My writing partner Justin Bondi and I have written several feature film scripts in the past ten years. We've even sold a few, which was both thrilling and daunting. Thrilling for obvious reasons. When that contract arrives, you think you have made it. When that check arrives, you believe it. But what happens after the sale? Well, a lot of it is really out of your control. Actors back out; directors don't get the budgets they command; producers and directors disagree on elements of the production. It's daunting to learn that most sold scripts are never made. That's a tough pill to swallow after getting so close. So after ten years of writing, we decided to make something of our own.
We settled on a short-form web series because the distribution channel is so democratic.
Justin and I are regular working guys. Our film sales have been nice gravy, but they haven't been steady enough to be a salary, nor big enough to sustain us for a long gap in our regular employment. When we decided to produce our own project, we had some tough decisions to make. What story format? What delivery mechanism? What target budget? We answered all of those questions before we settled on an actual story to tell. It was tempting to produce a feature—after all, that was the format we were comfortable writing. But we couldn't see an obvious path to distribution that would be open to a couple of newbies with very few contacts. We settled on making a short-form web series because the distribution channel is so democratic. Ten, ten-minute episodes would travel the arc of a self-contained story that we could continue if we wished. We nailed down a budget, sort of. Our lack of experience really left us groping in the dark on that one.
The scripts were nearly done when we met Kent Meloy. We had planned to direct the show ourselves on the thinnest of shoestrings. When we met Kent through a random connection on a 48-hour film project, we changed gears. Kent directed a really fun little romantic comedy we wrote called Pins and Needles. We were really impressed by the professional look of his footage on essentially no money. When he contacted us later to ask us to write something with him, we counter-punched and roped him into directing Dark Age.
Kent brought with him a lot of on-set experience. He had worked in television for about a decade, but had set aside his jodhpurs and bullhorn to have a family. When we met, he was itching to do something creative again. He brought with him Heath Saunders (DP), Zach Mueller (sound) as well as a key grip, assistant director and a boom operator. At this point, we reevaluated our plan to shoot this on a shoestring. The crew were pros who depend on their paychecks to live. We couldn't ask them to devote two weeks to do their jobs for free. So we negotiated rates for each role. None of these prices would break the bank, but it did push us to the next level of production.
Get your agreements, releases and so on in place before you shoot.
While our crew connections were slim, we do know a lot of talented actors. Happily, we got our first choice for every role. The only missing slot we had was for the character of Virgil. After standing in as Virgil during several read-throughs, Kent suggested that I just play the part in the show. I can say that acting and producing a project is a real grind. It saves money, but it takes a toll.
While this was always intended to be a simple show, we didn't want to find ourselves in the position of trying to figure out the ownership of the project when and if it started to make money. If someone comes along and wants to buy your project, the first thing they will ask is to see your documentation. Get your agreements, releases and so on in place before you shoot.
Two of our cast members were SAG-AFTRA members, which caused us no little angst. Would we have to pay them hourly scale? We really couldn’t afford to. We ended up becoming signatories to the New Media Agreement from SAG-AFTRA which allows you to defer payment for a project until and unless the project becomes profitable. It’s custom made for this kind of project. It’s good for the production, and for the actors involved. Use it. Our union contract rep walked us through the process and was incredibly helpful. If you do plan to work with the unions, you will have daily paperwork that needs to be filled out and signed. Do so every day! I ignored that advice and spent some very unhappy hours documenting the time spent on set the day after we wrapped. Save yourself the heartbreak and pre-print the forms to fill out.
We did create an LLC for the show. This allowed us to grant a percentage of ownership of the show to each of our principal cast members and our director. Since this is their compensation, we wanted it to be official and legal. There are other models for doing this. You can opt for a profit-sharing model, for instance. We went with percentage of ownership because we really wanted everyone to be fully committed to the project. We worked with a lawyer to write up the contract, and he had some very helpful advice.
We didn't bank on was how hard it is to escape the noises of the modern world.
As the show approached, our next concern became getting locations and equipment. We thought we'd been clever to set a show after an apocalypse because it would limit the number of special needs we'd have, right? Wrong. What we didn't bank on was how hard it is to escape the noises of the modern world. The illusion of a post-apocalyptic world quickly evaporates at the sound of an approaching El train. We needed isolation. We found it in Michigan. The Irish Hills is a rural vicinity just west of Ann Arbor with beautiful rolling hills, farms and very little else. A contact led us to the door of a beautiful, family-owned, organic farm where the owner agreed to allow us to film at the farm for two weeks. Lesson learned, meet people in person. Email is a great tool for a lot of purposes, but face-to-face is best if you want to make a connection.
Two weeks. That's how long we had to get principal photography for the equivalent of a feature film. And Dark Age was not going to be a fixed-angle stage shoot, but a full blown single camera piece. To say we had champagne taste on a beer budget is about right. Part way through pre-pro, we decided to shoot on Heath's new Red Scarlet rather than the Cannon 5D Mark II we had intended to use. We got lighting lined up—a truck package from Detroit Power and Light. In retrospect, we didn’t need all of the lighting instruments we had, and that inflated our costs unnecessarily. If you’re producing, really force your crew to think through the lighting needs they have. It can save you money.
Your crew also enjoys eating occasionally; We lined up a caterer.
The good thing about shooting in remote locations with friendly folks is that your locations can be cheap, or free. The bad thing is that, if your cast and crew don't live in that location, they need housing. We lined up a motel. They also enjoy eating occasionally, so we lined up a caterer. (Tip: if you have family who can help, don't be shy about asking. My own sainted mother catered the two week shoot for nothing more than supply costs.)
Once on set, we had our share of problems. Sound problems, location challenges, an unseasonably hot June that cooked us all. We had lightning strike our electrical supply and the Goodyear Blimp going by overhead. Two tips for the other newbies out there:
- Rehearse. In the heat of production, it’s remarkably easy to forget that actors need to practice and work together. Try to have several rehearsals before you get on set. When you’re on set, the actors have a lot of down time. Some of it, they need. Too much and they just end up twiddling their thumbs. Rehearse your upcoming scenes while lighting setups are being tackled. I know it sounds nuts to even say this but believe me, a lot of Hollywood productions don’t include enough rehearsal time.
- Feed them well. Cast and crew eat. A lot. Some of them will have dietary restrictions. Try to get them real food with some variety. It will make everyone happier. Happy casts don’t stomp off in a huff. Think of yourself as a host.
After principal photography came months of post-production. We found Daniel Vendt, our amazing composer. The core production/direction team did the edit. We found places that we wished we could re-shoot, but that ship had sailed. We cut an entire episode, due to problems we just couldn't address. We pressed ahead and released on schedule.
It's been over a year since the last episode was released, and we are now in pre-production for season two. Producing the show has taught us how to write cheaper where you can without reducing the perceived production value. If you’re a bootstrap film maker, you need to think about those things. Hell, if you’re a film maker, period, you need to worry about these things. Because, as much as we are all aiming to make quality work, it ain’t called “show art.”
Based in Chicago, Andrew Ludington and Justin Bondi are the founders of Red Hat Productions. Together they have sold scripts to companies including Lakeshore Entertainment and Len Wiseman’s Sketch Films. Their short film, Urban Love, appeared in numerous festivals and was picked up by American and Asian television networks. Ludington and Bondi also penned the award-winning 48-hour film festival short, Pins and Needles prior to embarking on the web series Dark Age.