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    How I Made an Indie Film Under K With a Theatrical Release

    How I Made an Indie Film Under $25K With a Theatrical Release

    Written by Robert Lang

    The age-old question: should I invest my life savings into a mortgage, or make a mockumentary about Satan?


    That was the question I grappled with as I embarked on creating my first feature film. Ultimately, I chose to take a leap of faith and invest in myself.

    After spending a decade behind the lens as a photographer and photo editor, I transitioned to filmmaking after creating a short film for a fashion editorial project I photographed. Moving images felt more rewarding as there were no limitations compared to still images and continued with the medium of making short experimental films.

    After producing several experimental shorts, I realized this style didn’t translate into the short festival circuit.

    Understanding this, I recognized the necessity of transitioning to a narrative storyline. Despite producing these shorts on a shoestring budget, I was determined to apply the same resourcefulness to creating a feature film. However, I was fully aware that self-funding the project would present its own set of challenges along the way.

    Mind Body & Soul | Official Trailer Twowww.youtube.com

    Amidst the pandemic’s grip in 2020, my career was at a standstill, including an exhibition in Holland that was put on hold. With nothing much else to do, Conr Kinman and I found ourselves brainstorming ideas. Out of this downtime emerged the concept of filming a short where Satan re-introduces himself to the world, inspired by the format of MTV Cribs.

    After completing the initial edit of the short “Mind, Body & Soul,” I realized its potential for expansion into a mockumentary-style project. I began to write a script that would be feasible within a budget while researching the origins of Satanism as I wanted the story to incorporate ‘factual’ details and the origin of Satan as if we were telling his backstory. My inspiration stemmed from attending a screening of Penny Lane’s documentary Hail Satan? in Los Angeles back in 2019, where I was deeply moved by the Satanic Temple’s ethos and principles. I endeavored to incorporate some of the fundamental values of the Satanic Temple’s ethos, principles, and beliefs into the script.

    I ended up writing a 57-page script, which is relatively short for a feature film. I intentionally left room for actors to improvise within scenes, aiming to maintain authenticity in line with the mockumentary style. After finalizing the concept with Conr, I plunged into pre-production during the summer of 2021, ensuring ample time to prepare for a seven-day filming schedule scheduled for November, spread across three weekends of on-location, in the field and creative shots in a studio.

    BTS ‘Mind + Body & Soul’Courtesy of Robert Lang

    Undertaking the role of producer and wearing many hats proved to be a substantial responsibility, entailing the coordination of the entire production. However, it also presented a valuable opportunity for me to learn the intricacies of filmmaking from the ground up. Despite lacking a formal education in film, I relied heavily on advice from industry friends and online resources like No Film School, which served as invaluable sources of knowledge.

    I opted for a small crew, hiring just three crew members along with a production assistant. I designed a pitch deck and began pitching the project using the short film I had previously created. A friend recommended Bryce Platz as our Director of Photography; he had worked on documentaries such as The Pez Outlaw, Bad Vegan, Alabama Snake, and Operation Varsity Blues. He enlisted Justin Roxbrough, a grip to assist with lighting.

    I posted an ad on Mandy for a Boom Operator and was pleasantly surprised to be contacted by Dennis Grzesik, who boasted experience working on large-budget films. Our PA, who happened to be an excellent cook, took charge of preparing breakfast and lunch since we had access to a kitchen. There was no cost saving on food and went over the budget to make sure that everyone was fed well.

    Due to COVID restrictions, we had to limit the size of both the cast and crew. Co-creator Conr Kinman stepped into the role of Satan, reprising his performance from the short film. He had never acted before and I liked the idea of not using an actor who hadn’t been on the screen in a role so that it felt authentic as if we were really filming a documentary about Satan. Eric Wu joined the cast as Melchom, a mythical demon and accountant of Hell. Eric had initially assisted us during the short film shoot and went above and beyond by undertaking clowning and miming classes to enhance his performance, considering his face would be obscured by a green screen mask.

    My friend Melissa Bergland, an award-winning actress from Australia agreed to play the role of Mimi Wilde, a fake PR who applies to be Satan’s personal assistant and marketing pro who takes on the task of reinventing Satan to society. Melissa’s natural comedic talent elevated the film, bringing vibrancy to her scenes.

    Additionally, I was fortunate to have friends willing to step in as extras, portraying protesting Satanists and participating in the yoga scene. Being good sports, they even agreed to include their babies in the film.

    I scouted locations online but the cost would have taken up too much of the budget. Fortunately, I got lucky when friends were leaving town for three weeks, coinciding with our filming schedule. They generously offered us the use of their house in exchange for pet-sitting their two cats. Taking on the responsibility of caring for one of the cats, who had diabetes, I administered his medication twice daily.

    BTS ‘Mind + Body & Soul’Courtesy of Robert Lang

    To economize and streamline our production, we transformed their spacious house into three distinct sets. Upstairs served as Satan’s abode, while a downstairs room was repurposed as Mimi Wilde’s apartment. Their garden was used as the location for Satan’s book launch and Satanic Yoga demonstration. With the majority of filming confined to the house, we faced the creative challenge of maximising the space to prevent the film from feeling static or monotonous.

    I sourced Satan costumes from thrift shops around Los Angeles and bought his red leather custom cape off Etsy from a designer in Germany. Melchom’s costume was also custom-made through Etsy. I dyed the clothes, repurposed an old costume from a short I made, and handmade the props sourced from craft and Halloween stores. I borrowed jewelery and furnishings from friends to dress the location and to save costs.

    Melissa designed Satan’s horn prosthetics and applied his makeup every day. To save time, we opted not to paint Conr’s entire body red. Instead, we dressed him in a red morph suit, a nod to the style popularized in the 1900s when Satan was depicted as Faust. This decision added a comedic twist to his character’s appearance.

    The DP and I meticulously planned each day, maximizing every minute of our tight schedule to ensure efficient scene resets between takes. With such limited time available, we typically allowed only three takes per shot due to the extensive number of pages we needed to cover daily. Melissa’s availability was restricted to just one full day of shooting, during which we had to tackle a daunting 20 pages of script—a challenging feat.

    There was a lot of dialogue to learn so we used tricks so that Conr would be reading it off the phone, when doing social media posts or have a piece of paper as a prop with the script on it so that we could get through scenes at a faster pace.

    BTS ‘Mind + Body & Soul’Courtesy of Robert Lang

    Equipment rental constituted our largest expense, with filming conducted using an Arri Amira camera with Angenieux EZ Zoom lenses. Securing insurance through a friend’s production company proved to be a crucial cost-saving measure, potentially saving us thousands of dollars. Without this assistance, completing the film within our budgetary constraints would have been significantly more challenging. As of this stage in post-filming production, the total budget remained under $20,000.

    Our primary filming location was the house, but we allocated a day for guerrilla-style shooting at various locations including Venice Beach, Griffith Park, and the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Blvd. We got lucky at The Walk of Fame, a planned protest resulted in street closures between Highland Ave. and North LA Brea Avenue, granting us unrestricted access to film in the middle of the road.

    After wrapping up filming, I flew back to South Africa to begin editing the film, taking advantage of lifted travel restrictions to reunite with my family after five years. However, my return coincided with the emergence of the Omicron strain of COVID-19, thrusting me into the pandemic’s epicenter.

    Just as I commenced editing, disaster struck when lightning struck the house, frying the sole hard drive I had brought with me. Some might call it divine intervention—a notion fueled by a recent Halloween mishap where my costume, portraying Pazuzu from The Exorcist, caught fire when I accidentally leaned against a candle. Additionally, I had a strange encounter where I felt a presence tapping at my toes while asleep, leaving me unnerved by these eerie experiences.

    Fortunately, I had backed up the files on two additional hard drives. With the help of my neighbor, who uploaded the files to Dropbox, I began the arduous process of downloading them, which would take weeks. Despite these setbacks, I persevered, editing the film using Premiere Pro and mastering the art of rotoscoping on After Effects for the ten-minute sequences of greenscreening Melchom’s face through YouTube tutorials. Upon reaching picture lock, I delegated the task of scoring and sound designing to professionals, as these were areas where I lacked expertise.

    ‘Mind + Body & Soul’Courtesy of Robert Lang

    In 2023, I submitted the film to various festivals but got impatient and decided instead to directly contact distribution companies rather than wait for the festival circuit to unfold. Two months later I received two offers and went with Indican Pictures. They facilitated the North American theatrical release of Mind, Body & Soul, which premiered in limited theaters on March 29, 2024. It was great to sit in a room with your friends who had helped make this and experience it together. Following the theatrical release, the film became available on VOD platforms on April 16, 2024. I also reached out to the Satanic Temple, who graciously granted their blessing for the film—a rare occurrence. The last project I recall them endorsing was Robert Eggers’ film The VVitch.

    While these steps may appear straightforward, there were undoubtedly moments of feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work and the unfamiliarity with distribution deliverables. However, persevering through these challenges and acquiring that knowledge proves invaluable, setting the stage for smoother processes when working on future projects with larger teams.

    For aspiring filmmakers embarking on their first endeavor, be thrifty and consider ways to trim unnecessary expenses, scrutinizing each expenditure carefully. Do you truly need that monitor for Video Village? Likely not.

    YouTube can be an invaluable resource. As someone who didn’t attend film school, I relied on online tutorials to navigate the technical aspects of editing and grading. Whether it’s mastering Premiere Pro or Adobe After Effects, there’s a wealth of tutorials available to guide you through the process.

    Nothing quite prepares you for the monumental task of spending two months of your life rotoscoping 14,000 frames of green screen. Yet, this experience taught me an appreciation for the multitude of talented individuals who labour behind the scenes to bring a film to the theatres. Editing your own film is a master class in itself, offering invaluable insights into the nuances of dialogue. You quickly learn that what reads well on paper may not necessarily translate seamlessly to the screen.

    Don’t wait for opportunities to come knocking—take the initiative to create your own film, especially if your script projects to be over 100K. Opt for something manageable on a small budget, enlist the help of friends, and don’t hesitate to ask plenty of questions. I relied heavily on my filmmaker friends for guidance, as I navigated unfamiliar territory. I was unaware of the extra steps of QCing and contracts that no one tells you about until you are asked to provide them and then it’s back to the internet googling what E&O insurance is.

    Most importantly is to have fun on set and make it a collaborative environment. You are all in this together.

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