Zero budget film making is not a very accurate term. New technlogy allow us to shoot cheaper, to access professional editing software at prices that would have been ridiculous just ten years ago, but what didn't change (and most likely won't change) is that filmmaking needs people and places. People value their time, and so do people who own locations. Thinking to get people's help for nothing is a pathway to punches in the face. But at the same time, value doesn't necessarely equals money.
"Tear me Down - Unmaking Hedwig" is a zero budget mockumentary shot in the course of about four months, in the grand tradition of classics such as Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind, The Office and FUBAR. The project started as a promotional video for the first ever production of Hedwig and the Angry inch to be put on stage in Prague by Akanda, a local company that specializes in being crazy, mixing theatre with a strong DIY attitude. The idea was to make a short mockumentary and to use it as a gift for a Kickstarter campaign to raise some funds for the production. It was supposed to be about ten minutes long. It ended up being a 30 min+ epic.
All the people involved in the production were promised nothing more than visibility and creative input. With a project like this, the director has to take a bit of a backseat and abandon the classic idea of "creative control". The idea is to steer invisibly, and set the right tone for each scene. The mockumentary format is ideal for making this work out. It allows for planning, both in story and shooting; compared to a movie in the "found footage" genre (another low budget favorite), it allows for more freedom in being inconsistent with shooting styles and visual quality. Tear me Down was shot with a Sony Z-1 camera and a Canon 7D (courtesy of the mighty Ken Tsujino), an iPhone 4 and an Olympus EP-1. The shift in picture quality is never a real issue, the use of different formats in documentaries is something everyone takes for granted.
In this kind of project, the director must think like an editor. We were shooting mostly during rehearsals for the stage musical, so the performances for the mockumentary were already extra work for everyone involved. There was no way to ask for 100% from everyone. The key was to make it fun and to look for a good, usable moment to cut inside a coherent narrative. It's really about tricking everyone involved into thinking that it's just a game. It helps to have talented people involved, and especially people able to take the piss out of themselves.
I tried to involve people all the way through editing, but another thing to remember in a project like this is the necessity to keep consistency in the final edit. The final product needs to be cut ruthlessly, trimming the fat, even when the fat is funny. More than once scenes were shot in one take, and glued with a voiceover, also knows as "the compressor of storytelling". This was written halfway through the production, once most of the interviews were already shot, and delivered with great effect and some great adlibs by the almighty Jim High.
Another key element not to mess up is sound. A good microphone is key, and I was lucky enough to have the help of the Sype Studio folks to help out in saving some audio files that were almost unusable due to too much ambient noise. Voices need to be clear, and it's good to build some sense of place using ambient noise. The party scene features pre recorded music mixed to sound as if it's played inside the club. This allows a better background to be created for the scenes, and avoid to be sued because some prerecorded tracks are used in the piece. Still, at times it will be really hard to kill ambient noise. The Kickstarter budget scene, for example, was shot only once and there was no way to kill the background music. It's not ideal, but sometimes, when some cast members are about to leave town and there's no other time to bring everyone together, having the shot takes precedence.
The structure was mostly built on the fly. Some of the narrative beats where decided in advance, often by the actor themselves, but a lot of the story was dictated by the availability of the actors, of locations, and dumb luck. The last party scene looks pretty cool because we literally highjacked a party thrown for the end of the Prague Fringe Festival in order to fake J's party. Curt Matthews' cameo in the scene was mostly dictated by the fact that he was there. And it made for one of the funniest moments in the show.
This is not an ideal approach: it allows for minimal planning, it's risky, but it's a good to exercise budget making skills, and to understand to think of value beyond money. And this is a problem that is common even when there is a budget. For 99% of filmmaking. Make the best of what you have. And hang out with crazy people. That helps.