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« Poverty: Inevitable by Definition? | Main | Philip Bess on Chesterton »

May 16, 2007

Guerilla Filmmaking 5 -- Reading List

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Since co-writing and co-producing an ambitious, independent movie short, I've treated myself to a few spates of musing about the experience. Previous installments here, here, here, and here. This time around: essential reading.

Let me start by saying that I've tried many times to come up with an interesting or at least clever way to present this small reading list, and have failed completely. No attitude, no thesis, no argument, no cute concept, not even any bitching about modernism this time around. Still, it'd be a shame not to pass the info along, so I'm doing it anyway. Forgive the lack of dazzle here.

Anyhoo ... The two books that the young filmmakers who worked as crew on our movie recommended as the books to read about microbudget moviemaking are Robert Rodriguez's "Rebel Without a Crew," and Lloyd Kaufman's "Make Your Own Damn Movie!" "Those are the Bibles," our filmgeeks said.

Now that I've been through both books I see what they mean. Though different in many ways, both books convey both a sense of what making a low-budget movie is like, as well as a lot of "been there done that" information and tips.

Rodriguez's book is a scrapbook / diary about making his first feature movie, "El Mariachi." It's a great yarn in its own right. Rodriguez made the film with a few buds, some borrowed video-editing equipment, and a lot of unpaid help for a grand total of $7000. Its intended destination was rental shelves in Mexican grocery stores, and its intended purpose was to give Rodriguez some practice so he could bring some skill and experience to a projected "real" first feature film.

Instead, "El Mariachi" miraculously ended up on the desk of someone at a Hollywood agency and became a sensation -- the object of bidding wars, a phenomenon at Sundance, and written-up in laudatory terms in magazines and newspapers. Rodriguez has since gone on to a prolific career.

What's sweet about the book is that Rodriguez doesn't stop at telling the tale. He really wants you to understand that if he could do it -- if he was able to make a feature-length movie for seven grand -- so can you. He genuinely seems to want filmmaking to be a more accessible, democratic artform than it generally is. So the book is full of tips and hints, as well as slaps at film schools (Rodriguez himself never got a film degree). And the stories and anecdotes are almost all shaped as demonstrations of how to wind up with decent-enough footage while spending minimal dough.

Our crewguys were right: It's a fun and helpful little book. (Though I confess that I admire Rodriguez as much for getting a book deal out of his experience as for the book itself. That's a man who knows how to maximize his opportunities!) That said, I'll differ from my young filmbuds in one respect: I'd suggest skipping the book and renting the DVD of "El Mariachi" instead.

For one thing, it's an enjoyable, seedily violent suspense picture. For another, Rodriguez does a director's commentary track on the disc during which he tells nearly all the tales and shares nearly all the advice that he gives in his book. Since, if you read the book, you'll want to watch the movie anyway, why not cut out the book-reading step, watch the movie and listen to its commentary track instead? (I wrote about Rodriguez's "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" here, and about his and Frank Miller's "Sin City" here.)

Lloyd Kaufman's book is something rather different. If you don't follow exploitation movies, you may not know of Lloyd Kaufman, but as the co-boss (with Michael Herz) of Troma Entertainment, he's quite a figure in that part of the entertainment world. Since the 1970s, Troma has cranked out dozens of sleazy, tacky, low-rent titles like "The Class of Nuke 'Em High," "The Toxic Avenger," and "Tromeo and Juliet."

I'm not a Troma buff myself -- the exploitation movies I'm fond of are from my own youth in the '60s and '70s, and are usually more sex-centric than what Troma tends to make (examples here, here, here). But Troma films mean something special to many of today's kids who are interested in breaking into filmmaking -- something similar to what Roger Corman's and Samuel Z. Arkoff's movies meant to Boomers.

I think I understand what that is. Troma's movies are such dreck, and they're often so badly made, that they're ... well, kinda liberating. There's something about Troma's movies -- there's much about them, in fact -- that conveys the idea that you might do just as well yourself, and that in any case it'd be hard to do worse.

For a movie-besotted kid who has watched too much overslick Hollywood product, running across Troma movies must be like discovering punk rock. It can be a galvanizing moment. Why are you letting questions of talent, skill, and budget get in your way? Why not quit fantasizing and go rock out yourself?

And that in fact is the thrust of Lloyd Kaufman's book: Quit thinking about the films you might make in a different universe and go make a movie now, dammit. If Rodriguez babbles with all the energy and gung-ho enthusiasm of youth (he was 23 when he made "El Mariachi"), Lloyd Kauffman bitches and moans like a cranky geezer with prostate problems. If Rodriguez's book is the story of how he did it the once, Kaufman's book lays down the rules for how it's done generally.

His book is full of tips I wish I'd known before we shot our movie: how to get actors to take their clothes off, how to recruit extras on the cheap, the advantages of shooting outside of New York City ... If you've got a few grand, half a crappy idea for a movie, and a lot of chutzpah, this is without question the book you want to read before you swing into action.

It's also an amusing performance in its own right. Kaufman seems to love playing the role of put-upon Jewish vulgarian loser. In his self-portrayal, he's anything but a guy who's succeeded at ekeing out a career in the movie business. Instead, he's the Rodney Dangerfield of indie moviemaking. He invites employees and admirers to write sections of the book for him -- they're often frankly insulting towards him. Talk about no respect! The book isn't for those who wince at earthy language, that's for sure. When Kaufman travels to the west coast, it isn't to beg for backing or distribution, it's to "suck the dicks" of the moneymen. The category of imagery that occurs to him most easily is rectal.

Although Kaufman (who's clearly a smart guy, by the way -- Yale '68) puts the act over with impressive gusto, the tone also serves a purpose: It drives home what a lowdown, dirty, maddening process low-budget moviemaking is. Don't go into it expecting everyone to behave professionally, let alone that anything -- anything at all -- should go smoothly. If a fuse might burn out, it probably will. If a van's tires might go flat, they certainly will.

(I'm fond of the book for another reason too: One of the talented performers who worked with The Wife and me during our recent barnstorming visit to Pittsburgh had not only appeared in a film that Troma distributed, she has been named a gen-u-wine Tromette.)

In a probably pathetic attempt to bring this posting to a close, I'll venture that my reaction to both books was the same as my reaction to my own microbudget-filmmaking experience. It was mixed. I felt inspired, that's for sure. But I also found myself reflecting: Lordy how exhausting it all seems. Or rather: How exhausting it all in fact turns out to be. Where do some people get the energy?

And that brings me to my musing for the day: Without the possibility of fame, sex, and / or big money -- without the fuel provided by people's fantasies about movies and moviemaking -- would anyone ever bother to make narrative movies at all?

Best,

Michael

UPDATE: An experienced indie filmmaker, Robert Nagle has created a very helpful Amazon resource list for those interested in microbudget digital filmmaking.

posted by Michael at May 16, 2007




Comments

I've also collected a bevy of guerilla filmmaking books. Let me see; didn't I put them in a post somewhere?

Oh, I forgot I did this amazon So you want to... list.


Oh yes, here.

Practically speaking, I found Kenworthy's DV Production Cookbook to be very helpful for setting up shots (lots of images). Bravermann's Video Shooter book was also fine. (about HDV specifically, but still generally useful). Digital Video Hacks also had lots of small tips.

As far as cerebral help, I found Directing the Documentary by Michael Rabiger to be intellectually inspiring.

Michael Dean has written several books about doing videoproduction on the cheap.

the "problem" with Robert Rodriguez is that behind his "success story" tale was the fact that prior to El Mariachi he had already made 200 videos (some as early as 9 years old!). When he made that film, he already knew his craft well. That's not the case with novice video producers today.

On the other hand, i've found the toughest part is not the technical side but simply attracting and maintaining a crew. Rodriguez probably has great insights to that.

Michael, have you checked out Izzy Video podcast
(look at links at bottom). These video tutorials are great!

Posted by: Robert Nagle on May 16, 2007 9:21 AM



I don't believe I've seen a posting yet that tells us where we can see your film, Michael. Maybe I missed it.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on May 16, 2007 10:49 AM



I want to sincerely apologize for not putting the amazon link in an

Posted by: Robert Nagle on May 16, 2007 12:45 PM






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