This is a re-post of a “filmmaker’s confessional” that is available on the Ember Days film site. I wanted to post it here for your reading pleasure.
Ember Days: A “Pagan Epic” On The Cheap
In the summer of 2010, I was riding through the misty mountains of the Olympic Peninsula with SJ Tucker. We were on our way to explore the driftwood beaches of La Push. I was already overwhelmed with the beauty of the landscape, and then the song “Come Down”, by Ginger Doss, started playing through the speakers. I found myself daydreaming-in-cinema about a group of faeries called The Wild Hunt chasing a lone warrior through these primordial forests. Then as the song continued, I started to wonder why they would chase one of their own, and it came to me that he was possessed by the spirit of a fallen angel. The song finished and our adventure continued, but the daydream images stayed in my mind. The seeds of a story had been planted, and over the next several months I articulated the story as the shooting script for the film ‘Ember Days’. I then was fortunate enough to be offered $30,000 of private financing to create the film.
For most people, $30,000 is a significant amount of money. You can do lots of things with 30K, but you might be surprised to learn how dramatically the power of that money changes when it is translated into a film production budget. (For example, 30K is basically the “toilet paper budget” of most Hollywood movies you’ve seen. Or, to think of it differently, the salary of a single crew member.) If I had made the attempt to shoot a small commercial, a music video, or perhaps a short film, employing only working professionals for the cast & crew, then the $30,000 would have been an appropriate budget. However, I wanted to make a feature film, and I wanted to make it without creative compromises (even if that meant that I’d have to make a great many technical & financial compromises). If I were to take the script to Hollywood and attempt to arrange financing through distribution & production companies, they would have rejected the project due to its complex story, presentation of a multi-layered reality, and the blending of myths from a variety of cultures. Hollywood wants “point A to point B” sorts of films, that are easy to understand in any language, and that are easy to sell through the use of buzz words, celebrity actors, and parroting existing film trends. If grindhouse action movies and teen sex comedies are IN this year, then don’t bother bringing anything that doesn’t fit perfectly into one of those two genres.
There are positive elements and negative ones when you strike out on your own to make a micro-budget film. I don’t mean “indie film” or “low budget”, since low budget films (according to the Screen Actors Guild) still have budgets ranging from $1,000,000 to $5,000,000. Most people who even attempt feature films with budgets under $250,000 (what Hollywood calls micro-budget) do not typically attempt to create myth-blending fantasy/action films like Ember Days, much less with only $30,000. They stay within the comfort zone of things like spoofs, or comedy, or single-location-thrillers. As such, I get that it was crazy for me to think that I could pull off this kind of movie on such a tremendously, laughably, abyssmally micro-budget. The truth of it is that I am a storyteller, and this was the story I needed to tell at that time, so I would have attempted to make this movie with two dollars, a flashlight, and a cellphone camera if that’s all that was available. Crazy or not, this movie was going to happen.
Enter Sherry Kirk. She was a retired non-commissioned officer (first sergeant) who had created an intentional community space called ‘Sidhehaven’ in the small town of Yelm, Washington. I had stayed there over the summer and fallen in love with the place, and we had talked at length about my filmmaking plans for Ember Days. Sherry was intrigued and offered the use of the property for the film. Let me just say it was the key reason we ever completed the shoot. The house is a 3bd/2ba building, with a cozy front porch, hot-tub, woodshop (we converted it into sleeping quarters w/cots for the more hardy cast & crew), and a canvas & wood dome dwelling called a yome. There are forests, train tracks, and even Mt. Rainier all within easy driving distance. It was perfect. Did I mention that it was called Sidhehaven? For those of you who don’t know the word ‘sidhe’ is another word for faerie, which is a big part of the Ember Days story, so I was feeling the touch of fate I think.
Because we did not have a professional grade budget for shooting a feature film, we had to do things very differently than most professional films, in fact we had to throw the “professional film” book out the window and invent our own filmmaking process. That’s what happens when you don’t have enough money to pay for a cool movie, you have to get creative and find other ways to get the story created. This film was made possible by the Washington community, primarily artists, pagans, and performers. The majority of our cast were non-professional actors who put their hearts & souls into the movie, and the few professional actors on the cast brought just as much heart to the project, as they certainly weren’t being paid professional wages. We had help from not only the local pagan & arts community, but also the Seattle Film Commission, the Thurston County Film Commission, and the City of Olympia for our locations (lots of love for the WA film commissions, who despite our tiny budget, treated us with enthusiasm and respect), and believe me we had some cool locations that we never could have afforded to just ‘rent’ on our own. This epic-on-the-cheap tells a story that spans from pristine forests to swanky condos to immaculate offices to gritty urban decay. By the gods, it even snowed on the exact shooting day in which the scene would have been made all the better for it.
Overall the experience on set was different than most ‘professional’ shoots, in that people were working on Ember Days for the love of the story and the love of making art. We crammed dozens of people into the house, the woodshop, into travel trailers, the yome, and some even stayed home and commuted to our set every day. Most people were unpaid volunteers on the project (I certainly was), and those few who were paid only received a pittance. On a professional set, everyone shows up for the paycheck. Even if they love their jobs, they’d walk off the project the first time a check bounced. On our film, people were there because they wanted to help create the story, to share in the glory of its telling, and see something truly unique enter the world.
Even though this film suffered some blows in technical quality due to its micro-micro budget (primarily audio), it is still extremely cool to know that we, as a community of people who just didn’t give a damn about the limitations, made it happen. Every single time you make a movie, you learn a tremendous amount of new stuff. And employing all I learned from the making this movie, my pagan epic on the cheap, I would totally, impossibly, do it again.