Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control: The No-Budget Indie Films of the Early 90s

A new video reveals the tricks of filmmaking with little resources.

I turned 13-years-old in 1990, meaning I was the perfect impressionable age for the glut of independent American films of the era, the shoestring-shot flicks like Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi, Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Richard Linklater’s Slacker and other films by other filmmakers who launched themselves into major careers on the backs of these no-budget films, at the same time transforming what it meant to be a professional filmmaker. We were coming off a couple decades where every major director was a film school grad: Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Cameron, others. These were capital-D Directors, the kind of guys who swing for the Oscar fence every single picture and hit it most times. But what we were seeing in the late 80s and the early 90s was a throwback to what we saw in the late 60s and early 70s, an undercurrent within the medium that was tired of playing by rules taught in schools to which members of said undercurrent hadn’t gone. They were mavericks, renegades and innovators, they were the MacGyvers of moviedom, making their pictures work however they could with whatever they had on hand. Rodriguez made El Mariachi for seven grand with barely any technical help, Kevin Smith maxed out a few credit cards to get Clerks finished. These guys didn’t have backers or investors, not really, because they weren’t a part of any system or industry, all they had were ideas, gumption, and just enough foolishness to believe in themselves in unwinable contexts. And it worked.

The Royal Ocean Film Society – which still sounds to me like it should be the name of a Wes Anderson movie – has been making outstanding videos for a while now, but this is maybe their best and definitely my favorite to-date. Entitled “Lessons for the No-Budget Picture,” it takes a look at films from the above-mentioned era – El Mariachi, Clerks, Slacker, Christopher Nolan’s Following, James Gunn’s Tromeo and Juliet – and how they made the most of having next to no money. Tips include shooting in black-and-white (color film and processing costs more), never using guns (they always look fake and the FX are pricey), and considering starting out in genre fare (anything goes!).

For me at least, the filmmakers and films featured in ROFS’s video signified a major shift in how I understood movies were made. It wasn’t just smart guys from fancy schools in California with lofty ambitions of becoming the next Kubrick, the next Sirk, or the next Bergman in the director’s chair, it was also regular, scrappy nerds like me from rural communities and cookie-cutter suburbs who were obsessed with genre schlock, stupid comedies or over-the-top shoot-em-ups and who were also comfortable being blinded by their own ambition so long as the work got finished. These guys were my film school, as they were for an entire generation of aspiring writers, directors, producers, editors, actors, and – you had to figure I was going to throw this in here somewhere – other assorted film school rejects. And more than just teaching us how to make films, they taught us how to make lives based on the things we imagine, they taught us how to extract our dreams from the ether and forge them in the light of day. The biggest underdogs in any of these projects were never on the screen, they were behind the camera wondering how they were going to pay that month’s rent, and now a bunch of them have Oscars. Now there’s your movie.

More to Read:

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist