Making the No Budget Horror Film

Around 2016, I approached Lindsay Barrasse and David Corigliano of Voyager Video  with a script I wanted to shoot.

The project was the short horror film The Road Less Traveled, and after a couple years of pre-production, re-writers, rescheduling, etc — we brought it to reality. Not just that, it’s also been accepted to over 20 film festivals and won 3 awards: Best Suspense at Con Carolinas Film Festival, Best in Show at the Sands Film Festival and Best Director at the Highlands Film Festival.

Genius poster design by Des Z Graphics. You can see more of her work here.

Here I will go over the basics of putting together the no-budget short film, so you can apply similar principles to your own film making exploits.

Keep in mind I’m keeping some details vague because I want you to see this film at a screening without being spoiled.

Script

Even a short film needs a good script. The Road Less Traveled (originally Hunted and something a little more spoilery) went through about 15 total drafts.

The Road Less Traveled versionsAround 15 drafts in 3 different screenwriting programs

I wrote the very first, very rough draft in 2014 while I was still at SCAD. In it, a girl named Mia is abandoned at a bar by her friends, and is captured by two bad men in a badass car for nefarious purposes.

I had my dear friend Masha T. Jones, a fantastic writer, critique the first early drafts and she gave me great pointers. Eventually the story shaped into what it needed to be for me to present it to Lindsay to direct.

With Lindsay’s creative mind attached, we added a scene with a gas station attendant to set up our story’s main antagonist, Clyde.

Thanks to the helpful critiques of my fellow creatives, the script morphed from a thing with too many locations and characters to a road movie with a new destination. And that destination came about because of location issues.

Locations

When RLT was submitted to Screencraft’s Short Film Production Fund Contest, we were in the running for a 10K budget, but only managed the semi-finals. We could no longer afford to rent the slaughterhouse location we originally envisioned. After several location scouting days driving around rural Northeast Pennsylvania, Lindsay quite by accident found a client who said he had an old creepy barn he’d be willing to let us shoot in. Ronald Augelli of We Talk Shirty invited us to his property to check out the place, and after I took some location pics, we knew we found the right place where Clyde might take his victim.

The Crew

The core crew consisted of myself, Lindsay Barrasse, David Corigliano and Desiree Zielinski. We all wore multiple hats.

We all worked on separate aspects during pre-production. Lindsay and Dave were the producing team, bringing all the elements together. Desiree was off doing amazing production design, I built the monster.

The reason this all worked was because we’ve all worked with each other before, multiple times. But we also broke up the filming into reasonable chunks and worked around people’s schedules.

The best piece of advice to keep a crew happy? Make sure they’re fed. Lindsay and I split up craft services duties — we always tried to have coffee and snacks and beverages on set at all times. At the end of two major shoot days I bought everyone dinner at a local diner. A fed crew is a happy crew.

Practical Effects

We did not have the budget to hire someone to do VFX. That left one avenue for production — all practical effects.

Our fog machine broke the day we needed it, so we ended up asking Dave — such a sport — to vape-pen throughout a scene outdoors at night so we could get that lovely texture in the air. (Don’t do this, just get another fog machine!)

Our monster at the end of the story? I’ve been asked at several screenings how I did the VFX on that. There wasn’t any. That monster was created through several awkward trips to Jo-Ann’s Fabric and Michaels in Dickson City. I actually put some detail into it — moving mouth and eyes, realistic teeth and claws — but it looked a little goofy so I told Lindsay, “Let’s make sure we only see this thing in silhouette.” Sometimes the Jaws approach is best when you don’t have a professional making your monster.

Equipment

I was luckier than most, because Voyager Video is a full on production company. Lindsay and Dave came complete with lighting and sound gear. We used my Sony A7S and one of their cameras along with basic light panels.

BTS RLT 3

Scheduling and Problem Solving

Our biggest hurdle was probably scheduling. This short film, though only about 11 minutes long, took us about 2 years to produce. That was because 1. we were shooting at the tail end of fall when the leaves are giving up the ghost. and 2. we had to work around everyone’s schedules.

The caveat of filming and asking everyone to work for free is you need to be very reasonable with their time. Everyone had work, different projects, plays and events to be a part of that couldn’t be put on hold for this film. So we filmed it in pieces when we could get people together. We literally had to stop filming at one point because it snowed soon after.

Some of the drone flying shots were done by Jonathan Edwards in January. Let me tell you, driving a ’67 Impala with NO HEAT in the buttcrack of winter is not fun. I was wearing a heavy winter jacket, a blanket, and several conveniently placed Hot Hands to keep me from freezing while I drove the car.

Separating that filming time caused other unique issues. One, Casey Thomas, our Clyde, misplaced his trademark green jacket before we were done with it, so we replaced it with another, similar looking one. Camille’s (Mia) red dress got a rip from running around a previous shoot day, so we avoided seeing that part of her dress the next time. Camille had also gotten an extremely different haircut, so the hair you see in the final moments of the film is actually some faux extensions she added back in. Movie magic!

1967 Impala at NEPA FFThe Impala visited the Northeast Pennsylvania Film Festival earlier this year.

Working with an antique car means you might have some surprises, as I did when I tried driving it to set one day and it petered out on a hill. I became a bit of an amateur mechanic that day, sleuthing what the problem might be. Water in the gas? Bad connection somewhere? When my Dad returned from vacation we found it was power related and replaced the alternator, spark plugs and spark plug wires. After a little tuning, it ran fine.

Plan for any and every eventuality on your own film — and you’ll still be surprised by something. It happens on every set, but being able to work around small issues will be pivotal in making your own short film happen.

Film Festivals

We submitted to very specific film festivals. We picked genre specific film festivals and festivals connected to conventions. Since our subject was horror, and we had a geeky Supernatural homage in there, that was our best bet.

Upcoming Screenings for The Road Less Traveled

NEPA horror film festival other posterOctober 13th – Dickson City, PA
  • October 13, 2019 — NEPA Horror Film Festival

It’s at a drive-in movie theater! The Road Less Traveled will be screening during the local films block. You can also see Enoch, a film I did the Steadicam work on. Tickets for the film fest are $10 online, and $14 at the gate.

See our event page here.

sick chick flicksOctober 12th – Cary NC
  • October 12, 2019 — Sick Chick Flicks Film Festival in Cary, NC.

Let us know if you can make it! Passes start from $20. See details on the website.

See our event page here.

  • October 13 – The Hobnobben Film Festival in Fort Wayne, IN.

See the film festival site for tickets and schedule here.

pa indie shorts.jpg

  • November 2, 2019 — Pennsylvania Indie Shorts Film Festival at Pocono Cinema and Cultural Center in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.

An internationally curated short film festival, right in East Stroudsburg. Say hi to my alma mater ESU for me!

  • November 19-22 – The Great Northern Creative Expo at The Media Factory Kirkham Street Preston, Lancashire PR1 2XY (The UK).

See our event page here.

You can follow our ongoing journey at our Facebook page.

Find us on Instagram: theroadlesstraveledfilm

Small thinking and Downsizing

I Redbox’d Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, fully expecting an unusual, indie-ish film with a decent special effects budget and commentary on human excess. What I found was a hodgepodge of themes so mashed together as to resemble a brown sludge instead of a solid idea.

It’s an intriguing concept; A scientist discovers how to shrink humans to 5 inches tall, reducing their carbon footprint. Married couple Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristin Wiig) decide to undergo the procedure so they can have the home of their dreams, only to have Audrey leave Paul when he is shrunk first. It all kinda meanders from there.

downsizing

Downsizing touches (but doesn’t commit) on the following themes:

  1. Ecological responsibility/the Green Movement
  2. Economic/Socio-economic disparities
  3. Emotional — Paul dealing with a new life after being abandoned by Audrey
  4. Political/xenophobic

The problem with all these, albeit great thematic elements, is the fact that we bounce between them, never fully embracing enough to make a strong premise.

From this point on there will be spoilers (including the ending)

The Green Movement

The scientists who created the process of downsizing did so in order to reduce our emissions and help save the world. The term “downsizing” comes from the idea of simplifying one’s life for overall improvement. A company may downsize to cut costs, or an individual may downsize their home to make it more manageable to take care of.

The movie also illustrates the green movement by showing the shared cars in the tiny city Paul moves in to. Everyone shares what appear to be electric cars.

By the end of the movie, 3% of the world’s population has downsized, but it’s not enough to keep the polar ice caps from melting. Too little, too late. Pun intended?

Socio-economic Disparities

The most interesting theme in the movie, from my point of view, were the socio-economic differences present among the little people.

At first it appears that mostly the middle class folks downsize because their money is worth more when they undergo the process. They can afford lavish mansions and live comfortably off their savings. Other people downsize as a personal choice, so escape their current life and have a fresh start.

Later on, we’re introduced to the lower-class (and mostly ethnic) residents of Paul’s city. These people still have to work for a living, some of them as maids to clean the rich people’s mansions and apartments. Paul is introduced to this world when he meets Vietnamese activist Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). She was shrunk against her will and now cleans apartments while hobbling on a poorly designed prosthetic leg.

hong chau

The disparity is shown in stark relief as Paul sees Ngoc’s side of town. First off, they have to take a crowded bus which takes them through the wall of the city’s enclosure and into a dismal town outside the wall. If that journey through the wall doesn’t say a lot about economic disparity, I don’t know what does.

Paul’s interaction with this woman is the heart of the story, and frankly what the story should have stuck to. It’s touching, it’s smart and it’s a logical endpoint for Paul to reach some conclusions on what he is worth. He can help these people with so many of their problems, either through his occupational therapy training or by helping them get food.

Sadly we had a few other themes to muck it all up.

Emotional

I tacked this on because it’s more of a plot point that doesn’t get resolved.

Audrey abandons Paul right after he’s downsized. This is something that is given away in the trailer, and lost a lot of emotional impact since it was not a surprise. It also felt very forced. Audrey never seemed thrilled about downsizing. Why did they go through with going to get the procedure? This is likely more a problem with the character than the story.

After that plot point (Audrey leaving) we get no payoff. Sure we see Paul mulling through life post-Audrey, but we don’t get a nice book-ending moment. He doesn’t see Audrey again, doesn’t speak to her, doesn’t really come to terms with it. We can argue that his friendship and later relationship with Ngoc serves that purpose, but I feel something was missing.

Political/Xenophobic

As soon as there’s anyone who’s different, there’s going to be people who hate them.

A man approaches Paul at his going-away party prior to downsizing. The man is noticeably annoyed, and says the little people should not benefit from the rest of the country’s taxes since they don’t pay any taxes, and that they should only have a portion of a vote when it comes to elections.

The guy is a racist jerk motif to the tee…but is he wrong?

Of course he is but part of the problem with the downsizing concept is that it’s not fully fleshed out. How is it economically viable to have these little people living off their savings for the rest of their lives? Forget the conversion rate of the tiny houses being so cheap, what about whenever they need to buy products or services outside their tiny cities? Not everything is produced in the tiny city. Their money can’t possible retain it’s inflated value in the outside world. That bottle of vodka from the trailer should be worth a million dollars!

And how are these people not paying taxes? How did that slip the government’s radar? Sure, the process was hailed as a tax write off because #greenmovement but …how?

Despite all that, and the interesting parallels with real-life xenophobia…the hatred between normals and little people is never expressed again.

Ending Thoughts

Downsizing was a mixed bag. Sure it had an interesting insights into the pros and cons of this imaginary medical procedure….but the fact that it couldn’t focus and elaborate on some key elements made it a bit of a mess.

If you are about to watch it, prepare for a slow beginning and meandering plot until Ngoc Lan Tran arrives, because she’s a wonderful addition. Maybe the story should have been more about her?