The Making of a Micro-Budget Road Movie - Part 3
This is the third installment in a series about directing my first feature, now with PRO TIPS. Parts one and two, which are focused on the inception of the project, are less practical per se, though my goal from the start was to write something I could afford to shoot.
We've been dining out on the story about the canoe.
"You're not an indie filmmaker," we told ourselves giddily, over the hummmmmmmmm, "until you've strapped a canoe to the roof of your Kia Soul."
Have you ever strapped a canoe to the roof of your Kia Soul?
As the needle creeps above 40 miles per hour—
You can't go over 40 without the whole shebang starting to vibrate. You feel like you just might take off. And so you stick to the far right lane. Drive slower than you’d like to, keeping careful eyes on the side mirror. Are the ratchet straps holding? They seem to be.
Thankfully, we added a roof rack when we bought the car. We were thinking not of filmmaking but of camping trips we planned to take, though in the past few years we've done very little camping.
PRO TIP: Independent filmmaking is not unlike camping. Have a roof rack. It will come in handy. Have a portable, battery-powered generator. A first-aid kit. Extra jackets. Dry socks. Clif bars. A cooler stocked with bubbly water. Toilet paper. (On the first day of film school, one of my mentors instilled in us: "It’s the producer’s job to ensure that there is toilet paper.")
The first time we strapped a canoe to the Kia, a vessel we rented up in June Lake, in the Eastern Sierras, intending to drive it twenty miles to Lake Mary where we were shooting a pivotal sequence—
Well, before we strapped it to the car, Ricky had to convince them to let us take it. They were happy to accept a cash payment in advance for a full-day rental, but when we showed up to pick up the canoe, and started carrying the thing not toward the water but toward the Kia—
That became a negotiation, with the boatmaster, the woman running the register, the woman’s boss she had to get on the phone. And a credit card plunked down as a deposit. But by the time we pulled away, they were rooting for us.
PRO TIP: Shooting out of town can feel much friendlier. Once you're outside the 30-mile zone, people are excited to hear you're making a movie. They want to help. Especially if you are friendly. Be friendly.
The second time we strapped a canoe to the Kia—
Or, technically, the second canoe we strapped to the Kia. The first canoe we strapped to the Kia, and then the picture car, and back onto our the Kia for the return trip to June Lake. Hector and I were so chuffed we made it back by 5 p.m. close. We really almost sailed into the air, what with the hummmmmmm as we tried to push up to 45 mph—we’d promised we’d get that canoe back on time—and the elation we were feeling. We were really doing it. We’d shot our first block.
PRO TIP: Consider shooting in blocks, rather than all at once. We shot five days in September, five in December, and eight in January, a strategy that kept us sane, and enabled us to fundraise along the way (as well as earn money from our various day jobs).
We were giddy with exhaustion and joy. And we’d left the life jackets back at Lake Mary, where we left Ricky, sitting at a picnic table, wrapping out and writing checks as it grew dark. Whoops. Those I Fedexed back on Monday morning.
PRO TIP: Find producers you trust with your life (jackets), and your checkbook. I’m being blasé, but I mean this very sincerely, the part about the checkbook. I’ve learned this the hard way. Twice.
The second time we strapped a canoe to the Kia, three months later—
We were easing up the 405 at rush hour. No issue with a hum when you're going 5 mph.
We’d been worried about matching the canoe we rented up in June Lake. The canoetinuity, if you will indulge me in a terrible pun. (Get it? Continuity. Canoe-tinuity.) It turns out a dark green Old Town canoe is pretty standard. It's the John Deere of canoes. And we'd found one—in stock—at the REI in Huntington Beach.
As we kept moving up the 405, picking up speed, that hummmmmm was not as pronounced. The driving felt less precarious.
I didn't want to say it. As I scrambled through my phone looking for photos of Canoe #1 on the roof of the Kia—
Did we really not take a photo?
PRO TIP: Take continuity photos. Lots of ‘em. Especially if you don’t have a script supervisor, or a dedicated art department.
Ricky said, "It's smaller, isn't it?"
We'd had a lively conversation the night before. After pulling the trigger on the canoe that was blessedly in stock (not many canoes in stock in SoCal, Old Town or otherwise), we agonized. Was Canoe #1 an 11.9-footer, or was it 16.9 feet?
"It couldn't have been 17 feet," Ricky insisted, drawing a tape measure across the floor of our living room. "That's almost three of me."
I bit my tongue. The 11.9-er was in stock.
Just like both bit our tongues when the overly-interested manager at REI asked, "So you wanted the one-man?"
And then, "Where are you taking it out?"
"Rivers," said Ricky, looking a little stunned. "Lakes. You know."
"And you don't need the paddles ...?"
We stood there in the loading dock.
We should have bought the paddles. We should have asked after life jackets, too, which we'd later have to rent, when we realized they'd been visible inside the picture car back in block one. Canoetinuity, know what I mean? But the bigger problem was, we had the wrong canoe.
It was a bigger problem, yes, but not an insurmountable problem. It meant we couldn’t feature Canoe #2 as prominently as we’d planned to, that’s all.
PRO TIP: Get over yourself. You’re making a movie! This is supposed to be fun.
The third time we strapped a canoe to the Kia, I wasn't there. I was in a Zoom rehearsal with my actors.
PRO TIP: Rehearse before you get on set. This might sound obvious, but many directors don't rehearse ahead of time. Either they're worried it won't be fresh on the day, or they're so caught up in tech scouting and shotlisting and the million other things that they don't make it a priority. Dude, rehearse. Hear the script out loud. Workshop it with your actors. Rough out the blocking, if you’re able to get together in person. Or do what you can on Zoom. Every minute you save rehearsing in advance is a minute of shooting you buy yourself. Those minutes are precious on a micro-budget movie.
Ricky went alone, up to the REI in Burbank, to return the 11.9-footer and get the 16.9. For unrelated reasons,* we'd pushed the shoot day to the end of our last block, and found ourselves with ten extra days in which we could order the bigger canoe.
*Permits. Oh God, permits.
PRO TIP: For locations that require permits, start the permitting process as early as possible. Guesstimate the shoot dates, if you have to. You can always change them later. State parks and national forests are inexpensive to permit if your footprint is small, but the process can take three to four weeks. Permitting for L.A. city property also takes weeks (and is not inexpensive, we learned).
"It'll be worth it!" I told him. "It’ll be funnier!"
PRO TIP: Find a producer who cares as much as you do. Who agrees, yes, it will be funnier. And heads to REI. Again.
Speaking of funnier.
It was funnier, the two of us, like a pair of moviemaker Marx brothers, trying to get the almost-17-foot canoe up our steep steps and onto our small porch, where we planned to store it. As we maneuvered the canoe over the gate, firmly lodging it in a tree—
“We could get it over there,” we assured each other. But the thought of doing it again, in reverse, at 4:30 a.m. on the morning of the shoot, was not appealing.
We strapped the canoe back on the car and drove to U-Haul.
PRO TIP: There are many, many things about shooting in town that make it easier. A U-Haul 12 minutes away. A cinema aquatics rental guy, when you realize oh yeah you do need paddles, and life jackets. Private Covid testing with guaranteed 24-hour turnaround, for when Omicron is raging and the public testing sites are taking up to a week to return results.
For the geometry geeks, an almost-17-foot canoe fits nicely into a 15-foot moving truck, slanted diagonally up into "grandma's attic" above the cab, and leaves more than enough room for a modest grip package. For our final day of shooting, we had a grip truck, sort of!
PRO TIP: You don’t need a grip truck. Unless you do. But try to keep your footprint small.
Y’all, we got it. We did it. We got the canoe scenes, and all the rest. Eighteen months after I first drafted the short, we had a feature in the can.
That same day, Ricky tidily returned Canoe #3, the rented paddles and life jackets, and the truck (while I showered), and I picked him up at U-Haul in time to meet the cast and crew at Edendale for martinis.
PRO TIP: You can’t do this without your cast and crew. Obviously. What do I even say? Hire carefully, and then take care of them. Stock bubbly water. Try to break for lunch on time. Buy the wrap drinks. Don’t haggle over per diems and travel reimbursements.
*Feature photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh (Pexels)