We watched TINY FURNITURE, Lena Dunham's debut feature. Like her HBO series GIRLS, it is a rawly honest portrait of a 22-year-old college graduate with no direction and few redeeming characteristics. It is often funny, in a sort of horrifyingly accurate way.
I'm always suspicious when I hear that someone shot a feature for $9,000 (as Robert Rodriguez did EL MARIACHI) or $2,000; sometimes I think people deflate their budget to impress people. In this case, $50,000 seems about right.
How does she do it for $50K? She stars herself, first of all, and her mother, and her sister. They may not be astounding actors, but they're playing characters close to themselves. Dunham knew what her actors were capable of. I gather the other actors were non-union. That saves money.
Second, she's shooting in her parents' fabulous loft, and a few other locations. It helps when your parents have a fabulous loft; if they do, try to figure out what you can shoot there.
But it's really in her shooting style that she saves herself time. Dunham uses very little coverage. Many dialog scenes are covered in only one wide two-shot; others are shot in two closeups.
That means there were very few setups. Each time you move the camera to a new setup, your director of photography (DP or DOP) will need to relight. You will need to reconsider the frame. Possibly redress the set.
Dunham's camera rarely pans or tilts. When the camera follows actors during a scene, they can miss their marks. When they miss their marks, you've blown that take. That eats time on a set.
There are no dolly moves. Setting up dolly track really eats time. Your AD and DP will tell you it's just ten minutes to lay down track, but it never feels like that on the set. And then once the camera is moving on a dolly, making sure the actors sync up with the dolly is a job for professional grips, and they'll need a few takes to get it right. Moreover, if the camera is moving, the lighting has to work for every angle the camera sees along its trajectory. More time.
I bet the shooting schedule wasn't that long.
If you keep the camera pointed in one direction and never see the reverse angle, you can shoot a crowded party scene, as Dunham does, with four or five extras.
Dunham's approach works pretty well for a low-key comedy of manners in which people talk in apartments and occasionally on empty city streets. It wouldn't have worked, obviously, for a movie with a lot of run and jump.
It wouldn't have worked for a searing drama, either. Dunham's actors rarely need to express a deep or complex emotion. If they did, they might not have been able to carry it off. You need skilled actors for that. (SAG and ACTRA will give you good rates if you're shooting low budget, so don't rule out pro actors.)
When you're thinking about your debut feature, you're probably thinking low budget. Think about what resources you already have. Think about the kind of story you can shoot well with those resources. Don't shoot something you can't shoot well. Marry your story to your assets. That's what Dunham did on this picture, and hey! she's got her own HBO series now.
What could you shoot for $50,000?