Guest commentary by Pasukaru
If you’re a struggling filmmaker, most likely what’s constantly on your mind is finding an idea that would make a great low budget film. The DIY indie has launched the careers of many great filmmakers. Maxing credit cards, borrowing from friends, that rich dentist uncle of yours, and guerrilla location shooting are all part of the financing game of low budget filmmaking. To reduce costs DIY films need to minimize its characters, isolate its locations, and certainly minimize stunts, special effects, pyrotechnics etc.
Filmmakers should always be looking back at the successful ones for inspiration, and learning tools for how to maximize your money. Here are some of the finest, most influential, little known and, well, personal favourites.
But before the list, it’s important to point out a number of key films that are great low budget films that, to the dismay of the author, were a bit too expensive to make the list, but deserve mentioning:
Repulsion ($300,000 in 1965 = $2million today)
The Evil Dead ($375,000 in 1980 equals roughly $960,000 today)
Mad Max ($350,000 in 1979 equals roughly $1million today)
Halloween ($325,000 in 1978 equals roughly $1million today)
Shivers ($179,000 in 1975 equals roughly $700,000 today)
Easy Rider ($340,000 in 1969 equals roughly $2million today!)
Mean Streets ($500,000 in 1973 equals roughly $2.3million today)
Targets ($130,000 in 1968 equals roughly $790,000 today)
May ($500,000 in 2002 equals roughly $589,000 today)
Lastly, all these figures are gathered unscientifically via the IMDB, Box Office etc.
1. KILLER’S KISS (1955)
$40,000 = $316,000 today
I was pleasantly surprised, when adjusted to inflation, that Stanley Kubrick’s breakout low-budget feature film could be included on the list. The gritty film-noir was produced when Kubrick was only 26 years and on welfare. It was shot for merely $40,000, which was borrowed from an uncle that owned a drug store. Kubrick was a one-man film crew (long before Robert Rodriguez would claim the title); he wrote, produced, directed, photographed, and edited. The film used a naturalistic style, which was unconventional for the genre. Nonetheless, having used the legendary Arriflex 35IIA and a springwound Eyemo camera, Kubrick incorporated a rugged hand-held look that would later become commonplace in independent film. Without permits to shoot in one of the world’s busiest cities, the young maverick would shoot exteriors secretly from nearby vehicles and use a truck in place of a dolly. Moreover, Kubrick had fired the sound-man and was forced to shoot the entire film without sound and needed to post-sync all of the dialogue and sound effects. Despite all these limitations, Killer’s Kiss would eventually become a significant part of the Kubrick oeuvre.
2. ERASERHEAD (1977)
$100,000 = $350,000 today
David Lynch’s debut is a surreal freak show that at once baffled and amazed audiences. A twenty-page script created piecemeal over five years, Eraserhead was finally released as a midnight movie and would later become a cult classic. Speaking of Kubrick, he had supposedly shown Eraserhead to his cast before making The Shining in hopes to convey the appropriate atmosphere. The film does not have a coherent plot; rather, it is a series of nightmarish sequences. Interestingly at the time, despite its avant-garde qualities, the Hollywood filmmaker elite, such as Terrence Malick, George Lucas, and Mel Brooks, was championing Eraserhead around town. The genius was apparent. The subject of endless interpretation, Eraserhead has solidified its place in American cinema when it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Respect.
3. PI (1997)
$60,000 = $80,000 today
Eraserhead had obviously influenced Darren Aronofsky when he set out to make his micro-budget tour-de-force, Pi. To finance his film, Aronofsky sold $100 shares of the film to family and friends (he eventually paid them all back with a $50 profit per-share). This stylish black and white film captivated audiences with its creative use of sound and hip-hop montages. It is credited for popularizing, though not invent, the reverse first-person perspective, or the “snoricam”, by physically mounting the camera on the actor, which would subsequently be seen in every commercial and music video. Guerilla tactics in making the film included shooting without permits and using real human brains. Aronofsky would win the Directing Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, and the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay. Pi exemplifies how a low budget can be overcome with cinematic creativity. It all paid off, as Artisan picked it up for a million bucks.
4. EL MARIACHI (1992)
$7,000 (+$220,000 in post) = $342,500 today
Cue the Rebel Without A Crew. Robert Rodriguez became an overnight sensation and hero to legions of young filmmakers when his micro-budget action film hit the scene. The 23-year-old filmmaker was producer, director, writer, special-effect man, editor, etc. El Mariachi is famously known for being shot for $7,000 with money raised by volunteering as a laboratory guinea pig. Most of budget was spent on film stock and processing, so there was roughly $600 left to “put on screen”. In fact, to save film Rodriguez only shot one take for every scene, never used a slate, used a wheelchair in lieu of a dolly, and used desk lamps for lighting. Ultimately, El Mariachi is an important touchstone in the American independent film movement of the early ‘90s showing how, with a little money and a lot of effort, it was possible to make a successful and popular film: "creativity, not money, is used to solve problems". And if you thought shooting the film was difficult, read the book “Rebel Without a Crew”, and you’ll discover his even more arduous process of sound editing once the film got picked up for distribution.
5. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974)
$84,000 (disputed) = $360,000 today
Arguably one of the most terrifying and influential horror films of all time, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was financed on the profits of the most successful adult film of all time (Deep Throat). The film made about $30 million in the United States, making it one of the most successful independent films at the time. Due to budget limitations, there were few special effects (the blood used was real). Tobe Hooper even had his actress actually cut her index finger with a razor. That’s hardcore. Despite strong criticism for its graphic content, the film triumphs by being nearly bloodless in its depiction of violence. TCM would eventually become the template for countless horror films and an American horror classic.
6. CUBE (1997)
$375,000 = $495,000 today
Popular for its Twilight Zone inspired storyline and Kafkaesque setting, Cube is the only Canadian film on the list, and arguably one of the best films from the country. Directed by Vincenzo Natali, the film was produced through the renowned Feature Film Project via the Canadian Film Centre on a small soundstage - the film uses only one set: a cube-shaped room, measuring 14’ by 14’ for the entire running time. The filmmakers would transition to other cubic rooms by swapping different colored gel panels. Cube would win over legions of fans and become a box-office hit in Europe and Japan. Its reputation would only grow.
7. FOLLOWING (1998)
$6,000 = $7,600 today
A mere 10 years before Christopher Nolan would go on to be a fanboy, god thanks to The Dark Knight, he made a no-budget film noir called The Following. It was made with friends, in black and white 16mm film, on weekends over the course of a year. Filmed on the streets of London and in the homes of friends and family, the project was meant to cost as little as possible. Nolan would rehearse at length to be sure he got what he needed in one or two takes. He used only available light and had no gear to speak of. The strength, therefore, remains in the story. Using an elliptical narrative style that Nolan would continue to employ later, the film keeps you engrossed till the end. The result was an award-winning low budget masterpiece that would usher in one of today’s biggest Hollywood directors.
8. PRIMER (2004)
$7,000 = $7,400 today
Like “El Mariachi”, this high concept no-budget sci-fi thriller is the stuff of indie dreams. Produced for an extremely low 7K on 16mm amid the digital revolution, Primer collected the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Shane Carruth had been a former engineer who quit his job to make a film - a risky venture considering he had not even made a short film before. Nonetheless, with intense research he taught himself not only how to direct, but do the cinematography, sound recording, editing, sound editing and everything else involved with the craft. Oh yeah, he was also the lead actor and composed the music. Carruth didn't leave himself any room for error either. He used a 1:1 shooting ratio, which means every foot of film shot ended up in the final cut. At one point you can even see Carruth on camera as actor calling cut in the shot. Amazing.
9. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)
$22,000 = $27,000 today
It’s easy to forget what a phenomenon this film was when it came out. Made for a ridiculous $22,000, this film rocked the box office grossing $248 million worldwide, became the most profitable film of all time, and popularized the faux-documentary genre film. Blair Witch is also known for its groundbreaking internet viral marketing campaign, which suggested the film was real and elevated the hype to an unprecedented level prior to its release. Blair Witch was a benchmark in digital film history, inspiring many filmmakers with a 'if they can do it, I can do it.' attitude.
10. IN THE COMPANY OF MEN
$25,000 = $32,000 today
“In the Company of Men” stands out because it’s the most traditional narrative film of them all, yet wholly unique and creative. Successful low budget features have tended to be genre films, with high concepts or marketable hooks. Words on a page are always the most accessible and cheapest tool for a filmmaker. Neil La Bute’s first film uses words like daggers. A cynical and sadistic film about two uber-male businessmen on a mission of misogynistic psychological abuse. Aaron Eckhart's 'Chad' character is often cited as one of cinema's great villains. With minimal locations and actors, the sparseness of the production gave it a unique tone of isolation and danger. Each scene is shot with a minimum number of camera angles framed with a clever eye for composition.
Ok, before everyone gets in a huff, here are a number of other low budget films, which are successful and influential in their own right, that didn’t quite make this list.
Clerks (1994) – $27,000 (+$230,00 in post) = $375,000 today
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) $100,000 = $372,000
Bad Taste (1987) - $25,000 (+$230,00 in post) = $475,000 today
Little Shop of Horrors (1960) - $30,000 = $216,000 today
She’s Gotta Have it (1986) - $175,000 = $339,000 today
Who’s That Knocking At My Door (1968) - $75,000 = $456,000 today
Last House on the Left (1972) - $87,000 = $440,000 today
Brick (2006) - $450,000
Napoleon Dynamite (2004) - $400,000
Ms. 45 (1981) - $62,000 = $144,000 today
Pink Flamingos (1972) - $12,000 = $60,000 today
Faster Pussy Cat! Kill! Kill! (1965) - $45,000 = $300,000
The Brothers McMullan (1995) - $24,000 = $32,300
Slacker (1991) - $23,000 = $35,000
John Cassavetes' Shadows(1959) - ???