Filmmaker Diary: Making a Micro-budget Feature in 4 Days — Day One

By Tom Dever · May 5, 2018

Remember at the end of the intro where I said how exciting it is to take on so much responsibility in a low budget indie production? Well, if you want to bask in the successes you need to take ownership of the failures. And at the end of day one, we had a lot of failures.

Keeping Things on Schedule

We had a crew of eight people, including myself, and a cast of seven driving two-plus hours to this house in the middle of nowhere and immediately beginning this break-neck speed of production.

The crew got there an hour earlier than the cast. We made their call time noon to try and avoid the morning rush out of LA. Even so, give or take a few minutes, everyone got there pretty much on time. So no issues there. The issue is we didn’t hire an Assistant Director. So then you don’t have that person who is supposed to be coordinating with the camera department, the sound department, the director, the cast and saying “Hey, you need to be ready.”

In a perfect world, we would have had a budget to pay an assistant director, preferably a good one, but we didn’t so that responsibility falls on the people who didn’t hire an assistant director. As a result, we didn’t get our first shot until an hour and forty-five minutes after the initial call time, which is a disaster.

Time and Money

On any film production, the two things you always need more of are time and money. So when you waste an hour and forty-five minutes just getting people in position to start is a devastating first foot to put forward. And it really threw us off for the rest of the day. We had two less hours to get everything on the shooting schedule. It was a bunch of day scenes so we had two less hours of sunlight. And it is incredibly stressful to be chasing light.

We ended up having lunch late, which justifiably sours the mood of your cast and crew. People expect to be fed on a film set so when you, as producers, fail to feed people on time, it’s never a good situation. One of the actors in the scenes we were hoping to shoot right after lunch had car trouble coming from LA and showed up several hours after his call time. Not his fault at all, just a total “act of God” situation. Nonetheless, halfway through the first day, we already feel the budget tightening around our necks.

In the Middle of the Desert

Since we were in the desert, we had limited cell service and didn’t know when the actor was going to be there if at all. We started rearranging our shooting schedules to get some night scenes that didn’t have him in it. You try to stay calm but you start getting that feeling of stress and helplessness. This very “there is no way this is ever going to get done” feeling and “why the hell did I think I could shoot a feature in four days?” I didn’t think the first day could get worse, but it was really a precursor to the night stuff.

The majority of nighttime shots include a group of friends in a hot tub. You would think, in the desert, you’re fairly safe as far as weather goes. Our biggest concern was the high winds for the sound, but we never worried about the temperature. Well, it was TWENTY-EIGHT DEGREES at night. The crew was trying to handle equipment, but the blood was starting to leave their fingers after being outside in that kind of cold.

You think for the cast, oh they’re sitting in the hot tub, it can’t be that bad. But there are all these scenes are getting in and out of a hot tub. And once you do a single take in the hot tub, you are officially wet. So we had cast members doing take after take after take, soaking wet in freezing weather. They did their best to be understanding and good sports under completely miserable circumstances, but I could tell it was taking a toll on them. How do you not start to feel guilty watching people subject their bodies to that for a deranged producer and his crazy idea?


The day before didn’t feel that long ago. I was glorifying all the responsibility I had for a small project and then I paid the consequences for it. I woke up at my place in LA around 6:30 AM and got out to the desert around 10 AM. The crew got there at 11 and the cast at noon. We managed to make most of the day and wrapped around midnight. After eighteen hours, the other producer and I adjusted the shooting schedule to make up the scenes we didn’t get. My cast and crew fought pneumonia and were probably pissed off at me because they were fed late. So yeah, pretty rough day one.

Luckily, you plan for things to go badly on day one. Maybe not this badly, but any production is going to take time for everyone to get comfortable and find a rhythm. We invited this kind of stress and chaos with such a short ambitious shoot. The only difference is, with a four-day shoot, we didn’t just have a bad day one, we had a bad first 25% of our entire production. But what were we supposed to do? I was in survival mode. I was disappointed that I made mistakes, but I learned from them and will not make the same mistakes moving forward. I got what sleep I could and came back to Day Two focused.

To be continued.

Tom Dever writes for The Script Lab.

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