Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Filmmaking That’s Fast, Cheap and Under Control

When I first saw a primer on indie filmmaking called Fast, Cheap and Under Control: Lessons Learned from the Greatest Low-Budget Movies of All Times, I was eager to find out where Roger Corman fit into the narrative. And when I discovered that the opening section was devoted to Roger and his protégés (soon-to-be famous directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and Jonathan Demme). I was keen to know whether author John Gaspard had consulted my Corman biography. Turns out he had—and credited me as the source of a key Corman-related quote from indie writer/director John Sayles. So I can give Gaspard credit as a guy who does his homework. He reads what’s out there to be read, and has also spent countless hours personally interviewing indie filmmakers, along with those who’ve gone on to bigger and possibly better things. Like Steven Soderbergh, whose major Hollywood career was sparked by the dramatic Sundance success of his indie chamber piece, sex, lies, and videotape.

 True to the nature of its subject, this is a low-rent book. Let’s put it this way: the book is so cheap that my copy lacks page numbers. And, though Gaspard gives thanks to a copy editor, there’s an egregious grammatical error on the very first line of the very first page. So English majors like me might feel some dismay. Still, there’s a very good education to be had within these covers, both for those who want to make low-budget films and those curious about the kind of wildly inventive cinema that doesn’t require millions. Happily, Gaspard has a great appreciation for small films, whether they are classy stylistic experiments (John Cassavetes’ Shadows) or gruesome horror flicks (The Night of the Living Dead) or outrageous comedies that make a virtue out of cheapness (e.g. the clopping coconut shells that simulate horse hooves in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). One section is devoted to science fiction on a budget, another to mock-documentaries like The Blair Witch Project, a third to the growing field of digital “filmmaking.”

 I particularly enjoyed the tips from ambitious upstarts like Kevin Smith (Clerks) and Jon Favreau (Swingers), who explain in detail the writing and directing choices they needed to make in order to stay on schedule and within budget. For instance, Smith’s one-set film takes place in daylight hours in a rather seedy convenience store. But early on, a leading character who plays the counter man gripes that the store’s blinds are stuck shut, which means that, along with other workday annoyances, he has to do his job in semi-darkness. There’s a reason for this: Smith was actually shooting after the store closed for the night, and didn’t want to give away the fact that there was no sunlight outside the windows. In Swingers, Favreau (directing himself) looks longingly through a batch of photos of a lost love, instead of the usual Hollywood flashback to happier times. Such necessary measures often breed creativity. Longtime indie director Henry Jaglom (Someone to Love) quotes to Gaspard a lesson he learned from the great Orson Welles: “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”

 I was pleased at the inclusion of Dark Star, a USC student film that gave John Carpenter a start as a Hollywood director of sci-fi and horror by using such inventive tricks as making an ordinary beachball into a space alien. My future husband worked on that film, creating a good-looking space console out of plastic junk. Carpenter borrowed $50 from Bernie and promised screen credit. Eventually he got neither. That’s another way to save money.


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