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Music for the Weekend: Jasmine by Jai Paul.
Let’s talk about money.
So with the Paul Pope film I’m dealing with a budget much larger than I’m customarily used to. I have to admit, after ten years of making low-budget indie films, I kind of only know how to make movies one way, on the cheap. I’ve had to find ways to expand my budget to fill the needs of my potential financiers, which sounds weird but there are indeed production companies who just won’t do smaller budget films, and they’ll only entertain films at a certain level. So I’ve had to create three versions of the screenplay, one with an unbelievably large budget, one medium, and one that I can do with the money I have immediately available to me. I do this so that if none of my financing options work out, I know I can still go into production right away without having to compromise my original vision.
One would think that writing an expensive film would be easy, but it’s actually a lot harder than it appears. You can easily expand your budget through above-the-line costs, i.e. an expensive cast. I’m not a firm believer in this, as A-list is no longer a guarantee for a film’s success. You can do the James Cameron approach, which is to cast up-and-comers and place them within a high concept. That frees up money towards the production, and as a producer I always believe that money should be put up on the screen.
I came to the conclusion that I can ratchet up two items. The first is visual effects, specifically in the creation of landscapes and adding textures. I can also use them to bolster the physical stunt work.
The second, and most important, item that I can ratchet up is the duration of the shoot. Frankly I’m pretty tired of shooting features in 15-18 days, and just once I’d like to a have a solid 3 months to put a film together. This benefit is absolutely immeasurable, and it’ll put some years back on my life expectancy. Making an ambitious anamorphic feature in 18 days is murder.
The best example of this is comparing the Swedish and American versions of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. This is a superb example because they share the same story, but the Swedish version was done for $13 million, and the American version was done for $90 million. Both films are uniformly excellent, the production is top notch and the performances of both Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander are fantastic. Both actresses put their own spin on the character, and both interpretations are riveting.
Sure Daniel Craig would have cost some money, and I guarantee they paid Rooney Mara more than what they paid Noomi Rapace. But the real budget becomes apparent in the exquisite details of the American version. David Fincher is a perfectionist in the truest and best sense of the word, and his attention to detail is remarkable. With his budget he was allowed to have his team go into the intricate and telling details of costume, setting and sound. A side-by-side comparison reveals that the Swedish version, while affecting, is forced to be more visceral largely because the budget was not there to create nuance and atmosphere. Fincher is allowed to create a world where Salander and Blomkvist blend into their surroundings, and they slowly bring each other out of hiding. In the Swedish version, the characters are up front and occupy the entire screen, and the notion of deep cover is lost. It is attempted, but the budget simply does not allow for it.
We also see the shot selection and coverage on Fincher’s film is extraordinary. He’s able to film small details like people picking up cups, using vending machines, the inside workings of Salander and Blomkvist’s research. Fincher shot for 140+ days, which is incredible. It allows him to cover his world and ideas in its entirety, and it also allows him build texture and character through the tools of cinema. The Swedish version is very efficient and straightforward, and it tells the story with a fairly deadened atmosphere and psychological darkness, whereas Fincher’s film does the same and adds a physical world that screams of evil and mystery.
It’s true that you can make a good film for $300,000 (Lilith, :)) and make a dud for $300 million (John Carter). But to make a film on a low budget requires the filmmaker to make sacrifices that can be detrimental to the narrative. On Lilith I was forced to do long takes because I simply didn’t have the time to do coverage, close-ups and punch-ins. But because I love long takes, my limitations sort of fit my plan for the film. But if I needed that coverage, I would have done a single lighting set up and then bang out the coverage with handheld. But then I would have compromised the meditative, creepy atmosphere that I have in Lilith. I ended up having to chop sequences out of the script to make up for time, something which is excruciatingly painful and dangerous. But I really didn’t have a choice.
And that’s what it boils down to - producing and directing is a series of compromises where you stand firm on what you feel is essential to the story, and give slack on the things that might be very cool, but ultimately can be done in a quicker and cheaper fashion. And the creativity of the director is what can overcome all of these things, but to a limit. Can’t squeeze water from a stone, as they say.
Every filmmaker says there isn’t enough of two resources on every shoot - time and money, because both are intrinsically tied into one another. My expensive budget asks for a 90 day shoot, which means that for three months I’ll have house, feed and pay the salaries of a small army of people. It’s very, very expensive. But if I can do it, then it’ll be the best possible thing that could happen to my project. I’ve always said that money never buys us happiness, but it does buy us the time to go out and find that happiness. And that’s my goal.
Have a great weekend!