Thank heavens for small miracles. In an age when motion picture budgets routinely exceed the GNPs of many African countries, it’s enough to make you sing hosannas for a $7,000 picture like El Mariachi, or a $3,500 movie like John D. Nilles’ LITTLE, profiled in this issue’s cover story. The production costs of these two pictures combined probably wouldn’t even cover the daily cocaine budget on some Hollywood movies.
Of course, a movie has to be more than just ridiculously cheap to succeed as an indie hit. Once, after being buttonholed by a young director bragging about how little money he spent on his film, critic Roger Ebert replied that he wished the filmmaker had spent a little bit more. But here, for your reading enjoyment, is a roundup of some of microbudget cinema’s biggest Cinderella stories.
Filmed in piecemeal fashion over the course of five years (actor Jack Nance kept his gravity-defying hairstyle the whole time), this über-midnight movie cost an estimated $10,000 to make and has since grossed more than $7,000,000 in the United States alone. With a scant 20-page screenplay, director David Lynch had a difficult time securing financial aid from the American Film Institute; the film was financed mostly by donations from family and friends, and Lynch famously had to pick up a paper route toward the end of the production to keep the project afloat.
Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988)
David Lynch’s 20-page Eraserhead script was practically War and Peace compared to director Guy Maddin’s screenplay for his 1988 feature debut: The film was improvised from a handful of Post-It notes. Unlike Lynch, however, the Winnipeg director had no trouble obtaining financial assistance from the Canadian government. Not much assistance—Maddin has said he still doesn’t know whether the film cost $15,000 or $30,000—but enough to complete this bizarre comedy about a smallpox plague in a 19th-century Manitoba fishing village and vault it into the ranks of cult-movie all-stars. Championed by cult-film maestro Ben Barenholtz, Tales from the Gimli made the midnight rounds in New York City for almost a year.
Pink Flamingos (1972)
Talk about value for money: On an estimated $12,000 budget—filming took place only on weekends, and during the week the director hustled to scrape up the funds—John Waters managed to collect enough eye-scarring depravity to fill up a hundred lesser trashy flicks. Who can forget the singing sphincter? The sex scene with the chicken? Raymond Marble (David Lochary) exposing himself with a wiener tied to his wiener and impregnating a kidnapped woman with a handful of semen? Director Waters wrote a sequel to the movie, Flamingos Forever, which was to have taken place 15 years after the events depicted in the original. Troma Films, known for such wholesome family classics as The Toxic Avenger and Surf Nazis Must Die!, offered to finance the sequel for $600,000, but the project was permanently shelved by the deaths of Waters regulars Edith “The Egg Lady” Massey and Divine.
It’s tedious and grubby to look at (the latter thanks to a 16mm print blown up to 35mm), but Kevin Smith’s 1994 feature debut about the employees and habitués of a New Jersey convenience store—financed by friends, family and a walletful of maxed-out credit cards—was enough to launch him on a lucrative career in movies that are equally tedious and somewhat nicer to look at. The production budget of Clerks was a bit less than $27,000, but it cost slightly more than that just to secure the rights to the soundtrack—a first in motion picture history. It has been estimated—perhaps exaggerated—that the combined cost of production and soundtrack on Clerks was equivalent to the cost per second of making Titanic.
Yet another family-friends-and-credit-cards effort, Richard Linklater’s $23,000 debut not only got his own career started, but, indirectly, that of Kevin Smith—the latter credits Slacker with giving him the inspiration to make Clerks. Succinctly described as a “structural chain letter” by author Greg Merritt in his book Celluloid Mavericks: A History of American Independent Film, the film meanders from one Austin, Texas, eccentric to another over the course of 24 hours—a stroke of genius from a filmmaking standpoint, as it allowed Linklater to film over an extended period as funds, equipment and actors became available.
The Brothers McMullen (1995)
This romantic comedy about a trio of Irish Catholic brothers was shot on weekends over eight months at Ed Burns’ parents house on Long Island, with the actor/director’s mom “catering” most of the meals. Burns’ father was given an executive producer credit for ponying up $10,000 of the film’s $24,000 budget. Originally ignored by distributors, The Brothers McMullen was snapped up by a fledgling Fox Searchlight after winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1995 (Burns had accosted Robert Redford in a New York elevator, begging him to watch it) and went on to gross more than $10 million in theater receipts.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Just when the gee-whiz factor of mid-’90s breakthrough features shot on miniscule budgets had subsided, along came the film that made everyone say, “Now why didn’t I think of that?” Estimates of The Blair Witch Project‘s budget vary from source to source (a reasonable figure is $35,000, depending on which post-production costs are factored into the sum), but the first cinema verité horror film is still the undisputed box-office heavyweight champion of microbudget indies by almost any measure. The Blair Witch Project grossed nearly $30,000,000 on its opening weekend, thanks in large part to Stentorian word-of-mouth and a prescient website that played the witch/vanished film crew angle straight as an arrow.