A Detour Through Microbudget Filmmaking

04/17/2015 08:27 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2015

The title of the new book, "Detour Hollywood: How to Direct a Microbudget Film," written by William Dickerson, suggests an instructional guide or self-help mantra for the impoverished cinephile with artistic ambitions. It is indeed both those things, but also a cautionary tale for the big dreamers who have yet to put it all on the line for the "one big project." (Disclosure: I worked as a production assistant on Dickerson's 2003 short film, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mime," and we have remained friendly ever since.)

In Dickerson's telling, these wide-eyed would-be auteurs will be confronted with false promises, missed opportunities, duplicitous power plays, incompetent collaborators, and the myriad pratfalls any first-time microbudget filmmaker encounters. But the skillful, tactful and very lucky few will actually succeed in making their film a reality thanks to the kindness and generosity of talented professionals both on-screen and off.

Having recently directed my first feature film, "Sidewalk Traffic," a microbudget dramedy of my own script (and winner of Best Microbudget Feature at the Berlin Independent Film Festival, as well as the Audience Award at the Lower East Side Film Festival), I found myself empathizing with Dickerson's many stuttersteps while raising financing, casting, and picking a damn start date for his first feature film. Though he makes it clear the filmmaker must believe in the project 100% or no one else will, he also cautions, "A movie isn't real until two things occur: 1) The money's in the bank, 2) The camera on set is rolling."

"Detour: Hollywood" is primarily the story of Dickerson's efforts to make "Detour," a psychological drama about an ad exec trapped in his car during a Los Angeles mudslide (released by Gravitas Ventures and Warner Brothers Digital Distribution). Critics from outlets as varied as the New York Times, Paste Magazine, Film Threat, and the notoriously tough Tom Charity bestowed high praise on "Detour."

Dickerson spares few details while recalling the many failures that culminated in a modestly financed but undeniably successful indie feature film, writing in a voice that's confident yet humble, and generous with the analytical expertise of film he accrued while studying Directing at the prestigious American Film Institute (AFI).

The book is most gripping when delivering blow-by-blow accounts of the development, pre-production, post-production, distribution and marketing processes.

Dickerson survives a once-famous television actor's attempted coup to get him removed as director of his own movie. He raises money, loses it, raises a smaller sum, then finally goes into production. His leading man suffers a serious injury on the first take of principal photography. He gets into a car accident driving home that same night. And it never gets easier from there.

Though very few get the opportunity to immerse themselves in film theory, Dickerson writes, "It's important to learn the rules before you break them." With this edict in mind, he runs through a list of "must-do's."

These include: "suspend your ego" when taking on a leadership role of such a diverse talent pool, have a willingness to "kill your darlings" (e.g., your favorite shot in the whole movie that took half a day to get right, but which simply shouldn't survive the final cut), and crucially, "allow actors room to experiment."

While romantic about the art form of film, Dickerson is refreshingly grounded about the lifestyle a film career entails. He describes his adopted hometown of Los Angeles as less a city than a "battleground," not a community, but a zero-sum construct where everyone fights for a piece of the ever-shrinking showbiz pie. Sure, advancements in affordable high definition digital technology mean there's no excuse not to make your movie. But that's part of the problem, everyone's making a movie, so why should anyone pay you to make one?

The mythical era of taking a self-funded film to Sundance and selling it for a tidy profit en route to a 3-picture deal is long gone, if it ever really existed in the first place. As Dickerson writes, "everyone wants to direct, but a director has no tangible skills," making the choice to pursue a directing career highly questionable if you're the kind of person who values any kind of stability. For the microbudget filmmaker, Dickerson writes, "the fulfillment of the doing" must be the reward.

"Cinema is my drug of choice," Dickerson declares. I understand what he means. Before I made "Sidewalk Traffic," I experienced what junkies call "the itch." A constant exposed nerve, needling me with the need of the fix. I had made dozens of short films and videos, but the only thing that cured my itch was making "the big one," a real 90-plus minute feature film.

I wish "Detour: Hollywood" had been written before I embarked on my beautiful and totally irrational microbudget filmmaking journey. The book surely would have helped spare me a few avoidable mistakes, and assured me that my struggles might be unusual, but are in no way unique.

In the maelstrom of a microbudget film production, knowing you're not the only person out there chasing a dream built on faith, risk, and controlled chaos is comforting information. Though not as comforting as hearing that your shoot day won't go into a SAG overtime penalty period.