In 1996, I became inspired. I had seen Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and I was mesmerized. I was determined to make my own Star Trek movie.
Luckily, my grandfather had a large RCA VHS camcorder that he let me borrow. My Mom helped me collect my ideas in script form and played the off camera "First Officer". My Dad was in charge of holding the large camcorder over his shoulder while sitting in a recliner. We used a cassette player with a Star Wars tape for the music. Still today, I love both Star Trek and Star Wars equally and don't see why they can't be combined in the same movie.
There was no editing involved. It was like a live television broadcast in the early days of television. I acted out the scenes in order and if I messed up, I just kept going. While I was jumping around and my Dad struggled with the camera, my dog Tuffy sat on the couch and slept through the entire thing. When my Mom asked me what I wanted to call the movie production studio, I thought and said "how about Sleepy Dog?!". The name was born.
The first sequence we filmed was "The Tractor Chase"--yes, a chase involving two lawn mowers. As an action sequence, we knew it would take a long time to film, but we planned as well as we knew how to make it take as little time as possible. There were about as many people behind the scenes working as there were in front of the camera.
We filmed at my friend Alissa's neighbor's driveway. It was so long that it looked like a dirt road, but without any chance a real vehicle would drive by. Using a trailer, we brought my Dad's tractor over and Alissa's Dad's tractor from next door.
I knew that the noise from the engines would be a problem for sound, so I decided not to bother using the dialogue captured in the moment. This decision led to some funny confusion on later days when some of my friends thought that the entire movie would have no dialogue.
Despite the silliness of the action--Slim chasing and being chased by nuns with machine guns-- everyone took the event very seriously. My favorite memory of the day was when my friend Jacob, dressed as a nun, had to make a U turn with the tractor he was driving in order to return it to the original spot. Somehow, he managed to lower the mowing deck and he was kicking up a cloud of dust! He didn't notice it, of course, but the rest of us were quite entertained.
Beyond the actors, locations, costumes, and props, there is the necessary step of acquiring equipment to capture the action. I was very lucky in this respect. Around 2002/2003, one of the companies that my Dad sold insurance for had a terrific rewards program. My Dad sold so much that year that we won several items, including a keyboard, a 5-disc DVD/CD player with a 5.1 surround sound system, and Sony Digital Camcorder like the one pictured above. I used this camera for Star Wreck, the big difference this time is that I discovered how to get it to record in a 1.2:1 pixel aspect ratio (16 x 9) and to create an anamorphic squeeze, using the preset "slim" effect (ironic, considering the title of the movie). 2 other friends volunteered the use of their similar cameras, and we figured out how to get a comparable look across the three cameras. This meant that the use of the cameras were free! The expense came from buying the tapes needed for each camera (yes, they still used mini tapes). At the highest quality settings, each tape could only hold up to 60 minutes. By the end of everything, I must have had about 30 different tapes.
For lights, my Dad had a high-powered light for working with hardware, this could be handheld and easily redirected. My friend Mike's Dad had a single industrial light on a stand which could be redirected between shots. My friend Alissa's Dad had a similar model but it contained two lights. Being the smart guy that I am (ha ha ha), I decided we would use lights even for outdoor scenes. These came in really handy, especially when trying to film around and inside tents.
For sound recording, my friend Annie, who used to work in broadcasting, had a high quality microphone that she let us use. The nice thing about this microphone was that it had a long handle. It was easy for someone to hold and point in the right direction or, it could be set down on a table (and for a couple scenes) on top of a picture frame.
Before filming, I gathered with my friends Mike (Director of Photography) and Chris (Lighting Director). We began the session by watching Citizen Kane (1941) for inspiration! We not only drew storyboards for each scene (and by that I mean the scenes I had written, see earlier posts about writing), but we drew out the blocking of each shot so we would know where to place the cameras, lights, and microphones before we got to the location. In order to save time, we tried to use more than one camera in each take. This way, we could get wide shots and close ups at the same time. I can be smart when needed! With all these preparations in place, we were ready to begin production.
To Be Continued...
As the title suggests, for characters in ordinary-looking clothes, describe the style of clothing and most amateur actors can bring clothes that they already own. This is how most of the costumes worked for Slim. My friend Kalee brought her own cheerleader uniform. My friend Angel gave us the use of a gorgeous, sparkly dress. From my own clothing collection came Slim's hat, a trench coat, and a tuxedo.
My Mom was responsible for crafting Slim's "body". It may look like a simple pillow down his shirt, but it was more complex than that. The inside shell was actually an old T-shirt. Pinned to the T-shirt was a large pillowcase stuffed with fiber fill that was shaped to resemble a big gut and man boobs. Attached to the sides of the T-shirt were two hand towels stuffed with fiber fill. These were Slim's "love handles". On the back of the shirt were two hand towels stuffed with fiber fill to represent Slim's big fanny. The next step was to find clothing large enough to fit Slim's new frame. For all of this, we browsed the local Goodwill Store. We found a very large polo shirt with arms that I needed to keep pulling up. For Slim's formal attire, we found a massive dress shirt with very short sleeves and a great big sport coat. Slim's tie was the ugliest I could find.
For the nun costumes, I asked my friend Annette to be the costume designer. I chose her because she had a good fashion sense, knew how to sew, and had a sewing machine! She figured out how to take large sheets of thin, black material and to create simple black dresses. Some had sleeves and others did not. Extra material became belts and/or holsters. For the veils, we used pieces of white cardboard with a safety pin. The safety pin allowed the veil to be resized for each actor. Wilhelm's costume was actually a grim reaper halloween costume, while Sudden's costume was a black graduation gown.
My first thought for Snarion was a classic maid costume. However, as we searched, the only maid costumes available were naughty adult costumes. It was then that Annette realized that Snarion is kidnapped from her home, so she would not have to wear a work uniform. For Tubba, Annette found a colorful blanket that worked as a sash for the character.
Overall, the costumes were not difficult to imagine and collect. Once again, when you have no budget, ask your friends for help!
Similar to finding locations as a zero-budget filmmaker, props used in your movie are usually borrowed from friends. Because you are borrowing these props, you cannot do anything to modify them. The orange tips on the fake guns must stay on.
Let me see if I can remember some of the props I borrowed. My Dad's friend had an antique looking radio, which he let us use as an "artifact". My friend Alissa's young neighbor had a whole collection of toy guns and swords which he gladly allowed us to use, so long as he could be an actor in the movie. He's probably out of college by now. My friend Mike had some more weapon props for us to use. From my house came shovels and other digging tools. Also, my Mom owned The Golden Dustpan. I don't know why a dustpan needed to be made of shiny brass, but it served its purpose.
Tractors came from my Dad, Mike's Dad, and Alissa's Dad. We filmed the two tractor scenes at least a year apart so the tractor changed in between scenes--from a red and white one to a yellow, black, and green one. Two characters riding on the "same" tractor suddenly becomes totally different. I couldn't make that up. My friend Katie donated a suitcase, since we were at her house for the airport scene anyway.
The reason this post has a suction cup gun at the top is because that is very similar to the model we used. Except that our model was bright orange throughout. There was no way anyone would mistake that item for a gun, but it served its purpose.
So, today's lesson is that any prop you need--even a golden dustpan--ask around and you probably know someone that owns the item that you need.
With little to no budget, finding filming locations is not as simple as renting a sound stage and building sets. You need to use your connections, be creative, and ask for help.
Here is how I found locations for Slim. I begin with the simplest step: my own house. The living room served as a large, fancy bedroom. The empty garage worked as a detention cell. We used the driveway for filming interiors of vehicles. The backyard worked for wilderness closeups.
My friend Mike had a large property with a massive backyard. I believe it was seven acres and it took his Dad five hours to mow it. I asked any friend that owned a tent to bring it and to set it up in a group. This became a wilderness encampment. His backyard from another angle looked like another location. Behind his backyard was woods. These became a rainforest. Further beyond the woods was an un-mowed field, which worked for other scenes. Inside his kitchen was a corner booth, which became a restaurant. We even had a scene at his pool.
My Dad's office was used as both Slim and Dr. Colossal's offices. The manager of his building allowed us to film in the alley around the building as well. My friend Rickey had a large spare bedroom, which became a hotel room. His family's restaurant was used in another scene. My friend Alissa had neighbors with an incredibly long, dirt driveway, which became a roadway for a chase.
Some family friends had a bar built into their downstairs. It made a great ticket counter for an airport and, with some redecorating, became another airport. My friend Greg's house had very large rooms, which worked wonderfully for a mountain villa. The undeveloped end of his street was a perfect country roadway. A public park worked well for wide shots in fields. A family friend is a manager at Wendy's and allowed us to film there. We used a local gravel pit for a desolate wasteland. Back roads near a friend's camp were perfect for a car chase. A popular sledding hill in town became the top of a mountain.
As I count it, that is about 25 different settings without a single dollar needing to be spent. I would say that is a good investment. Having no budget forces you to be creative. People are very generous and willing to help, you only need to ask.
I have some wonderful friends. Not only were so many of them willing to help me make Slim, but also they would offer their own ideas to make things easier.
I knew that Slim needed some type of 'boss' character. This character didn't need to be constantly present, but someone had to send Slim on his adventure. For this role, I asked my friend Craig to do it. He is always very straight forward and practical and I thought he would be a perfect fit for Slim's boss. Craig did a fabulous job. If the scene wasn't going as intended, he would figure out a way through his own performance to capture what was needed. His character may be my favorite from the entire movie. Today, he is finishing up law school.
As an "epic" (and I use that term loosely), Slim has a lot of characters. Some of these characters only appear in one scene. My friend Ross plays a chatty bartender. Much of what he says is improvised. Today, he works for Geek Squad. My friend Rickey plays a cranky waitress. Ironically, today he helps manage his family's restaurant. My friends Scott and Jacob appeared as nuns. Today, Scott works for a local church, while Jacob is the editor of Indie Hangover, a game review website.
Some of my friends performed in scenes that I ended up cutting years later. I felt terrible doing this, but if there is any interest I will release outtakes. There are a lot more friends that helped in someway that I have not profiled in this post, but I am forever grateful to them.
Do you appear in Slim? Say so in the comments below!
It sounds like the title of a how-to book, but did you see what I did? I uppercased Convent because the characters are nuns!
Once I had Jake in place to play the lead villain, I needed other henchmen (hench-nuns?) to support him. The first was my friend Matt as Captain Sudden. Matt and I had been friends since middle school. He was almost always dependable. I say almost always because he forgot to show up once for his scene and I ended up filming a double from the back for the entire thing. Now that you know this, you will look for it, but normally it would not be too noticeable. Matt was a lot of fun to work with and he kept things light. Today, he still lives in my area.
For a female nun character (a female nun--go figure), I wanted someone that would contrast with the other female lead (blonde hair and blue eyes). For this, I turned to my friend Kalee. She has dark hair and dark eyes. However, in order to cast her, it was a package deal, so her two younger brothers got to play servants. Kalee seemed to have a lot of fun--at least I hope she did and she was enjoyable to work with. Today, Kalee has her own chef business. Please check it out!
For a final "named" nun character, I wanted an imposing figure. Greg is my oldest friend--I don't mean he's old--we met in Preschool when we were both 3 years old. He moved away in second grade and, in a miracle return, moved back sophomore year of high school. Greg is very tall. He was perfect for Baghead. In order to play Baghead he wore a paper bag on his head, hence the name. Greg and I had a blast working together. The most difficult part for him was seeing through the eye holes in the paper bag. Today, he works for an aviation company in my area.
Next time, I will talk about casting other roles!
To Be Continued...
I used that title for this post because our villains are the Nunzies! I have known many wonderful Sisters in my life--the Nunzies are not based on them. These villains are based on the horror stories I have heard from my parents and others of their generation about the cruel Nuns they had as schoolteachers.
Every group of villains needs a lead villain. For the role of Dr. Hans Wilhelm (see earlier post for where the names come from), I knew I needed someone with acting experience, as well as great comic timing. There were plenty of experienced actors in my area, but it would have been weird having a 40 year old villain with 15 year old co-stars.
When I asked my friend Jake if he would take the role, I was overjoyed that he said yes. Of all my friends, Jake probably had the most experience playing lead roles in plays. He also appeared in the local film production The Mushing Mill (see previous post). His comic sense and timing is perfection. Often while filming his scenes, I would have to walk away so I wouldn't ruin the take from laughing at his improvisations! Jake was a joy to work with and always pleasant and agreeable. Today, he lives and works in Southern Maine.
Next, I will describe casting other Nunzies!
To Be Continued...
In my Freshman year of high school, we learned about Freud's theories in English class. Of all his theories, it was that of the Id, Ego, and Superego that hit me the most. Basically, Freud believed that every person was a balance of their base instincts (Id), their own personal thoughts (Ego), and what society demands of them (Superego). Why am I mentioning any of this? Because, this was also when I realized how and why sets of three characters can work so well together.
Consider Brody, Hooper, and Quint in Jaws (1975). Quint and Hooper have vastly different opinions and methods and Brody is stuck between them. In Star Trek, Kirk relies on the emotion of McCoy and the logic of Spock to make decisions. I could go on and on.
Moving further away from Raiders of the Lost Ark, I took the main character's helper (John Rhys-Davies' character) and made him a more prominent role and I took the main character's love interest (Karen Allen's character) and made her a more prominent role. The result is that you have interactions among these three strong characters instead of one character reacting to others.
For Slim's companion Tubba, I went back to Kindergarten. Not literally. My friend Mike and I have known each other since Kindergarten. He did a fabulous job in Star Wreck balancing comic enthusiasm with keeping a straight face. He also looks convincingly Hispanic, despite the fact that he is not at all Latino. I asked Mike if he would play the role and he agreed. Mike did a phenomenal job and also served as Director of Photography for Slim. Today, he is a police officer in Southern Maine and probably keeps an eye out for bad filmmakers exploiting their friends.
For Slim's female companion Snarion (see earlier posts for an explanation of the character names), I wanted someone that would physically contrast with Slim and with Tubba. My friend Alissa has dirty blonde hair and blue eyes--bingo. I had met her in middle school. When I began planning for this movie, she was very enthusiastic about it. In the winter of 2005 as I was developing the characters, I asked for her input for the character of Snarion. It was then that she volunteered for the role. She had actually appeared in another local production a couple years earlier called The Mushing Mill. Check it out: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0397550/
Alissa was very patient in the course of filming. By about take 5, she would be done, so I learned to get what I needed by then. Today, she lives and works in Washington, D.C.
With selecting these two performers, I had the power of three strong characters to lead the film. Remember that--three characters may be better than one. In later posts, I will share about finding performers for additional roles.
To Be Continued...