Let's Talk Numbers

You know what’s really fun? Dreaming about making a movie. You know what’s really un-sexy? Figuring out how long it’s going to take and how much it’s going to cost. But with five months to go before cameras rolled, it was time for Cam, Dave, and me to roll up our sleeves and figure it out.

Before February 2013, the budgeting process had caused me deep anxiety. I’d spent a lot of time on Google trying to find examples of indie film budgets, but they’re hard to come by and far from specific. So I’d panicked. How was I ever supposed to figure out how much this movie was going to cost?

But like a lot about this process, it was much scarier in theory than practice; we just had to think of everything we’d need to make this movie happen, and then look up how much it cost. On West of Her, our production expenses consisted of equipment, salaries, and travel costs. Props and costumes were limited enough to be basically negligible. We agreed on salaries quickly: we'd offer a daily rate of union minimums for the leads though we weren’t sure if we’d be getting union actors and the low end of average for crew. It might not have been generous, but when you’re raising the budget yourself, above-average generosity unfortunately can’t be your top priority.

Cam worked on an equipment list, and Dave and I started figuring out the travel end. Along with renting a car for the characters to drive, we’d need an RV big enough to transport all the equipment and provide a place for some crew members to sleep every night, thereby cutting down the number of motel rooms we'd need. So we researched RV companies and motel rates in various parts of the country and punched them into the spreadsheet.  For food, we decided to do breakfast and lunch from the RV, and restaurants for dinner, which was tedious to plan out—“How many bags of chips do you think eleven people will eat in one lunch?”—but not all that difficult to research. Oh, right, and we'd be buying a lot of gas, so we learned a lot more about gas mileage and the price of a gallon in every state than I ever personally expected to know.

But all of these costs, as well as salaries, depended on how many days we’d be on the road. I’ve always loved playing with Google Maps, dreaming of and planning road trips, but this was different. If this was going to be anything resembling affordable, time management was going to be of the essence, something I realized I was poorly educated on when I wrote a draft of a schedule, showed it to Cam and Dave, and said, “Does anything jump out?”

“Yeah,” Cam said immediately, “shooting 12 pages in an afternoon jumps out.”

So I went back and revised, spread some of the longer sequences over two days, but even then we still had a schedule that involved a morning shoot and a full afternoon of driving, or vice versa, just about every day, except the days when it was driving all day and shooting at night. Even with weekends off, it was a punishing schedule by any measure. But it was the only way to keep the budget reasonable while getting across the country and back with enough footage to cut a movie.

We debated a lot about the line between tough and unbearable, finally deciding that we always meant for this shoot to be an adventure.  We’d just need to make sure anyone we hired was fully aware of a few simple realities: making this movie is going to be grueling, it’s not always going to be comfortable, it’s pretty much never going to be glamorous. But by the end of three weeks, you will have seen the plains, the Rockies, the desert, and the south, while getting paid to make art. For better or worse, making this movie is going to be unforgettable.

With a schedule and a budget, we were one giant step closer to making this movie a reality—though we’d need to figure out who exactly would be footing that bill. But for now, our thoughts turned to figuring out who’d be playing these parts, and how to make it attractive to them, since the paycheck obviously wouldn’t be doing it. Tune in next week as we start the search for Dan and Jane…