This is a reprint (sort of) of my interview with John Gaspard for MicroFilmmaker Magazine a few months ago.
I have been a fan of John Gaspard’s books and films for years. John has been making extremely low budget films for years and he’s shot them on everything from 16mm to VHS to digital video. He gets it done. Here is a guy who not only walks the walk, he also tells other people how to do it in a series of books and blog posts. I am a regular reader of his blog, Fast Cheap Movie Thoughts (http://fastcheapmoviethoughts.blogspot.com/). There is always good information there.
On my most recent tour I came across one of his books in a used book store in Pennsylvania. I picked it up and thumbed through it. Before I knew it I had been standing there for an hour.
If you want to know about micro budget filmmaking, John is the guy to talk to. And talk to him I did.
John Gaspard Bio
John Gaspard has directed and/or produced six low-budget features, including the digital feature, Grown Men, which premiered at the Ashland International Film Festival and won the “Best of Fest/Best Screenplay” award at the Black Point Film Festival.
He directed and co-wrote the award-winning feature film, Beyond Bob, and directed the science-fiction comedy feature film, Resident Alien. He was also a writer and story editor for the international television comedy/western series, Lucky Luke, starring Terence Hill.
His screenplay, The Sword and Mr. Stone (co-written with Michael Levin) was the first winner of the Barry Morrow Screenwriting Fellowship, as well as a finalist at the Austin Heart of the Film Screenwriting Competition.
John is the author of the popular low-budget filmmaking books Fast, Cheap and Under Control: Lessons Learned from the Greatest Low-Budget Movies of All Time and Fast, Cheap and Written That Way: Top Screenwriters on Writing for Low-Budget Movies. He also co-authored, with Dale Newton, the books Digital Filmmaking 101: An Essential Guide to Producing Low-Budget Movies (first and second editions) and Persistence of Vision: An Impractical Guide to Producing A Feature Film For Under $30,000, all of which were published by Michael Wiese Productions.
John can be contacted via his website, www.graniteproductions.org.
John Gaspard Interview
KB: How did you get in to filmmaking?
JG: When I was a teenager, my uncle gave me his old wind-up Reg-8 camera. I soon graduated to a Super-8 camera, and the rest was history. I made my first feature (in Super-8 single-system sound) in 1976 and then made another one in 1977. In college I did a couple features on video (U-matic video cassettes) and then after college did a couple features in 16mm. My last feature, “Grown Men,” was shot on digital video.
KB: Can you tell me a little about your last two features “Beyond Bob” and “Grown Men”? What they cost, shooting schedule, and how long you worked on them from beginning to end?
JG: “Beyond Bob,” a romantic comedy ghost story, was shot on 16mm for about $28,000 in 1991. We shot over the course of four consecutive weekends, followed by some b-roll and silent pick-ups while in post. From script to finished movie, it took about 2 years. The movie was released on VHS back in the day and is now available on DVD and streaming video.
“Grown Men” was designed to showcase the work of several writers – the movie consists of five interlocking stories about men and the ways in which they screw up their lives. The script won Best Screenplay at one of the film festivals we were in. It was shot using a couple different digital formats over the course of about 3 years. Total out of pocket cost was $13,000. It won a bunch of awards at festivals and is available on DVD and streaming.
KB: In your book, “Fast, Cheap & Written That Way,” you emphasize the script. How many drafts did you do on your films and how long did they take to write?
JG: Both “Beyond Bob” and “Grown Men” went through multiple script drafts, and were also revised after rehearsals with the actors.
In the case of “Beyond Bob,” it was originally written as a Hollywood spec script and was designed to be shot with a much higher budget. We re-wrote it to fit a smaller budget and I think it’s better in that format.
As for “Grown Men,” we solicited several scripts for the segments and had to reject a couple because the writers couldn’t (or wouldn’t) re-write to fit a budget. Each segment was budgeted to be shot over four days (two weekends) and we just couldn’t afford the specific locations they wanted or the sheer number of locations. The stories we ended up with tended to have fewer locations and were more focused on character as opposed to action.
KB: Where did you spend most of the money on these films?
JG: For “Beyond Bob,” it went to film, processing, sound mix and equipment rental. On “Grown Men,” it went into tape stock, grip truck and food.
KB: What was the biggest mistake you made on either film?
JG: Actually, our biggest mistake was on an earlier 16mm feature, “Resident Alien,” where the film was loaded wrong for one-quarter of the shoot. That was a painful call to get from the lab!
KB: So many filmmakers feel that if they are not “on the set” then somehow they aren’t making a movie. How important is pre-production to you?
JG: It’s all about pre-production! You can save yourself a fortune with smart pre-production. I’m working on a feature now that we won’t be shooting until Fall 2011 – but I’ve already got a year of pre-pro under my belt for it, with another nine months coming.
KB: Are there filmmakers that were a big influence on you? What did you learn from them?
JG: Although I don’t love all his films, I am a big fan of Henry Jaglom, for his passion about getting it done his way. I love the intelligence that Sidney Pollack brought to his films. Hal Ashby was a big influence, with his use of music and montage. Brian DePalma (and his early editor, Paul Hirsch) still make me smile with his wicked sense of humor on film. And of course, Woody Allen in the mid-70s (Sleeper, Love & Death, Annie Hall).
KB: “Fast, Cheap & Under Control” was published in 2006. With all of the changes in digital filmmaking that have happened since then, are there still lessons to be learned from your book?
JG: Absolutely – in fact, the whole premise of the book was the tendency of filmmakers to unnecessarily re-invent the wheel every time a new technology comes about. The key lessons of filmmaking – strong script, smart pre-pro, tricks for keeping production costs low – are valid regardless of whether you’re shooing with the Red camera … or making a feature with your iPhone.
KB: A lot of our readers are making films on really tiny budgets. What is your advice to them?
JG: Simple math: The less you spend, the less you have to make. If you can remove economics from the equation – create films that don’t HAVE TO make money – you open up a whole world of possibilities.
KB: In the last few years what’s the biggest change you’ve seen in Low and Micro-Budget Filmmaking?
JG: It isn’t so much a change as a surprise – the realization that even though everyone now has the technology to make movies, it doesn’t make for a ton of great movies. There are more movies now and, consequently, more lousy movies. The percentage of good to bad is the same as it was ten years ago. It may have become too easy to make movies now.
KB: What are your thoughts on film festivals? Are they a good thing? Can they help us?
JG: Film festivals need filmmakers more than filmmakers need film festivals, but filmmakers forget that all the time. Without our films, the festivals wouldn’t exist. And yet, they still charge us to CONSIDER our films and they keep all the profits from ticket sales. It’s a great deal for them but not for filmmakers.
That being said, if you want to get your movie out to an interested audience, festivals are about the only game in town – unless you’re Kelley Baker and you’ve got the balls and the stamina to pack your car and drive across the country screening your films!
KB: When you went in to making your films did you have an idea for distribution? Were you thinking about a market for them?
JG: Distribution is the hardest, slimiest and most annoying part of the process. And with the glut of independent films, it’s even harder now to break through all the noise and find distribution. What was good from our perspective was that our films didn’t cost much, so they didn’t need to make much — so we weren’t at the mercy of distributors. We paid back our investors on “Beyond Bob” and I was the sole investor on “Grown Men,” so no one is breathing down our necks to get their money back. That’s a nice position to be in. And, with the growth in streaming video, I think we may be able to push distributors out of the equation once and for all.
KB: You have a great blog where you interview a lot of filmmakers. How did that come about?
JG: I realized that I had done over 60 interviews with Hollywood filmmakers, directors and writers and that only a fraction of the material was in the books I had published. So a blog seemed liked a good way of giving that material away to filmmakers who needed it. Then I started getting e-mails from other filmmakers who wanted me to feature their films on the blog. So now, once a month I have a Hollywood interview, and then the other three interviews each month are with independent filmmakers. You can find the blog at: http://fastcheapmoviethoughts.blogspot.com/
KB: Do you have something in the works that we should be looking for?
JG: I’m in the scripting and pre-production phase of a new digital feature that we’ll shoot next fall, called “Ghost Light.” We have a structure for the movie, but the script will be developed in conjunction with the actors via improvisation sessions. It should be a lot of fun.
KB: Where can I get your books and your films?
JG: You can find a list of them at our website: http://www.graniteproductions.org/
All the books are available through Amazon and the books and the films are available through the website.
KB: If you are serious about making GOOD films that cost very little then John is your guy. Check his books and films out and check his blog once a week and see who he’s talking to. John is a great resource for all filmmakers, no matter what your budget. As John says, “Why re-invent the wheel?”.