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Inside an indie: Making a film from scratch without a Hollywood budget

CNET logo CNET 2/10/2019 Andrew Gebhart
a person wearing a costume © CNET

In the winter of 2014, I stood on a bridge in downtown Chicago surrounded by the flashing lights of police cars. It felt like it was negative a billion degrees, and my cop outfit didn't provide much warmth. I also had blood dripping down my nose and was yelling at one of my oldest friends to step back from the edge while a dozen other cops pointed their weapons at him. Strangely, I was having fun.

It had been awhile since I'd last done any acting, but that night, I was playing a bit part in my buddy's action film, Hunter.

I'd seen Hunter grow from the nugget of an idea into a full production. In addition to the cop cars, I was surrounded by other extras, production assistants, lights, camera rigs and most of the stuff I'd imagine you'd find on a Hollywood set. Fortunately, the blood was also fake, but the lead actor handing out hand warmers reminded me of Hunter's humble production values.

My friend Jason Kellerman wrote, produced and starred in the movie, which was made for a fraction of what Hollywood considers "ultra-low budget" and a chunk of that went toward getting a single Hollywood name to play a small but important side character. A lot of the equipment was sourced from universities, and a lot of the people on the set were students or young artists looking to cut their teeth.

a person standing in a room: gebhart-hunterpic1 © Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. gebhart-hunterpic1

Now, after several years in post-production purgatory, Hunter is finally being distributed starting Tuesday, Feb. 12 on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, PSN, Xbox Live and more. To commemorate the occasion, I talked with my friend Jason about how, exactly, a truly independent film gets made. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

CNET: So without spoiling anything, what's Hunter, and what was your role in the movie?

Jason Kellerman:

I'm the screenwriter, executive producer and lead actor in Hunter. The best summation I've heard of the movie comes from some press we received recently, which is "homeless ex-MMA fighter takes on supernatural death cult."

How did you secure funding for Hunter?My producing partner Morgan Island and I started out thinking, how little could we make this for, to at least do a proof-of-concept version? So we started fundraising for around a $15,000 budget, which is absolutely nothing, just to see what we could get done. We did fundraising in bars, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, all the online funding things. And we made a decent dent. We raised a couple thousands dollars, and probably could have kept going.

a man that is lit up at night: gebhart-hunter-film © Provided by CBS Interactive Inc. gebhart-hunter-film

My day job at the time was working as a personal trainer, and the nice thing about that job is you know a lot of people with spare time and money. I was talking with one of my clients about the project, and she mentioned she knew somebody in Chicago who was helping fund independent features.

At that point the script had won the top 50 best horror/thrillers at the South by Southwest Screenplay competition the previous year, so I was able to parlay my relationship and that accolade into a meeting with Canal Productions, who provided funding to way beyond the level we ever thought possible up to that point.

What were some of the tricks you used to save money during the production itself?There's a chase sequence at the end -- it looks beautiful -- where I'm running in front of cop cars. Normally, there would've been things like safety apparatuses and the cop car would have been on a green screen to make sure if I stumbled, I wasn't going to get run over by a car. There would have been a safety harness or something that would've pulled me out of harm's way.

We just shut down the bridge, and did it, and instructed the production assistant driving the cop car that, if I stumbled, to swerve...

We also had the benefit of David Tarleton [an associate professor of film at Chicago's Columbia College] as our director. He got a large part of our equipment on loan from Columbia.

The problem is, Columbia students use it during the week. That meant we shot solely on the weekends, with the exception of spring break. So as opposed to having a month-long production schedule, we had a total of six three-day weekends where we would pick up the camera equipment Thursday night; shoot Friday, Saturday, Sunday; and drop it back off; and that saved us tens of thousands of dollars not having to rent our own equipment.

Did you have to make any sacrifices during the shoot to keep to your budget?One of the ways we saved a lot of money was by me and Morgan doing on-the-ground line producing work ourselves [managing the day-to-day physical production work]. I was playing the lead, and I was also driving the equipment trucks around everywhere. And this was in the cold of a polar vortex, so the trucks did not always behave the way you'd hope.

In one instance, our production van lost an alternator at around 11 p.m. Our associate producer parked it in front of my house so I could drive it down to a location. It had all of our production equipment in it. We were cameras up six hours later, and if we don't have this, we can't shoot.

A tow guy comes out and jumps it. I drive it maybe another 150 feet, and it dies again. I'm talking to the tow truck guy, and I say, "if you jump it again, it's just gonna die again, right?" He's like, "yeah, unless you keep the rpm's above 2,000, then it might stay alive."

I ask how much would it cost to tow it. He quoted me something like $2,000 because he knew I was screwed. And I also made the mistake of telling him I was part of a film production, which everybody thinks means you have money, even if you don't.

So I had him jump it one more time and I drive this thing like a madman through Chicago. When I got to a stop sign, I slammed it into neutral and revved it to keep it above 2,000rpm and successfully parallel parked it, which was the hardest part. It almost died then in the middle of the street.

I took a cab back home and got two hours of sleep before heading to set and filming a 12-hour day.

Tell me about Hunter's post-production troubles.The general wisdom is that you should save half of your budget -- whatever your budget is for a film -- for post-production. We found out that that is really very true. We had saved about a third of ours.

We weren't sure if we were gonna get Nick Searcy [known for Justified, The Shape of Water and other roles], so we kinda built the production budget before he came on. I made the contact through another personal training client, and he ended up liking the script, so that chunk came out of essentially our post-production money.

The first editor we had was a very nice guy, but he just wasn't a good artistic fit. It took us about six months to figure that out. Editing should take about a year, by the way. It took us another six months to find an editor who would do it for what we were offering. He edited it for three months and then got called away to work on The Walking Dead full-time and be paid a lot more than we could ever offer him. No hard feelings there -- he's got to make a living -- but it kind of left us high and dry.

Then, three months later, we found a guy who was able to finish it in three months, with [my partner] Morgan also helping out to get it over the finish line.

It took forever. We were in post-production for two-and-a-half years, which is about a year-and-a-half longer than we should have been, simply because we didn't have the cash to pay people to stay on the project or attract the talent that we needed to get it done.

Let's talk about distribution. You finally have a film, and it's edited and it comes time to get people to watch the movie. How do you do that?The whole thing where everyone says the point of film festivals is networking -- that is 100 percent the case. The film was accepted into six festivals. The first one was Manhattan Film Fest. Our distributor was there looking for films, really liked ours, and offered us a distribution deal.

It can be pretty expensive, but it is definitely worth building into your budget or your personal finances that, if you have a film out and you get into festivals, go. Be there physically, go to the networking event. Show up.

After you find the distribution partner, what's the next step?When you put it on Amazon, unless you have a lot of people searching for it, the algorithms just bury it in their sea of content. Part of the reason to work with a distributor is so that doesn't happen. They put it out on the front page so people can discover it.

Luckily we're gonna be out on more than 10 platforms and in DVD format to cast a wide net. We don't have $100,000,000 to market the movie, so competing with Marvel movies is a pretty bad idea 'cuz we're just outgunned. The way that we're approaching this is very much grassroots. We're running a social media campaign that's been really successful, putting out clips that introduce people to the world [of the film].

Any parting words of wisdom?If you have a story stuck in your head, tell it. Don't wait for someone to tell you it's good enough. Don't ask permission. No one ever did anything thinking they couldn't. Get it out, in whatever way you're capable of. 

Jason Kellerman's indie film Hunter debuts starting Tuesday, Feb. 12 on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, PlayStation Network, Xbox Live and other streaming services.

2019 movies to geek out over

a close up of a person: 2019: It's another year of comic book blockbusters, serial sequels and reimagined reboots. Also, original movies from a list of directors that includes Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Jordan Peele and The Rock. Click through the pictures for a bumper crop of exciting sci-fi, superhero, horror, action and geeky flicks hitting the big screen in 2019.

2019: It's another year of comic book blockbusters, serial sequels and reimagined reboots. Also, original movies from a list of directors that includes Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Jordan Peele and The Rock. Click through the pictures for a bumper crop of exciting sci-fi, superhero, horror, action and geeky flicks hitting the big screen in 2019.
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