High Quality Filmmaking on a Small Budget

Writer/director Joshua Caldwell talked to ProductionHUB exclusively about his new crime thriller INFAMOUS, starring Bella Thorne, which debuted June 12. The film itself is a modern reimaging of Bonnie and Clyde, set against the viral nature of social media. Caldwell worked on this project with a  super low budget, but got a very big look in collaboration with his DP Eve Cohen. 

He shares some incredibly interesting insights for filmmakers who are considering skeleton crews as we get back into the swing of production.

PH: Hi Joshua! How have the past few months (with COVID) been going? How has your day-to-day changed? 

Joshua Caldwell: A couple years ago my wife and I bought a house on some acreage in upstate New York. We’re fairly isolated and we both work from home so it hasn’t been that big of a change for us. 

The real difference is that both of the kids are home from school. We have a 6-year-old and a 2 ½ -year-old so we do have to keep an eye on them – which means my wife and I have to split days. It’s challenging but it’s something we did anyway prior to our kids being old enough to start school so we’ve been there. We’re trying to see it as a positive and take advantage of it as much as possible with the kids and family time.  

PH: How did you get into the industry and what were some of the challenges you faced early in your career?

Joshua Caldwell: I started making films in high school and continued that into college. I attended Fordham University in New York City which does not have a film program but does have a fantastic theater program – which meant I had access to a lot of really talented actors. I tried to take advantage of that and just make as many films as I could. One of those films, THE BEAUTIFUL LIE won me an MTV Movie Award and I moved to LA after college egotistically thinking I was going to be the next big thing. I was not. I wrote scripts, directed music videos, and hustled until I ended up with a job working for Anthony E. Zuiker, the creator of the CSI: franchise. I produced digital projects for him and got a lot of experience on the front lines of the industry. That was a lot of fun, but I was itchy to work on my own stuff and so in 2013 I directed my first feature film, LAYOVER, which I made for about $6000. Since then, I’ve directed three other features, including INFAMOUS, and a series for Hulu. 

Throughout all that I would say the biggest challenge was twofold: 1) trying to find my way through the ever shifting paradigm of Hollywood: the 2007 writer’s strike (which occurred right after I moved to LA and permanently altered the landscape); the rise and collapse and second rise of the digital content world; the Great Recession and more. The last 13 years in Hollywood have been totally in flux in a really weird way. And 2) just trying to nail down who I wanted to be as a filmmaker and the kind of stories I wanted to tell. Finding my voice so to speak, so that it might align with the budgets available to me.  

PH: Let’s talk about your latest film, crime thriller Infamous which you wrote and directed. Can you describe the film and your inspiration for it? and how you became involved? 

Joshua Caldwell: INFAMOUS is the story of two young lovers robbing their way across America and posting their crimes to social media, which turns them into social media celebrities.  

I was really interested in making a heist film and was searching for an interesting way into it. While researching, I naturally came upon Bonnie and Clyde and I realized how much of their myth and celebrity was create by the media to sell newspapers. I thought it was really interesting that these killers and bank robbers were essentially celebrities driven by the media looking to make money and I wondered what I modern day equivalent would be and that’s when I hit on the social media angle. 

I became interested in the intersection of social media fame, with its currency of likes and follows, and violence and crime. Two things that seem to be uniquely American is our love of celebrities and fascination with crime. So, the framework of committing crimes in an effort to become famous felt both ridiculous and, unfortunately, not that far-fetched. 

It used to be the gatekeepers were making the decisions on who got press and who didn’t. But that’s all gone now. With nothing more than a phone anyone and everyone has the ability to create and reach an audience into the 10s of millions, if not more. And they never have to step out from behind that device.  I was fascinated by that collision of celebrity and crime and I wanted to explore the most extreme version of it. Because I really do think if this happened in real life, everyone in America would be following them. You know you would be.

I took all this and wrote the first draft of the script in 2016.

PH: You worked with a pretty low budget for this film – how did you pull it together?

Joshua Caldwell: I’ve made movies with very, very small budgets. My first feature film, LAYOVER, was made for only $6000, my second had maybe $1 million, and my third film NEGATIVE had a $100,000 budget. The irony is while INFAMOUS is a pretty low budget, it’s also the biggest budget I’ve ever had! 

Ultimately, my financiers and producers put it together based on a foreign sales model whereby you determine your budget based off of estimated foreign sales. It took a while — three years from when I wrote the script to when we started production. My agents at CAA and my manager were very proactive about finding the right people. Scott Levenson came on to produce first and he was able to get it to Bella Thorne who became attached. But both Colin Bates and Michael Jefferson at Lucidity and Shaun Sanghani from SSS Entertainment really took a chance with their money on me and the film. And I’m forever grateful.


PH: Less budget must’ve also meant working with a smaller crew. What were days on set like?  

Joshua Caldwell: While it was low budget, it was actually the biggest crew I’ve had on a shoot because in addition to all the regular positions you’ve got (camera crew, grip, electric, etc) we also have a lot of stunts and gunplay which was something new. It’s certainly a smaller crew than on a Marvel movie but it was still a good size. 

We shot in Oklahoma, so most of the crew were locals and I have to say they were fantastic. This was a very challenging movie to make. We had a 21-day shooting schedule (19 days in Oklahoma and 2 days in Florida) and every day we had something big going on. Either it was multiple stunts, gunfire, 2-3 company moves, driving, heat waves, thunderstorms, big setups, etc. Just everyday there was something that was testing us and I think everyone really put their best out there. I really try to foster a set of collaboration and fun. Life is too short to be miserable for 12 hours a day. So, while I certainly push the crew and challenge them, I try to foster an atmosphere of enjoyment out of it. 

Honestly, this was one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve had directing a film. For the first time I had creative control over the story and a budget to help make sure the film got what it needed. And working with Bella Thorne and Jake Manley, and the rest of the cast, was such a joy every single day.  

PH: Do you have any particular tips for others who may be in similar situations? Working with skeleton crews? 

Joshua Caldwell: I’ve worked with small crews plenty of times and in some ways it’s nicer. You’re more mobile, you’re not waiting on people, nobody is offended if you just do something yourself. And you can work a lot of faster. 

One thing we did on NEGATIVE was to scale up and scale down depending on our needs. While most of the time we only had 2-3 people on the crew, for particular sections of the schedule we’d have anywhere from 5-15. But that would only be for 2-3 days at a time. And I think that really worked. But you’ve just got to have an understanding of what’s possible, timing wise, with the crew you have. Bigger setups may take longer and you have to accept that.

The other thing is be kind. With small crew people are often handling multiple jobs and it can be stressful and they’re running around without the support and help they might normally have with more people. I mean, you should be kind to anyone no matter how big the crew is, but often skeleton crews are skeleton for a reason, meaning you don’t have a huge budget. Also, don’t be a jerk and make someone do all the work. Just cause you’re the director doesn’t mean you can’t pick up a sandbag and help move it.

PH: Now there’s a one-shot shootout car chase in this film that took you an entire day of filming. Can you talk about your inspiration for that and the process? 

Joshua Caldwell: I didn’t initially write it as a oner. But as we got closer to production Eve Cohen, my director of photography, and I started looking for as many opportunities for oners as possible for two reasons:

The first reason is creative. The movie is grounded in Arielle’s perspective and subjective experience and the more we can feel present in that experience, the better. I wanted you to feel attached to her and I wanted to achieve that by tapping into the types of content people are familiar with today. With respect to the oners, we’re so used to seeing iPhone videos and Instagram stories and YouTube videos that are shot from one angle. It’s a documentary like approach because you’re capturing events, not staging them, and thus can’t shoot “coverage” of a scene. So, with a phone, you just keep shooting, and you move and change positions while doing so, much like a oner. Creatively, that felt right for large portions of the film, including this shootout.

The second reason was logistics. In 2019, I directed two episodes of an online series for Joe Penna. One of the episodes had a lot of action, fight scenes, movement and I only had two days to shoot it. I thought, if we can shoot most of this as a oner, we might be able to pull it off. Because I realize that you may spend half a day setting up for and rehearsing the oner, but once you got it, you got it. Whether it’s take 2 or take 10. When you got it, you got it. Because otherwise, if you’re breaking it up into coverage, you’re doing multiple takes for every setup and it just…it takes forever. That felt like a very efficient use of time on a tight schedule and it worked beautifully in the series.

I thought about all that when I was looking at this scene and I knew, if we tried to shoot it with traditional coverage, it would take three days and I only had one. Making it a oner felt like the way to go, for those two reasons.

The first thing we had to do was find a road that we could close down and was long enough to accommodate a 3+ minute scene which we could close down and own for the day. Our location manager Raegan Elkins found this road and worked with the city of Chickasha to make it happen and I’m incredibly thankful to them for allowing us to film there.

Once we get to set, it’s about slowly building up the scene bit by bit. We work with our stunt coordinator and stunt drivers to block the scene using little matchbook cars. We need to determine the best speed for timing and for safety. We need to get Jake, who will be driving the car, familiar with the car itself, with the speed he’s going, with the timing of everything. Then we introduce Bella in the back seat. We go through the scene without the weapons, to make sure the timing is right. I’m in the back seat with them (because I operated the camera for the scene) filming with my iPhone so we have reference. Then you introduce the weapons. And you just rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. You do it at 25% speed. You do it at 50% speed. You work your way up to 100% speed, which I think was a about 45-50 mph. We spent the first half of the day just working it over and over again till we all felt comfortable. And then it’s lunch. Ha ha. 

You come back and it’s go time. You get the weapons loaded up with blanks, the cars, ready and it’s time to go. In the car, Jake was driving, Bella was in the back seat behind Jake, I’m in the back seat with the camera next to Bella and our first AC, Jeff Marks scrunched down in the passenger seat pulling focus. Eve and her camera team built out the Alexa Mini so it was as small as possible and I hold it with two handles on either side, giving me freedom of movement, even though I was strapped down with a seatbelt. And then you just go. I think at the end of the day we did nine takes. It was a ton of fun and we couldn’t have done it without everyone, from the actors to the crew, putting in 100% effort.

There’s two more reasons I like oners. 1) when you enter a oner, the audience understands that the perspective is limited and they’re not going to see everything. This gives you tremendous freedom as a filmmaker because you can get away with so much more than you would if you shot it traditionally. You can hide things as long as its justified. 2) Oners get the whole crew involved. Everyone started rooting for everyone to nail it because it’s so exciting when you do it get it. Everyone comes out of a successful oner feeling great because you accomplished something really cool and everyone is invested in making it work.

PH: What were some of the challenges you faced shooting? 

Joshua Caldwell: It seemed like every day had something that was going to make the day challenging. Be it gun fire, stunts, multiple company moves (sometimes up to three a day) there were no easy days on the film. And it wasn’t just that there was a stunt or gunfire, it was that we had that ON TOP of a bunch of other scenes to shoot.

However, I would say that the most challenging part of the shoot, collectively for the crew and I, was the heat. We shot in Oklahoma in July and we consistently had 100+ degree days, sometimes with a heat index up to 110 degrees. We didn’t shoot on soundstages. We were always on location and for much of the film we were out in the open just getting absolutely baked by the sun. 

Even during the second half of the schedule when we shot at night, it was still at 90 degrees! Extreme heat and cold tends to slow things down and rightly so. People get tired more easily, they get cranky and are easily irritated and that can be contributive towards making things even hard. But that didn’t happen. As I mentioned, our crew was fantastic and they worked hard and they never complained. We obviously tried to do what we could to alleviate the pain of the heat but I really have to say they showed up in the big way. 

PH: Did you have a favorite scene? Why? 

Joshua Caldwell: The opening of the film and the final scene of the film are two of my favorites. The main reason is we were able to execute them exactly as I imagined them. They were exactly what I script and we were able to pull them off exactly how I wanted. And I just think they’re great book ends to the film.

Another one of my favorites is the scene where Arielle confronts her mom and her mom’s boyfriend in bed about her missing money. I just love Bella’s insane performance. She goes through so many different emotions in that scene and I really do think it’s a masterclass in acting. I also love that we did it as a oner and it really works. Because I operated the camera, I was able to move and dance with the actors as we shot it and to really feel Bella’s performance and adjust the camera work accordingly. It was a lot of fun to shoot and I think Bella’s fantastic in it. 

PH: Can you talk about other projects you have in the works? 

Joshua Caldwell: We just announced that I optioned the novel She Died Famous by Kyle Rutkin. We’re in the process of taking that out to buyers now and I hope to start working on that soon. I’m also attached to an action-thrilller written by my friend Miles Chapman. We’re currently casting and hope to be in production as soon as it is determined we’re safe to do so.

Meanwhile, I’m continuing to develop multiple scripts and material.

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