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Julie Ryan: Why I love low-budget filmmaking

Published in IndiVision News April 2008.

Julie Ryan is without a doubt the most prolific producer of low-budget films in the country. She has worked with Rolf de Heer for 10 years, and with him has produced The Tracker, Alexandra's Project, Ten Canoes, and Dr Plonk.

Julie Ryan: I'm going to give you my perspective on how Rolf de Heer and I made films in the last 10 years. I think after so many films we realised we had come up with a production methodology that really suited low-budget filmmaking. One of the first films I produced for Rolf was not a low-budget film. It had a budget of AUD$14 million, we shot it in South America in 75 locations with 92 crew. It was a massive Australian/French/Dutch/Spanish co-production, hence lots of producers. And the more producers, the more above the line fees, the more business class tickets, the more everything. The crew was just massive and to move that crew around the jungle just took so long and took time away from working with the actors. A lot of money was wasted, a million dollars or so on travel and accommodation, which doesn't go on the screen.

Rolf and I came away from that realising that it's really difficult to work on that scale and with people you don't know. When you're working in a high-budget area there's going to be heaps of people like that. Maybe it suits some people but it didn't suit Rolf and I. So we decided we wanted to work in a different way. The most important point for low-budget filmmaking is to set the parameters at the writing stage. You need to watch for the number of locations and the size of the cast because these are the two things that will determine how small your crew can be, so you need to get that balance right.

If you don't have a large cast you don't need so many production people - you don't need a lot of unit people because you don't need a lot of artist vans. The more locations you have on a short shoot, the more you're just moving all the time. That can't be good for the creative process because as a producer you're there to give the director the best environment for him or her to create the best work. That's all you're there for, it's not your creative vision, it's the director's, and as the producer you should do everything within your power to make that happen. The smaller the crew, the faster and easier to move around, enabling the director to have more time with the actors, which I think is the main point.

I'll run through what a typical Vertigo [Productions] crew was for most of these films. We either had one or no AD - we had an AD on Ten Canoes and on The Tracker, but not on Alexandra's Project or Dr Plonk. There was one production person other than me - so I had an assistant - one in unit. So then we had three in camera - that's pretty normal - DOP, focus, loader; two in sound, that's also fairly standard; one gaffer, remember with casuals, so The Tracker and Ten Canoes were obviously outside locations so we just grouped nights in one block; one grip; and - now this only works when you've got male actors - one person doing wardrobe, hair, make-up and art department. We had Beverly [Freeman] on Dr Plonk, Ten Canoes and The Tracker, and Alexandra's Project was on a built set so Beverly did make-up and wardrobe only and we got an art department. So you basically look at your film and work out what your crew requirements are. We always took a nurse, who did continuity sheets, and our sound recordist recorded timings, so that was enough for me to do reports for the investors. Now, I know everyone says, "Oh God, you know you're making your crew multi-skill and you're only paying them one wage", and yes that's true. But I think it worked because Rolf and I also multi-skilled so between us we covered about eight roles, and had we not done that I'm sure it wouldn't have worked. Rolf was the writer/director, and he was a producer. We both did casting between the two of us. He'd either AD or at the very least he would do the schedule and work the schedule throughout the shoot, and that's for all of them. I was production manager as well, and we did locations between the two of us. And we both did all the publicity - press kits, EPKs, locations, all that stuff….

So because we did all of that, the decision-making process was easier and faster. He knew the schedule intimately, I knew the budget, and obviously we communicated those two things to each other. We could make decisions if something was going off the rails, we could make decisions quickly to get it back on track. So we had financial control at all times and that is really important, because with low-budget filmmaking you can't just throw money at problems, as your contingency is small - we have to really be on the ball at all times.

Rolf is very organised, he's very prepared. We would shoot a couple of minutes a day. That's our way - the longer the shoot the better. So he would spend time with the actors, and on all the shoots that we did, we did hardly any overtime. He did the schedule, and because he knew the schedule and I knew the budget and we knew those two things control a film, he was able to rearrange things very quickly. With any relationship between producer and director you really need to trust each other, so Rolf knew I wouldn't waste money on things and I knew that if we got into sticky situations with the schedule that he'd get us out of that.

Obviously there are disadvantages to working with low budgets. The crew does get tired of average wages. It is very hard work because everyone's multi-skilling and the fees are very low for the producer and the director. But I think the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. Particularly if you're working with new directors, it will be faster to get a low budget up than a big budget. We had more freedom; because the budgets were low there was less interference by any of the investors. The other advantages are you often work with the same people and that's really good because you're not reinventing the wheel all the time. There are generally less producers on low-budget films, which is good, because often finance producers get bored and then interfere. You have to be inventive with problem solving and I think that's an advantage because it really sharpens your skills. So, overall I think I agree with what Christine Vachon said last night, low-budget filmmaking is an attitude and a philosophy - and it's very, very rewarding.

Watch the video of Julie speaking at the Lab.

Producer Julie Ryan talks about the joys of low-budget film at the 08 Lab.

David Gulpilil in The Tracker, produced by Julie Ryan.