Zero Dollar Shorts

I made my last feature, Mother Country, in the summer of 2010. My goals were to:

  • Travel across country to show the main character’s development from lower-class, impressionable young man to quasi-indie-hipster hanging out in Silverlake.
  • Create an African-American character who, although being stuck in several predicaments, essentially gets his way, i.e., avoid a “struggle” narrative.
  • Spend less than $100,000.
  • Make something worthwhile with good friends, and connect with new and old friends along the way.

We met all these goals and lived to tell a few great stories. It was an incredibly taxing journey. I knew I was setting us all up for a huge challenge. I also knew that if I could do this, subsequent film projects would be easy. Or, easier.

After the dust settled I assigned myself another challenge: get to the point of being able to write, direct, produce, shoot, and edit my own films, starting with a few micro-budgeted shorts. Microcinema is nothing new. Still, I aimed for zero dollars, nothing, zilch, or as close to this as possible. I dubbed them Zero Dollar Shorts. The rules:

  • Use available lighting
  • Use only equipment that was already owned
  • Work with family and friends, for both cast and crew
  • Either create scripts through improvisation or improvise the movie completely
  • Feed everyone by potluck

So, between 2010 and 2013 I shot six shorts under the above conditions. The camera: a DVX100B (with one exception), which is no longer manufactured. Here are some of the ways we got around spending money on each film. Some of them we used across films. Disclosure: I always spend money on post-production sound. I’m deaf in one ear, sound has never been my strong suit, and it’s one of the most important aspects of a film; I always hire a professional. Therefore, saving money and aiming for “zero” happens in development, pre-production, and production.

  1. Untitled “family movie”: After growing tired of a mundane life with two mothers, a young girl runs away from home. This was the first in the bunch and the edit is currently in progress. Best things we did to save money: Used only non-permit locations and casted my daughter as the lead.
  2. Happy 4 Months: How well can you know someone after four months? This was filmed at the beach using an illegal bonfire as a lighting source. Currently being edited. Best thing we did to save money: tapped craigslist for free firewood and used flashlights from our home emergency kit. Very different color temperatures, yes, but we made it work.
  3. The Black Americans: Two young men hit Venice Beach looking for something to do with only five dollars. To be edited. Inspired by Jarmusch, Cassavetes, and Pull My Daisy, we set out to make a black indie Beat film. Best things we did to save money: filmed in locations until we got kicked out, did lots of scenes in a car, and unwittingly incorporated the homeless man who asked what we were doing with that unopened bottle of wine (which I think we got for three bucks).
  4. Hookup: a mumblecore-inspired sex comedy. The sound mix on this is currently being completed. Best thing we did to save money: filmed in my home (which we also did for most of the family movie).
  5. Solitude for Beginners: An unemployed businessman gets held up at gunpoint, but turns the situation to his favor. Edit in progress. Best things we did to save money: tipped the bartender 20 bucks to let us film at Jack’s Bar. Consider this a Twenty Dollar Short.
  6. In Memoria: In the future, a woman escapes from a totalitarian state, but is followed into the woods by a strange woman bent on bringing her back. I cannot tell a lie: we spent some money on this one. My DVX100B finally gave out, so this was the first short filmed using the Canon 7D, which I purchased in November of 2012. We also spent money on props and costumes, which totaled about a hundred bucks. Things we did to save money: filmed in a remote part of a regional park (okay, so we spent 6 bucks on parking), had my daughter run sound (which she’d learned by then since she prefers it to acting), and bought one of the costumes in a thrift store.

What are some ways you’ve made films, done dirt-cheap?


Cinemulatto’s 2014 Film Resolutions

Cinemulatto has so many things that can potentially delay writing, reading, watching movies, and making movies: a day job, a partner, a teenager, a toddler. My loved ones aren’t “obstacles” because, well, they’re my loved ones. Still, having a full life takes work. Oh, and throw in the aging process. I just celebrated another birthday on December 30th. Contrary to personal belief, I’m not getting any younger. Energy often has to be finagled.

That said, I still hope to use every morning, lunch, and evening hour possible to meet a few film goals in 2014.

  1. Write and produce six original shorts around a theme. I’m almost done editing six shorts I shot on my DVX100B during 2010-2013, and I promised myself I’d be completely done before embarking on new projects on my Canon 7D. I figure I’m done enough. At the time of his passing in 1996, Krzysztof Kieślowski was working on a trilogy of feature scripts inspired by The Divine Comedy, Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. My 2014 shorts will explore death and how people deal with it, whether it’s their own death or someone else’s. Hopefully not all of these will be big downers.
  2. Complete five feature scripts (four rewrites and one new one). I also have a few script drafts lying around, one completed as long ago as 2005. Time to dust ’em all off and make ’em strong! With any luck, I’ve gained some insight and additional skills over the last 8 years. The genres range from comedy to drama to crime thriller to musical comedy, so the process should be mostly a blast.
  3. Find a mentor. I have a few leads up my sleeve. Preferably, I’d love someone who’s been in the industry for decades and has had varying levels of success, and I know this will probably mean old white guy. I’m surrounded by a community of creative people who are very similar to me, so I’m looking forward to working with someone who, on the surface, I may not necessarily have a lot in common with. Building bridges, digging deep, learning new things!
  4. Hold four “movie retreats”. Take one day off work per quarter and devote it solely to watching whatever’s next on either my Netflix or general movie list. Turn off my phone. Take food and bathroom breaks as necessary.
  5. Get out more. Not only leave the house, but leave it after 7 PM and actually go out and meet people! My networking skills are rusty. Despite being forever the introvert, I can’t keep learning about myself and the movie world around me if I become a full-time recluse.

What are your film goals for 2014?


A Few Movies to Love, Then Hate, Then Love Again (or Hate Again)

Cinemulatto makes a point of watching as many movies as possible—regardless of how I know I’ll feel about them, and oftentimes without knowing the plot, premise, or leading actors. In fact, I now prefer recommendations based simply on a title. “Watch Gattaca” is all I need to add it to my list of over 1,000 to-be-watched movies (Netflix only allows for 500 titles in a queue).

Some of these even go through multiple viewings. Cinemulatto believes in second chances—hell, sometimes third chances. In doing so, it’s frequently the case that an opinion changes. Here are a few examples.

Clay Pigeons (David Dobkin) – loved it then hated it

Okay, I saw this in 1998, when I think my movie standards were a bit lower, but still. I had by then discovered the likes of Werner Herzog and Alejandro Jodorowsky, even David Lynch, so I should’ve known better. Perhaps it was because I was in love and saw it with my partner at the time. Flash forward to about 10 years later—hated it. Cheesy and forced.

Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola) – hated it then loved it

I know, I know—this is a classic film by a legendary director. When I first saw it in college, however (sometime between 1987 and 1991) I thought it was slow and boring. I fell asleep. I think this must’ve been before the aforementioned discovery of Herzog, Jodorowsky, and Lynch. Ironically, I also found it difficult reading Heart of Darkness until after I graduated from college. I blame it on being partially raised on movies like Purple Rain. Still, when I was intellectually and emotionally mature enough to appreciate both the movie and the novella on which it’s based, it dramatically broadened my cinematic and literary understanding.

I can blame it on Sylvester Breaux, right? Okay, maybe not.

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick) – hated it then loved it

This falls into the same category as Apocalypse Now: watched it when I was too young, realized how great it is many years later. I grew to love it so much, in fact, that I recommended it to actors during pre-production and rehearsals for a couple of shorts I’ve done, not expecting to make the same movie, by any stretch (I need a few tens of millions for that), but with the hope of educating others who hadn’t seen it on its brilliance. Okay, so it’s a slow movie. But come on—the iconic bone-space station match cut? The epic score? The monolith? My obsession with this movie now runs deep!

Go Fish (Rose Troche) – loved it then hated it

Okay, I’ll probably get my queer card taken away for dissing this movie yet again, but gotta keep it honest! I love Rose Troche. I took a class with her through the former Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco that made me a way better filmmaker. I really liked The Safety of Objects and thought the episodes of The L Word that she directed were the best (see my thoughts on The L Word here).

If I remember correctly, I saw this in Palo Alto when it first came out. I remember my mind being blown, something along the lines of “Oh my God! A movie with lesbians! By lesbians! For lesbians!” I may have cried.

It still makes me cry but for very different reasons. The acting? Horrendous. The story? Yikes. The cinematography’s great. See, I said something positive. Give me my card back!

Across the Universe (Julie Taymor) – hated it, then loved it, then hated it

Cinemulatto watched this movie in a theatre during its initial release. As a die-hard Beatles fan, the expectations were low, and a feeling of dread quickly settled in as the camera cut to the stubbled, doleful-yet-cheeky face of Jim Sturgess singing the opening lyrics of “Girl.” I suffered through the next 2+ hours, either groaning, sighing, or laughing unintentionally. I liked I Am the Walrus sung by Bono on a Furthur imitation, but other than that I felt blasphemed.

Cut to a couple years later, watching the same movie on a large screen TV while visiting my brother in Davis. Maybe it was the quietude, or the TV, or my mood, but I fell in love with this movie. I reaffirmed Julie Taymor’s design genius, her sense of the absurd and the Artuadian and the Brueghelian and all the other artistic traditions I noted as I let myself feel like a museum-lurking art snob.

So yet another couple years later, I watched it a third time, mostly to study the shots and screenplay structure. My original hatred resurfaced. Even though I still loved the color palette of the Let It Be sequence and T.V. Carpio singing I Want to Hold Your Hand to another cheerleader, the closeted Prudence literally hiding in a closet caused more groans, the lack of metaphorical subtlety made me wince, and I wanted to slap Jim Sturgess. I don’t think I’ll give it a fourth try.

What re-watchings of yours caused a change of heart?


French-American-Black-White. Musician and comedian. Performance artist and deconstructionist. He calls himself a “disinformationist,” but above all else, Reggie Watts is hilarious and has fluffy hair. We’re partial to both fluffy hair and hilarity! If you’ve never seen him, check out his upcoming shows, or look him up on Netflix. If you have heard of him, tell us why. If you know him, introduce us.


The Future of Queer Film

A lofty thing, the future. Or time, for that matter. I can barely remember what I did last week and I can’t say with certainty what tomorrow or next week or next year will bring. The future of queer film is no different. I do know, however, that we’ll eventually experience another New Queer Cinema, and the next round will be even more groundbreaking than the first.

This time around, the focus will be less on theme, or technical prowess, or even having sexuality be incidental to the story. The incidentally queer trend will continue but will be overpowered by the old-school, time-tested traditions of character and story. As for technology, we have so many inexpensive ways of creating movies now. Plus, there’s either a film school or online source to teach anyone any aspect of the moving image—it’s unacceptable for a film to lack in production values. Audiences are no longer so willing to forgive bad sound or a poor editing job.

Someone’s always asking about the future of queer cinema; there are many web pages devoted to this question and it’s bound to periodically show up in a film festival interview or panel. So, short of making any further, concrete predictions, what would Cinemulatto like to see in a future queer film landscape? Here are a few things that stand out in our mind.

  • Kick-ass stories. I don’t mean stories that simply haven’t been told before. (Although, this is important and we’ll get to it in a moment.) I mean going back to basics and studying the lessons of 1970s cinema, particularly the focus on character, story, and predicament, and on original and complex situations. I’d love for someone to map out a queer film as narratively elaborate as The Sting. I want us to keep things moving and tense. I want us to rely less on dialogue than story, but when we do use dialogue to forward a story, I want it to be powerful and memorable (“Attica! Attica!”).
  • Some movies that are mainstream, others that aren’t. In the mainstream versus not mainstream debate, I argue we need both: Movies like Brokeback Mountain and The Kids Are All Right serve the purpose of making our stories more accepted by a larger number of people, which in the end is a victory for queer rights. Films are even taking hold in the corporate world, as Chipotle wows us with its animated short on sustainable farming and posts a job opening for a “Film Director”. Visual storytelling is in. Why? These companies understand the importance of creating characters and stories that resonate with a wide audience. An underground movement will always exist to breed the next generation of filmic illuminati. So, there’s no reason to not have both the mainstream and underground.
  • A transgender revolution. With the TV show Orange is the New Black, this is already happening. Transamerica meant well but there’s way more room for hearing original stories told from the perspectives of those who are actually transgender.
  • Continued historical accounts of important stories. We love documentaries, especially those that bring untold stories to life. And speaking of the transgender revolution: more works like MAJOR! a new documentary film should be made. There are so many queer people with significant histories, so we have decades and decades worth of material to draw from. (While you’re at it, check out A Christmas Wishlist for the Future of Queer Cinema.)
  • Adaptations sensitively told. We also love a good adaptation. Bugcrush deserved to win best short at Sundance 2011, which was based on a story by Scott Treleaven. Mysterious Skin was a great rendition of Scott Heim’s novel. What about The Well of Loneliness done as a comedy? Who’s down for digging into some Jeanette Winterson or Rita Mae Brown? Any Zami in the house?
  • New stories and new “household names”. Like documentaries, we have decades worth of opportunity to dramatize our personal stories and to create memorable roles. I want to see characters whose names are as culturally prominent as Ratso Rizzo, R.P. McMurphy, or Annie Hall. The quirky and quotable shouldn’t be reserved for Napoleon Dynamite. We want more queer bad guys and renegade lesbians. There’s a Bonnie and Clyde out there that crosses genders, I just know it.
  • Great acting. How about developing stories with the actors, and rehearsing on camera until it’s perfect and not overdone? We need to spend as much time on training actors as we do on mastering cinematography (unless you can afford to hire Annette Bening). Go Fish was a trailblazing movie but I think we can all agree (can’t we?) that the acting sucked. That was almost 20 years ago so we should know better now. Let’s take the time to really study the acting greats—I’m talking Pacino and De Niro, or Blanchett and Streep—and learn from them. It’s not a sin to appropriate the traditions of classic films and actors.
  • Technology. Just because I need to mention this one. Yes, let’s keep on top of new, inexpensive technologies, but never at the expense of character and story.

Away we go to make important films!