How We Shot a Fantasy Film in Ireland for $5000
When we set out to create the world of Strowlers, we knew we wanted it to be a shared cinematic universe where film producers and artists from around the world could collaborate and anyone can help tell the story.
Our 45-minute Seattle-based pilot (now in post-production) cost $175,000 to produce, but we knew that many indie filmmakers wouldn't be able to raise those kinds of funds. So we started asking ourselves "How can people on a tiny budget still play in this world and make it look great?"
Our Ireland production was designed to stress-test the answers to that question. Could we produce a twenty-minute short film with magic, epic locations, and gorgeous photography on location halfway around the world... for $5000?
We started with some simple rules during story and script development:
- Keep it intimate, focused on a small number of characters
- Write for existing locations and find the magic in them
- Cast people who can wear multiple hats during production
- Find local support
Treat the experience like an adventure or vacation, so we can justify why we're not paying ourselves.
With these in mind, we started story development and location work. Samara—our producer, costume designer, co-writer, and co-star—connected with an old college friend who had moved to Ireland many years ago. We also were researching AirBnB options, but her friend came back and said "Come stay with us! I'm working on getting my catering business off the ground. I'll give you a great deal on food and then get to advertise that I catered for a film production." (Are you near West Cork? Go hire Alicia McArdle right now. Her food is amazing!)
Moving our production from farther north to stay with Alicia and Gordon was the right choice and it probably saved the show. As we discussed the story with them, they were able to suggest locations that we never would have found on our own. They had connections that only a local would know. They could then let people know we were coming, get us approved to shoot on certain locations (things are more informal in West Cork: approval often meant "Oh, they might tromp through my pasture? Carry on."), and tell us which "No Trespassing" fences were just to keep out tourists.
Based on the photos they sent, we developed a story about a woman traveling around Ireland to collect elements for a mysterious spell that her grandmother had taught her. We reviewed the script with local Irish writers to ensure that it was accurate and respectful of the local culture. We felt ready but were completely prepared to be flexible and allow things to change when the reality of being on location affected our plans.
We also wanted to connect this story with the Strowlers pilot, so we took a deeper look at an existing character from the pilot, Pepper Jones. One of the inspirations for Strowlers, Pepper has a rich backstory that begins in 1942 with the Japanese internment camps, specifically Camp Harmony, located on what is now the state fairgrounds in Puyallup. We knew that Pepper’s story began there, but that she also appeared in the modern pilot, having barely aged. So we started asking what she would have been doing in the 1950s, where much of the Ireland story takes place. That became the other key to unlocking a time-shifting narrative and the rest of our screenplay was born.
But first, we had to budget and build our production package. We found cheap direct flights from Vancouver B.C., booked an auto rental, and evaluated gear. The goal was to fit an entire production studio into a single backpack.
I settled finally on a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera with a Metabones speedbooster, a variable Sigma lens and a 50mm prime, a high-quality ND filter, an external battery pack, a Lenovo laptop with a massive battery, and a couple of lapel mics that went straight to belt-pack recorders on the talent. The mics saved us, allowing each actor to roll audio continuously during takes, capturing clean voice recordings while the camera picked up stratch track sound for syncing later. Then we stopped on the way out of Dublin to purchase a tripod and five-way bounce in a local camera shop.
Meanwhile, Samara and Lisa created costumes for the 1950s and 2000s, worked with our Strowlers production designer to build and source custom props, and figured out how to fit everything into our checked-bags allowance.
After landing in Dublin and driving many hours across Ireland, all the way to West Cork, we arrived in a state of near panic: turns out you have to be fearless to drive in Ireland after you get off the highways. The roads are barely one-way and locals zoom around blind corners at unnerving speeds. Research local driving conditions before you travel. Luckily, Lisa's husband Tony had agreed to come alone as well, which also saved our production. Not only was he able to stay calm while driving around those massive, narrow hedges, but with no official title on the production, he was able to pick up slack every day in every way. Batteries need to be charged? He stayed up to get them charged. We have a huge pack to carry? He hefted it. He made sure we ate, we stayed warm, and that we were able to focus on getting the movie shot. The lesson? Bring one more person than you need. Doesn't matter if she or he has film experience, just make sure they're able to manage anything happening around you beyond getting the shot.
The next crucial step we took upon arrival was to spend a precious day not shooting. Instead, we hopped in the car with Gordon, zoomed around those blind corners, and scouted the locations he had in mind for us. And thank goodness we did. Some were perfect, but others were next to busy roads, or didn't have enough shootable angles, or were groomed for tourists and looked fake. We starred and annotated each location on Google maps so we could find it again (Pro Tip: download the local maps to your device for offline viewing!) and returned to the house to discuss and look at photographs. Some strategic rewrites later, we had a plan.
We spent the next seven days in some of the most magical places on earth: a castle next to a haunted lake, mist-covered foothills, a lake on the cliifs overlooking an angry ocean, abandoned farmhouses that hadn't changed since the 1950's, a 5000-year-old megalithic tomb, and most unexpectedly, a Jedi temple.
I should explain that last one.
It turns out Star Wars Episode VIII had wrapped their location shoot only days before we arrived. "You want to see where they shot?" Gordon asked. Yes, yes we did.
We had planned a big scene on some famous cliffs farther to the north, but quickly realized that they would be full of tourists and railings and a huge, expensive pain. But Star Wars had restaged much of the action from the island at the end of Episode VII to the Browhead Peninsula. So we scouted their location. It was perfect. The turf had been compressed by the sets they had just torn down, but I've never seen such a clean location after Hollywood has finished with it. Kudos to the production team who took such good care of the location!
And that's how we ended up shooting where Rian Johnson and the Episode VIII team had been just days before.
The entire shoot was filled with lucky synchronicities. When Lisa's hat, a key costume piece, flew off her head and over the cliffs, we thought we were screwed. At least, until she yelled "Bring that back!" and the wind caught it up as it was falling and blew it right back over the edge to us, where Samara was able to tackle it. The weather was miserable to work in, but the overcast and rainy skies looked gorgeous on film. And when it was time for our final shot, the clouds broke, a rainbow appeared behind Samara and Lisa, and we captured a gorgeous Ireland sunset for the final moments of our movie.
In retrospect, we'd do some things differently:
Plan better for terrible weather: be able to dress warmly for wind and rain
Bring more battery chargers
Bring a heavy-duty tripod that could stand up to strong winds
But we also did many things right:
Keep the daily page count low
Pack heavy-duty boots
Wait for the light to be perfect
Don't settle for an imperfect location
Stay true to the story
Stay positive and support each other
Get it right, even if it hurts
Shooting any movie is stressful. Shooting a movie on location with minimal resources and budget? Even more so. But because we all had committed to rolling with whatever happened, to supporting each other, and to maintaining a positive and can-do attitude, we were able to weather the difficult moments. Ego kills goodwill on film sets, regardless of their size, and by setting ours aside we were able to push through the cold, the rain, the cow patties, the mud, and the wind to get it right.
Our climactic scene occurs at an ancient megalithic tomb. To reach it we had to hike through several cow pastures, over numerous fences, and too far from our car to go back once we had arrived. Getting there was a massive pain. But we survived.
The next day we were shooting at the cliffs and Lisa and Samara started discussing the footage we had acquired at the tomb the day before. Lisa came to me and said “I can do it better. We have to go back.”
It would have been easy for us to call it good enough and get out of the cold and back to food and warmth. Instead, we went back: through the mud, the cow patties, the fences, all of it. And we shot Lisa's bits again. And it was better. Suddenly, the entire story fell into place emotionally.
We left Ireland with gorgeous footage, nuanced and natural performances, and memories to last a lifetime, as well as close new friends who we can't wait to visit again.
Now the Ireland film is in post-production and we're getting ready to do it again. We've already raised our initial goal on Kickstarter to travel to Mongolia in March, where the shamans of Ulaanbaatar have invited us out to tell a Strowlers story with them, this time we are working with an entirely local cast and writers and will be there purely as the production team.
We invite you to visit our current campaign and learn more, start planning your own film in our shared cinematic universe (and reserve your own copies of the Ireland and Mongolia films.)
Our dream for Strowlers is that storytellers and filmmakers around the world will be able to grab a copy of the world bible, propose a story, and start contributing their own works. As a shared universe built on my company's fan-supported production model—No Studio, No Network, No Cancellation!—we're excited to show that it's possible to make movies that anyone can share and remix, to open up our world for others to come play (and sell their works if they want!), and create something amazing together.
Based on what we did in Ireland, we're confident that others can replicate our model, improve on it, and tie this story universe together in ways we never could predict.
In fact, the Australian team is already at work...