After both working at Weta Digital for a number of years, my fiancé and I decided that instead of buying a house, we would make a movie -- a Western called Good for Nothing. Shot in New Zealand but set in the Wild West of America it would be the first Kiwi version of a Spaghetti Western. With a limited amount of funds to put in, we wrote a script, found a cast and crew who would work for next to nothing on deferred contracts, and we put any money we had into a 6 week shooting schedule in several locations across New Zealand. In the end it cost us about USD$60,000 to shoot it. After two years of pre-production plus the 6 week shooting schedule we had a whole lot of uncut movie footage, and had used up all our cash.
Billy Wilder once said: "Trust your own instinct. Your mistakes might as well be your own, instead of someone else's." That quote was up on our production office/bedroom wall throughout the making of Good for Nothing. Although we weren't sure where the money for post-production was coming from, we were committed to seeing the project through. On reflection our happy naivety about understanding what it took to self-fund and produce your own feature film, served us well.
We put together a rough cut and managed to bring on board a private contributor to help finish the film properly. We spent three years in post-production (juggling day jobs throughout!), plus one year with film festivals and sorting out contracts with distributors, and now our film is finally about to open this week in New York! It will be the first self-funded New Zealand film to achieve theatrical release in the United States.
In the end the challenge of making a self funded film with little to no money provided many unexpected benefits. We didn't realize it at the time but there were some major advantages that came with having very little money, especially during the shoot.
We had no choice but to be involved every step of the way, learning each part of the moviemaking process and carrying out a number of roles at any one time. To keep our costs down I also became the Armourer. During the year it took getting my theatrical gun license I learnt a massive amount about guns of the old West, which in turn fed into and benefited the story. I think staying involved in all stages of the filmmaking process, helped us create a better film.
Our sole focus was to make the best movie possible. Without a large production budget, there were challenges -- for example if the sun went down that was it -- we didn't have the time or money to extend the scenes or add another day. On the flip-side, we were forced to be creative with what we shot and how we shot it. Keeping this flexible approach meant we were always open to make room for changes in the script and character development, as we went along. We were ready to adapt and could change things on the fly. Self-funding the film meant we had the freedom to lead the project in all sorts of directions. Many directions that turned out to have better than expected results for the film. Even though we were responsible for the final result, we learned the importance of leaving the ego out of it. There's so much value added along the way by others, and the film can become so much more if you are open to the contributions of others. An example of this was working with John Psathas who took the movie to new heights with his incredible score and interpretation of the classic Western soundtrack. Maintaining that positive and open perspective was critical.
We had a small crew who came on board for the love of filmmaking and to gain more experience. They were keen to get stuck in and willing to adopt our flexible approach. As a crew, we had a saying "adaption is the key to filmmaking". We learned quickly about how to counter our challenges without necessarily throwing money at the problem. This often lead to costuming and a style of art direction that had a more authentic feel because we had to find used and pre-loved materials, rather than manufacture them from scratch. We've now developed relationships with people who are truly passionate about making movies, and moving forward we have a superb team ready to work on the next one.
Limited money forced us into a state of mind of what do we need, not what do we have. If we focused on the lack of budget we wouldn't have achieved anything. So we looked at what we needed and figured out how to get that. We aimed for the highest production values possible by using the resources we could get and figuring it out as we went along. There was also an advantage that came with our naivety towards what was possible financially. Not confined by knowing what is meant to be possible on a limited budget and what is not. What if we just ring the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and see what happens?
Being in the position of having money to throw at a movie project is certainly not a negative. We'd just like to take on board some of things we learned from the "money tap off" perspective, and apply them to our next project.