The Art of No-Budget Filmmaking – By Courtney Fathom Sell

I read a lot of articles concerning low-budget, independent filmmaking and the strategies, tactics, or procedures the Filmmaker could use in order to successfully complete their project without the help of any large funding or studio support. In fact, a large portion of my book collection consists of ‘how-to’ independent filmmaking books friends had either given me or I came across one bored day at the book store. Perhaps I simply keep them on my shelf as conversation pieces, or to let my friends know that I am in fact an Actual Filmmaker – even though they most likely have ever seen any of my work. Now please don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the articles or books that help independent low-budget filmmakers accomplish their projects, however these books have absolutely nothing with what I do. You see, I reside at the bottom of the totem poll in the film industry, for I am a no-budget filmmaker. Sure I can pretend that reading articles about the Sundance Film Festival or Tribeca is beneficial to me, but in the long run, my work has been constantly pushed aside, ignored, and thrown away by such large festivals. As discouraging as it is to realize your work will rarely see the light of day, one must wonder, is there any hope for the no-budget filmmaker?

I grew up idolizing filmmakers such as Paul Morrissey, Jack Smith, Cassavetes, Kenneth Anger, and Stan Brakhage, so it’s safe to say that I have always held closely the thought that since my heroes were outsider filmmakers, I would eventually follow in their artistic footsteps – or at least attempt to do so. This naivety has saved me from crippling depression upon receiving rejection letter upon rejection letter from every festival I had spent my spare change submitting too. Well, I thought, if they could make it without following the formal conventions of Hollywood, so can I. However, what I misunderstood is the fact that the term ‘Independent film’ has slowly begun to change and alter in its definition since the days of Jack Smith. Back then, being an ‘Independent Filmmaker’ was much closer to being a no-budget reject of the glitz and glamor of Hollywood. Now a days, the real ‘Independent Filmmaker’ cannot even pay money to get his work into a Festival that claims to be celebrating ‘Independent Film’. Somewhere down the line, the border between Hollywood and Independent became extremely thin, allowing commercial work to be considered Independent when it may prove to be a selling point. Since "indie" has become cool, Hollywood has overtaken it, leaving the real ‘Independent Filmmakers’ out on the street. But then again, that’s where we were in the first place, so why should it bother us now? Perhaps the issue I have is not the fact that many important films are being ignored by these institutions, but the fact that they are considering themselves ‘independent’ when in fact, it is secretly Hollywood in disguise.

To give you a little background as to who I am and why I felt the need to write this article in the first place, I am myself an ‘Independent Filmmaker’. I feel qualified to use that title to describe myself simply because I feel it best suits what I do in the truest sense. As an ‘Independent Filmmaker’, I have shot nearly 100 films, music videos, commercials, and documentaries on the same Hi 8 video camera my Parents gave me as a Christmas present when I was a freshman in High School. Since I have never been granted an actual budget, though I have spent many late nights unsuccessfully applying for grants in the past, I have worked with whatever money I have in my bank account at the time, usually supporting both myself and my project by working odd jobs here and there. From scraping barnacles off the bottom of boats down at the local boat yard, to playing my guitar on the street, I have done mostly everything one can do in order to rake up enough change to make a film – including of course, your fair share of petty crimes which I will not go into detail here.

While one may be quick to consider me stubborn for continuing on such an arduous path, including my own Parents, they must realize that I am simply following my dream of becoming a Filmmaker and have always been aware it was not going to be easy. Though I must admit, I had no idea it would be this difficult, but then again, I can’t remember a time where I read about someone with a Hi 8 video camera making a big splash in the film scene anyways. When I write that times have been hard, I promise you that I am telling the absolute truth. During my eight years of making no-budget films, I have been witness to hundreds of things, both beautiful as well as terrifying which have caused me many sleepless nights due to self-doubt and thoughts of reconsidering my career path. From being a witness to a vicious murder on a Brooklyn street corner, to documenting the final moments of my Father’s life through the lens of my camera, being present when my best friend revisited the area where his childhood home once stood before Hurricane Katrina devastated the landscape, being held up at gunpoint by Military Police, and the countless amount of times of having my life threatened by volatile documentary Subjects, I have lived an entire lifetime in just eight years. Now, I don’t state these moments as a means to boast or to come off sounding tougher than I am, but to simply give you a better understand as to some of the tricky situations I have been involved in due to my chosen career. Becoming a no-budget Filmmaker was a fate I had to accept. However, one that I would never give up for anything else. Granted, anyone can go out and make films without finding their own lives in danger, yet I guess stepping out of my comfort zone and witnessing a side of life I never saw as a child in suburbia interests me the most. That’s just me.

Film is my life, and without it, I would be a useless and lost human being. To be an artist without means to create the art you dream of creating would be hell. Therefore, I have chosen to work with whatever equipment I have in my possession at the time, in order to fulfill my dreams and make the films I want to make. When I hear Filmmakers say that they can’t make their film due to lack of funding or equipment, I can’t help but become annoyed. Though that excuse my have been understandable in the 60’s, when film was the only option and an expensive one at that, it is no longer a valid one today. I would rather watch a good movie shot on a cell phone camera than a mediocre film shot on the Red. The subject in front of the camera is always more important than the camera itself. Therefore, as an ‘Independent Filmmaker’, I have always understood this idea and utilized the equipment I have, and tried to make the best out of the situation. If film is my passion, there should be no reason why I should not be making films. Once again, if film is my passion, there should be no reason why I should not be making films.

Now, with that said, there lies another, much more complicated problem just around the bend. Here is where I hope I can help out any aspiring Filmmakers who find themselves reading up until this point. You, a no-budget filmmaker, have just made your no-budget masterpiece and feel like Orson Welles Jr. You have beat the system, made a film with heart, passion, and truth and never had to rely on anyone or anything in order to do so. You are not in debt to anyone and have the freedom to do whatever the hell you want to do with the film at this point. However, unfortunately, the world doesn’t want your film after all.

This is just about the time where many of my filmmaking friends have given up and shelved their masterpiece out of anger, frustration, and depression. I understand this completely, as I have done the same thing in the past. Out of the hundreds of films I have made over the past eight years, only a handful of them have made it past this stage. To determine why some films make it past this point and others don’t is impossible, other than just realizing that you may feel more passionate about one project over another. Throughout the course of my "career", I have found that this stage is by far the most difficult to overcome. To recognize that no one wants your film is completely devastating, humiliating, and depressing. It is now, that you must realize how much longevity you believe you can get out of your project and if it is worth pushing forth to the next level, which I like to consider the stage that defines true ‘Independent Filmmaking’. However, before you begin, you must realize and be warned that by going forward, you are most likely setting yourself up for a thousand sleepless nights, anxiety attacks, bouts of severe depression, development of unhealthy habits such as smoking, drinking, and possibly drugs, and the most intense self doubt you have ever experienced. (This is where the drugs come into play.) Still interested? Well then, here we go.

The first thing I like to do when beginning this stage is to get a great song stuck in your head. Trust me, to have the proper tune ringing through your mind to keep you up and running during times of anxiety will be a great savior. You must realize that in order to fully accomplish this stage, you must personally believe that you have created not only the best film you have ever made, but the best film in the entire world. You should be able to watch other movies and scoff at them for not living up to your masterpiece. As egotistical as this may sound, it’s this ignorance that will save you in the long run – I assure you. Now, please don’t misunderstand this advice and begin destroying friendships and relationships with a ‘bigger than God’ attitude, but instead keep that attitude to yourself in order to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Trust me, no one else wants to hear about your holiness, so keep it to yourself. It’s for the best, I promise. I have learned the hard way.

By this point, you have worked yourself into a self-absorbed, egotistical mess and you feel great! Just think, if you truly believe that you have created the most important piece of cinema since ‘Citizen Kane’, nothing should be able to get you down. You can screen your film to any audience, big or small and stand behind it knowing that they will all be blown away. Think about it, you are trying to get your foot in the backdoor of Hollywood, therefore no evidence of self-doubt can ever peer through. They can smell your weakness! Keep that song ringing in the back of your mind – turn it up a bit louder to block out the bad reviews or comments regarding your poor production quality, equipment, or horrible sound and lighting. Just block it all out, keep your head up, and know that you must be the most misunderstood filmmaker of all time. They will all feel stupid once they realize how ingenious your film is once it is preserved by museums and galleries. Someday, they will brag to their grandchildren that they once saw one of your films in person.

By this point, you will feel a strange mixture of exhaustion and pride. You have screened your work to any possible outlet that has made itself available to you, posted it online and received many kind comments from friends and fans from around the globe. Your fan base is growing. The rejection letters from Sundance, SXSW, & Tribeca have come and gone but that song is still ringing loud and clear. Perhaps by this point, it is becoming a bit overplayed and is time to change it up a bit.

Since you haven’t told anyone at your boring minimum-wage day job that you have created one of the greatest films of all time, you owe them nothing. There is no pressure to show them anything, and this hidden second identity saves you from any criticism, gossip, or humiliation you may experience in the workplace had they known you were a struggling artist claiming to make the next ‘Seventh Seal’. Since you have spent your own money to create your film, you don’t owe any investors, banks, or rich Uncles anything. Since there were no production contracts beforehand, you had the freedom to obtain final cut and the film is entirely your creation, without any outsider influence. Since the internet exists, you have been able to research locations that may be interested in screening your work and have secured premiers through emails and have even been able to release pieces of your movie online for the world to watch. Perhaps you will even be invited to screen your masterpiece at other events from people who may have heard about you through the internet. This what I like to refer to as the ‘new filmmaking underground’. You may stumble across a few bad reviews from people who misunderstand your important piece of art, but that’s alright, what great piece of art is understood immediately anyways?

At this point, you have accomplished the hardest stage of true ‘independent’ filmmaking and should be filled with a sense of pride and accomplishment. It is now time to search for your next project and get back to the drawing board. Get a new song stuck in your head and begin all over again. If you have survived the first time, chances are you are strong enough to do it again. Obviously however, you must take some time to nap.

Now it’s time to go back to your boring minimum-wage day job, pretend that you are just wasting away your free time getting drunk and high when talking with co-employees, while always remembering that you are the most important filmmaker in the world. By knowing this, it is alright for the rest of the world to ignore your films, which they will most likely do.

So to answer my own question of there being any hope for the no-budget filmmaker, I would have to say absolutely. However, whether that hope revolves around one day being an internationally recognized and appreciated artist, becoming a multi-millionaire or a modest success, or simply a dedicated artisan completely absorbed in his craft is completely up to the Individual. As frightening as it may be for us to step out of our comfort zone in order to make the films we want to make, I assure you, it is worth the ride and you will become much richer because of it.


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Bio: Courtney Fathom Sell is a twenty six year old independent filmmaker, video artist, Author and musician currently residing in New York City. While shooting most of his work on a Hi 8 video camera, many of Sell’s films have been the recipient of various awards, screened across the globe, and have been distributed worldwide on DVD. He has directed music videos for bands such as Xiu Xiu, 3epkano, and Wires!Wires! among many others and has spent many years documenting the music scene in New Orleans, his part time home. While concentrating heavily on the documentary genre, Sell has also completed a handful of experimental films which have been referred to as ‘reminiscent of early Stan Brakhage’. He has composed the score for nearly all of his work, and a full length album consisting of his compositions is set to be released early this spring through Emphasis Entertainment. He obtained funding for his newest documentary by appearing as an extra on TV shows such as HBO’s ‘Treme’, and is currently in pre-production of his documentary ‘Riding the Current’, which will be a documentation of his journey down the Mississippi River by way of kayak.

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