MAKING A FEATURE FILM IN 10 DAYS AND BREAKING ALL THE RULES
We made our feature film, The West and the Ruthless, in 10 days. I know there’s a lot of great articles on how to do this BUT we decided to go ahead and make a feature film in 10 days AND break all of the rules. What are those rules? Well, I’m glad you asked.
Rule 1: Have a single location
This is an important rule that just about every single article on making an indie film will tell you. I’ve written several screenplays that all take place in one location, often horror films (as you're also told to do) and when financing came through and we had our decision to make, a Western with 25 locations or a Horror film with 1, we chose the Western with 25 Locations. That’s right 25. What were we thinking???
Well, the thinking was this. We could get all of these locations as long as they were close together. And we did that. Brilliantly I might add. We worked with Old Tucson Studios who had all the locations we needed for the film on their back lot and at the neighboring Saguaro National Park. So even though we had company moves and needed to transfer everything around, often through the desert, the distances were super short.
RULE 2: shoot in a controlled environment
We shot in the middle of the desert when it was 120 degrees and after that the monsoons started. We had security constantly watching out for rattlesnakes, rats, tarantulas, and black widows. Not so controlled. BUT this led to the realism in the film. The film is dangerous, the people are dangerous, and the locations are dangerous. Shooting out in the middle of the desert, everything is trying to kill you. Even the plants are covered in razor sharp spikes! That, on top of the record breaking heat, created a look and feel that we couldn’t have created in a controlled environment.
rule 3: never make a period piece
Every single book I’ve ever read on getting that first film made says not to make a period piece. About half the time this is also in italics or bolded. We made a western. I know, I know. Again, what were you thinking??? Well, we were thinking it could be a lot of fun. AND we were right, it WAS a lot of fun! The films that got me excited about filmmaking in the first place rarely took place during the same time and places as my life. The films I loved were always about adventure. They usually involved cowboys, ATATs, or running from giant boulders and fighting Nazis.
rule 4: never work with your husband or wife
We’re a husband and wife team, sooooo…..
RULE 5: don't use real guns
This is one I should have known ever since I was almost arrested at the age of 16 making my second short film in high school (don’t worry, charges were dropped :) These days we even run a small studio that specializes in Visual FX and Motion Graphics and have added in gun shots and smoke and muzzle flashes to tons of other films. But for this film we wanted to go as practical as possible and this meant shooting real guns.
Well, firing off real guns made the film that much better. When you have actors pretending to shoot they always want to go full Terminator (or at least I do). They don’t blink, they’re total badasses. Having real guns forces real reactions. The hand moves back, the body moves, the eyes flinch at the sound of the thunderous gunshot. And no matter how hard you try in post, it’s nearly impossible to fake that smoke and muzzle flash. I’m proud to say there is only one fake muzzle flash in the entire film and this is because an outtake looked too amazing to leave on the cutting room floor.
The West and the Ruthless, Official Trailer
RULE 6: HAVE A great DP
We shot the film ourselves and we’re so thankful that we did. Being behind the camera allowed us to make sure we LOVED every single shot as it was set up. We were laying in the dirt next to our actors and it allowed us, right then and there, to know if we had the take or not. This was also a big help since we were going to be editing the film ourselves and gave us an immediate knowledge of what we would be working with in post. My suggestion, shoot the film yourself but make sure to hire an incredible 1st and 2nd AC.
RULE 7: have a small cast
This one I’ve heard a lot. Any filmmaking seminar you go to will make you repeat this line over and over again. “Have a small cast.” Well, we had 8 leads, 2 supporting actors, and 10 extras. I’m sure you can make a great film with two or three actors, but the fun of making a film is seeing your characters come to life. So we made a lot of characters. The cool thing is that we ended up with soooooo many good performances, not just two, and it makes the entire film shine as an ensemble.
RULE 8: never work with animals
I’ve heard many times not to work with animals - ever. We had a horse team and stagecoach. People are probably right about this one, but our wranglers were amazingly cool and collected and they kept the animals cool (okay not cool, because it was the desert) but calm and collected. I mean, it’s a western, you need to see a horse at least once or twice right? We were also lucky to get desert horses that were more used to the heat than we were.
RULE 9: don't do stunts
We had a whipping scene, a throat get slit, 2 murders, and a full on shoot out. Oh, and at one point one of our actors got hit in the face with the butt of a shotgun and dragged (This was a stunt, everybody is OK!) We were lucky that one of our producers on the film, Rob Jensen at Old Tucson Studios, was also a stunt coordinator, so we got lucky with this one.
RULE 10: Have Actors supply wardrobe & makeup
A lot of producers will tell you that you can save a lot of money by doing this. Well, maybe we’re just too control-freaky but we couldn’t do this. We’ve tried this before on commercials and it rarely goes well. It was also a period piece and not everyone has the same interpretation of a western, so the costumes could have gone terribly wrong. For make up we also had an AMAZING team. Every time our actors showed up on set covered in dirt, grit, blood, and sand, they all looked perfect.