hours a night for three weeks.

Then of course there’s the aftermath. Getting started is scary, but if you get some traction, the excitement of seeing your stories come to life propels you forward. And although preproduction, production, and post-production are intense, you still have the momentum of other people’s involvement to keep going. I’m finding it’s this long haul into distribution that’s the hardest, just because the least amount of people are still left to see it through.

After my first short, I was kind of in a daze over how much fun and how alive I felt while we were making it. I loved everything about filmmaking from start to finish. Basically I wanted that high for more than a few days!

My biggest inspiration was the spell that movies have always cast over me. I grew up in a small farming community that didn’t have any movie theatres when I was growing up. We had to drive at least 20 miles to the nearest movie theatre and even that one was only two screens. Going to a movie was very special. I loved everything about the whole experience—sitting in the dark, eating popcorn, seeing something explode with giant images and sounds. I loved reading books as a child, but movies had a different way of making imaginary worlds come alive. It was sensory saturation and that has always stayed with me.

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a filmmaker because I didn’t know what that was. I actually fell into it accidentally when I was in a slump writing fiction. To take a break, I decided to try out a screenwriting class and discovered that I loved it. Screenwriting cut out all the parts of a novel that were boring to me to write and included everything I loved (narrative drive, character development, dialogue). So I worked for a while on my screenwriting and ended up in a workshop where I got a chance to direct a few of my scenes. I almost lost my mind with excitement when I worked with actors. I was stunned at how they’d add to the scene using the words I wrote. I couldn’t believe it. It was like discovering another planet and I wanted to live and breathe that air all the time. Then I was hooked for good. I immediately enrolled in a production class because I didn’t know anything about how to produce. I met some good people there who I convinced to join my crew and I never looked back.

For me, DIY film is when you’re the one who the film lives and dies with. If you have a team of people who are ushering a film through all of its phases, that’s something else. If it’s your own grit and determination that will make the film see the light of day, then you’ve wandered into DIY territory. It’s not for the faint of heart or for people who like pats on the back. Most of the work is thankless in nature, but that’s OK because in DIY, you’ve got yourself and that’s enough!

I feel like traditional filmmaking is much more supported. You’ve got a whole art department for goodness sakes. So many wonderful specialists! Of course I’m sure that creates its own problems, but I’d welcome the chance to experience that firsthand. Also, I think traditional filmmaking has financing and other distribution strategies that DIYers just don’t have access to. I’m not sure what independent filmmaking is. I hear about these so-called little indie films with $5 million budgets, and that seems like a boatload of money to me. I understand that’s vastly different than a blockbuster budget, but I still find it hard to see that production as independent. I’m sure it’s all relative though.

I think getting different voices out there is vital! The digital age is the great equalizer for our generation. For other generations, it was literacy. We’re free to create a film using the same equipment as someone like Steven Soderbergh. That’s pretty mind-blowing. Sure, there’s lots of garbage that gets made, but that doesn’t mean that the phenomenon itself is a problem. I’d rather be my own gatekeeper of what I get to see than a small group of people dictating what’s available.

I have no idea where this whole industry is going, and I don’t think anyone else does either. When power structures change, wacky things happen. This is both good and bad as it creates a lot of freedom for new creators, but a lot of fear in the existing industry. Fear means less risk-taking up front for those bigger entities who have a lot of money to lose.

Making your own film is a chance to both teach and test yourself. The good news is, you create your own test! You’ll learn much faster and harder than if someone else was shepherding you through the process. Because I didn’t go to film school, I felt like I needed to pass a lot of tests before I did a feature and that’s why I did eight short films first. I was constantly pushing myself to see what else I could learn and how well I could push a cast and crew. My co-producer and I would build each short around something we wanted to learn. For example, I wanted to make sure we could do an overnight shoot, so I wrote a short that took place in a restaurant where we filmed during their closed hours: 9pm – 11am. That was wild, but now I know I can do it and I won’t ever worry about doing it.

Making your own film is worth every ounce of time, energy, and money you can spare. How incredible to have this dream turn into a real live thing! I’ve also met so many wonderful kindred spirits and traveled places with the film that I never imaged going. The money might not roll in, but the riches are far beyond what you can even imagine! Get out there and make your film!

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MasteringFilm, powered by bestselling Routledge authors and industry experts, features tips, advice, articles, video tutorials, interviews, and other resources for aspiring and current filmmakers. No matter what your filmmaking interest is, including directing, screenwriting, postproduction, cinematography, producing, or the film business, MasteringFilm has you covered. You’ll learn from professionals at the forefront of filmmaking, allowing you to take your skills to the next level.