How To Make A Movie For $40 A Minute!
An Interview With Kyle Schiffert
By Karen Meglar
Writing, directing, and producing a film is a full time job, but what if you already have a full time job? This is the case for Pennsylvania-based filmmaker, Kyle Schiffert, who produced a 25 minute short film for a mere thousand dollars. With a day job, a family, and a limited budget, he created Like There's No Tomorrow, a creative interpretation on a zombie apocalypse, by planning ahead. On such a small budget, I set out to find out what Schiffert had to do to make a short film that cost forty dollars per minute. As all struggling artists with a real knack for what they do, he didn't see his budget as an obstacle. The film is a bit of a drama with some horror aspects – the focus of the short is largely on the transformation from human to undead. I was fortunate enough to have a great conversation with Schiffert about the making of this fantastic short.
How did the concept for this film come about?
It started out as almost a dark comedy short film about a guy who was bitten by a zombie and was becoming a zombie and he was kind of in that in-between stage. We were going to make it a comedy; he was walking and all of a sudden his leg would start dragging, when he was eating his final steak dinner, he was going to lick the steak juice out of the pouch, things like that, and when I sat down to write it, I was like, this is about this guy's last day, I don't know if I can make it a comedy per se. It sort of became more of a dramatic thing as I got more into it. I really got into the character – I have a wife and daughter, so I kind of related to the character a little bit. It kind of went from there.
Would you consider this a drama or a thriller? I thought it was a little bit of both but what do you think?
(Laughs) We sold it as a horror with aspects of drama. It was great that way because the actor in it, Owen [McCuen], he's a huge horror fan. Let me just say, he's a great guy overall. He's helped us a lot with the company and everything else and he was a big horror guy. He lives in the Philadelphia area and we actually were just on a podcast last week which was primarily a horror podcast. So, we're selling it as a horror movie but people sit down and watch it and are like, yeah, it's a horror movie but there's drama in it. We're like, yeah, we gotcha. [laughter] So, that's what we say, it's a horror with aspects of drama or vice versa if you like drama with aspects of horror.
How long did it take you to film it?
Two days. I have a full time job during the week and like I said, a family, so I had a weekend to do it. We actually did most of it on Saturday because of the make-up. We had a make-up girl and we hired her for Saturday and we went probably twelve or thirteen hours on Saturday and then we just finished up some other stuff and did maybe half a day on Sunday.
Wow! That's Amazing. What's your full-time job?
Well, I went to school to be a high school teacher. Now I work at a company that's a refreshment services company. We deliver coffee and fix coffee machines. Sometimes I'm running around, sometimes working in warehouse. It's a job that pays the bills and allows me to come home and be a filmmaker when I get home.
Where did you film?
My family had a hunting cabin up in the Poconos and I've been going up there since I was a kid. It was kind of a no-brainer. We had a cabin up there, it was available, it was snowy. We filmed it in March and in Pennsylvania, that's kind of the end of the snowy season because if you go up there now, there's like a foot of snow. So it was kind of nice that there was a layer of snow and there was a little bit flurrying and things like that for the cinematography.
You studied to be a teacher but was filmmaking always on your radar? Did you always want to make films?
It was something I've always wanted to do. I grew up, my parents were blue collar people and they're very supportive of what we're doing now but you know, it was always sort of, when you're deciding what you want to do, you know, think more practical. I thought at the time that planning to be a techer would be a practical job that I could get into. Turns out the market's not so great right now. So, yeah, it was always something I wanted to do but I kind of put it in the back of my head and went well, if I'd be a teacher, I'll have the summers off and I can work on it then.
Had I known how things were going to turn out, I probably would have pursued it when I was younger. Now, it's something that I started getting into and I started writing when I was in college. After I got out, I was subbing for a while. I'd go, in between classes, I'd be sitting there working on my screenplay. There's actually another guy in the company named Ryan Fox, who was in the Marine Corps, and I wasn't in the Marine Corps with him but we were friends from growing up, and when he got out, we decided to start the company Time To Back Out Productions and it just kind of took off from there.
You covered a lot of ground in the film. How do you go about building an entire world when you've only got one set to work with?
Well, creativity, I guess. I was inspired by a movie. I don't know if you've ever seen it, it was called Buried with Ryan Reynolds. He's in a coffin the whole movie; it's an hour and a half and he's in a coffin, right? And I kind of saw it for the novelty purpose of like, how are they going to make this hour and a half movie with this guy in a coffin and it was amazing. Like, if you haven't seen it, see it. It's an amazing movie and he's the only one on screen and he's talking to some people through a cell phone in the coffin. It's a very dismal movie and the plot is basically, he's this contractor in Iraq and I guess, something that they do in Iraq, it was based on like true events, is they take some of these Americans hostage and they bury them in shallow graves underground and they'd give them a cell phone and they'd plead for their life with people to try to pay these terrorists, to get them out basically. It was this movie of ups and downs because he talked to some people and something would happen and you'd think he was going to get out and then he wouldn't get out.
Anyway, this was a huge inspiration for me because you know, it was a prime example of how a movie doesn't have to show everything. It's in the acting and it's in the background and I kind of liked the idea that it was just at the cabin and you were just kind of sucked into this guy's world. He was there and he didn't know what was going on, he was trying to find out what was going on with his wife and daughter. He felt obligated to go to work and try to do what he needed to do for his family. You didn't really know what was going on and he just kind of communicated through his cell phone and I put in at the end, his wife calls him and lets him know that everything's okay and kind of updates you on what's going on with the world. So, I would say Buried was a major influence on that movie.
What about the cast and crew? Was Owen McCuen a friend of yours already? How did you end up casting him?
We actually did another short film, which became a feature film now. We auditioned a couple guys for that. Owen was one of the guys we auditioned but he just wasn't really right for the part. I told him, listen we have to do a project together. You're just not right for this one but we have to do a project together. He was like yeah, yeah, and he stayed in touch. He wasn't like, you didn't give [me] the part, screw you. He stayed in touch and said, "Hey, what's going on with that other project? Let me know." I was just really impressed with the guy and we stayed in touch and when it came around, I asked him if he wanted to do it and he said yeah. It was actually kind of cool because he had just had a baby girl, like two months before he shot this movie and it was about his wife and daughter and he didn't really tell me that until like a month or two before we're ready to shoot and I'm like, "Dude, you need to be home with your baby daughter." He's like, "No, it's alright, I can do it, I can do it." It really kind of hit home. We actually used [Owen] in our feature film which is coming out next. He does an awesome job, he's just an amazing actor.
As far as the rest of the cast and crew, a person I'd like to highlight is our make-up girl. Her name is Becca Johnson; she's actually at the Tom Savini School right now for special effects make-up in Allentown and I don't know if you've ever heard of it but there's a big amusement park called Dorney Park and every year they do a haunted attraction and it's really good. She worked there, she did that sort of thing and she also went to make-up school and things like that. So, we found her on Craigslist and found some money in the budget for her and she came up and was there the whole day and I thought, did an awesome job. As well as my partner was the cameraman. He did a great job.
Yes, Ryan Fox. He's the co-owner of Time To Back Out Productions. He was on the camera. When we do things, sometimes I'm on the camera, sometimes I'm directing, sometimes he's on the camera. We kind of work together in that sense. We fill in roles where we need to fill in roles. And the sound mixer and the guy who did the score, his name is Kyle Steele. He's going to college right now for sound production so he helps us out a lot. He's a really talented guy. He'll sit down with his laptop and he'll just create great music for us. That was about it for our cast. We had a small cast and crew because it wasn't a humongous production.
How do you go about making a short film for a thousand dollars? Where do you spend that money?
(Laughter) I’ll explain how we kind of do it: We have all of our own equipment. It may not be top of the line equipment. We may not have the greatest lenses but we sold stuff on ebay, we found money, we saved up, we bought all of the equipment we needed. Right? So you don’t have to rent any equipment. The second thing is the people for your set. We found people that, we either do favors for them, like Kyle Steal. We met Kyle Steal because we shot a music video for his band. Ever since then, he just sort of likes hanging out with us. He has been our sound mixer and he does scores for us... and things like that. He is just someone that volunteers and likes to help us out. You know we pay him in hotdogs or whatever. That way we don’t have to pay for a sound mixer.
Ryan and I do a lot of the other stuff. I have been really working on cinematography, so that is kind of my field so I’ll plan the shots and run the camera most of the time. Ryan is more of the director usually on a film. Other things like actors, a lot of actors were volunteers. For this one we did pay Owen a little bit but what we are paying these people are basically pennies. We send them cash money. It just a community of people, sort of at the bottom of the filmmaking industry who just want to be on-screen or want to get out there and do their thing. You are giving them an opportunity to do that. Basically a thousand dollars was food, some props, we paid our makeup artist, we paid Owen a little bit and just some other general supplies that we would need.
The cabin was something that I had access to. All of these things were thought about when we wrote the movie. How are we going to do that? Okay, well the cabin, I have a cabin. Maybe we don’t show the hospital because, how are we going to get access to the hospital? That’s sort of what we think about when we sit down to write a movie. We don’t write a movie and then later think about how we are going to make it. We think about it while we are writing it.
What kind of equipment do you have that you used to shoot with?
We have a Sony camera. It’s an older, HDV fixed lens. I personally think it shoots pretty wonderful for what it is and how much we paid for it. We are looking to upgrade obviously but for right now that is what we have. For sound, we used a road microphone and a zoom H4N recorder. We edited on a custom built computer but we edited on Adobe Premier Pro.
Are you planning on entering the film into festivals?
Yes, we did. Our first festival is coming up next week.
It’s called the Front House Film Festival. It’s in Philadelphia. It’s the first one that's happening. Basically there was a production company in Philadelphia that started the festival to showcase their feature films and they are also showing short films in the process. They picked our short film and what actually happened was they scheduled this one location and they didn’t have enough time to show all the short films they wanted so our short film is being screened at the after party which is much later at night. It’s exciting.
Where do you go from here? What’s next? Are you going to continue to film?
Actually we have a feature film and I just got done chopping it up. Hopefully it will be released at the festivals in the fall. It’s called Desolation. It’s a thriller with some aspects of drama in it. It’s a bank robbery movie about these guys who are down on their luck. They rob a bank and go hide out in the woods to try to get away from the cops. All these different groups of people start getting involved and wanting the money. You kind of see the background of all these different people and you see why they want the money.
It sounds like Reservoir Dogs?
Well, that was one of my favorite movies. (Laughter)
We did it that way because we didn’t just want these stereotypical bad guys. Owen’s character is like this hillbilly sort of guy and the first time you see him you think okay, he’s going to be this traditional hillbilly who speaks broken English and he has a big beard. Then you find out that there is a background to why he wants the money and later on he has a conscience. On the surface, it’s a bank robbery thriller but it’s almost a class struggle in a sense. These people are trying to better their lives with stolen bank money.
What is your advice to somebody wanting to make a short film on a very limited budget?
Be as creative as you can. That would be number one, because you are not going to have the budget to blow up cars and a lot of other stuff. While you are writing it, think about, can we do this? There are ways to write around things.
Here is a prime example: for Desolation, we had plenty of guys running around with guns. We had air guns or fake guns. We did not have the climate to fire these guns in an realistic way, so we got around it by saying there were cops floating around the woods and we had walkie talkies, static and you could hear the cops talking. We didn’t want to give away where they were because they wanted to get the money. The reason they never fired a gun is because we didn’t really have the means to do that but in the movie it looks like a creative way around it. That's kind of an example of the things you have to deal with. Yeah, if you have a big budget movie that you want exactly as you envision it on the screen, then low-budget filmmaking is probably not for you.
What kind of a budget did you have for Desolation?
It wasn’t much more actually. It was probably about fifteen-hundred to two-thousand and it was the same deal. Most of it was shot in the woods. We shot in houses. We actually shot a bank robbery at the bank that Time to Back Out Productions has their account. We just talked to the bank manager and got permission to use that. A lot of people were people that volunteered. Some of them were actors and some of them weren’t. There are a lot of characters. Some of them were people that we knew and we said, “Hey you look like you'd be good for the part” and they actually stepped up to the plate and did a good job.
Do you use a lot of the same people in the different movies that you make?
We technically use the same people. The difference with Desolation versus Like There’s No Tomorrow, is that Like There’s No Tomorrow was a project I did because I was bored over the winter one time and I wanted to do something while we were in the interim of Desolation and Desolation is a project that Ryan and I wrote together. He got the directing credit but we kind of directed together in a sense. We did use Rebecca Johnson for make-up. Owen was in it. He was the only character who was also in Like There’s No Tomorrow. My wife actually did the voice of the directory assistance girl. His wife, Paige, [is] in Like There’s No Tomorrow. Her name is Jenny McGuinness; she is an off-Broadway actress in New York. She has a part in Desolation. She is fantastic. You just sort of piece together a movie in the sense.
What are some of the films that have influenced you?
(laughs) Buried. We talked about that a lot already. Another one you said was Reservoir Dogs. That’s one of my favorite crime thriller movies. Anything Wes Anderson does because he’s just really creative. I like him. Raiders of the Lost Ark is my favorite movie. It’s as far from Indie film as you can get but you know it’s a movie I will always love. I think what probably first inspired me was when I was reading Reservoir Dogs and Quentin Tarantino was like “Yeah I made it for thirty grand” and you are like “Really?”. I love that movie. It kind of goes to show that you don’t need a lot of money to make a great movie as long as you have some creativity. Another movie I just saw recently is called Primer. In the first maybe fifteen, twenty minutes of it, you are like totally lost because it’s about these guys building a time machine and they get very scientific and you can tell the filmmakers just knew a lot about time so they just wanted to show off. There is a turning point in the movie where you just can’t stop watching it. My wife and I sat and talked about it for like a day afterwards. They made this movie for like six or seven thousand dollars and it’s fantastic. I love seeing movies like that were you don’t need a two- hundred million dollar budget to make a great movie.
Are you still based in Pennsylvania?
We are. Our studio is officially in Topton which is this very small town North of Philadelphia, right outside of Allentown.
Well, it's been a pleasure talking with you Kyle. Thanks.
Watch the trailers for both Like There's No Tomorrow and Desolation.
For more information about Kyle or to purchase his movies, visit his website here.