I Thought a Desktop Movie Would be Cheaper…
May 16, 2019
I have been obsessed with the ‘one room drama’ for a long time. It is a way to control a film project’s budget by finding a story that can exist entirely in one setting. This may seem simple on the surface but without the freedom of visual variety these films can become very tedious for the audience very quickly.
The economics of independent film practically dictate this approach as few first time writer / directors get anything more than a couple hundred thousand dollars for their feature. I’ve experienced film friends struggling to get larger budgeted, multiple location features off the ground. I’ve worked on independent features with many locations and no money; every moment is an epic struggle between quality and schedule. There is a feeling the entire project could fall apart at any moment. It’s rare these productions allow the writer / director to capture the story and performance they originally envisioned.
Traditional low budget features allow the teams to grab simple visual variety by sending their hungry cinematographers out to film the surroundings. This can be both a blessing and a curse; you can get quick ‘filler’ for your shoestring feature, but if the primary performances and visuals are not up to par these lovely exteriors will not save your movie.
I will say from experience that writing a ‘one room drama’ is very difficult. You are essentially writing a play; if as a writer if your characters are not full of personality and you do not know them inside and out you will fail. There is no place to hide when the story, plot, and drama starts to put your audience to sleep. The good news is there are hundreds of well-written plays and film scenes to inspire and teach you. I took it as a challenge to find stories that can be told in a smaller setting while still having the emotional impact of larger films.
I’ve also understood for a long time that a horror film is the easiest genre to get off the ground and sale. Many of my film heroes, like Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, got there start by creating fun and innovative independent horror. I do not come by this genre naturally but over the course of writing and studying horror films the genre has risen to the level of the western genre in my book. Both are stripped down morality plays where the settings allow the audience to mainline adrenaline and escape the real world.
I have drawers full of uncompleted treatments for ‘one room dramas’. There are stories that take place inside a mega nightclub, a hostage cell, and the ubiquitous haunted house… All of them are good but none of the ideas excited me. I have been tooling with ‘micro horror’ for some time; the idea that universal fears primarily existing within and around one’s body and there are untapped stories to be told.
As soon as video chat became ‘a thing’ I was fascinated with how this new communication device could be use in micro horror. I have files on my computer that predate all the major desktop / video chat films that have been released over the years. Many of the ideas in these films are in my discarded file. I’m not being braggadocios, the ideas were just not me. After many years, and many debates with film friends, I settled on pursing my version of a desktop video chat as my independent ‘one room (horror)’.
I developed the characters and surrounding mythology for ‘The Book of Faces’ property. A feature length screenplay was created along with comp art. (I like to work this way moving back and forth between the written and visual worlds) Once I felt the feature length screenplay had ‘enough meat’ to pursue its production I selected a few of the feature’s ideas to be developed in to a short version.
Again my logic side comes in to play here, I have donated and been involved in many independent film fund raising campaigns; I’m a strong believer that a proven proof of concept is a more powerful generator of funds than the common ‘promise videos’. I decided to follow the great Damien Chazelle by producing a short version of your feature as a way to gain interest in the longer version.
I got the short screenplay together and assembled a crew. I moved heaven and earth to find the right cast and one home that could work for multiple bedrooms in different locations. I spent the extra money to shoot my video chat film like we would the feature version. I knew having the actors reacting to each other in real time through seamless microphones and monitors would gain us authentic performances. This more expensive direction goes back to the ‘one room drama’ dilemma were you have nowhere to hide and must capture authentic performances to keep the audience’s attention. Furthermore, you need to maximize the ‘one rooms’; your limited locations better have top-notch art direction and lighting.
So I pulled it off (I don’t know how I pulled it off) in one long January weekend we got our short version of ‘The Book of Faces’ captured. I was exhausted and elated, scared and relieved.
Then the editing began and I CAN FINALLY GET AROUND TO MY TOPIC, lol! I’ve come to realize that the choice to do a ‘one room drama’ as a video chat film is not as cheap as I originally thought. All the capital saved during production, both monetarily and time, has been added to the postproduction phase of the film. I completely under estimated the amount of time and RAM a video chat films takes up. Five video strings on the screen at once require a ‘beefy’ editing system with solid state drives. The level of precision required in crafting the desktop environment, with all the associated bells and whistles, in this genre is tedious. I relate to the director of the desktop film ‘Searching’ stating in a Q & A that he, “Never wants to do a desktop film again!”
Live and learn, as we finish our short version of “The Book of Faces’ I still believe it is a great story and worthwhile project. I am now aware that the budget for the feature version will need a more realistic postproduction team and equipment. A more traditional ‘one room drama’ with one camera would not need this added expense. Live and learn.