Last time, we talked about finding collaborators and creating a team to turn a script into an actual film. Now it’s time to find the money (and the locations) to bring this to life.
Burn the Tapes is the story of a young woman whose new life is threatened when a stack of cassette tapes reveals a haunting truth about her husband.
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Above: Jillian Gora, Brit Kewin and Nick Kewin
James McNally (JM): How did you find your locations? Were you originally looking for somewhere kind of rural or did you want to film this in the city?
Nick Kewin (NK): The story was always set in a small town but, originally, we were hoping for locations in the city that could be disguised as a small town.
This was simply for sake of ease given the logistics involved with transporting the cast and crew to another location. When the idea of shooting at the Kewin family cottage came up it was perfect on some levels and presented a whole new host of problems on others.
The cottage was exactly what we wanted aesthetically and free (very important!) but it meant we had to find ways to get everyone to Turkey Point from Toronto with as little hassle to them as possible. After all, if we’re asking people to work without pay, we want to keep them happy.
It also meant we had to get everything done in one weekend or risk having to get commitments from everyone again and transport them yet again.
It was also kind of in the middle of nowhere in the slow season so the matter of food and accommodation became that much more important. Everyone had to agree to stay in the cottage and eat what we brought.
In some ways the cottage made it easier. We were all contained and close and there was no way to take off or slack off. In another way it was a huge risk because if elements weren’t working we had no choice but to ride it out.
Going to the cottage in Turkey Point also changed how we approached our external locations. For instance, there is a scene in a convenience store. The first choice was to find a store in Toronto and disguise it as a small town store. In hindsight the small town store that we found worked out so much better for us. We didn’t have to put up hunting posters or signs for fishing tackle, they were already a part of the store. The feel of the place was intrinsic, and I think that really worked to our benefit in how the scene played out.
So, to sum it up, the city was our first choice but the alternative we came up with forced us to improvise on some aspects of the shooting process that ended up with great results. It gave the entire process a great ‘on location’ feel that helped both the cast and crew get into the mood of the story.
JM: What were some of the challenges of having to live and work together while making the film?
NK: When the concept of shooting the whole thing at the cottage first came up we wondered how everyone would take to the idea. There was a lot of room for error in spending a weekend working and being together in close confines.
Some of the group were friends, some were new friends. It was a gamble. Luckily, everyone was cool with the cottage situation as we had told them what to expect ahead of time.
We had air mattresses on the floor and couches for sleeping and the actors got the upstairs rooms for privacy and a little alone time to get into their process before they would perform.
We had a huge screened-in porch for eating/storing our things so it wouldn’t interfere with any of the rooms we were shooting in. In the end we were just really lucky because we all got along and it actually became part of the fun that we were all hanging out together for the weekend. It became a getaway with a purpose.
Brit [Kewin, Nick’s sister] and I had not really discussed a schedule or a system for breaking away and discussing how the process was going or what we should be correcting. That came organically; I do remember pulling away from the group for a few tête-à-têtes.
The process may be a little different for us than others though. We have the benefit of being siblings meaning that, having known each other for quite some time, our communication can sometimes be subtly nuanced. For instance, a quick glance to one another can signal that this is not working at all, try another tactic. So being stuck in the tight space didn’t really affect our working process as much as one may think.
JM: There were certainly going to be fixed costs as well. Had you thought about how to pay for those? Were the three of you going to self-finance this or were you hoping to attract funders?
Brit Kewin (BK): We weren’t interested in attracting funders. That sounds a little weird but we had never made a film and wanted to prove that we could. That was all.
And we wanted that to be on our own dime as much as possible. Kickstarter came up a few times but we all agreed that it would mainly be family and friends supporting our campaign and, since we hadn’t proven ourselves as filmmakers yet, it didn’t feel fair to ask that of them.
Again, organization was key.
We planned all the food for the weekend in advance and got as much as we could in bulk from Costco. We bought a few small props from thrift stores. Beau’s Brewery donated some beer for us to offer the cast and crew after a long weekend of work (thanks Beau’s!).
Our director of photography had a deal worked out with an equipment rental company. He had done some work for them and had access to their equipment in lieu of or as part of his pay. I don’t remember the exact details of the deal but I do remember their arrangement opened him up to be able to take on low- or no-budget indie projects like ours when he wanted to without worrying about who was paying for lights.
Nick and I covered most of the fixed costs that we just couldn’t get around. We rented a generator in case the power conked out at the cottage. We never used it but the peace of mind it gave us was well worth the $150 bucks it cost to have on hand.
There were other small things as well. In the end, we both reckoned we’d paid for the equivalent of a university film class. The great thing was that in figuring it out, making mistakes and collaborating with people who really knew their stuff, we were able to learn so much more than a class could ever teach.
JM: Did you apply for any grants?
BK: We did not apply for grants. Lesson learned there – funding takes time. If you want to go that route you need to plan in advance.
We also found that a lot of grants wanted to see at least one previously completed work, which we didn’t have at the time. So part of making Burn The Tapes was about opening ourselves up to grants or other funding streams for future projects.
JM: Did you have a budget in mind at the outset or were you hoping to get most of the film done for free?
Jillian Gora (JG): At the very beginning I don’t think we really had an understanding of what it would take to make this film, financially, so we didn’t put a budget together per say.
We were prepared to spend some money on things like equipment, food, makeup and space (for example, renting a location to hold auditions) but yes, we were hoping to find cast and crew members who would be motivated by something other than money (having a short in their reel, gaining exposure, etc.).
Since we weren’t paying people, we made very sure to follow through on the promises we made to them – namely that we’d do our best to get exposure for the film and that we’d submit it to festivals.
We were also very conscious of their time and did our best to be as prepared as possible so that we didn’t have to ask them to work more than what they had agreed to. Oh, and we didn’t skimp on the essentials – like food – during production.
JM: Since you got your DoP for free, did you think you might be able to get more of your cast and crew to work that way too?
JG: Yes, definitely.
We were very honest and up front about that so we never had trouble finding people who were excited about the film despite not getting paid.
For example, when I reached out to our DoP, I clearly stated that we did not intend to pay whomever came on board, and we did the same with the casting call. We made sure to set expectations properly so that we didn’t need to have any awkward conversations later on.
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Next time: the shoot (and beyond)