One adage you take away from film school is "make sure it's all up on the screen." The idea is that as a filmmaker, you can't visit each theater and explain your budget limitations or why a scene didn't gel. But sometimes the behind-the-scenes story of a film is so compelling that it actually elevates the material on screen from so-so to "how did they do that?" Such is the case with Alejo Mo-Sun's low-budget epic, Hirokin, starring Wes Bently prior to his Hunger Games comeback.
It's also a story of the cost of self financing a film. It's something that many first time filmmakers are tempted to do, but at what cost?
Mo-Sun is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and he is the first to admit that on his first feature, everything that could go wrong, did. And he'll also admit that it was too ambitious to try to compete with studio sci-fi action fare in the vein of John Carter. Studio sci-fi films can have budgets of over $200 million. Even District 9 was in the $30 million range. Mo-Sun wanted to make an epic on a little over $1 million. You read that correctly. With a special effects budget of $100,000.
The film is a post-apocalyptic saga where Wes Bently enters as the reluctant warrior who fights to avenge his family and save his people. Check out the Hirokin trailer to see what we're talking about here. It aims for the '70s style, not-quite-Star-Wars space saga. It's impressive how much Mo-Sun was able to accomplish given that the odds were against him -- and they certainly were.
Low budget films can be just as complex to put together as the big ones, and sometimes more so with such extreme limitations on spending. With little room for error, Mo-Sun put a great deal of effort into pre-production. This short featurette will give you some idea of the level of prep that went into the film. Despite the good intentions, the initial effort to make the film turned out to be a false start. Mo-Sun started building futuristic sets and shooting in the California desert and was forced to shut down after financiers pulled. He took a $600,000 loss in having decided to shoot union. An inauspicious start for any film and one that would shut down most indies for good. Yet, Mo-Sun soldiered on.
"I had to talk to the crew and send everyone home. I was going to have to start from scratch," he said.
Mo-Sun decided to self finance part of the film. He decided to mortgage his home and, in fact, he was grouting his bathroom floor to increase the mortgage appraisal when he got the call that Bentley would add some star power to his no-name cast.
"I was so happy, I hugged the plumber," said Mo-Sun. He covered Bentley's pay-or-play contract out of his own pocket and the movie was back on track. This time, Mo-Sun put together videos showing the sets, clothing and effects to impress would-be financiers. To upgrade his talent around Bentley, Mo-Sun held more auditions.
"I worked with each individual actor who came into the auditions so that they felt comfortable and engaged," said Mo-Sun. When I did this, the actors reported back that they had a good experience and I was sent even better talent. I was able to cast a few up-and-comers in addition to Wes."
With $850,000 of his own cash invested, as well as Bentley's pay-or-play contract, Mo-Sun still needed an additional $500,000 to make the film. He decided to move forward in hopes that it would come his way.
"My line producer would tell me every day that we had to shut down, that we didn't have enough money, but we just kept going" he said. And in light of the limitations, Mo-Sun got creative.
Mo-Sun opted to shoot '70s-style sci-fi with practical sets, augmented by special effects. He developed a remote-controlled helicopter to fly the RED Camera to increase the production value. And while the 21-day shoot suffered a lack of extras and the low budget forced the use of swords instead of lasers, Mo-Sun just used that in the story to augment the world he'd created. But it all came with a price. To finish the film, Mo-Sun had to sell everything he owned.
"What people don't tell filmmakers is that it takes a huge toll on those around you," said Mo-Sun.
The story does end okay for Mo-Sun, at least financially. He took the trailer to Cannes and was able to sell each territory. The film is also in the black as well. "I was able to prove to myself that I'm at least a filmmaker. Next I'd like to prove that I'm a good writer and director."