Diary of an aspiring filmmaker
On the film road: Fighting the heat, money-reaching subjects & new realities
Editor's note: Ford Gunter quit his full-time journalism job in Houston to make a movie with his childhood buddy/co-director/business partner Carlton Ahrens. This is his account of chasing the dream with Art Car: The Movie.
242. 806. 265. 707. 628. 815.
That’s how many miles, each day, we drove on our road trip.
We had filming to do in Kansas, St. Louis, Louisville, Orlando and West Palm Beach. Five interviews, four states, 3,000-plus miles, two of us and one hybrid.
Two guys, grown men, each over six feet tall, folded into a Honda Civic with hundreds of pounds of equipment packed in a manner that could only beg to maintain a little visibility out the back window. Two duffels. A constantly revolving supply of water, tea, coffee and sunflower seeds.
On our first shoot, in the middle of a Kansas airfield, the temperature was 105. We weren’t going to shower much.
We cut the corner and drove to Dallas after my last day of work. That was a Wednesday and it doesn’t count.
The next day we drove many miles to a small Kansas town outside of Wichita called Benton. There we interviewed a guy who one day felt the need to start turning vintage BMW Isettas into airplanes and helicopters and fan boats. It was very hot. The camera struggled in the sun and my phone, which I left in the car, gave me an overheating message I’ve never seen before or even heard of. Took more than an hour before I could use it again.
After two hours we got back in the car for many more miles, fighting off a strong, strong urge stop for the night in Branson before rolling into St. Louis at 3 a.m. Friday morning. We weren’t planning on arriving in St. Louis until half a day later, and we were staying until Sunday, and we were staying for free.
So far, we are kicking ass.
Before setting out on this trip, we had already filmed in Houston, Minnesota, Northern and Southern California, Austin and France. We might include images from faraway places like Pakistan, Mexico, Haiti and Detroit. We tried to track another international artist and his response was initially favorable, if in very broken English. But then he closed his email with:
I my love, me no generalize.
After we responded in kind, he agreed to the interview but asked for money. When we explained that we hadn’t paid anyone yet, his gripe was along the lines of “Of course, no money for the artists. I see how it is.”
I suppose now is as good a time as any to talk money. The budget on a true indie film is a moving target, vacillating on how much value we feel like placing on slippery things like depreciating equipment, business lunches and the last year of our lives.
It could be as low as about $25,000. Those are our hard costs —money we spent to make this movie and only that. Hotel rooms, airfare, business cards, websites, mortal supplies like batteries and tapes, digital animation, musical licensing, T-shirts for the artists and our pro bono crew and a thousand other things, big and small.
Or it could be double that, if you factor in equipment, loosely amortized over the duration of the shoot. Want to throw in salaries for each of us for a year? How much is that worth?
You: “$25,000 each.”
You: “Neither of you guys have made a movie before. What’d you expect?”
Me: “Yeah but we both have masters degrees. We’re smart.”
Either way, you can see how an ultra-low budget could swell up to $100,000 or more. Bloated, for sure, but terrifying as well, considering its poor, poor chance to ever turn a profit.
This is why it is important to do things like stay for free in St. Louis, in my friend’s lovely house that he and his family just vacated for two weeks. They let us stay anyway, having no idea the stench our arrival would bring. Six-and-a-half hours in the car, working in 105-degree heat for two hours, seven more hours in the car.
Did I mention we had onion burgers in Oklahoma? I smelled worse than the last time I saw this guy, which was basically college.
One of the first things I learned about filmmaking is relying on your friends. You have to. It’s impossible without them, at least early on, before you become famous and forget them.
St. Louis was an oasis in the desert, three nights in the same bed in the midst of a week on the road. We filmed one artist Friday, another Saturday, slept in and left after lunch. We even caught a Cardinals game.
In Louisville, we hit our first snag. Our target interview was out Sunday and had scheduled Monday as a day off. On a tight schedule and an ultra-low budget, another day in town was not an option. Another employee stepped in and saved the day, so we got our shot, but now it’s Monday afternoon and we’re staring down the barrel of a 707-mile drive to Florida. For comfort we stopped at the first-ever Kentucky Fried Chicken but it sucked. Then it started raining and didn’t stop until Georgia.
We are no longer kicking ass.
If you told me we would spend the last two nights on the road in Florida, I would have believed you. If you told me they would be both be in Lake City, I would have wondered how much the car was going to cost to fix.
Turns out, Lake City is just a little town at the intersection of two interstates. One, I-75, we were taking straight down the length of Florida, with filming stops (two hours each) in Orlando and West Palm Beach, and back in the same day. That was Tuesday and it was a long day.
The other interstate, I-10, that’s the one we’d drive on Wednesday, all the way home. We left the most miles for the last day, but we’d packed the cameras away for good. We ate fried shrimp in Pensacola. I gave my email to the waitress. She didn’t write. We ate fried shrimp po' boys at George’s in Baton Rouge — a favorite — and hit the home stretch feeling good.
3,463: miles traveled
60: hours in the car
5: hours of footage
We rolled into Houston before midnight, which was pretty damn good all things considered. My dog laid on a pretty heavy guilt trip, and I imagine Carlton’s cat did the same. Scheduled to leave town again in two days for another four days, we had just enough time for laundry and some squeezed-in family and friends time, which is becoming increasingly more difficult.
It’s been a week since I quit my job and I haven’t had a day off yet. Carlton warned me. He’s run his own business for more than a decade. We used to give him shit when he couldn’t make wing nights or parties, reminding him that he was his own boss and he could do what he wanted.
To some degree that’s true, but to a large degree it’s not. When you are your own boss, he told me, you have to work twice as hard, and have twice as much discipline.
I am beginning to understand.