A little while back, we completed a micro-budget feature called “Wake Me When I Leave.” It’s a sixty-four minute psychological horror thriller. And it depicts the mental state of a woman (Jenna D’Angelo) as she drifts in and out of dreams, focused on her boyfriend (Michael Fentin.)
The narrative jumps all over the place, from dream to reality and the chronology is completely fractured. It made for a confusing script. But it made sense to me. And while it didn’t seem like we’d win over any investors based on the story, so we knew the budget would be slim to non-existent.
That’s okay! When it comes to making a micro-budget feature, fewer cooks in the kitchen means fewer compromises.
How to Make a Micro-Budget Feature
We ended up shooting on weekends, off-and-on, for about seven months. Actors were working for free, locations were cashed-in favors. Our DP, Paul, had gear on loan from another producer, and he stood in for most of the crew. In fact, we shot in Paul’s old apartment, his new apartment, his girlfriend’s apartment, his car, and outside his parents’ house!
In many ways, we had some luck. But that doesn’t mean lessons can’t be gleaned from our experience. For example, in one scene, Michael and Jenna’s characters are expected to furiously make out in the corner of a crowded nightclub. She keeps reapplying her lipstick, and their faces get messier and messier.
That was the scene. And we planned to shoot it without sound and tight framing. We saved this scene for the end of the shoot because we were holding out for a club or a bar that would let us film there. But after a few months, it was a no go. So we ended up using my apartment.
We created the illusion of a crowded bar with stylized lighting (including a projector with an experimental film loop directed at them) and having me and Damon passing in front of the frame over and over again.
Of course, after we finished multiple takes, Michael and Jenna were filthy looking. Before they cleaned up, someone had the idea to take their picture, and that led us to bring the camera on the roof. We were waiting for sunset for the next scene, and we had some time to kill.
We filmed them looking out at the waning daylight, the bottom halves of their faces completely red. We gave Michael a prop: a half-empty forty of Ballantine. We filmed them sipping beer for about thirty seconds before Jenna started to crack up.
I wasn’t sure if it was usable. It was a little lighthearted for the chronology of the script, but it was genuine, and I was glad we captured it. And when I got to editing, that roof scene was exactly what the film needed. It allowed us to transition into a lighter scene.
It is one thing to have a non-linear script. From the writer’s perspective, it should all gel together. But in the edit, it’s a different story. What works in theory may not necessarily work in execution. So it was great to have a surplus footage for coverage.
What to learn from all this?
1. Write For A Micro-Budget Feature Budget
Working with a larger budget may have given “Wake Me…” more polish, but it wouldn’t have made much difference to the story. This an intimate film. Most of the locations were apartments. Most of the scenes featured only the two main characters, and there was only one special effects shot.
If your movie has shootouts, car chases, time machines—you might want to hold out for a bigger budget, because that’s where that penny-pinching is going to show. But it’s harder to guess the budget when the most extravagant setting is a movie theater and the most expensive prop is a dead bat ($45 on eBay.)
It takes a certain finesse to write a micro-budget feature. You have to walk that fine between writing within your means and wanting to stand out.
2. Stand Out (Affordably)
I don’t know the actual stats, but it feels like a billion people are working on their next micro-budget feature. So being memorable is key. And as someone who doesn’t have to answer to investors, you have the freedom to make whatever kind of film you want. Consider this a blessing!
Finding affordable ways to be memorable is key. On top of how the lipstick scene worked within the film’s broader themes, it was a cost-effective way to create a strange, indelible image.
3. Give Yourself Wiggle Room in the Script
When production time comes, you may not be able to accurately depict everything that’s written. Locations, actors, props—they fall through all the time—so be lenient on yourself (or your director.)
4. If Something is Interesting, Shoot It
Going further, when making a micro-budget feature, opportunities arise during production that you’ll want to capitalize on. An interesting bug may be crawling on the wall, or a police chopper could be circling the area, or an actor may burst out laughing.
Without a budget, you can’t really control all that much on set, so try and make the best of it! If it’s interesting, it’s worth shooting. And chances are, if you’re working with a micro-budget, you’re shooting digital—so you have to nothing to lose by shooting more than is necessary.
5. Keep Things Loose on Set
Your actors and your crew have committed themselves to your project. They will be working long hours for little to no money. You will get the best out of them if you treat them as friends and keep the atmosphere loose. Because when problems arise on set (which happens a lot when making a micro-budget feature), you’ll need confidants. Anyone on set could have the answers you’re looking for, so make sure he or she feels comfortable speaking up.
Tyler Rubenfeld is a Michigan-born, Brooklyn-based writer, director, editor, and visual artist. His short film, “Vlogger,” was featured on NoBudge in 2015. “Wake Me When I Leave” is his first feature.