I dragged the tripod through the freezing snow, setting it to rest with a few feet of distance between myself and the actors. ‘Okay guys,’ I said, my breath hanging like a cloud in the air, ‘let’s get this over with as quick as we can.’ I slated the shot with just my hands, and watched as Andrew Leland Rogers and Maria McIndoo shivered their way through the scene.
This was mid-December 2013, and as we filmed in the calf-deep snow of Astoria Park, a thought flashed through my mind – I’m actually getting to shoot film number three of three!
You see, in the preceding January, I had been stood in the same park, shooting a completely different film – number one of three, Pale Horses.
It was intense but fun, and I learned a lot about how to get a team moving fluidly on a project that basically had zero budget. At the time, I was on a three-month stint in New York, having just come off the back of a crazy year traveling and serving as a producer on a friend’s movie. Working on Pale Horses was my way of reminding myself of where I wanted to be and of what I needed to be doing.
I had written the film fast, shot it fast, cut it fast – utilizing the downtime between our shoot days to splice the movie together. This was the first time I had worked this way, but rather than feeling at a loss when everybody else was putting in the hours at their day jobs, it meant that I could be focused on making sure the movie would be done before I returned to the UK in March.
As it was, we managed to get a rough cut screening not long before I was
on that plane home – just 50 days after I had started writing the film. That’s when I truly realized how low-budget filmmaking can be liberating in a number of ways.
Instead, what was key to getting Nina Nobody made was to simplify everything. Strip it back, start over. And that’s what we did.
With crew of two and a (very) small amount of money, we got it done by the skin of our teeth, in the April/May of 2013. Of course, shooting two films inside of six months is intense, irrespective of budget constraints, but the biggest thing was I knew I’d be leaving the UK again for New York, only, this would be a permanent move. The time pressure was one I could have done without, but for both Pale Horses and Nina Nobody, I’d learned to work within the confines.
So inside of six months, I had shot two feature films – I pondered whether I could possibly make a third.
Then, in September of 2013, I returned to New York. I won’t pretend, starting over in a new country is far from easy, no matter how familiar the place might be. Despite of making two features in NYC already, and having spent more than a decade hopping the Atlantic, I had to now deal with the very real reality of going the through the laborious process of becoming a fully documented, green card-carrying resident. As anyone else who has done it might appreciate, it can also a surprisingly lonely and disorienting experience at time, whilst also being very exciting. Just knowing that I wouldn’t be seeing so many of my friends or family for a while was rough, but that I could be here, in New York, making films again, I knew it was a great opportunity that I didn’t want to pass up. I had to get film three made.
Maria and I sat on the roof of our new Queens apartment, talking over film
ideas. The summer was just checking out, and the days were starting to
shorten. But as we sat, talking over an idea, we watched the skyline of
Manhattan in the distance, thinking that just maybe we could get this
thing done before the weather would get too cold.
The concept was simple enough – Jeremy decides to propose to Steph on the
same day she chooses to break up with him. The story would follow the
two as they each confided in their best friends – Jeremy would have
Frankie (played by Maria), and Steph (played by Gillian Leigh Visco would have Ryan. I would direct, and together, Maria and I would write – our first screenplay collaboration.
The plan was to make something simple and fun, and to just utilize what we
already had – equipment, lights, audio. We weren’t going to crowdfund or raise finance, we were just going to shoot it on the hoof over the next couple of months, working around schedules.
And then, Jeff emailed me. He wanted to make a movie.
Jeffrey P. Nesker is a dear friend from way, way back. He lived in Toronto, but wanted to come to New York City and shoot a film in the style that I was
accustomed to – fast, loose and on budget so small it was almost vapor.
Before I knew it, I was writing and producing Elsewhere, NY – and our kitchen was doubling as a location as well as an impromptu production office. You can read all about the making of that film here, but the TLDR version is simply that it was intense but rewarding. It did, however, mean that by the time we wrapped on the movie – a few days before Thanksgiving – I was pretty much out of time when it came to the project that I wanted to make with Maria. The weather was turning, everything would be winding down for Christmas, and we didn’t even have a screenplay yet. I had to accept that I wasn’t going to get my three movies inside of a year made – something that I’d been gripping onto, almost as a way of proving to myself that it could be done.
Then, I got a message from Andrew Leland Rogers – one of the lead actors from Elsewhere, NY.
He wanted to check in, grab a coffee and share a laughs over the
insanity that had been the prior few months. I said sure, and so we met
up on a cold and windy day that would be a precursor to the winter
ahead. It was December, and as we talked over coffee, he told me of his
plans to leave New York in the spring. He was headed to Los Angeles,
planning to start once more there, away from the cold and with this
feature in his belt.
I told Andrew that I’d been thinking of him for a movie that I wanted to
shoot, that since meeting him, I thought he could be a good fit for the
film that Maria and I had conceived on the roof that night. We talked
about the small-scale filming that we had planned, about the simplicity
of it all, and I felt bummed that he would be gone before we would get a
chance to even start. And then, somehow, we talked it over. Worked out
that maybe we could just start shooting it. After all, I was still a
month inside my twelve month window, and there was no reason as to why
we couldn’t just make a start. Sure, there was no screenplay in place,
but we’d figure it out.
And so it was. We set a date – next Wednesday – we would shoot the first scene, and then figure it out from there.
That night, I pitched Maria on it. ‘Andrew will play Jeremy, and you’re
Frankie,’ I said, barely giving her time to get through the door.
Honestly, she’s the best person for me to both be with and to work with,
because right away, she said yes.
So what if we didn’t have the screenplay, the full cast or even much of an
idea of what would actually happen – we had the stuff we needed, and we
would surely be able to figure it out as we went.
And then there we were – filming in the snow-filled Astoria Park. It had
come down heavy in the days before, but the scene was written, and I
knew that if we could all just grin and bear it, we’d get through it
Almost immediately after, I sat down to edit the scene, piecing it together
that night. It was perfect. In spite of me being the only crew (camera on
sticks, a Zoom H4N in my gloved hands), it looked and sounded just
great. And then I realized – we might just be able to do this.
We began filming with Gillian in early January and cast Josh Hawkins as Ryan right before we drove out to Montauk to shoot.
What followed was several weeks of write, shoot, edit, write, shoot, edit,
always tweaking and teasing the story into shape as we went. And because
we had nobody to be beholden to, it was actually pretty easy. In some
ways, it was probably even logical. Who says you have to start with
everything locked in place, working top down? In many ways, working in
this style allowed us to refine the film. I was taking the model I had
started with on Pale Horses and expanding on it, using it to improve the project.
A great example of this is that shortly after we came back from filming
out at the beach, I’d cut the first 40mins of the film. Whilst it all
flowed fine, there was something missing. I wasn’t certain of what it
was, but it bothered me. I thought about it, shared the film as it
currently was with both Maria and Andrew, just to see if it wasn’t
simply because I was so close to the project. They agreed – something
was missing – everything was starting to feel a little too onerous. And
then it hit me; we needed to introduce another character.
I wrote the part of Billy when we must have filmed about 80% of the movie already. The key thing was, we needed a little comedy relief – somebody who wasn’t connected to the main plot, but rather could serve as an advisor for our protagonist, Jeremy, whilst also stating some obvious things that the plot was pointing out. And so, I wrote up a quick scene, and fired it right across to Andrew, asking if he knew anybody who could play the scene and might be available the next morning. He said he did, his friend, Julián Segura.
The following day, we shot the scene in a couple of hours. It’s crazy
really, because when I watch the film, it feels like Billy was always
there, that he was always a supporting role in the film. After this
moment, I went ahead and wrote in an additional scene, just to round out
the points we needed to hit. And the same happened with the role of
Katie, played by Annie Unnold.
Essentially, the film was locked, but I knew we were missing a beat,
and so I wrote the scene, reached out to Annie, and that weekend, we
filmed it in restaurant in Brooklyn. Everything literally came together
as we needed it.
With scenes as well, because I could see the film coming together, if
something didn’t work, we’d reshoot it or cut it entirely. If I had to
put an estimate on it, I’d say we cut out, or re-shot about a third of
the movie – much of which had been filmed outside, during one of the
harshest New York winters of recent years. And nobody ever complained –
that’s how you know you’ve got a great team.
The result has been a simple film that was allowed to be the best it could
possibly be, despite the fact that we had no money and no crew. Instead, what we did have was experience and (finally) time. It was as though, by film three, I’d gotten the ingredients just right for shooting no-money, and the project just seemed to come together.
Personally, I feel Let It Go is the best film I’ve made in a decade-plus of shooting movies. Would I ever want to make three films in a year again on limited resources and zero budgets? Not at all. But did it make me better, force me to tackle problems differently and hone my skills? Absolutely. In fact, I don’t think we’d have been able to do it any other way. Shooting three movies in a year was sort of like a self-inflicted filmmaker bootcamp – if I could deal with the pressure, I’d only get better
Of course, there’s also the the big myth about making feature films on
zero – the idea that you can’t achieve great things at a small scale, let alone speed. Something’s always got to give, right? And Mostly, that’s true, especially if you’re trying to squeeze a production that, traditionally, would have been drafted, funded and scheduled, into something that has none of the same resources.
But instead, with my year of shooting movies, I realized that I had to think about making films differently if I were to get it all done. So, when it comes to no-budget features, whilst we might not have the money and the equipment we want, we can more than make up for it with time and passion. It might have taken me a few goes to get the formula right (for me at least), but being able to look at the film, writing it as it was coming together was a blessing that money couldn’t provide.
I know that if I hadn’t worked and tweaked Let It Go as we went, it wouldn’t have turned out the way I wanted it to. Beyond even Pale Horses or Nina Nobody, I’ve made too many films in the past that have had the pressure of time attached because, well, that’s how you do it. And yes – I can see the irony – I had the false time pressure to make my third film inside of a year.
However, in writing, shooting and cutting, I allowed myself to refine it without disrupting everybody’s lives after the fact, or worse, abandoning the film for it being not what I was hoping for.
I guess, of all the things I learned in shooting three feature-length
movies inside of a year, the biggest thing has been that we really can
do what we want, the way we want. And often, it’s for the benefit of a
better movie. In fact, I learned to stop trying to make a film along the
rails of a big-budget production, feeling like I was a fraud because I
couldn’t do all I wanted, but rather, I took what I had, and made the
most from it all.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, that first scene that we shot in the snow…? Yeah, we cut it.
Let It Go is released as a DRM-free download via Cinema Zero Distribution on September 23 2014. You can pre-order the film via Gumroad here, which includes the deleted scenes and more.
The film is also screening in London on September 13 at Portobello Film Festival, in New York City on September 23 at Anthology Film Archives and in Los Angeles on September 24 at Hollywood Media Center.
Find out more on Tom Wilton and the three films he made in a year via Projectbootleg.com.