Indie Filmmaking – Why It’s a Hard Knock Life

Guest blog: What I learned making "Abandoned Mine" — change your oil often and check your air pressure


Imagine this! A two-week prep, an 11-day shoot, then eternity before the movie is released. Do you really want to be an indie filmmaker?

Now that my new film, "Abandoned Mine," is coming to theaters Friday, plus cable VOD and iTunes, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. But the lights weren’t always on. 

After 20 drafts of my script, I was ready to shoot. But my lead investor wasn't. He stopped returning phone calls one month before we were scheduled to shoot. He died of cancer. I didn't know. And I didn't have a second choice.

Lesson #1

Be careful who you invest your money with, but even more importantly who you invest your time with.

With two weeks to go before start of production, I didn't have my UPM, DP or my 1st AD.  And of course I didn't have my production designer, production coordinator or my editorial team in place, either.

What did I have? I had a script that I had painfully dragged through 20 drafts, killer locations in three real abandoned mines situated in two different states and a ghost story with a healthy dose of claustrophobia. Oh, and my 1997 4×4 Ford Expedition with 225,000 miles on it. I still use it. The odometer now reads 351,000 miles. 

This is how I organize the chronology of events on this movie — literally by "MILEstones" on my odometer. I began my script at 175k, shot it at 225k, released it at 351k.

You still want to make indie films?

So by 223k, I had serendipitously stumbled upon a replacement investor who was quickly organizing funds to transfer into a production account that I had yet to set up.

My attorney was still finalizing my LLC agreements. Yes, I did have a real entertainment attorney in place as well — one who had proven invaluable getting me through very tight situations on previous projects.

Sometimes I think I should have gone to film school instead of the school of hard knocks. But then of course it would be very unlikely that my 20-draft script would have the layered complexity reflecting my challenging personal life.

I likely wouldn't have had sufficient artist's angst to squeeze myself through the strainer of self-examination and make "Abandoned Mine." Writing the script became an cathartic exercise as I tried to conjure a simpatico with the great writers of history — Shakespeare,  Hemingway and now Chamberlain. Ha.

I found resonance in the eloquent words of the character Hamlet when he instructed the "players" of his court as to how to achieve a transcendent performance in their roles.

"…both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as twere the
mirror up to nature…"

Yes, that famous mirror speech had actually stuck with me from my early acting days in Hollywood. And now firmly implanted into the recesses of my psyche, Hamlet's words presented me with a personal challenge — to hold up that mirror and write what I saw. 

Maybe that's why I ended up with a script in my hands that embodied not only my characters' journey through their storyline but also an allegorical account of my take on the machiavellian American political drama that continues to rancor American hearts.  Prophetic at the time I wrote the script (at 175k miles), the film's allegorical narrative is surprisingly relevant today at 351k.

As if that wasn't enough of a challenge, the story and characters are also crafted to serve an additional narrative which plays throughout the movie. This allegory is the more recessive of the three, but it is also the most personal and stands as evidence of the inspiration I received from Shakespeare — hold up the mirror and be honest!

So of course the question becomes, "Holy cow, how does all this work in a horror/thriller/suspense genre pic targeting young audiences?" It's buried in the script, like the characters are metaphorically buried in the mine and fight for their survival.

But I digress.

With a replacement investor in place, I had my first sit down with Matias Alvarez and Brent Guisler — veteran line producer and first AD. I asked them how long it would take to pull a crew together. They said two or three weeks.  I was racing to beat the weather in Utah before any early snowfall on the high country locations. "Abandoned Mine" is a Halloween movie, not a Christmas movie.

I made Matias and Brent a deal on the spot with enough incentive to bring me the best crew Utah had to offer for a start date in two weeks.

My promise to them was that we would shoot this movie in 11 days and work no more than 12 hours a day. Their job was to figure out how to do it. And they did. They delivered on their promise and I delivered on mine – except for day six. 

We wrapped at 3 a.m. that morning. It was a 14 or 15 hour day — the only day I broke my 12-hour promise. But with a "turnaround" day and a travel day to rest, we were all ready to race into the last five shooting days at our Death Valley mine locations.

Why 11 days? That's what the budget could afford. That's all our crew could stand working one and a half miles into the belly of a mountain.

So, "short" worked for us. A short shooting schedule accommodated a budget slightly short of funds. Racing through 10-15 pages a day meant shorter than usual breaks (nevertheless union rules adhered to). And because of tight and cramped working environment in real abandoned mines, I was also looking for a short crew. Not only a small guerilla crew, but literally a short one. 

This however wasn't possible in the end. Crewing up in two weeks didn't allow me to impose height restrictions. My veteran DP Brian Sullivan was 6'2" … when he started.  After two weeks he was a half-inch shorter from bumping his head on the tight, low-ceiling mine locations. When you see the film, you'll know what I'm talking about. 

I've shared with you a brief glimpse into my world with focus on the 11 days and prior. Next time let’s talk about the "eternity" it took to release the movie.

Making "Abandoned Mine" with a superb cast (Alexa Vega, Reiley McClendon, Saige Thompson, Adam Hendershott, and Charan Probhakar) and an ambitiously resourceful crew was a dream come true. This has been a labor of love and passion for me and my team of die-hard supporters.  Our mission has been to deviate from "formula" and prove something to Hollywood as well as to our target market. There's an audience for clean, horror/thriller genre films in America.

And Lesson #2

Anyone want to be an indie filmmaker? Change your oil often and check your air pressure.