The pandemic is changing the arts everywhere from books, to theatre and film. We talked to Shane Stanley, a filmmaker (most recently released, Break Even) known for his treatise on filmmaking, “What You Didn’t Learn in Film School”. Now, nearly three years after the release of his book, Stanley has updated the book and made new films at the height of the pandemic. Stanley reflects on his teachings and the changing film industry “Moving forward, I hope people embrace the fact that you can still make quality entertainment for a fraction of the costs that we did before. I live for, and love being a low-budget filmmaker!... The film we just completed during COVID was produced for 1/3 the budget we normally have and when you see the film, you'll never think it was done on a dime.”
Here, Picture This Post (PTP) talks to Shane Stanley (SS) about his book, his experience shooting a film at the height of the pandemic and what we cinephiles should expect from upcoming films given changes in the industry
(PTP) In the midst of a global pandemic, how do you think the film industry has changed or will change in the coming years?
(SS): Considering productions were cut by over 90% last year, that’s a huge change. I think it’s been well-documented that “the industry” will lose over $160 billion over the next five years due to the pandemic and its residual effects from 2020 and beyond. I mean, look what just happened to the theater chains. I think it’s the tip of the iceberg. Moving forward, I hope people embrace the fact that you can still make quality entertainment for a fraction of the costs that we did before. I live for, and love being a low-budget filmmaker! If you ever want a crash course on how to waste money, look at your average production budget or visit any film set quite honestly.
As the film industry changes, what advice do you have for film makers struggling to work on a reduced budget?
Immediately in Chapter One of my book What You Didn’t Learn in Film School, and throughout the book, I address how to budget and pay for making an indie film. From the actual cost of forming an LLC and legal expenses to catering and equipment budgeting, there are so many pitfalls that can be avoided! For example, it always shocks me how much people pay talent. I've talked to people who have worked with respectable actors, paying them six figures for a day or two of work when we've worked with the same ones for pennies on the dollar and for longer periods of time. Also, wrap parties. It blows my mind that those are a line item in a budget (especially on an indie film) and it's unbelievable how much will go into that yet they're unwilling to step up and get a good editor or prime locations for the film. Put it ON the screen!
In my book, I talk about how my father's passion project (Desperate Passage) had a one million dollar budget and he shopped it for over five years without any breakthrough. Then, someone gave us $25,000 and said, "Enough groveling - go make the movie!" And we did just that, with a crew of only five. The film was not only a huge success (winning the #1 spot in the Nielsen ratings for each of its two broadcasts) but also was nominated for four Emmy® Awards, winning two. Michael Landon jumped on board and it launched an entire series that was nominated for a total of 33 Emmys, winning 13 statues over a six-year run. Our budgets didn't really go up a whole heck of a lot moving forward. Included in the series was the documentary, Gridiron Gang, which was remade into the feature film starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and ultimately became a number one blockbuster movie for Sony Pictures..
I see projects in the hopper sit for years without any movement because filmmakers have shackled themselves with a budget that is unattainable. I even find myself getting caught up in that once in a while.
The film we just completed during COVID was produced for one third the budget we normally have and when you see the film, you'll never think it was done on a dime. As filmmakers, we have endless recourses of goodies at our disposal to help us get out there and produce. Stop grumbling about what you don't have, get off your butt and go do it. I promise you it'll be a lot better than the film you talk about making.
What was your experience shooting a movie at the height of the pandemic?
Going in, the mandate was: don’t let this look or feel like a movie shot during the pandemic. So, you won’t see a hint of that at all. Our screenwriter, CJ Walley, set this up perfectly, we worked around whatever logistics we could, and just wanted to make a cool film that wasn’t a reminder of these dark and confining times.
We wanted to set most of the film outdoors because we’d all been cooped up for so long. We traveled all over California to give our audience an assortment of landscapes, including deserts, mountains, cities, and gorgeous rugged terrain accompanied by snow, surf, and sun. People have longed to see the world outdoors for the past year, so we wanted to give it to them. I think only 25% of the film is shot indoors and those scenes were in a gorgeous mountain cabin, a diner, a country store, and very cool luxury offices. We even filmed a love scene to keep the romance factor up.
The pandemic reinforced the fact that you don't need dozens and dozens of people on a set, most of who stand around a lot of the time waiting for something to do. I mean, we always work with people who can wear many hats. Before, it wasn’t unusual to have a crew of 30 but while shooting during COVID, we got just as much done with a crew of only 15. It's all about who you hire and what jobs they are willing to do. For example, our gaffer also shot our drone footage, operated a camera when we shot with three, managed our DIT (digital media), as well as helped out wherever he possibly could. He even played the part of a gang member, one of the bad guys who captured our leading lady.
As a former car salesman, with the service industry currently suffering, what do you perceive to be the importance of working in the service industry in the creative process?
I think it’s crucial to get out of your comfort zone and learn new skills. Selling cars happened by total accident and yet quickly became something I was passionate about. What I loved most was knowing every deal had obstacles and unplanned (plot) twists and turns. No two negotiations were alike. I learned how to listen. When the mouth is closed and the ears are open, we not only learn a lot about our fellow humans but can collect some of the best dialogue and character traits available - a hell of a lot more than you would be sitting in your room and staring at the walls while trying to create it.
Again, it comes down to learning characteristics, traits, and funny one-liners you never could conjure up on your own. People are interesting, especially when you serve them. You encounter ALL walks of life, and if creating characters and writing dialogue is your thing, you’ll have endless resources for fresh material. I also encourage everyone, especially artists, to get out and learn other skills than just the career path they are following. Not just as a way to make a living while you’re waiting for a ship to come in, but I think it can help you appreciate others; more than ever it reminds
Backtracking, can you please tell our readers about how and why your book, What You Didn’t Learn in Film School came about
My wife Val was the original inspiration. I was writing a blog for a group out of Austin, TX on filmmaking tips and kept getting calls from different filmmakers, many of who I didn't know, asking for advice about distribution and securing private equity. After I had spent over two hours on the phone with a producer from Colorado my wife came into my home office and said, "That's two hours you'll never get back. Why don't you write a book and just send people that? You're getting nothing done while giving your time and expertise away for free!" I thought about it for a few minutes and started writing immediately. The book was written in less than three weeks.
I don't know what will surprise them, but in the book, I don’t hold anything back – it is a very ‘down and dirty’ guide that doesn’t sugarcoat anything. I really push the need to put one’s pride aside and be willing to take whatever job you can on a set, even if you're crazy enough to think it's beneath you. I made some of my greatest connections working grunt jobs on a set, many of which I still have strong ties to today. Also, don't worry about your pay rate or credit. Get your hands dirty and be willing to wash someone’s feet to get yourself out there. Many people today are more worried about their 'rate' - one they’ve usually concocted for themselves, and where they fall on the call sheet. That's ridiculous. You can either wait around for the phone to ring or be proactive and get out and earn somewhat of a living and expand your network. If you want your scripts read or people to watch your reel, who better than the people that you're working with who can probably help you faster than those who you don't even know?
In the aftermath of writing a treatise on filmmaking, have your ideas for the best film practices changed since?
Well, I've been doing a lot of webinars and lectures on producing a film in the middle of COVID, so I would love the opportunity to include that info because I don't ever want the book to be dated. However, restrictions are starting to loosen up and from what I am hearing, come July, much of it will become irrelevant. We'll see how that goes but I am ready if the 2.0 version is needed moving forward.
However, writing the book hasn't influenced or changed my practices because what I've written is second nature to me.
I grew up with a working actor for a father who got me my first job in front of the camera before I was old enough to walk. Before I was in fourth grade, I had close to 100 projects under my belt but just hated acting. As I grew older, my father made a shift in his career from actor to filmmaker and I fell in love with the whole process, from concept to delivery. Those cameras, lenses and editing equipment were the coolest things I had ever seen, and he taught me how to use them at a very young age. When he put me to work behind the camera on his films there wasn’t anyone enforcing child labor laws, so I was out there with the rest of ‘em working the slate between takes, helping to set up, and even running sound.
I subscribe to the theory that if we do what we love, we never work a day in our life. Sure, this business has its share of ups and downs, but in my almost 50 years in the industry (32 as a filmmaker) I can attest that the worst day on set far exceeds any day not being on one.