Shorts on a shoestring; how “Doubt Buys the Whiskey” got made!

Producing.  If the internet has taught us anything, it’s that we can do it! Whatever “it” is. In our case, “it” was an uplifting drama about mental health on a shoestring budget. A lot of times with projects like this you will have to reach out, ask for favours, adjust your approach and if you treat everyone with respect and a professional attitude you’ll end up making something you are all proud of. 

My name is Radi Nikolov, and here’s how my team put all of that into practice in our latest short film, Doubt Buys The Whiskey starring Doug Cockle.

First things first – THE SCRIPT, and how you plan everything even at the earliest stages of the filmmaking process. This story is actually the third instalment in a trilogy of films that I started writing a few years ago (the first being My Conscience Came to Visit), exploring interpretations of that “inner dialogue” we have with ourselves. When I finished the second one (I Married My Loneliness in 2015) I began wondering ‘What else is there to explore?’ and the picture of a tall gentleman in a striped purple suit popped into my head – Doubt.  All those self-sabotaging thoughts suddenly had a face and I knew that this could be an interesting story to look into.

Originally, the script called for two different actors; one to play Edward, the stand-up comedian main character, and another to play his Doubt. In this original draft, the two characters inhabit two different spaces; Edward belongs to the Bar and Doubt to the outside world. After a short conversation, Doubt takes Edward out of his comfort zone, with a walk around the block. After I gave the draft to a few producer friends of mine, for feedback, they all came back with a similar version of the same note – “Is this happening in the comedian’s head, or is it real?”. It was clear people were being left confused and that’s the last thing you want from a short film. Having Doubt as the visual representation of the stand-up comedian was an important part of the story so I knew that the two characters must be played by the same actor. So, I rewrote it to fit. 

Now, remember how I mentioned that walk around the block? Well, the original plan was to shoot this on a Steadicam; a classic technique. But with the new script this idea wouldn’t be achievable; “selling” the idea that one actor is in the same shot as two different characters is usually done by having a locked-off camera viewpoint, and having the two characters overlaid in the two sides of the frame. That makes our Steadicam shot impossible without technical wizardry far beyond the budget we had available.

So, we adapted; how could we recreate the idea of those two distinct areas that the characters “belong” to in a setting that allows for limited camera work? You don’t overthink it, that’s how. Rather than going with an outside/inside divide to illustrate our main character’s internal divisions, we used the trappings of our existing setting; Doubt takes “The Stage”, whilst Edward finds safe space at “The Bar”, and in each area, the corresponding character takes the lead in the scenes. Great! Now we have a clear narrative, the movie is entirely set in one location, and Doug Cockle is playing the two roles for the price of one (well, not literally – if you have an actor pulling “double duty” you make sure they’re compensated accordingly!). We’re done, right? Nope – now the real planning begins. This brings us nicely to our next topic – THE SCHEDULE.

Scheduling is the backbone of any film project. Locking down the schedule is one of the most important moments in your pre-production and planning stages. It’s when you first start to allocate resources and build up the foundations of your production. It’s the first time you start plotting your script breakdown against a real timeline, it’s when you start turning ideas and principles into reality. There are many ways to approach a schedule but you always need to find that one thing that can’t change no matter what – cast and location availability. Once you find those dates, you lock them in the calendar and build everything around them. As a director, I make sure that I do all of my homework. Especially on a short film, where you’ve not got the luxuries that help features move smoothly, you can’t walk onto any set unprepared. If you do, you’re just wasting the time of your crew, your cast, your location, and ultimately your already-limited budget. So, you plan everything out well in advance; you scout your location early, you storyboard your action, outline the rough blocking, and start planning out your camera moves. Everything you need to ensure you’re fully prepared to move with that all-important schedule.

But no matter how hard you plan, sometimes the world has other ideas – in the case of Doubt Buys The Whiskey, everything was moving along nicely until the location we were hoping to get for our weekend shoot got in touch to tell us they were now too busy to help us out and asked us to change the dates we’d planned everything around. A bit of a disaster? Well, yes, but sometimes you have to soldier on and take what you can get.

Instead of being able to shoot over Saturday and Sunday 0800-1800 with a 1-hour setup, the location suggested moving the dates to Tuesday and Wednesday (and if we couldn’t film everything we could be there on Thursday as well), but we had to be out by 1700 every day. OK, cool! A great compromise, but very different from the original plan. So Ben Clark, our first AD, and I had to adjust the shooting schedules, the shots that we needed to get and when to schedule them for. I knew that we would lose some of the awesome crew we had on board for a weekend shoot due to their other commitments during the week. Now I have the location, the schedules and Doug has confirmed his availability. So I put that in the calendar and went to the crew.

Speaking of CREWING, let’s talk about that for a moment! We have a cast, dates, and a location, so now how do we start looking for the crew, especially for a short film on a low budget?

Well, in my case, I started by reaching out on Facebook and Twitter groups, as well as asking all of my filmmaking friends if they knew anyone that might be willing to help us out. I was also lucky enough to be in a situation where I was working on a different project for someone else while prepping for this short; by speaking with a lot of the crew on that project, I found quite a few people interested in our film. That’s how we managed to get the amazing Bibi Baker (Art director), Will Allen (Gaffer), and Macaulay Haines (Camera assistant) on board. Another important lesson in filmmaking; always look around your local network for talent that is looking for the opportunity to flex their creative muscles and looking to make something exciting. You’d be surprised how many talented people will be super excited to get involved. But let’s get back to the film itself, and cover that second bit of the last sentence –  THE BUDGET

Budgets are a topic no one likes to talk about, but they’re one of the singular most important elements of any film that’s ever existed. It doesn’t matter if you are working on a big studio picture or doing something with your friends over the weekend – you always have a budget to manage, and you’ll always need to be aware of its limitations (or not!). 

Before you start writing a budget, you need to break down your script into its cost-driven elements. This is a process that I do a lot as a director, with an eye for the obvious – how many cameras are we going to need for this scene, how many actors are on set at once, how fancy are the costumes, are we going to need effects work done? There are a lot of different elements that you’ll need to consider and ultimately plan around.

But, it’s also something a producer might do. For instance:

  • Do you need doubles for those costumes?
  • How long will it take you, on the day, to achieve this effect, how much time will be needed? 
  • Can we find this prop or should we make it from scratch? 
  • If we shoot at 4k resolution how many hard drives do I need to store and back up all of the rushes? 
  • Where are the rushes stored overnight and do I have at least 3 separate copies every day? 

There’s a lot to take in. After all that breaking down is done, you can begin attaching the numbers and fees to the elements, and end up with your final budget. In our case, we ended up spending around £2000 for production and post in total. Sounds like a lot of money when you isolate it like that, but when you consider the fact that I’ve already named six different people involved in the production without even talking about the costume, location and equipment costs, you can see why we were utilising a lot of Robert Rodrigez’s philosophy on how to get things done on a shoestring. 

When keeping up with a budget, you find that you have to do a lot of balancing to make sure that things work out overall. When we spoke with Will Allen, our gaffer, about what kinds of lights we might need to achieve the look that Will Wallace (DOP) and I wanted for the film, his first thought was to use Astera tubes and sky panels. But those are new LED lights, very popular in the industry and hard to find within our budget. We had to work together to find alternative equipment that worked with our budget. We ended up being grateful for the kindness of Mad Dog, a local rental company, who helped us out with what we needed to achieve the look of our film.

It’s a similar approach for costume, art, location, camera and every other element; costs can creep up quickly if you’re not paying attention, but creative thinking can save where it matters. Thankfully, there are other areas in your budget that are a bit more solid. Travel, accommodation, catering, insurance; you generally know the prices of these up front and can plan around it. Case in point, we were able to save a little bit of money by hiring an Airbnb big enough to house all the crew that had travelled from out of town, which also reduced the amount of transport to bring them to and from the set. When working in this budget bracket, which let’s face it – is no budget at all – it’s all about saving money in the areas where you can.

After you’ve got a couple of projects under your belt, you’ll find a way of running a budget that works for you, and you’ll know all of the areas that you need to keep an eye on. You’ll need to keep an eye out for the big budget-eater in the film world – MARKETING. 

Now, what does marketing really mean for a short film? Well, primarily, film festivals! As a filmmaker you make movies for other people to see, and unless you’re lucky enough to get a YouTube mega-hit, the way most people see short films is at film festivals.

Unfortunately, it’s not a free service; the festivals themselves have costs to pay, and so there are often entry costs for films. Sometimes you have to accept that if you want the best chance of success for all your hard work, you have to ask for help; after we finished production on Doubt, we ran a two-month-long ‘tip-jar’ campaign on Gofundme, raising £600 for submissions, and made a plan of where we would like to be seen.

We used Filmfreeway as a film festival database and researched every festival we felt aligned with the message of our film; a niche horror festival won’t schedule a lighthearted drama on mental health, after all. We also looked at whether the festivals had an established and engaged audience, both attending in person and on social media. Then, really, it’s a matter of hoping and praying – one thing you have to accept in this industry is that no matter how much you put in, there’s a big element of luck! 

There you go! Just like an IKEA wardrobe – you have almost all of the instructions and tools to go and do it yourself on a teeny-tiny budget.

There are so many other factors that we could talk about: why we shot on the URSA MINI 4.6k, how we designed the costumes for the characters, or even tell you all about the rehearsal sessions we did in my tiny apartment. But this article will be far too long so I’ll leave you with this bit of advice: treat your collaborators with respect, do your homework, and make a movie you can be proud of. 

And, of course; keep your eye out for ‘Doubt Buys the Whiskey’ coming soon to a social media near you.

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