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How To Make A Micro-Budget Horror Movie From Scratch!
By James Whittington, Thursday 20th November 2008

Pat Higgins directed and produced the film TrashHouse on a shoestring, shooting digitally in warehouses in Southend. It premièred at the TromaFling festival in Edinburgh 2005, where it was awarded Best Screenplay and runner-up for Best UK Feature. It was released on DVD by Screen Entertainment in February 2006 (and later re-released by budget label Shriek in summer 2007) and received positive reviews in many magazines, including Empire. He has gone on to produce a string of successful low budget fright flicks. Here, in the first part of a four part series he gives honest and invaluable advice for those who are contemplating on creating their own horror movies

STAGE ONE: Writing

Each and every day, write a thousand words. Even if those words are ‘I can’t think of anything’ 200 times, take the time to sit and write that. Go fully stream-of-consciousness. Do not expect what you’re writing to be a finished thing; just let it be what it is.

Your only, ONLY obligation is to make sure that the file grows by 1000 words every day without using cut and paste. You have to actually type the words out, but let your quality control level be zero. If you need to get your thousand words done in the half-hour before you leave for the pub, so be it. They’ll be awful. Big deal. Just write them. It’s actually less hassle to write off the top of your head than copy down the text from something else, but whatever. Your delete key does not exist, as this is not the time for editing.

After three months, stop. You’ve now written something the size of a chunky novel, and most of it is utter crap. And some of it is okay. And, hopefully, some of it is brilliant.

Never ever let anyone see the thing you’ve produced. Because you’re going to be raiding that horribly misshapen beast for material every single time you need an idea for the rest of your amazing career. And after three months of producing such a wonky monster, the idea of crafting a sleek, streamlined storyline from all the best ideas that you can cherry pick from it will seem like a gift from the gods. If you’ve stuck to my ‘no delete’ rule, you’ll have been itching to do it since week two. Check as many books as possible on structure and pacing and hammer together something sleek and beautiful from the random spew of ideas in your document. Write it, rewrite it and get the thing brilliant. There will not be time later. Bear in mind that the screenplay is the only aspect of the whole thing where you can outdo Hollywood. Their films will look slicker than yours, sound better than yours, but if you’ve got a killer script on your side you’re at least in a fit state to do battle. If you think your script is ‘okay’ or ‘pretty good’, then it’s not good enough. Make it better or forget the whole damn thing

STAGE TWO: Preproduction
OK, so you’re armed with your killer screenplay, which has been assembled from your wonky manuscript with a close eye on utilising whatever resources you have available to you. The next step is getting organised. There are an awful lot of things that you really need to do at this stage to save you money, time and heartache further down the line; not least amongst them are setting up a limited company and getting insurance to protect you should things go wrong. Check out Chris Jones’ excellent Guerrilla Filmmaker’s Blueprint for all you could need to know about this sort of stuff.

Around this point, you’re probably thinking about casting your friends. Think about it for another minute and a half. Enjoy that minute and a half, because you’re never going to think about casting your friends ever again in your life. Just don’t do it. Oh, and don’t think about casting yourself, either. You may think you’re up to the challenge. You are wrong.
Drop a couple of emails to local universities to try and gather potential crew. Scout the net for potential cast. Hold auditions on neutral ground (maybe a function room above a pub) with at least one other person present. Remember that you’ve got a lot to prove at this stage, and you’re likely to be asking people to work for little or no money, so for God’s sake be nice to everyone you meet. Word travels fast if you’re unpleasant, and that reputation will stick.

Cast and crew your film with people that you feel you can work with, not just whoever has the most impressive show reel. You’re going to all be depending on each other to make something great; you’re going to be a team. It’s important not to forget that. Make sure that you get the paperwork sorted before you shoot a single frame; you will absolutely need individual release forms from every person involved. Get them before, not after. Plan your shoot down to the finest detail. If there’s any way you can realistically do so, enlist someone you trust to come onto the production team and deal with that side of things. It needs to be done. And if there’s a chance to get your cast together for rehearsal days, those will save time and money when it comes to the shoot. Make sure that the shoot days are scheduled to make the most of available locations, available actors and to minimise the amount of time spent moving around. How long are you going to need for the shoot? You’re probably asking the wrong guy; I’ve shot an internationally released feature in 8 days. But I wouldn’t recommend it.

What format should you shoot? Whatever you’re most comfortable with. We’re at a stage where even the cheapest miniDV cameras can still produce broadcast quality images; if your film is brilliantly entertaining there’s no such thing as the ‘wrong’ format. The choices that you make with the sound are, counter-intuitively, probably far more important. Sound is often the weakest link in many a zero-budget production. The on-camera sound will not do. At all. Trust me. Go and get a decent shotgun microphone (rent one if needs be) and a boom pole, and connect that to the camera. If the camera doesn’t have the right (preferably XLR) inputs, you might be better off recording the sound onto something else entirely (a laptop? DAT? Minidisc? There are no rules really) and synching up the good sound later, using the sound from the onboard mic as a guide.

STAGE THREE: Production
Go and shoot the thing. Try not to go insane. Try remembering that you’ll look back on this as ‘the fun bit’, even if it feels like a slow-motion nervous breakdown at the time.

STAGE FOUR: Post-production
Unless you really enjoy swearing and crying for sustained periods of time, I’d recommend editing on a Mac system. I’m just saying this from personal experience; I’m not a Mac evangelist in any other respect. I use PCs for every other aspect of my work, from writing to photo manipulation, but I cut my first feature on a PC and I never, ever, ever want to do it again. The Mac G5 that I’ve used to cut my last three features, all in HD using Final Cut Pro, has only ever crashed once. It was nice enough to warn me that it was about to do so, and suggested that I save my work so that I wouldn’t be inconvenienced. When it comes to editing a feature, go Mac and FCP if there’s any way whatsoever that you can afford it. That said, if you’re PC based and I can’t persuade you otherwise, there are several pretty decent editing options. Pinnacle, which is now a division of Avid, make various affordable packages that shouldn’t break your budget.

Take your time with the edit, and get the best music that you possibly can (making sure that you’ve sorted the legal paperwork, which can be a headache). Scour MySpace and similar sites for unsigned bands, and approach them to see if they’ll let you use their songs. Edit the movie together in a way that you’re happy with it. Then watch the film back and ask yourself a brutally honest question. “If someone offered me £10,000 per minute that I remove from the running time at this point, how much would I remove?” Then go and cut that many minutes out. Nobody will give you the money, but more people will enjoy your film. I’m a running time hardliner, and I see 82 minutes including credits as the perfect running time for a micro-budget movie. Less, and people feel short-changed. More, and they start getting bored.

STAGE FIVE: Completion

Organise a cast and crew screening, even if it's just in a room over a pub. If you've got any money at all left in your meagre budget, hire out a screening room.

The next part of the process, which is getting your movie sold and distributed, is not only tricky but its also ever-changing. The internet has changed everything, physical formats are on the way out but, in my opinion, the next mainstream distribution technology isn't really here yet. Use the net to plug your stuff and try and get reviews on sites with an interest in your genre. Film festivals are an option but can prove expensive. Make as many contacts as you can and be nice to all of them. Don't listen to anything that anyone tells you, me included, because there really isn't a rulebook in independent filmmaking and nobody knows anything. Just try and make the best film that you can. Don't get too much fake blood on the lens, and don't record any important scenes onto head cleaner tapes.

That's my advice, and my conscience is clear.

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