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Spirit Award nominees share low-budget secrets

The Spirit Awards celebrate the best in low-budget filmmaking. But within those honors, the John Cassavetes Award goes to films with even lower budgets: those made for under $500,000.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Spirit Awards celebrate the best in low-budget filmmaking. But within those honors, the John Cassavetes Award goes to films with even lower budgets: those made for under $500,000.

This year's five nominees talked to The Associated Press about how they did it on the cheap. The winner will be announced at Saturday's awards ceremony.


"Bellflower," about an idyllic love that turns explosively toxic. Evan Glodell wrote and directed; he and Vincent Grashaw edited, produced and co-star.

Budget: $17,000. Shot on high-definition video with three cameras Glodell built himself over three years in Oxnard and Ventura, Calif.

Their secret: "Being relentless and not compromising ever when you know what matters," said Glodell, who couch-hopped, lived in an unfinished garage and sold nearly everything he owned. "Just keep going and remember what you're trying to do and be willing to do absolutely anything short of killing someone to do it." Grashaw added: "We wouldn't have made a movie as good, I don't think, if we'd had the money. I don't think it would have been poured on the screen the same way."

The hardest part: "Staying honest and not giving up," Glodell said. "Because you question whether you're crazy or not, and this may sound totally stupid but: 'Do I even deserve to make a movie? Are my ideas dumb?' Because you're working so hard at it, you think you're crazy." Said Grashaw: "Just the fear of things totally collapsing and us not being able to finish it. If we didn't have money to put gas in the car to go do something, we'd lose a day."

Their advice to aspiring filmmakers: "What you have in front of you, the people that you know, the resources that are available to you, you can work within those guidelines," Glodell said.

"Don't think too much about what other audiences or people are going to think," Grashaw said. "Just make your own damn movie and it'll go wherever it's supposed to go after that."


"Circumstance," about a lesbian romance between two Iranian teens. Written, directed and produced by Maryam Keshavarz.

Budget: Mid-$300,000s. Shot on Super 16 film (then blown up to 35mm) over 24 days in Lebanon to look like Iran.

Secret: "Besides insanity? You really have to kind of sell people on this idea of this project: it's your first film and why you're so passionate about it. Because most people basically worked for free or they worked for, like, $100 a day. Locations were all given for free. A lot of the places where we stayed — because it was an on-location shoot — the housing, a lot of it was very cheap or free. ... To do that, I had to get there early. It was a very long pre-production. I went several months before the producers and I met everyone who was working in film."

Hardest part: "Doing anything inexpensively can be hard but in a way it can be good because it makes you more creative ... That aspect of it, coupled with the fact that we were shooting in sometimes hostile locations — we had to submit kind of a fake script to the censors and slowly the word got out that we were actually shooting something different. ... Then we had to smuggle the film out. So it's not like we were a low-budget production but then we could see the dailies every day."

Advice: "If you decide you're going to do the project, decide what your means are and make it within those means. It doesn't mean you have to get people that are less talented. There's a lot of great, talented people that, if they believe in your vision, they'll want to work on your project because they work on so many projects that they don't believe in."


"The Dynamiter," about a 15-year-old boy trying to protect his younger half-brother. Directed, co-written and co-produced by Matthew Gordon.

Budget: $250,000. Shot on digital video on the Red One digital camera over 20 days in Greenville, Miss.

Secret: "Just the generosity and the teamwork of all our cast and crew. You can get the best deal on a camera or any kind of equipment but it's the cast and crew that has to work together as one strong team to make something work — particularly on the cheap. A lot of local people, all the actors worked for free. All the locations were donated. The crew worked all for a cut rate or no rate or very little rate. It was just a family atmosphere that made it possible."

Hardest part: "There's no time, and with the resources you have, you have a lot fewer choices and have to make do. That's what you do. Time is short and when you're asking for favors you don't know what you're going to get in any instance. People couldn't make it, they'd cancel, and you're dealing with so many things that aren't preferable."

Advice: "Make sure it's absolutely something you love and have to do, and then it'll always work out. If it's really from a true place, something you love and want to share with other people, it will always work out. If you don't do it that way, every trouble, challenge is going to seem much more insurmountable."


"Hello Lonesome," featuring three separate stories about people trying to connect. Written, directed, produced and shot by Adam Reid.

Budget: $50,000. Shot on digital video with the Panasonic HVX camera over 15 days in Connecticut, New Jersey and Manhattan.

Secret: "There was no art department on 'Hello Lonesome' ... The real world, especially at this budget range, does a magical job standing in for itself," Reid said. "You strip away everything but what was essential. ... So many things are donated. I have production partners that I work with in commercials and promos and they were really excited to work on a movie so I have so much more latitude in post which most filmmakers don't necessarily get."

Hardest part: "Having patience. It's not going to happen quickly. So while the shoot was very compressed because that has to happen quickly, every other aspect of the process, including this — where we're at now, the film festival tour, getting it seen, working out the distribution stuff — it takes time."

Advice: "If you believe in your project and love the process, greenlight yourself. Turn the page and make it happen. I think it's actually the best way to work. I don't want to sound anti-Hollywood, I just think there's too much dependence on looking for acceptance and finding people who will endorse you when you won't necessarily endorse yourself."


"Pariah," about a teenage girl struggling to come out as a lesbian. Written and directed by Dee Rees.

Budget: Mid-$400,000s. Shot on 35mm film over 19 days in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Secret: "We couldn't afford a bunch of locations so (producer Nekisa Cooper) found a real estate broker who was selling brownstones in Fort Greene. So we went to them and there was a seller who was trying to sell their brownstone and it hadn't been selling, so they were happy to have us rent it out for a month. ... Then the art department was able to art out most of the house and we shot there for, like, 11 out of the 19 days. ... All the interiors were in that house. ... That allowed us to pre-rig the house and have our stuff there, have somebody stay there for security."

Hardest part: Although Rees had already made an acclaimed short version of "Pariah," raising money was difficult. "Even though we had the laurels, we'd already been to Sundance, people still were not writing the checks. ... People put this film in a box — they thought it was too small, they thought it was a black lesbian film and that's all that's going to see it, so it was still a tough sell. It was really finding people that believed in the story. Our first investors were a lesbian couple that didn't know a thing about film, who just said, 'We believe in this story.'"

Advice: "It starts with the script, so think about your script and what you need to see to tell the story. If it's an interior, an interior could be anywhere, so figure out how to consolidate resources and to build relationships early. ... The less money you have, the more time you need to prepare and to build those relationships."