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If El Mariachi and Primer cost $7000, why can't you do it cheaper? Here's why.
  • El Mariachi and Primer get thrown around a lot as great examples of low/no budget filmmaking and with good reason. They are genre defining examples. So if they can do it...why can't you? Here's why. Let's start with El Mariachi.

    El Mariachi was shot for just under $7000 and that was film costs plus a few hundred for miscellaneous expenses. The reasons he did it so cheap was:

    1. He had a partner in his star Carlos Gallardo. They were childhood friends and both had a passion for making movies. Carlos had the town they shot in wired. He knew everybody and he was from a well off family. So he could get his folks employees free as extras or henchmen. He got the hotel, the bus, the turtle, the dog, his apartment, etc... At least $20-30k of production value free because he was able to talk people into giving it away for free. You need a partner or partners who can get stuff free.

    2. Rodriquez wrote the script with everything free in mind. He knew he had those items and he'd been to the town before many times so he could write the script based on what he had avaliable. If you don't got it, don't put it in the script. They say write what you know. Write what you HAVE also.

    3. The most important thing that never gets mention is Rodriquez already had 10 years filmmaking experience prior to shooting El Mariachi. He would make short films on Beta or VHS with his family. He had around 9 brothers and sisters so he got them to be in his short films. He recorded on video and edited on two VCRs hitting pause and play and rec. This taught him how to pre-visualize and edit in his head so he would know which shots to get and what he didn't need. A vital skill when you can only do one take.

    Now Primer:

    Primer is a better example to first time filmmakers as I believe the writer, director, star Shane Carruth had zero prior movie making experience. BUT, he was an engineer so he knew he needed lots of pre-planning.

    1. He went to every location he had and shot 35mm film stills with various stocks until he got a look he liked then went to the local film distributor and asked how he could emulate that look on 16mm. They like what he did and his vision and helped him out and gave him a discount. EDIT: I also believe the preshoots were designed to find film stocks he could use with the natural light available since he had no crew or wouldn't be able to add lights to the locations.

    2. Like El Mariachi everything was one take because more takes cost more money. He rehearsed and rehearsed and only shot what he needed. Something unnecessary in the digital age, at least until some of the GOP1 hacks started coming out. ^_^

    3. Like Rodriquez he only put in the script stuff, locations and actors he could get for free. His house, his job, wife, friends, family, etc... He did get some actors through regular auditions, like his co-star, and the reason they wanted to be in it was the script was so good they didn't care it was free. Write a good script and people will do it for free.

    Now Clerks

    Shot for just under $30k, it's still a good example of what to do and what not to do. It shares a lot of the same things as listed above. He had the store. He had his friends and he got actors to work for free because they loved the script. So I'll list the main problem imho. Multiple takes. He wanted the acting a certain way and he wanted long takes so any error and they had to start again. This caused multiple takes of almost every scene. A no-no in the film age, but not as big a deal in Digital.

    So in closing the main points are, you either need a great script that attracts people willing to work for nothing or you need a partner/s who can get stuff free. Yes...sadly I have neither at the moment....sob.

  • 73 Replies sorted by
  • Great, I am glad that somebody pointed it out.

  • Clerks and El Mariachi were made 20 years ago, when the Sundance Film Festival received something like 200 feature submissions a year, rather than the 4000+ they get today, and when everyone and his uncle wasn't making movies. And both films exploited the then prevailing interest in no-budget filmmaking for its own sake, an interest which is long dead now. Today, Clerks would never get distribution and El Mariachi is very doubtful.

    Primer is a more complicated case, but in itself proves nothing. The fact that somebody wins the lottery every week doesn't mean the lottery is a viable career. And "Primer" happens once every 10 or 20 years, not once a week. Note also that Primer wasn't a commercial success and apparently hasn't led to a filmmaking career for the director/writer.

    The better example for these times is something like "Paranormal Activity". But that example again proves nothing other than the fact that with a certain kind of material and a certain execution, there's always a chance of hitting the jackpot. That doesn't mean no-budget filmmaking is a sustainable filmmaking model.

    Note that Americans currently spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on the hope and expectation of becoming movie directors, so dismissing these 3 examples as meaningless, over a period of 20 years, isn't entirely theoretical.

  • I often ponder what type of movie could be made relatively cheap. I mostly end up with something along the lines of 'knife in the water' and 'dead calm' both movies have pretty much a cast of three. (dead calm wasn't cheap .. but perhaps it could have been)

    Both work by introducing a third protagonist into a staus quo of two. Many road movies work the same.

    If I had a script .. send me one .. I contemplate a road trip across Australia .. I don't think $7K tho. About $100K is my wishtimate .. (you have to wreck a couple of cars)

    In discussions with mates we recently decided that the best bet for success would be ... A pornographic zombie splatter road movie .. something with the production values of killer tomatoes :)

  • @kavadni

    ...pornographic zombie splatter road movie...

    AJJajajaja, no doubt the will succeed and cheaper the better.

  • Keep in mind Clerks didn't actually cost below $30k. It actually cost around $10k, most of the money was only for licensing music.

    But this were some great thoughts. This is why a good producer is important, they can get you the contacts needed, favors from people and so on, to get things made!

  • I once went to a panel discussion on "Producing no budget films". Toward the end of the discussion one of the producers said "And please go see our film at Sundance". Then one smart guy in the audience spoke up and said "Hey how do you know you are in Sundance, they don't even release the list for another month." She didn't respond as they all walked off the stage.

  • My personal philosophy is to never accept that something is impossible, just because it's hard. All the obstacles mentioned aren't problems without a solution!!! I've read nothing here that suggests others shouldn't try and learn from the success of other low budget film successes or not try just because it's hard or takes a lot of planning and some luck. Meh!

  • Having a staff -it doesn't matter if your friends work for free- is half the work, indeed. However, I think that most of the people with a poor budget only attempt to recreate Hollywood-look film,failing miserably, instead of discovering a new approach to filmmaking. This is due to the fact that even aspirant filmmakers (who should have a good background as a "spectateur") often know only hollywood films (and its bad imitation). History of cinema is full of masterpieces by directors having no money - I say no money, not low budget under 30 000 $. Last week, I talked with Mario Masini, an Italian cinematographer that in the late sixties worked with the great director/actor Carmelo Bene. Bene, with his very small troupe (only 6 people) realized his first masterpiece "Our Lady of the Turks" (second prize Venice Biennale 1968). They shooted in 16 mm because they had no money (and Jean Luc Godard himself was strucked by the quality "I can't believe it, it seems to me 35mm!", he said). Masini used only 12 mini spot lights (only 150W each). Next films by Bene were shooted in little set, I daresay claustrophobic.. ("Don Giovanni" is set in his living room, 3 x 3 m ) however, editing was so fast (3000 clips!) that you will never complain a larger set!

  • Of course the one big problem now is over saturation. Back in the 60's if you could get your 16mm finished and printed you most certainly could get a distributor to watch it. But now with so much low budget crap, the cream doesn't really get a huge chance to rise to the top.

  • @Aria @ Albertz I believe the same to be true ; )

  • CLERKS cost just over $27,000 to bring a 16mm print to Sundance. "Music licensing" didn't come into play until Miramax bought the film at said festival, but Kevin indeed did spend over $27,000* to get the film in the can and have a 16mm print made for festival exhibition.

    Also re: "multiple takes" in the first post. CLERKS shot with a very modest 3:1 shooting ratio. Very few scenes had a lot of takes, and many had only one or two.


    • I believe his folks lent him around $3,000, and Scott Mosier put some cash in, but the bulk of the money came from Kevin and his credit cards.
  • Hello. My true name is Jonathan Briceño De Luise.

    Im from Perú, and i am in the NO BUDGET filmaking, i have achive already 30 minutes of grate footage with a lot of effort, good location, and using the things we have. My vision was more dynamic than i thought and my experience before was cero. I never filmed before, and never wrote a script, either study fotography or audiovisual stuff. Im only a graphic designer. I dont come from a wealthy family, but i can say i had a good education and know some people with the chances of helping me. I shoot in the center of Lima, in a bad place near prostitudes, drug dealers and thieves in an abandoned house for 3 days, pay 2 cops in their free time and then i call my fathers friend for use his slauther house (where you kill pigs and cows) for 1 shooting day. I allways recall people that can actually help me and i pay nothing cos sometimes dreams are bigger than money. I promised my friends and i delivered what i said visually. I have spend allready no more than $2000, the only thing i rented was the dolly and some cheap arri lights. I got my GH1 hacked and used 2 more cameras canon T2i and Canon 60D. I MADE MY ONW LIGHTS FROM CHINA BASED SHIT that reflectors for the garden and stuff, wrote a script from nothing, and decided to make a movie last year. I have allready 4 days of shooting in diferent moments of 2011, very separated times and each one was quiet unique. I never make anyone do what they dont want to, and im always open in the shooting day for consultation and advice from ANYONE. and i said ANYONE, the one that cleans and the cops any data is GOOD cos is a diferent perspective. My friends help me alot, and belive in me. Food and transportation is not a problem when you have all set up. My actors and all are friends that wants to make movies and dream about it. i cant take a no for an answer and effort and hard work pays off. Every shooting day was only for like 8 hours. I directed, make the photogrpahy, wrote the script and payed for everything expept my friend s cameras. if you want it to do it make it happen. 3 month ago a big company in my country wanted to buy my idea, and make a 1 million invesment, FUCK THEM, FUCK THEM HARD, i have crushed the ring of movie making here, going against every fucking rule that should be the standard in making a movie, and i think i have achived a diferent look, with a diferent aproach, i was badly critisaised by productors, and friends cos my shooting way was diferent, IT DOENST MATTER HOW YOU DO IT, JUST DO IT. with 0 experience in making movies here, i made something that was never make here in the history of peruvian cinema. Terror. Its in russian i dont know russian only spanish and english. BUT I DONT CARE lol.

    Look, 30 minutes of footage, less than 2000 bucks, 4 days separated in between and 32 hours of shoting in total, i think i have achived something good, and i dont care what @CRfilms said you can do it, but not IN THE USA ANY MORE.

    Whatch for yourself and if this is just shit, then tell me and ill stop for real!! it will go out next year though. i have 6 herniated discs and had back surgery in 4 if them, i now have a fucking protesis with 6 scres and kind of a makpherson suspension in my back and thats why i couldnt continue, this year will be diferent!!!! im better now, with no pain no gain.

    here is the back stage day 4 :

  • @robmneilson

    It is hardly the massive amounts of low budget films that gets in the way of good low budget films to be watched. Well, maybe if you only consider online distribution.. But serious projects usually get taken seriously, also online.

    The real problem in comparison to 60's cinema is current theatre and distribution monopolies.. the market and industry as a whole. Who would want to take risks on 0$ films that no-one know about when there are 100 000 000$ films that have been marketed for another 100 000 000$? Then add to that the intricacies of distribution networks that rely on such films and add a few Indies just to please a certain part of customer - well, there is really no market for a 0$ film! Obviously, Cinema of the 60's is no longer, only the manipulation and entertainment of the masses.

    There have some examples of how online fame can help a film get into the right distribution networks (free marketing is no worse than expensive marketing) so it is of course possible, however increasingly difficult.

    Independent theatres have very small budgets and fringe audiences, normally - so 0$ films that are good and found by the right enthusiasts will still have quite few viewers..

  • Make your film because it's your passion. If it "gets you into the industry" then good for you, but don't count on it.

    Do it because you're compelled to tell the story inside.

  • @ChainsawFilms has said the truth of the, i think, real filmaker.

  • Hola @subco.

    Gracias por aprecias mi esfuerzo

    Aun no he terminado y falta grabar mucho. Creo que unas 8 fechas mas a 10. Pero con el tiempo y un trabajo reciente que puede ser que me traiga buenaventura, pueda ser el que me ayude a finalizarlo. Quiero 2 horas de calidad, y quiero lograrlo aun me demore 2 años mas. Pude venderla pero la verdad perderia su espiritu y no cumpliria con el rol que ha estado cumpliendo. Romper el esquema de realizacion de largometrajes aqui en el Peru. Todos hacen cortos, es facil hacer corto, pero terminar un largo a esta forma y con tu propio dinero rompiendo estandares de realizacion y produccion personalmente demuestran mas que hay otras formas de hacer cine en este paiz que es plagado de argollas y circulos de cine que ce cierran y no dan oportunidad a que vengas nuevos talentos. Demuestra que si se puede. Sobre el precio de la camara mas los 2000 dolares, me parece bueno para un largometraje hasta ahora. Tampoco es que todo sea gratis, pero no conozco otro caso de terror a este nivel en largo que se haya realizado con esa cantidad aqui en el Perú.

  • @Vincent_Pereira Sorry I forgot or didn't know the $27k also included the screening print. And ultimately the "multiple" takes is a stylistic difference between him and myself. I prefer the Rodriquez method of shooting, also in a sense the French New Wave Jump Cut method of just keep shooting and cut out the mistakes. For those that don't know Vincent is the "View Askew Historian" and has worked with Smith.

    @endotoxic If my post upset you, I apologize, clearly based on your post and trailer, my post wasn't talking about guys like you. You did everything I listed that needed to be done either instinctively or by seeing what others had done and taking those lessons and making them your own. Well done. And yes some things are easier done outside the US since the guerrilla style works even better in places you don't need shooting permits though then you might have to worry about being shot at by real guerrillas. :P

    @jrd Fair point on if they'd get distribution now, but that doesn't change the fact that they're great movies and they had the talent to capitalize on their luck, Carruth sadly excepted. But even that shows you can "make it" and then go nowhere. Those 4k submissions to me just means 3k crappy movies ultimately. Since while the entry barriers have been lowered, the amount of true talent using those tools remains the same.

    And remember, Rodriquez was originally just going to sell it to Mexican video and was prepared to only take $20k. That would of still been $13k profit so his next movie would have had twice the budget. ^_^ Take away film costs and all these movies would of only cost around $500-$3000. So if you make a great movie for around $1000 and can only get $20k from somebody willing to buy it, $19k profit you can put into the next movie.

  • @CRFilms: My clarification re: the budget wasn't aimed at you but at Gabel who said CLERKS only cost $10,000 with the rest going to music rights. CLERKS was actually shot much in the style you prefer. The few scenes that had to be broken down into "traditional coverage" were not filmed in the "Hollywood" coverage way- i.e., the entire scene being shot straight through from many different angles multiple times- but they rather tended to be broken up. For example, an actor might make it half way through a take then flub, and rather than reshooting the entire take, on take two they'd start one or two lines before the flub, then shoot a cut-away reaction to bridge the edit, or move the camera to a different angle to facilitate a cut. The specific cadence that Kevin was going for in the dialogue delivery was largely worked out during the extensive pre-production rehearsal process, which was a HUGE help in keeping the actual shooting ratio so low.


  • Christopher Nolan made 'Following' with U$6-8,000

    @Endotoxic, me ha encantado tu proyecto, y es sorprendente el resultado de venir de alguien que no estudio cine. Tambien soy diseñador grafico y he estudiado algunos cursos de cine. Proximamente codirigire y sere DP aparte de coescritor de un corto y me estoy volviendo loco. Tu trabajo tiene una excelente cinematografia, al parecer cuenta con buen ritmo y se ve bien actuado. De conocer gente como tu en mi pais, hubiera colaborado gratuitamente con mi GH2. El enlace de facebook no funciona, me gustaria conocer mas de tu experiencia. Me gustaria agregarte a facebook, animo con tu proyecto, asi se hace.

  • @Vincent_Pereira I know it's easy to take some of this type of stuff personal, but I know you're cool. I've seen Clerks multiple times and heard all the commentaries multiple times but it's been years since I heard them so I'm going as best I can from memory, I'll easily defer to your recollection.

  • @Manu4Vendetta ugh...wasn't a big fan of Following but it defenitely showed Nolan's potential, potential that was more than realized with Memento.

    We defenitely need a list of sub $10k films that we can study and see how they did this and that. I will always feel that El Mariachi and Clerks DVD special features and commentaries are film school 101, you can learn 90% of what you need to know just studying those movies, but there's always something new that can be gained.

  • I think it's important to recognize that in today's climate, no two micro budget filmmakers are going to be able to get their films made in the same way. Rodriquiz did it one way, you do it another. He didn't have a gh2 or digital editing or internet distribution. We do.

    We're going to have to cobble together our own way to make a film. Borrowing, writing in only sets we have free access to, and the one thing everyone has to have- connections. This is the single biggest benefit of film school, getting connected with filmmakers- so you have people to call who might work on your film.

    There's just no way to make a micro budget film without a crew and actors that will do it for nothing or near nothing. And the filmmaker has to be able to do it all, direct, write, edit, film.

    There's also no rule to say filming has to be done in a compressed two week time period. If we have equipment and access to sets and friends, it can take months or even years to get principal photography done here and there.

    It seems to me a far bigger challenge is getting the film seen and distributed. There's too many psuedo beret-wearing "filmmakers" out there who haven't learned their craft, who haven't paid dues, who have no passion, who just want to be famous and cool. They create noise and too many good and great films never have the opportunity to find an audience because there's just so much of this noise.

    The internet has been the great equalizer- everythings is on the same crap level. Distribution is everything if we're ever going to make any money. But fuck it, get the fim made. Make the film you have to make.

  • @chauncy Exactly, to me the important thing about studying what others have done is to add THEIR techniques to the pool of knowledge YOU can pull from. I like how Rodriquez did this, I like how Smith did that, I like Carruth's style there, etc...

    Those of us who didn't go to film school, that's our classes and yeah, each has their pros and cons. David Lynch spent YEARS making Erasorhead, a bit here a bit there. While I do consider Rodriquez one of the principle archetypes of directors, I would never do everything exactly how he did it, but I would defenitely try and do half of what he did.

  • @CRFilms

    "Fair point on if they'd get distribution now, but that doesn't change the fact that they're great movies...."

    But I don't believe El Mariachi or Clerks are "great movies", or that any subsequent Rodriquez or Smith movies are great movies, and I'm not alone there. These movies attracted attention at the time, because they were curiosities -- thanks to their low budgets, which was still a novelty at the time. That's how I see them, anyway.

    Note that Eraserhead is a very different case -- that film cost several hundred thousand dollars (a long time ago) and enjoyed all sorts of resources which would never be available to an unconnected filmmaker (Lynch was in the AFI MFA program for much of that time).

    As for "making it", I have no opinion, that's a marketing, not a filmmaking question. There may always be movies, maybe one out of ten thousand, which succeed on a gimmick -- like Paranormal Activity today, or Clerks in the early 90s. But that it's an entirely different question from whether it's possible to make movies requiring dramatic illusion, persuasive performances and a decent visual aesthetic, for little or no money. The example of Clerks or El Mariachi doesn't in my view answer this question with "yes".

  • I did "Singularity" (granted a short film) for $1500 the same way. I wrote the script around what I had for locations, had a recognizable actor friend willing to do it for free because he liked the idea, another close actor friend willing to work for free, a bunch of friends willing to be extras for a night for free (and get covered in blood), a composer willing to work for free, and FX artists - both practical and VFX willing to work for free. I did everything else I couldn't get someone to do for free myself. (Would have likely been $15,000 - $20,000 otherwise.)

    But I also just completed work as a DP on the feature film, "Love or War", and the budget was $7500, but would have cost $50,000 dollars if most of it were not deferred (including the majority of my fee). Shot on an unhacked GH2 in 16 days spread over the span of 6 months.