Book Interview: Planning the Low-Budget Film (Second Edition)

Planning the Low-Budget Film - Cover

Publisher: Chalk Hill Books

Release Date: August 01, 2013

Robin Hood Men In Tights - RLB + Camera cropped

Robert Latham Brown sets up a shot for Robin Hood: Men in Tights: “I was setting up the foreground miniature shot of the cliffs of Dover (actually Paradise Cove in Malibu) with ‘England’ displayed along the top of the cliff.”

A Conversation with Robert Latham Brown

Robert Latham Brown has worked as a producer, line producer, and production manager in feature films for well over thirty years and has accumulated an impressive list of credits that include The Blues Brothers, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Return of the Jedi, Child’s Play 1-3, Spaceballs, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, The Parent Trap (1998), and Starship Troopers. However, not all of his projects were big studio films. He produced The Anarchist Cookbook (2001) and co-produced and production-managed Local Color (2009). This first-hand experience endows his book with an authority that is sometimes lacking in books about film production.

Brown provides expert advice about how one should schedule and budget their independent film, and he does so in an extremely lucid and enjoyable fashion. While many books merely provide vague instruction about this phase of film-making, Planning the Low-Budget Film goes into it in a very detailed manner that should be extremely easy for beginners to understand. The book is used as a textbook at several colleges throughout the United States, and anyone planning their first low budget film needs to read it cover to cover. It couldn’t come more highly recommended.

Cinema Literate was honored to talk with Robert Latham Brown about his book and about some of the unique challenges inherent in planning a film:

CL: First of all, I just want to thank you for writing Planning the Low-Budget Film. You can easily find books about film production in general, screenplay writing, directing, cinematography, lighting, sound production, production design, and countless other topics. However, this may be the only book about the actual planning stages.

What inspired your decision to remedy this oversight?

RLB: I have been teaching Production Planning at the USC School of Cinematic Arts as an adjunct professor since the fall of 1996. After I had been teaching for several years, I realized that I was doing a tremendous amount of photocopying of course materials to handout to the students. One day I was looking at the stack of handouts and thought, “This is practically a book. Why not write a textbook for the course?” As a result, I saved myself a lot of time and expenses for copy paper and toner.

CL: Could you describe Planning the Low-Budget Film? What can readers expect to learn while reading it?

RLB: The book takes you through the process from first reading the script all the way through to a finished budget. Along the way it explores script lining, script breakdown, scheduling, how to use a day-out-of-days, locations, working with minors, working with animals, crew management and ethics, unions, and what you need in each of the subaccounts in a film budget.

CL: Do you wish that such a book existed when you were first getting started in the industry?

RLB: Yes, I do. I learned by trial and error. Perhaps I could have avoided many of the errors I made with a resource like this book.

In 1974 when I first got into the business, it was a very different business than it is now. The first film I worked on (as an assistant director trainee) was The Hindenburg directed by Robert Wise. Howard Kazanjian (Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, etc.) was the first assistant director. Everything was done manually. I had learned how to make a physical production board in film school, but I had no idea what sort of wizardry was involved in creating a budget. For me, it was an arcane mystery, and I was curious how anyone could ever figure out what a movie would cost.

Eventually there were two books written by Ralph Singleton, Film Scheduling (1984) and Film Budgeting (1996) which were fine books, but they were written before personal computers really took hold in the business. He mentions some of the then current production software programs, but the references became quickly dated as the technology changed. I didn’t feel either of the books would fulfill my needs for my USC course.

CL: Did the process of writing the book provide you with any unique challenges? If so, what were they?

RLB: Yes. Growing up, my favorite question was “Why?” When I started writing the book and describing how to do certain things, I could hear the students asking, “Why?” and I wanted to be able to give good reasons for doing what I did. For example, why do we measure script pages in eighths of a page? Like every other production person, I had done it since I first learned how to breakdown a script, but I had never considered why we did it that way. Why did we shoot all the inserts on an insert day after principal photography was wrapped? Does it still make sense to do that? Sometimes it took me awhile to understand the reasons behind things I had always done reflexively. I didn’t think saying “This is how we’ve always done it” was a valid reason. I found some of the practices I questioned didn’t really have good reasons.

CL: I enjoyed reading your anecdotes from the film productions that you have worked on in the past. They are entertaining but also help to make important points more clearly. I especially enjoyed the paragraphs concerning various Mel Brooks productions. I’m a pretty big Mel Brooks fan. What it was like working for him? Is he as funny as his movies?

RLB: It is a delight to work with Mel Brooks. I feel truly honored to have had the opportunity to work with him. If there are more than two people in the room with him, he’s on. He can’t help himself. He’s a born performer and a very funny man. He can say “Good morning” and make you laugh.

Chucky and Me

This photograph finds Robert Latham Brown on the set of Child’s Play 3: “It was taken on a set we had built on the ‘Phantom Stage’ (stage 27) at Universal Studios.”

CL: You have worked in a variety of genres. Is there a certain genre that you enjoy working on more than others, or are they all pretty much the same from a production standpoint? In other words, do certain genres create challenges that other genres don’t?

RLB: I think the film I enjoyed doing the most was Robin Hood: Men in Tights. That was mainly because of the people I was working with. I would say the big budget productions with lots of visual effects are the most challenging. When you’re in the $100 million plus range, there can be a lot of pressure, and mistakes or delays can be very costly.

The genre isn’t as important to me as long as I have a good crew to work with.

CL: Has the switch from film to digital altered the manner in which one plans a production? If so, in what ways has it changed this part of the process?

RLB: It has made a huge difference, most of it for the better. Many things are cheaper and more efficient now: lighting equipment, cameras, sound recording, postproduction sound, editing, deliverables, dailies, communications, distribution, and so on. There is hardly an area that hasn’t been touched.

The main difficulty in the digital age is keeping up with the new technology. Digital effects are evolving so fast in capability that what you did in a film last year is now outdated. You have to continually educate yourself which I find inspiring because I’m always thirsty for knowledge.

CL: Are there any common mistakes that new producers are likely to make during the planning stages? If so, what are they and how can future filmmakers avoid them?

RLB: Not being clear on what you want to see on-screen. I had a student show me the script for his film project and asked for my comments. There was a moment in the script where the main character opened the closet door to. . . “LIMBO.” I asked him what “LIMBO” was. What did it look like? Was it blackness? Was it gauzy gray cloth against a gray backdrop? Was it all white? He hadn’t really thought it out. When you read a script, make sure you understand everything in it. Visualize the movie.

Be sure that you understand what your budget buys you. You probably can’t shoot an avalanche on a $250,000 movie. There are lots of tricks you can use to get more production value but understand your budget limitations. Know how you are going to market your film. You should know this before you get the money. A corollary to this is to have distribution before you start filming.

CL: A lot of low-budget productions are crowdfunding their projects. Would you suggest that a producer have his project budgeted before beginning their campaign? How will they create an accurate-enough budget this early in the game?

RLB: Definitely. You will need to know what your target raise will be. You should keep your budget as low as possible and have your campaign fully planned before you announce. Crowdfunding is a full-time job and cannot be done successfully in a half-hearted manner.

In creating the budget, let the script dictate what you will need. The script needs to be in sync with the budget available. If you’re crowdfunding, keep it low. Budgeting is simply a matter of what do you need, how long do you need it for, and what does it cost.

CL: The book suggests contacting the appropriate state film commission for help concerning locations and various incentives. What might an independent producer do if the film commission isn’t terribly communicative or helpful?

RLB: There is so much competition between states now that I haven’t run into this problem. But if I did, I would try to contact businesses or organizations that might be able to help me in locating appropriate locations. There is a filmmaking community in pretty much every state.

There is an immense amount of information on the Internet regarding state production incentives. Two of the companies that provide information online for free about state incentives are Media Services and Entertainment Partners.

CL: The book contains some very helpful and extremely interesting information concerning the handling of extras. How do scenes with a large group of extras complicate a low-budget production, and how can one efficiently make the best use of them?

RLB: If they are seated or standing in an area and you don’t have to direct them, you can advertise on a local radio station that you’ll be shooting at such and such a place on a specific date and time. Tell them how they should dress and announce that you’ll be randomly giving away some nice prizes during the day such as flat screen TVs, iPads, etc. That and a box lunch will keep them there for hours. We used this very successfully to fill the Pantages Theater for The Blues Brothers. Just check the local labor laws to make sure you aren’t violating them.

On city streets, you can put your actors among the public as long as the public knows there is filming going on and by being there they are giving their consent to being photographed. This is done a lot in New York and it works best when the camera is hidden.

Cardboard cutouts have been used successfully when you don’t need movement.

A bit more expensive would be to put the crowd in digitally. The digital effects houses have gotten good at this, and often have libraries of crowds to choose from.

CL: How can the producer tell if it will be cheaper to build a set for certain scenes rather than shoot these scenes on location? How is budgeting for sets different from budgeting for a location, and how do you go about these two chores?

RLB: The only way to truly know which is cheaper is to budget it both ways, and this can be a complicated analysis, but there are rules of thumb. If you are going to be in a set for only a few days, it is probably cheaper to shoot it on location rather than build it. But if you can do it on a green screen stage and the VFX costs are reasonable, that may be the way to go. On the other hand, if you can repurpose another set you have built, it will probably be cheaper to shoot it on stage, even if you are only on the set for a few days. There are so many permutations and I haven’t even touched on production value and what the control a stage gives you is worth.

The two main differences in costs between stage sets and locations are construction costs and location costs. Stage cost will include stage rental, set construction, studio charges, and set striking. Location costs will include drivers, trucks, base camp expenses, catering (if you haven’t been catering on stage), site rentals, extras holding areas, and crew mileage. Neither of these is an exhaustive list.

CL: Assuming that a set would be the most cost efficient way to go in a given situation, how would the green producer go about finding someone to design and build the set (or sets)?

RLB: If you are making a union film, the union can give you lists of people who are available, and you can simply check their credits and ask the people they have worked with whether they would recommend them.

Another way would be to ask friends and colleagues who they like. An experienced unit production manager or a line producer would also be able to make some recommendations.

You can also check out who the art director or production designer was on films you thought had great art direction.

CL: Would this be any different for someone who was making a non-union film? How would one go about this chore under these circumstances?

RLB: Obviously, the unions would not be a source of assistance, but the other methods listed above would work as long as you stuck to the non-union pool of workers. A production manager or line producer who does mainly non-union films would be a great source of information. The non-union world has talented people at every level.

CL: Hollywood productions are known for making deals with various companies or brands in an effort to a.) raise capital for the production, and b.) obtain various props, set dressing, and other items. However, the low-budget producer won’t have the same contacts, and one would imagine that it might be more difficult to convince the company that a low-budget production is even worth their energy.

How would an independent producer go about obtaining permission from a major company? Let’s say that you want to use Coca-cola or Pepsi paraphernalia or signage in the background of a certain set. How would you go about gaining permission for this on a small budget? 

RLB: A lot of both union and non-union prop masters and set decorators have those connections and can make those deals for you. If they don’t, they know of reps who do. Companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi have people who are dedicated to product placement.

The main hurdle in getting these deals is you have to convince the company that enough people will see your movie to make it worth the cost. I’ve been on low-budget movies that did very well in this area.

CL: Screenplays often have scenes or even lengthy sequences that take place in settings that are impossible to find and seem impossible to create (especially on a limited budget). What would the producer do if a screenplay has an important location that calls for elements that may very well exist but are difficult to locate and purchase?

As an example, let’s say that there are scenes set in a graveyard for old trolley cars. Perhaps wayward individuals or homeless characters have made themselves makeshift homes from these old trolleys. How would the producer find this kind of unusual necessity? You can’t go to a store or a flea market and hope to find a bunch of old trolley cars for sale! What’s more, how could they even begin to budget for such an unusual sequence?

RLB: I am always amazed at what can be found. There are people who collect or sell all kinds of strange things. In a Google search I just did, I found 15,700,000 results in 0.85 seconds including Trolley Brokers LLC in Estes, Colorado. If you’re not in Colorado, I’m sure you can find a broker near you.

The other way to go would be to have construction mockup a few trolley cars. For a resourceful art department, this is less expensive than you may think.
Film crews are incredibly resourceful. They will find a way.

CL: Let’s imagine that a producer decides on a script that takes place in the 1950s. There is a single protagonist, and this person is in every scene. However, each sequence plays out in a different setting, and most of the supporting characters are unique to each of these various settings. How should a producer with very little money approach the planning of such a production? How would a production like this differ from other projects?

RLB: First, I would shoot all the scenes in each setting before moving on to the next setting. That means I would be consolidating the workdays for the cast members in each of the settings, and I would not be carrying site rentals unnecessarily throughout the schedule.

I don’t think it would differ all that much from what I normally do. I always finish a set or location before moving on to a new set or location if it is at all possible. Sometimes you aren’t able to do that, but normally you can.

CL: How would one go about finding the vintage cars needed for such a production? Is it possible to budget for such items without simply guessing?

RLB: Again, there are classic car brokers all over the United States who have an amazing assortment of period vehicles. Another great source would be local vintage car clubs. I’m sure you’ve seen a restored Model T or similar vehicle driving down the street. You can be certain that the driver belongs to a classic car club. These folks are enthusiastic about putting their cars in movies.

CL: Are there any cost efficient ways of obtaining or creating an appropriate period wardrobe without breaking the bank?

RLB: Hire an experienced costume supervisor. I’ve seen a creative costume department take thrift store clothing and turn it into period costumes. As long as you don’t have big crowds, this can be cost effective. Depending on the period, you may be able to rent the costumes. There are costume houses around the country that have racks full of period clothes.

CL: Where would one find or create special props like newspapers containing specific story information, or weird items like a fake brand of cigarettes (like the Red Apple brand in Tarantino movies)? Obviously, studio films will have an art department at their disposal to create these items, but the low-budget independent producer might not have this particular luxury. How would you budget for these items when it is impossible to look up the price?

RLB: Newspapers can be printed at a local printer or mocked up by a graphic designer on a computer. The Red Apple brand cigarettes are a Tarantino trope. He had a graphic designer do the artwork and then printed the labels to put around available cigarette packages. However, if you want to do a low-budget movie, period isn’t the best choice.

Now, the secret of how I budget props and set dressing: I will put a figure in both props and set dressing accounts for purchases and rentals that I can afford based on my budget limitations. It shouldn’t be unreasonable, but it also shouldn’t be overly generous. When I hire the prop master and the set dresser, I ask them to do a budget of what they think the script calls for. They will always come back with a higher figure than I have in the budget. I then tell them what I have in the budget and ask them how they can get us to that figure. They will always step up to the challenge because they are professionals at their jobs. They may come back and say they can’t get it all the way down, but they can get it close. I then ask the director where we might cut to get us on budget. Making everyone part of the solution is usually successful.

CL: Music is another element discussed in the book. In the case of our hypothetical production, what would a producer need to do if they needed on-screen performances of a piece of music? Would it be cheaper to find someone to write new music that sounds like music from the era, or would it be cheaper to license the music? How will the on-screen nature of the music change the planning of a film? How might it complicate a production?

RLB: There are many bands and/or musicians that would really like to get their music on-screen. If you found a local group or performer that could write a piece for the scene, that would be ideal. You should pay them something, and my guess is that a low-budget production would be able to afford it.

Often hiring a talented but little-known composer as your music supervisor can get you a score and songs for the price of your music supervisor. There are no royalties on music written for hire. That same music supervisor might be able to find obscure music that fits the bill which you can license for a few hundred dollars. If you are not looking for well-known music from well-known performers, it can be done.

If the scene is of a person performing the music on-screen, it would be wise to prerecord the piece so that the music will be consistent from take to take. So, a prerecord session would be necessary in the budget. You will also have music playback costs for onset playback. That will entail an operator and a playback deck with speakers and possibly a click track if there is dialogue over the music.

As an example, in the ballroom dancing scene in Dracula: Dead and Loving It, we started each take with the music audible to everyone as the extras and cast members began dancing. Because there was dialogue that needed to be recorded, before the dialogue started, the music would be faded down and replaced by a track that had audible clicks in the tempo of the music to keep all the dancing extras and our principals true to the tempo of the music. The clicks would be filtered out in post, giving us a clean dialogue track. Again, all this must be planned, budgeted, and prepared for in advance.

THE THING Ice Block CROPPED

“This was a photo from The Thing was taken to use as the prop photo that Kurt Russell finds in the burned out Norwegian camp. It was taken on a stage at Universal Studios. The people from left to right are Dick Warlock (stunt coordinator), an unknown special effects tech, Larry Franco (1st assistant director), David Foster (producer), me [Robert Latham Brown], and another unknown special effects tech.”

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