BIG BRAINS - small budgets: DIY Filmmaking Advice

BIG BRAINS – small budgets: MJ Dixon (Creepsville, Slasher House, Legacy of Thorn)

MJ Dixon was born in Sunderland, North East England. He started his career in film working as a PA on local low budget indie productions and soon grew to have aspiration of creating his own feature length films. Studying a degree in both filmmaking and screenwriting at the University Of Central Lancashire, as well as the initiation of the company Mycho Entertainment Group led to the production of his first No Budget feature Creepsville.

I think the most important thing that anyone who wants to make a movie can do is become a sponge for information. Read books, watch videos, read articles on the internet. You can find in-depth information on almost any aspect of filmmaking, from writing to distribution and beyond on the internet very easily and it’s a great first step. However, do not to stop there.

I read about making movies from as young an age as I can remember, but I didn’t really understand it until I first set foot on a film set. I started out helping out on other peoples’ movies, in front of and behind the camera, and that was the most important place for me in terms in of learning, just being there and doing it and gaining the experience. I certainly think that the best way to learn how to do anything is by doing it, even if you fail the first time or the first ten times. You’re learning lessons every time and you carry that with you in whatever you do next. So I would say that just going out and doing it is the most valuable advice I could give to anyone who wants to make movies. No one will do it for you.

The second piece of advice is kind of an extension of the first. Don’t make excuses. There are a billion reasons why you shouldn’t go out and start making movies – lack of money, experience, actors, equipment, etc. These things are all just hurdles, or challenges, that can be overcome. I know dozens of filmmakers who never made anything, because they were waiting for money or the right time or saving up to buy some expensive kit and now they are waiting for their cheque from their call centre job every month so they can pay their rent and bills. They just had excuse after excuse not to do it. If you want to be a filmmaker, you simply can’t make time for excuses. If you don’t have money, make something that doesn’t cost anything. If you don’t have a camera, borrow one. If you don’t have time, make time.

That really leads me on to my third tip. Use your brain. Filmmaking is all about solving problems. If you can’t solve problems in terms of getting a film together in the first place, then you’ll be dead in the water when you get to a film set. I meet so many people who ask how to solve a problem before they have even started to look for a solution on their own. It’s a bad practice to get into because when it comes to making your film you’ll need to figure it out on your own most of the time, or else.  If you can’t do that, shooting will stop. This delays everything, which means maybe falling behind time, maybe you end up canceling for the day, maybe you can’t get your actors back for another day and, ultimately, maybe your film never gets finished. There is always a simple solution to a problem and your job is to find it. This comes from experience, and experience comes from just going out and doing it.

When I set out to make my first feature, Creepsville, we had no money. I was earning about £35 a week as I had just graduated and no one really wanted to hire graduates at the time in the UK film industry. This meant that we couldn’t buy any of the things we needed. Even props and costumes had to come from stuff someone already owned. We needed some very specific things. We needed a taxi, masks for masked maniacs, specific clothing items for characters and one very specific location that we had written into the script on a whim and really loved. However, we couldn’t offer money for these things because it just simply wasn’t there to offer, so we had to look for alternatives in terms of how we could get the things we needed.

To solve these problems I just asked people I knew if they had any of the things we needed. We borrowed a taxi sign from a taxi company near where I worked and one of the crew loaned his car that fit the bill. For the masks, we went to a company called Rubber Gorilla based in the UK and showed the owner some of our short films. He liked them and agreed to loan us the masks we wanted.

Costumes came from things we owned and outside of that we asked the actors to donate their own costumes to the project, with the understanding they would most likely not come back unstained. It really was a ‘beg, borrow, steal’ kind of scenario where we just got hold of the stuff we needed any way we could.

In terms of location, that was a bit tricky. Luckily I worked in an old mill, so we knew we could use that. One of the crew had a band that practiced in an old warehouse, so we knew that we could also use that. The scene that we thought would be the hardest was the finale which took place in an old abandoned train carriage. However, we soon discovered that there was a company that fixed up old trains not too far from us. We called them up and asked if we could spend a couple of days shooting in the one of their old trains and, to our surprise, they agreed. Sometimes all you have to do is ask.

Filmmaking, in general, is difficult – writing a good script is hard, casting is hard, shooting is hard, post-production is hard, but they are all difficult in different ways. I always say that “Pre-Production is the last time that you get to enjoy your film as you imagine it”. The reason for that is that once it comes to shooting, and then editing, it becomes about making compromises in terms of time and what you actually have available to you. The part I personally dislike the most is sound editing, because of how long and time-consuming it is and how difficult it is to get it right. If you mess it up you can ruin your film. I learned that the hard way on my second film, Slasher House, after the sound guy dropped out halfway through. I had to pick up the sound mixing on my own, which I had never done before, and it suffered as a result. Not by much, but enough to make me unhappy with how it came out.

Post-production is where you find out what kind of film you are really making and the hardest part is getting that right and making sure everyone’s hard work pays off. When making Creepsville, my motivation was simply to make a feature. Something that would get us noticed as filmmakers, actors, cinematographers etc. We had made dozens of short films and, although we had a growing audience, our reach was limited. We wanted something we could take to distributors and put out there in the real world. I felt like I had some great stories to tell and that this would be a realistic first step into getting a chance to do that. It worked too, because before we even finished the film we had enough interest in Creepsville to help us find funding for our second film, Slasher House, which in turn helped us find funding for our next film, Legacy of Thorn. So I guess you could say the main motivation for making movies was so that we could make bigger, better movies.

In terms of inspiration, I had a lot of people who inspired me. I’ve been a lifelong horror fan so I grew up with filmmakers like Dario Argento, John Carpenter, Wes Craven and Charles Band and they were big influences on me in regards to me being interested in films and filmmaking in the first place. However, in terms of inspiration for actually going out and making my first feature, I discovered a group of filmmakers, Pat Higgins, Al Ronald and Jim Eaves, who were based at the other end of country who were just doing what I wanted to do. I would rent their movies and just kind of study them and see how they had managed to pull off what they had on seemingly minuscule budgets. They were so influential because they were the closest thing I could find to myself and they made me see that that my  goal was achievable, because I could see these guys out there just doing it right now and that was what helped me take the first big step.

DIY filmmaking is defined in its own terms, it’s about simply going out and making your own movie, ignoring financial restrictions and making movies in spite of them – that’s my take on it anyway. You’ll hear a bunch of different answers to that question because it means different things to different people, but to me, it’s certainly about just getting up and going out there on your own, no studio, no money men and most of the time no investors, at all.

I’ve made films where I’ve had investors and there is a large amount of pressure that comes with that, as well as a certain amount of compromise to your artistic freedom. Without investors you might have to pay for things little by little as you go, always being conscious of ways to save money and cut costs, but it can be a very freeing way to operate. Creatively, it’s extremely liberating and without financial pressure you’re free to decide how you want to approach your film in a much more artistic sense. DIY filmmaking means going and doing it yourself. As I said earlier it’s the best way to learn and grow as a filmmaker and to eventually find your own voice.

There are, of course, downsides when it comes to DIY filmmaking. The lack of funds is a big one that often scares people away from doing it. Traditional filmmaking, as it goes, is usually a large studio giving a director a script or the green light to go ahead and produce a project for a projected budget. There is an almost unending supply of money once you get to the top and that, I imagine, is great. But making something like Batman or Spiderman, you suddenly find that money comes with restrictions and filmmakers in Hollywood often find themselves stretched creatively as they discover that their large budget leaves them in the pockets of their executive producers.

Independent filmmaking is a strange beast, as it seems to have become a term that Hollywood now uses to suggest that a film that they have produced is more artistic in nature. It used to be a term for a film that was produced independently from the studio system. Now, it’s almost a genre in itself, so it’s become a broad term that can mean lots of things. Most independent films still find their hands tied by investors who want certain thing in exchange for their financing. The line between independent and Hollywood filmmaking is blurring all the time.

Filmmaking is about balance. You can’t really have big budgets without losing out on artistic control and if you can’t have artistic control and have a big budget then there has to be a trade-off. There are some directors out there that manage both, but we are certainly talking about the top dogs like Spielberg, Tarantino and others like them who get to do what they want to a degree and still keep their larger budgets. I guess if you want to really break down the differences it really becomes about where the pile of money comes from to make your film and how big that pile of money is. DIY is an important factor for filmmakers, as it gives filmmakers of all walks of life, whether they are seasoned pros or just starting out, a voice in regards to the films that they want to make and how they are made. Equipment is so inexpensive now that in many ways we can match the production value of big budget movies from the luxury of our own homes and that really changes the way that we start to make films.

The first feature film I made was shot on borrowed MiniDV cameras that cost around about £5000 at the time. I could shoot that film on £300 camera now and it would look 100 times better. We have that kind of technology now, and it just refuses to slow down in terms of putting high quality in the hands of anyone who wants to shoot their own film. The advice that I always give to other filmmakers is that they should do their best to make their visions unrestricted and DIY filmmaking really allows for that to happen. You can make whatever you want, source your own audience and of course even release something on your own these days with very little cost to yourself.

In the future, I certainly think we’ll see the rise of ʻmini studiosʼ, as filmmakers start to fund, produce and release their own work just like large studios do and with that, find their own viewers and audience. It’s an exciting time to be a filmmaker for sure, as the sky is kind of the limit and as technology gets better, we start to close the gap when it comes to big budget quality and no budget quality. It’s not all wine and roses though; the access to inexpensive tools has led to a huge flood in the market for films that 10 years ago just wouldn’t have existed, and it certainly putting a strain on retailers. When we finished Slasher House in 2012 and began looking for a distributor, we received a large amount of offers from all over the world. A year later when it came to doing the same with Legacy of Thorn, we got about half the amount that we did with Slasher House and were constantly told that the market was ʻsaturatedʼ with low budget films and so they started to become reluctant to take them.

The future of how we make films is bright and exciting, but the future of how those films get seen is a real grey area that may force us to move online exclusively to watch new movies as the outgoing cost drops drastically when you compare it to a DVD and Blu-ray release. Hopefully, something will appear to change the game all together. Making your own film on your own terms, for the most part, gives you incredible freedom in that there is really no one to answer to but yourself. If you believe in your vision then you want it to be as uncompromised as possible. That’s the very reason I made Creepsville on nothing, because every time we came close to having money men involved, they wanted to make changes that would ultimately take it in a different direction to the one I wanted it to take.

I wrote Slasher House with the intention of either selling the script or raising a few hundred thousand to make it, but I soon realized that, should that happen, the script I had written would find itself compromised. This led to me setting out to make it on very little, but keeping it uncompromised in regards to the final product. It was about keeping creative control and letting its unique voice shine through. Had it been made with funding or by a studio it would certainly have been whittled down into something much more cliché.

It was big lesson for me, that my own voice was important when it came to making films. Everyone with money is chasing the market to make sure their film is as ʻsellableʼ as possible and I just never had any interest in that, at least not if it didn’t sit with the kind of films I wanted to make. DIY filmmaking is the perfect way to do just that – make what you want, because you can. I often get asked if it’s worth it, all the sleepless nights, the tiring production days, the stress and all the problems that appear throughout the process of making a feature length film on your own. It is certainly a double-edged sword.

Financially, it’s very hard to make films, even for a couple of thousand dollars/pounds/euros, and make money from it.  There are a lot of other people doing exactly the same thing and you have to work hard just to stand out from the crowd and then hope your film actually makes any money. It’s not impossible and with the rise in platforms for self-distribution and such, there is now a viable way for any film to get to market, but to make any money, even enough to cover half the cost of film, takes months and months of hard work after you’ve tired yourself out from making a movie on the little funds that you have. Creatively, however, I can’t imagine a better job. I spend most of my days outside of editing and organizing, coming up with new worlds, ideas and characters that I get to watch grow and develop and eventually appear, fully formed on the screen for others to enjoy and that is a blast. It certainly makes me feel very lucky that I’m in position to do so. The dream, of course, is to marry the idea of making a profit from that creativity and that is becoming more and more viable every year. For now though, as long as we carry on being able to make these films on our own, I’ll remain happy.

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