Written by Adam Quigley
Behind every outstanding Hollywood blockbuster, there’s a film director who had to work their ass off to helm that project. And though their early work is not often seen by the public eye, that doesn’t mean it’s not accessible to those who are interested in seeking it out. Usually, these films can be found gathering dust at the bottom of a video store shelf, overlooked by most in favor of generic Hollywood productions like Rush Hour 3 (cost: $140 million), I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (cost: $85 million), Evan Almighty (cost: $175 million), the soon-to-be-released-on-DVD The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (cost: $145 million), and other such over-budgeted cinematic drudgery. But to the small-time filmmakers that made them, they’re a labored amalgamation of all the sweat and tears they had to invest before hitting it big. And to the audiences willing to forgo any preconceived notions about independent cinema, they’re some of the best surprises you can find in the movie world, making up for their lack of budget with originality, creativity, intelligence, and damn fine filmmaking.
The following movies all had budgets under $1 million, some of them reaching as low as $7,000. Let this act as a reminder: you don’t need to be backed by studio financing to make a great film.
Budget: $7,000 (before additional post production work)
Widely considered by many to be the definitive “indie” film, writer/director/producer/cinematographer/editor Robert Rodriguez (of Sin City fame) made this ultra-low-budget production about a traveling mariachi who’s mistaken for a murderous criminal in Mexico after raising $9,000 (only $7,225 which was spent) by volunteering for experimental clinical drug testing in Texas. Rodriguez was able to keep the budget so low by adhering to a very strict expense limit, which basically forced him to not spend money on anything other than film stock, and even then only shooting one or two takes. Not having any real money to spend tested the ambitious filmmaker’s abilities to solve problems creatively, leading to the implementation of a wheelchair instead of a dolly, having the actors signal scene numbers/takes with their hands instead of using a slate, using two 200-watt clip-on desk lamps for lighting, and most importantly, not hiring a film crew (he did all of the important work himself, and he used the actors who weren’t being filmed to help out on the set). Rodriguez has detailed all these efforts and more in his excellent book, Rebel Without a Crew, which has since become one of the most popular inspirational tools for independent filmmakers.
El Mariachi would later go on to be the first entry in Rodriguez’s Mexico Trilogy, followed by the decidedly higher budgeted (though not necessarily better) Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico.
[NOTE: It's important to keep in mind though, the often referenced $7,000 budget doesn't actually reflect what we see when renting or buying the final film, since after the movie was bought by a studio they had to essentially re-edit it and do additional post-production work to prepare it for theatrical viewing (which Rodriguez neither expected or prepared for).]
Budget: $27,000 (before additional post production work)
A god amongst film geeks, beloved filmmaker and comic book writer Kevin Smith has amassed an arsenal of 6 movies to fit into his View Askewniverse, and that world begins and ends with Clerks. Though many people have an almost instinctive adverse reaction to black-and-white cinema nowadays, Clerks proves that when it comes to comedy, a strong focus on dialogue is almost always the primary route to success. And with the film taking place almost entirely within a convenience store where Kevin Smith worked at the time, the concentration staying on dialogue above anything else allowed for the young filmmaker to keep the budget as minimal as possible. That’s not to say paying for the movie was an easy task. According to Wikipedia, in order to acquire the funds for the film, Smith sold a large proportion of his extensive comic book collection, maxed out eight to ten credit cards with $2000 limits, dipped into a portion of funds set aside for his college education and spent insurance money awarded for a car he and Jason Mewes lost in a flood.
Since the film had to be shot at night when the store was closed, Smith needed to come up with a way to explain why the steel shutters were closed, and in turn led to a great scene in the film where Dante discovers somebody put gum in the locks and has to put up a big sign written in shoe polish that says, “I Assure You, We’re Open.” Situations like these just go to show how being forced to think outside the box can actually lead to much more rewarding outcomes.
THE EVIL DEAD
Before going on to direct the Spider-Man films (all of which feature cameo appearances from Bruce Campbell, who plays The Evil Dead’s badass action hero Ash), writer/director Sam Raimi developed a massive cult following with this ultra-violent and gory horror film, which later went on to spawn two equally excellent sequels. Shot over a period of 1.5 years with a shooting budget of less than $120,000, Raimi made sure to stay true to the fundamental rule of low budget horror films: set everything in a single easy-to-film location. This didn’t stop problems from plaguing the production, however; over the course of the year and a half when the film was shot, the movie lost almost its entire cast, requiring Raimi to use stand-ins to replace actors who had left. Meanwhile, Bruce Campbell (who did remain loyal through the shoot) underwent torturous conditions playing Ash, often returning home in the back of a pick-up truck covered from head to toe in fake blood.
From the co-writer and director of The Dark Knight.
Hopefully that’s all that needs to be said to convince any hesitant viewers from checking out this black-and-white neo-noir directorial debut from master filmmaker Christopher Nolan. As has been proven with Memento, Batman Begins, and The Prestige, this is a man who can do no wrong. With Following, Nolan (who in addition to writing and directing, also filmed and co-produced the film) tells the fascinating story of a struggling young writer who tries to find inspiration by following people, and is eventually taken under the wing of a professional thief. Not unlike Memento, Following uses a non-linear plot structure to tell its story, explained by Nolan as a means to “emphasize the audience’s incomplete understanding of each new scene as it is first presented.” This plays into a recurring trademark of Nolan’s, as the themes of his films always go hand-in-hand with the style in which it’s presented.
In terms of making the film, Nolan has described the experience as “extreme.” With no money, limited equipment, and a cast and crew who all had full-time jobs to work around, the shoot took a full year to complete. Due to the expensiveness of filmstock, every scene was extensively rehearsed beforehand to ensure that the first or second take could be used in the final edit. Also, instead of using professional film lighting equipment, Nolan relied primarily on available light. He also used the homes and flats of his friends and family as locations.
I consider time travel to be one of the most fascinating subjects in the sci-fi genre, but unfortunately, when it comes to film, it’s often used as merely a means for expensive special effects and gimmicky Hollywood plot devices. I rarely go into a movie expecting the filmmakers to actually adhere to the time travel rules they establish early on, because most of the time, they could care less about the actual mechanics of traveling through time and what effects it would have on the world. Behold, Primer: a captivating ultra-low budget movie that’s actually about time travel, and isn’t just using it as an excuse for putting someone from modern times either in the past or future. If there’s a plot hole to be found in Primer’s intricately woven series of events, I haven’t yet discovered it. This could also be due in part to my lack of understanding of over half of what’s being discussed within the film, as Shane Carruth (whose name is on almost every single one of the film’s credits, including: director, writer, producer, editor, cinematographer, music composer… oh, and did I mention he’s one of the leads?) decided not to dumb down any of the technical dialogue out of respect for the audience. This gives the film an air of intelligence that the rest of today’s cinema could really benefit from. Sadly though, Hollywood doesn’t trust viewers the same way Carruth does.
By the way, if you’re still confused once the movie is over (and there’s a good chance you will be), check out this helpful guide that shows how the time travel mechanism in the film functions.
It’s so rare to see so much new talent come together for an indie film as low budget as Swingers, and then later watch as all that talent become hugely successful A-list Hollywood stars and directors, but here’s at least one instance where that very thing happened. Most prominently, the film skyrocketed the career of Vince Vaughn, who immediately caught the attention of Steven Spielberg and was cast in The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Then we have director Doug Liman, who’s amassed a rather impressive filmography following the success of Swingers that includes such pictures as The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Go. Lastly there’s the film’s writer and star, Jon Favreau, who despite having attached his name to a number of notable films as both director (Made, Elf, Zathura) and actor (Very Bad Things, Daredevil, The Replacements), only recently struck gold after directing the acclaimed box office hit Iron Man. Although it would be unfair to downplay the importance of what Liman and Vaughn brought to the table, much of the greatness that continues to make Swingers such a brilliantly funny and enjoyable (not to mention quotable) movie is Favreau’s witty and insightful script. Following a couple wannabe actors that become regulars in the stylish neo-lounge scene, the focus is much more on character interaction than plot. Not that that’s a problem; when your film is this money, who needs plot?
Often referenced as one of the catalysts for the ’90s independent film movement, Slacker never received a wide release but eventually went on to become a cult hit, even acting as inspiration for Clerks’ filmmaker Kevin Smith. The movie, which follows an ensemble of mostly twenty-something bohemians and misfits during a single day in Texas, was one of writer/director/producer/star Richard Linklater’s earliest works, coming two years before his similarly structured other cult classic (and decidedly higher budgeted) Dazed & Confused.
David Lynch is an extremely polarizing filmmaker, but none of his films are quite as perplexing as Eraserhead, a film that’s probably best described as an art lover’s wet dream. It’s so bizarre and so utterly twisted that you really must see it for yourself if you have any hope of comprehending it, and even then I wouldn’t promise anything. Shot from a script that consisted of only 21 pages (I can only imagine the entirety of the film existed solely in Lynch’s warped mind), Eraserhead was forced to shoot intermittently over the course of five years due to the lack of unreliable funding. Being that the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress in 2004, I think it’s safe to say the effort paid off.
Despite offering a decidedly more coherent storyline, Pi is stylistically very similar to Eraserhead. Directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain), the film follows a mathematical genius who theorizes that numbers can be used to understand all of existence, and that the first step to doing so is finding the patterns. This concept leads him down a path of obsession and paranoia as he desperately tries to unravel the mysteries of the universe and the nature of God. In order to raise money for the project, Aronofsky sold $100 shares in the film to family and friends, and was able to pay everyone back with a $50 profit per-share after the film was sold.
Writer/director Rian Johnson first completed the script for Brick in 1997, and spent seven years afterward trying and failing to convince Hollywood studios to help produce it. These production companies thought the material, which took a film noir style inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled detective novels and incorporated it within a high school setting, was far too unusual for a first-time director. With this, Johnson took matters into his own hands, asking friends and families to help fund the minimum amount needed to get the film made. Johnson was then able to work around tricky camera shots and special effects by using his creativity instead of money, filming certain scenes in reverse order or playing footage backwards.
Budget: CAD $365,000
As mentioned previously with The Evil Dead, it’s a common strategy when making an independent horror film to set the whole thing in one location in order to preserve budget. Unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t offer much in the way variety, leading to a few too many movies where a trapped group of people are picked off one by one in some remote area. Leave it to Cube to think outside the box; or rather, inside the box (and I mean that literally). This film takes that oft-used horror formula and ingeniously alters the setting to create a mysterious and thoroughly fascinating sci-fi thriller, following 7 strangers with no knowledge of where they are or how they got there as they maneuver through a seemingly endless maze of interconnecting cubes. But here’s the kicker: some of the rooms are booby-trapped. If that premise wasn’t cool enough as it is, the real ingenuity of Cube is in its making, as only one cube had to be built for the entire movie. In order to create the illusion of different rooms, they simply used sliding panels to change its color.
I’ll probably get a lot of flack for putting Napoleon Dynamite on a list that claims to only include “fantastic” movies, but love it or hate it, there’s no denying the unique and unconventional style and humor the film has to offer. It’s a weird, offbeat and relatively plotless film that indulges in its unusual assortment of characters and has no intention of being anything other than what it is. For some, those are the very reasons they despise it. For others, those traits are exactly why they can’t get enough of it. That’s just how it is; both parties can continue to bitch about it all they want, but it will never change the impressiveness of the fact that a movie made for less than half a million dollars became a spectacularly successful sleeper hit on DVD and has now become a significant part of our pop culture history.
WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE
By far Todd Solondz’s best film, Welcome to the Dollhouse is like a much more depressingly realistic Napoleon Dynamite. The movie poignantly explores the life of an unattractive and unpopular 7th grade girl in a harsh yet darkly comedic manner, acting as an affecting reminder of the trials and tribulations of adolescence and then reaffirming at the end of it all that at least our childhoods didn’t suck as bad as this poor girl’s. It may be a depressing experience, but you won’t be able to say it wasn’t a memorable one.
To think, there was a time when Mel Gibson was a highly respected name in Hollywood and wasn’t immediately thought of as being an anti-Semitic douchebag. Mad Max was one of the catalysts of that initial respect. Starring in what would later become his breakthrough role, Gibson got the part of the leather-clad post-apocalyptic survivor by pure chance, as he was only auditioning to accompany a classmate and was in very bad shape due to a drunken brawl from the night before. As fate would have it though, the casting agent liked his look (the operative word being “freak”), and he was later cast in the leading role. The film later went on to gross $100 million worldwide and spawned two sequels (the vastly superior Road Warrior, and infinitely weaker Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). Mad Max is also significant in that it helped open up the global market to Australian films.
LORD OF THE FLIES
A solid, respectable adaptation of William Golding’s classic novel, this 1963 production about a group of shipwrecked boys who slowly revert to savagery is a film that’s easier to enjoy at a more mature age when you’re not being forced to sit through it during your high school English class. Employing a naturalistic filmmaking style, director Peter Brook encouraged his young cast to improvise, dispensing with much of the script in the process. The total amount of footage shot came in at over 60 hours, which was then edited down into a 90-minute film. In order to cast the young characters, over 3,000 child actors were looked over. Despite the extensive scouting process, Hugh Edwards, the actor who plays Piggy, got the role simply by writing a letter to Brook that said: “Dear sir, I am fat and I wear spectacles.”
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre wasn’t always considered a horror classic. During its initial release, the film was highly criticized for its brutal content, and ended up being banned in various countries (including Australia and the United Kingdom). Now, it’s one of the most widely referenced and imitated horror movies ever made. What I find most interesting about the film, however, is that despite being consistently referred to as one of the most gruesome and horrifying entries in the horror genre, there is very little blood and gore to be found. The terror comes from the direction, perfectly building suspense and providing an effectively disturbing atmosphere that convinces you you’ve seen a lot more than you actually have.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD / DAWN OF THE DEAD
Budget: $114,000 / $650,000
It’s sad to see how far George Romero has fallen. His most recent zombie-based efforts, Land of the Dead and Diary of the Dead, are two of the weakest the genre has to offer, which is shocking considering that he was the one to revolutionize the zombie/horror genre with these ’60s-’70s classics. No matter; the lousiness of his later films does not taint or diminish the quality and influence of his earlier works. While the black-and-white Night of the Living Dead may not hold up as the terror-infused heart-pounder it once was (though it is still a great movie), Romero’s next zombie picture, Dawn of the Dead, continues to retain everything that made it the awesomely badass thrill-ride it’s been since its theatrical release. And hey, if the thrills aren’t enough for you, they’ve also got social commentary to boot.
HALLOWEEN / ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13
Budget: $325,000 / $100,000
Not unlike George Romero, John Carpenter hasn’t had much luck during the second half of his career. But during the ’70s and ’80s, he was one of the most accomplished, influential horror/action/science fiction directors in Hollywood. His second film, Assault on Precinct 13, did poorly at the U.S. box office and received only mixed reviews. However, the film became a major hit that next year in the U.K., garnering tremendous success with both critics and audiences. It wasn’t until later that American critics and audiences started to come back around on the film, with it now being considered one of best action films of the 1970s. Two years later, John Carpenter directed Halloween, which was also dismissed by critics during its initial release but soon picked up on word of mouth and became a massive box office success. It’s now looked back on as the most significant slasher film of its era, acting as a defining mark on the horror genre and Carpenter’s most respected work.
HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER
Shot in less than a month, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer had a hard time getting released due to repeated disagreements with the MPAA over its graphic content. The film is influenced by the case of the convicted murderer Henry Lee Lucas, based more on his sick sexual and violent fantasies than of the actual crimes he committed. This focus allows for a rare and honest look at a killer, offering a twisted journey that delves deep into the mind of a psychopath.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT
You don’t need to like The Blair Witch Project to appreciate what its directors were able to accomplish. One of the first films to use the Internet and viral marketing, Artisan Entertainment took advantage of the film’s documentary approach, portraying it as just that: a documentary. The film went on to gross $248 million worldwide, giving it the highest ratio of box office sales to production cost in American filmmaking history.
If you’re only used to seeing high budget Hollywood flicks, it’s understandable that you may be put off by Open Water’s naturalistic digital video style. Personally though, I find the DV-based cinematography part of what makes the film so startlingly effective. It gives it this simple, believable quality, making it all the more terrifying when the couple find themselves lost at sea. Much like what was done with The Blair Witch Project, the filmmakers found a way to actually take advantage of the low budget, using it as a means to keep the material grounded firmly in reality.
AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD
Written and directed by Werner Herzog, the script for Aguirre was completed in only two and a half days. The film, which was hailed by many critics as a masterpiece, takes place in 16th century and follows the ruthless and insane Aguirre leading a Spanish expedition in search of El Dorado. Interestingly, the biggest challenge of making the film wasn’t dealing with the low budget but in dealing with the temperamental lead actor, Klaus Kinski. Kinski and Herzog were constantly at ends with each other, and at one point Kinski even fired three bullets a into hut where cast and crew were disruptively playing cards, blowing the top of an extra’s finger off.
LIVING IN OBLIVION
Living in Oblivion is a darkly comedic and satirical low-budget independent film that depicts the making of a low-budget independent film. Separated into three parts, the film features Steve Buscemi as a director driven to near-madness by his cast and crew. DiCillo’s inspiration for the film came from the frustrations he experienced when making his directorial debut Johnny Suede, as well as his ongoing struggle to make his next proposed film, Box of Moonlight. After being rejected by every producer, the director’s friends and the intended actors were so enthusiastic about the project that they helped to finance it.
BAD TASTE / MEET THE FEEBLES
Budget: $25,000 (before post) / $750,000
While not “fantastic” by any means, it’s still amazing to think that Peter Jackson, the director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the 2005 remake of King Kong, would begin his career as a director of extremely violent and gory horror comedies. His debut was Bad Taste (in which he also starred), which is about aliens hunting down humans as food for their intergalactic fast-food chain. His follow-up to that, Meet the Feebles, is a hilariously warped and un-PC take on the Muppets. Watching these films will undoubtedly give you a new sense of respect and admiration for a filmmaker that’s now known for turning out epic and classy Oscar-winning material.
LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS
I would be cheating if I put this film on the actual list, since if you converted the budget from pounds to dollars it would most definitely be over a million (though Wikipedia lists the budget as exactly $1 million), but due to the tremendous awesomeness of the film at hand, I felt it at least deserved an honorable mention. Joining Snatch as one of the only two great movies Guy Ritchie has made (as of writing this, that is — fingers crossed for RocknRolla to up that total to three), Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is above and beyond one of the best crime films Britain has to offer. It also introduced audiences to Jason Statham and Vinnie Jones, both of whom have proven themselves very skilled in the genre of “kicking ass and taking names.” Even if you can’t decipher half of the dialogue through the actor’s thick accents (thank god for subtitles), the stylish, energetic direction and intricate storyline will make sure you’re always entertained enough to not bother complaining.
IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA – Pilot
It may not be a movie, but regardless, the fact that the three creators of one of the funniest shows on television were able to get their pilot picked up for a full season while only spending $85 just goes to prove once again that the most important facet of any cinematic work is story, characters, and dialogue; basically, all the things that don’t cost money.
Did we miss some? If you can think of other fantastic indie gems made for less than $1 million, let us know in the comments and we’ll update the list. Be sure to give your name so we can credit you.
(Suggested by: David Nguyen)
This is just shameful. I cannot believe I forgot to list Once, a wonderful little Irish film that became one of my instant favorites of last year. Even though it has a very simple storyline, following the lives of two struggling musicians in Dublin, the movie has this charm and raw emotional power that shines through its superb musical performances. I’m not really one for romance films, but Once is in a league all its own.