so many others, when I was young I had this dream of making a movie.
I'd come across the book Feature Filmmaking at Used Car Prices by
Rick Schmidt when it was first released in the late 80s, and I read
it through in one long evening with a sense of, "Oh my God,
this is it!" I was in my early twenties and had grandiose fantasies
of being a great filmmaker. I loved filmmakers like Fellini and
David Lynch and I fantasized about producing equally great work.
Hell, why not? Surely the world would recognize my brilliance! I’d
made a few short films, even got a few of them shown in some film
festivals, including one in New York. The first time in the city,
I flew in from Colorado, stayed with friends in the Village and
saw my short “Down in There” projected on a big screen
at the New School in lower Manhattan. I thought, this is so cool!
Back at home, Rick Schmidt’s book continued
to be an inspiration. Some of the technical advice sounded a bit
nutty but what really turned me on was his point that if you just
start doing it you really can make your own movie. Even the still
pictures in the book captured my imagination. I looked at them again
and again and read the chapters over and over. He said you just
have to keep moving forward and never give up and someday you too
can finish a feature film. Ten years later I learned that he was
right when I did just that. It really can be done, though it doesn’t
always turn out how you’d planned.
After seeing my short film screened in New York
City I decided I wanted to live there. No one had told me about
summers in New York and like an idiot I moved in the middle of July
and stayed on my friends’ sofa. I had a feeling of doom almost
from the start and realized that I was in this huge city without
a job or a permanent place to stay and without knowing anyone except
for my friends who no doubt were concerned about how long I would
be sleeping there. I started to become depressed and knew I had
to do something. I found a sublet to stay in and after a couple
sweaty and demoralizing months looking for work, I got a job as
a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I didn’t
know it at the time, but this job would later become the starting
point for my sure-to-be-brilliant feature film, "Cathexis."
My stay in New York only lasted a year but back
in Colorado I worked on a script about a guy working as a security
guard who finds himself growing increasingly kinky and wonders,
"What’s up?" It was embarrassingly autobiographical,
since in real life I was a worried and insecure guy who had a thing
for women’s clothes: I was a thoroughly-closeted transvestite
and didn’t feel comfortable about it at all. So here was this
script about a guy (named Gordon Lyle) dealing with a sexual situation
that he didn’t feel comfortable with either. He wasn’t
a crossdresser, since that would have hit way too close to home.
Instead I put in all this stuff about bondage and suffocation, but
it was all pretty atmospheric and never really spelled out what
was really going on. Even now I’m still not completely sure
what his problem was, so clearly we were operating in the land of
On top of the symbolic sexual stuff I made up
an overly complicated plot involving a dark conspiracy with lots
of secretive creeping around. It was pretty lame but at the time
I didn’t realize it. I thought it would make a fantastic feature
film and I decided that I was going to do it, just like Rick Schmidt
said you could.
I fiddled around with the script some more and
enlisted friends and local theater folk to help me out. I’m
not sure that everyone was too thrilled with the story but the overall
attitude was, Well sure, Robert, if that’s what you really
want to do….
Thankfully I’d already worked on several
short films with my good friend Jim Arthurs. We were both bitten
with the movie-making bug and for a few years had taken turns making
shorts. Jim knew a lot more about technical matters than I did.
I knew I didn’t have the confidence to operate the camera
myself so I was really lucky when he signed on as the Director or
Photography. In real life he also does free-lance work on computer
animation, digital compositing and online editing – skills
which I gladly took advantage of. Without Jim's incredibly generous
help the look of the finished film would have suffered greatly.
I put up an ad in the paper for an audition and
spent a long day in a borrowed studio space taping various local
actors on a little Hi8 camera. I had friends we’d worked with
on previous shorts in mind for some of the parts but still had no
one for the main guy, who was onscreen for the majority of the film.
Thankfully Dustin Shapard showed up at the rehearsal and when he
did his reading I thought, that's the guy. He was very natural and
low-key and didn’t have that typical over-the-top community
theater acting style.
Dustin agreed to do the film for hardly any money
at all. I gave some of the actors very small amounts of money to
work on the film - just nominal sums as a thank you gesture. All
together I paid less than seven hundred dollars for everyone in
the cast and crew. Looking back I probably could have paid even
less and still have done it. Many people love the idea of making
a movie and will work for free. Of course, it’s a good idea
to feed people - nothing fancy but some occasional meals to keep
everyone from walking off the set when they grow faint. Another
long-time friend of mine, Kathleen MacNally, did a lot of the catering
for us and allowed me to shoot a good portion of the movie in her
So where did the money come from anyway? Well,
it was the usual routine: saving up money from my day job (doing
set building and construction), investments from now-regretful family
members and especially borrowing from the good folks at Chase Visa.
The production itself actually went surprisingly
smoothly. There were very few crises or blow-ups during the shoot.
I think Jim and I sometimes growled a little at each other but overall
it was a very even-tempered shoot. No one quit and walked off and
no one got hurt. We’d shoot whenever we could make everyone’s
schedule work, often on weekends. The whole shoot was off and on
during the summer of ’97 but all told only added up to about
fifteen days. It was very stressful for me, since I basically had
to make the thing happen and didn’t have the kind of personality
that enjoyed motivating people. But I did the best I could, vomited
from nerves a few times early in the mornings when I woke up, and
muddled through okay.
Some of the most disappointing moments were when
we’d be in the middle of shooting a scene and I could tell
that it just wasn’t working. Either the script didn’t
make sense or the performances were off, but still I had to keep
pushing forward and continue shooting without blowing my entire
days budget on film stock, hoping that I could somehow fix things
in the editing.
So finally we made it through the shoot and then
I spent a year and a half editing all the footage. We transferred
the 16mm negative to Betacam SP video at a post house in Denver,
then I made cheap VHS copies of the footage and edited them on a
borrowed VHS editing system that was mostly frame accurate.
It was a royal pain in the ass editing individual scenes cut by cut, but
after months of this tedium I assembled everything, refined the
cut as best I could and then went to work finishing the soundtrack
and piecing in music from our composer Tucker Mitchell. Because
of some bizarre technical limitations all the dialogue had to be
manually inserted and synched on a non-linear audio editing system
on an Amiga computer. It was several more months of tedium but finally
I had a finished cut of the movie. It was time for the enlightening
experience of showing an actual cut to some of my friends.
When I first watched the movie with my friend
Kathleen, we were nearing the end of it, and she started asking
me questions about what was happening. “But why are they doing
that?” “I’m confused, what is this scene about?”
“Where are they?” “I don’t understand what’s
going on here.” It was at this point that I began to realize
that maybe I’d just finished making a bad low-budget movie.
Yes, it was done. I’d finished it, which is what I'd set out
to do, shooting film and editing on crappy sort-of-frame-accurate
VHS decks. But it wasn’t a good movie - it didn’t really
work. It was a bad movie and I had made it and it was mine.
It was a sobering thought. I tried to answer Kathleen’s
questions and then found myself just drifting off into muttering
and finally silence. I had shot so little footage that there weren't
many opportunities for making significant changes to the story or
for coming up with a new and improved ending. We watched the rest
of the movie and Kathleen said some encouraging remarks about how
it was finally finished and wasn’t that great, but she still
didn’t understand what they were doing and where the story
went. It was like that line out of Seinfeld: “Why’d
they shoot that guy?”
I felt so depressed. After watching it with Kathleen,
I just sat in my green naugahyde chair for the longest time and
mindlessly watched whatever was on TV, paying no attention to any
of it. Let’s see, I thought, I’d had a job as a security
guard in ’95, then got the idea for the movie and started
writing it in ’96, then shot it with my friends in ’97,
edited it in ’98 and by the time I’d cleaned up every
line of dialogue and laid in the original music it was ’99.
Five frickin’ years working on this thing and I still hadn’t
looked into how I was going to sell it. I’d thought that just
making it would be the hard part. But no, it wasn’t. I'd patiently
slogged through the writing and production and editing and finally
I had a movie to show for it. A real movie shot on film. Sure, some
might quibble and say, Well, yeah, but it was shot on 16mm film,
not 35mm. And it was edited and finished on tape, not on film. And
where was the answer print? And how were you going to project it
in a theater? And so on and so forth. But the point was I’d
finished a feature film, something I’d wanted to do for years.
And I was depressed.
I felt desperate to make back some of my money.
I figured surely some distributor that specializes in low-budget
psychosexual thrillers would snatch it up and I’d make back
the money and, hell, maybe even go on to shoot another movie! But
it wasn’t so easy. I made dubs and again with Jim Arthurs’
help we designed some nice looking box art.
I started sending out tapes, usually with no response, but occasionally
some obscure distributor would say they might be interested in it.
And that was usually the last I'd hear from them.
Finally, I was
down to Tapeworm Video, a small company that will sell your movie,
videotape by videotape, and give you a cut of the sales. Of course
you have to supply all the copies and the box art. Okay, not a great
deal but after several months I had nothing. I said yes to Tapeworm
and figured I could promote the hell out of it and send out flyers
and crap and, Wow, maybe even Blockbuster would pick it up and with
the number of stores they had, just getting a cut out of individual
units would start to add up. I’d earn my money back and still
be going strong!
It didn’t work that way. To be honest Tapeworm
was fairly easy to work with and they basically did what they said
they would. Over the course of a year I only sold about fifty VHS
copies of the movie. They’re out there somewhere and I keep
hoping I'll find one someday at a flea market. I actually earned
close to five hundred dollars from Tapeworm’s efforts and
they paid me as promised, though yeah, it took months and months
to get the check. Alas, Blockbuster never picked it up and my dreams
of recouping my money were dashed.
I became more depressed. Now that the movie was
finished and it was clear that it wasn’t going to be nominated
for any awards, I felt an emptiness inside. It had taken up so much
time for so long and now it was over. Thankfully I was able to get
a fair amount of work as a grip and camera assistant at a local
company that produced cheap TV commercials. I even got a gig directing
one of them. But when it came to “Cathexis” I was feeling
that this project hadn’t turned out how I’d planned
it. All this time I thought I was a brilliantly talented filmmaker
yet I’d just squeezed out a turkey. Maybe I wasn’t the
next David Lynch after all, maybe not even the next Ed Wood (although,
damn it, I too was a transvestite!)
Looking back there's a lot I would have done differently.
One of the points that Jim and I discuss on the Audio Commentary
of the DVD was that the genre of the movie was unclear. Was it a
weird art film or a psychological thriller or what? It had elements
of both, but I played it safe and never really committed to either
vision. So of course it was vague and unfocused. If I had a chance
to re-do it I would jettison much of the convoluted plotline (which
didn’t make much sense anyway) and just focus on the weird
artsy sadomasochistic stuff. It should have been a full-out kinky
art film without the pointless plot points that went nowhere. And
I would have preferred to shoot it on digital video at three thousand
dollars instead of on film at ten grand. Hey, ten grand is great
but three would have been better. I probably would have recovered
from it quicker and probably not felt the same urgent need to make
money off it. I’d done short films that were made for several
hundred dollars and I’d never worried about making a dime
Around the same time I had the chance to do an
interview for MSNBC for a show called “The Secret Wardrobe,”
about crossdressers and their lives and relationships. I look at
that documentary now and think that the few minutes I appeared in
that show were way more honest than all the vague sexual stuff I’d
put into "Cathexis." Why hadn’t I just made a movie
about the life of a crossdresser who moves to Hollywood? A kind
of updated version of “Glen or Glenda?” Or better yet,
why didn’t I just get some therapy?
The funny thing is now that I have a finished movie
under my belt, I have no current plans for a sequel. It seems that
finishing it got me over the feature film bug. Ironically enough,
I’ve been living in L.A. for several years now, actually in
Hollywood, but not working in the movie business. Instead I do fetish
photography and run a bondage website and I'm much happier than
I ever was working as a Production Assistant / Grip / Set Builder
/ Videographer / Camera Assistant / Director / Whatever.
having finished a movie for ten grand, what key insights did I come
away with regarding ultra-low budget filmmaking?
1. Make sure your script is really good –
No, I mean Really Good! This is the key to making a good movie.
Show the script to people whose opinions you respect and listen
closely to what they say. My script should have been re-written
with a big fat red marker or left in the desk drawer.
2. Get the best actors you possibly can (within
the constraints of rule number three, which is:)
2. Don’t pay anyone. Okay, if you do pay,
make it so nominal that it’s basically just gas money. You
can always give away lots of “points” from future profits
of the movie - of course, under the condition that it makes a profit.
It probably won’t so you won’t be out anything.
3. Enlist people who are more talented than you
are or who have equipment you can borrow. Jim Arthurs shot the whole
damn movie on a couple different borrowed cameras and did some brilliant
visual effects for free – digital frickin’ helicopters!
I never could have done that stuff myself.
4. Get good quality audio. I don’t know
how people screw up their sound so badly. It’s really not
that hard. We just used a borrowed DAT machine and a shotgun mike.
Just get the mike in as close as you can and point it at the person
talking. If the audio quality's bad, dub it in later in the editing.
5. Don’t buy crap! You don’t need
a fancy light meter or a director’s chair or that cool Arriflex
HMI. For God’s sake, don’t buy a film camera! Film’s
expensive, even 16mm. Borrow a digital video camera instead.
6. A sub-point: For my movie to have been considerably
better in terms of cinematography or acting talent or production
design, I would have had to spend way way more than I did. It would
have jumped up to at least a three hundred thousand dollar movie
to shoot on 35mm, hire SAG actors, have a lighting crew or production
designer and the budget would still have been way too tight even
at that level. As it was, even if I’d spent just a small amount
more – say, another thousand dollars, or even 30 thousand
dollars for that matter – it would not have made that much
of a difference in how the film turned out. It might have looked
a tiny bit more polished in spots but it would still be the same
story and have the same performances and basically be the same film.
I’d just be deeper in debt and more depressed.
7. Shoot video. It’s cheaper. If you do
choose to shoot film, don’t shoot very much of it. Every roll
8. Edit on your home computer. They're so cheap
and powerful it would be crazy to edit on film.
9. Take lots of still pictures so you can promote
10. Never give up, even if it sucks. It’s
better to have a finished crappy movie than an unfinished crappy
rough cut. Closure’s good.
Finally, I’m just one guy with one perspective and I may be
wrong. Be sure to share your own thoughts and experiences on the
And finally, if you actually want to see "Cathexis,"
or just have money to waste, you can buy the DVD
here. The one potentially redeeming thing here is that Jim Arthurs
and I have added an audio commentary to the movie discussing our
take on it – how we shot it for so little, what we would have
done differently and how we (well, I) screwed up. Well, okay, a
lot of it is just us chatting and remembering the catastrophe of
the whole thing. It’s $16.95 (which includes shipping in the
US and Canada) and it contains the entire wince-inducing movie and
the audio commentary. There’s also the kick-ass trailer that
Jim made for it, which is way better than the final film. If you’re
making an ultra low-budget movie, you may learn something worthwhile
here, or you may end up seventeen dollars poorer.
If you’ve read this far, please sign the
and let me know your thoughts or comments. Also be sure to check
out the "Cathexis" trailer online.
Thanks for stopping by and good luck on your movie!