FOCUS ON: No-budget filmmaking with Mark Thiedeman

By Melody Morgan
Posted on June 21, 2011

FOCUS ON is a regular interview series profiling independent filmmakers and their projects. Up this week is Mark Thiedeman, who has directed many short films and one feature film, The Scoundrel. His new feature, Last Summer, is currently in development and is scheduled to shoot in Arkansas in August.

What is the least amount of money you've spent on a narrative feature, and how did you manage that? I shot a no-budget feature in New York a few years ago called The Scoundrel. It cost about $3,000, which was essentially the cost of food, transportation, and half a dozen props. I had an amazing cinematographer, David Goodman, who worked for free, and had some nice looking locations, which were also free. Lucky for us, there are certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn with beautiful restaurants, apartments, and bars that seem to have come from a different era. No art direction required. Why pay for set decoration when you don't have to?

What is a recurring challenge you face on every shoot as a result of having such a low budget? For me, the simplicity of a shoot is directly proportional to the amount of money involved. I can’t afford to have a ton of people on set, a ton of equipment, etc., but I also don’t want those things. It’s my experience that as more money and more people become involved, the more difficult, chaotic, and challenging it becomes. I work with a simple crew, and we work together as a small family to make the film. That said, if there's any downside to low-budget filmmaking, I’d say it’s the amount of time it takes to finish a film. When you’re doing everything yourself (because great editors and great sound designers cost a lot of money), it takes time. When one person is doing the job of 200 people, it takes a lot of time. 

How do you think the low cost of digital filmmaking has helped (or harmed) the craft of filmmaking? You’re seeing narratives shot without scripts or storyboards, directors figuring out the movie as they go. I doubt many American producers would allow that to happen if the film were shot on 35mm. We’re seeing film move towards becoming more of a visual medium than a storytelling medium, which I love. This is precisely because of the low cost of digital technology and its versatility. We have outstanding filmmakers like Pedro Costa working with mini-DV tapes, lighting with windows and foil paper, and his films are major works of art. Would anyone fund a movie like Colossal Youth (shaped from 320 hours of digital footage and shot without a single light) if 35mm were still the standard? I don’t think so. If you ask me if digital filmmaking has had a negative impact on filmmakers, I’d say it hasn’t. Not at all. 

What has your experience with crowdsourcing been? Do you think an "etiquette" needs to be established as far as giving friends money for their projects and expecting them to contribute to your projects? I’m not sure that any particular etiquette is required. I’ve contributed to a handful of projects over the past month or so because I believe in the films and people involved in the projects, not because I want those people to give me money.  My new feature, Last Summer, is currently seeking some additional financing on IndieGoGo, and we’ve received donations from complete strangers. That isn’t because I have a billion friends. It’s because someone read about the project, told a friend, who told a friend, and people are interested. 

You are a filmmaker formerly based in NYC, and currently based in Little Rock, Arkansas. What do you wish the independent film worlds of NYC and Los Angeles knew/understood about rural filmmaking communities? We don’t have a large film industry here, but you’ll see more films coming out of Southern states in the next few years. I was surprised when I attended the Little Rock Film Festival this year to find that the shorts in the "Made in Arkansas" program were, in many cases, much stronger than the shorts coming out of cities like New York and Los Angeles. The talent was incredible, and that’s because these filmmakers are making movies because they love doing it — not just to be a part of the “industry.”  Since there isn’t an established film industry here, there are fewer rules, so filmmakers have a chance to express themselves more freely. 

What advice do you have for an emerging filmmaker who has no money? Great movies aren’t great because of money; they’re great because of content. The people and places you choose to film will be the heart of your movie. Cast wisely, choose locations wisely, and learn as much as you can about the equipment you have. When you’re working with no budget, “production value” is 10-percent money and 90-percent talent. So, practice, practice, practice. Keep making short projects, learn your own rhythms, find your style. 

How has the South community welcomed you as an artist, as opposed to NYC where artists are everywhere? It’s true, when you live in a city of artists, it’s easy to get cynical when you hear people introduce themselves as filmmakers. It’s easy to think, “yeah, who isn’t a filmmaker?” Being in the South is different. I made A Christian Boy and assumed people in Arkansas might not like it, because it’s what some folks would call “artsy” and it deals with both religion and homosexuality (two hot topics down here!). But when we screened it at the Little Rock Film Festival, I had people coming up to me and saying, “Thank you so much for moving here. We need people like you.” They want Southern people to have a voice, a presence in the film world. Also, I think most people will agree that it’s important to give a voice to the experience of being gay in the South. I want to tell stories about real Southerners — more than that, real Americans — not the kind you typically see in movies. 

What's next for you? In August I'll shoot my next feature Last Summer. It’s a love story about two high school sweethearts, Luke and Jonah, who live in a rural Southern town. This is the story of their final summer together. As Jonah prepares to leave home for bigger and better things, Luke is faced with an uncertain future and the growing pressures of adulthood. The idea of the film is to present a world of baseball fields and apple pie and church on Sundays and the fourth of July in which a love story between two boys fits right in. 

This BTB interview was conducted and condensed by Melody Morgan.


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