What follows is a piece by filmmaker Dan Copland who wrote, starred, and produced a timely political thriller – 8 WINDS.
This film finds an over-the-hill filmmaker, a comedy club owner, and a reclusive billionaire, drawn into a deadly intrigue as a Russian Oligarch fights for control of California’s water supply.
Distributed by Random Media and coming to wide release on VOD and Digital.
“Blow ye winds blow!” – How I Made A Full Length No-Budget Political Thriller – 8 Winds
What follows is something of a blow by blow narrative of the production of my new film 8 Winds, from spark and idea to its release On Demand.
“8 Winds” follows an over the hill filmmaker, a comedy club owner, and a reclusive billionaire as they are drawn into an intrigue where a Russian Oligarch fights for control of California’s water supply.
Here is the trailer:
The film has proved to be prophetic in that:
a) it discusses and predicts the invasion of the Ukraine; and,
b) the issue of water is in the news. Bloomberg has reported that very soon 20% of the world’s water wells will be dry.
Farmers in Oregon are stealing water for their crops. Drought across the Western USA has raised the specter of water shortages. All of this is happening as futures contracts for California Water were authorized for trading.
I hope that you will be able to glean some strategic ideas and tools from this case study to pursue your own productions.
“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
The first thing you must consider, is that if you want any kind of public or commercial distribution, including the internet and festivals, is that you must document permissions via contract for all the people, place, and things who appear, work on, contribute to, your film.
This is especially true if you are making a work of fiction.
This means “legal” and “lawyers.” Remember “An oral agreement is worth the paper it’s written on!”
You must get these documents signed before people appear or work on your project since if you try to get them after the fact, there is a drastic change in the strength of your negotiation, i.e., you will be over a barrel.
Do not rely on promises that they will sign it later, get them signed as soon as they arrive on set or when you agree to engage them to work on the film before you pay them.
You will also need to study up on all the documentation required to be delivered in connection with a commercial release of your film.
Since I went to law school so I could make movies, I had that covered.
“O for a muse of fire” – How And Why
8 Winds all began when in November 2016, I was at the Napa Valley film Festival for my documentary “The Lost City of Cecil B DeMille” that I had been hired to produce.
During my stay in Napa and presenting our film and attending many of the film festival gatherings it dawned on me that I had worked on many other people’s films, but it had been almost two decades since I had made a film of my own.
I’d spent much of this time trying to get one project made and was not successful.
I realized I was running out of time and that I needed to do something now. I started to formulate a plan to make a film no matter what. I instantly thought of Robert Rodriguez’s $5000 El Mariachi.
I knew that under the SAG New-Media Agreement it was possible to defer the actors’ salaries.
I was determined to create a project that could be made for $2500! I thought maybe I could find a name actor to come on board in a day or two, and it would be worth it to pay him or her for their time in order to add some value to the production.
Naturally, this meant the budget would go up from the $2500 goal but, there is fortune in taking the first step.
I’ve always been a fan of noir, spy stories, tales of espionage, and movies where the plot was a chess game.
Some of my favorites were Chinatown, All The President’s Men, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, LA Confidential, Cutters Way, Parallax View, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Antonioni’s The Passenger, Costa-Gavras’ Z, Homeland, The Americans, The Wire, True Detective and The French Connection.
I knew this was the genre that I was going to play in.
As I was driving home from Napa my mind was racing as to what kind of story I would tell and I was exhilarated by the possibilities.
I knew that because of the budget, most of it would have to be shot guerilla style with little or no crew. What kind of camera could I use? How would we record the sound?
As I anticipated shooting on the run without permits, (but with liability insurance), I needed to keep a low profile cast and crew wise.
I determined that we would use a high end prosumer camera and had 2 XLR mic inputs and wireless mics.
I also knew that because I was asking everybody to work for deferred fees that I might not be able to shoot 5 days a week or through the whole production schedule.
There were going to be days, if not weeks, when we would not film.
Hence, I decided to purchase the camera and the mics and eliminate the need for an equipment rental merry go round.
Back in Los Angeles it was time to write, plot, and scheme!
Script – The Play’s The Thing!
I have always believed that creativity will outshine budget. The Script is the most important part of any movie.
If you get it right in the script stage everything works. Writing the script for a no-budget feature is its own art form.
When conceiving the story and writing the script you must write for what you can control whether it’s locations, actors, props, and or special effects. When I say control I mean beg, borrow, steal, or own.
Since we only had two mics this added an additional limit, i.e., no scene could have more than two talking characters at a time.
Even though I didn’t have the entire story yet, I knew it would be about a filmmaker, like me, who was facing challenges.
At this point I still had a few festival dates’ left for our DeMille film. Since I was going to play the filmmaker, I thought it would be pretty cool to have a film crew follow me around as I was attending these festivals.
So I contacted the festivals and asked them if they had any local videographers who I could hire to shoot me at the festival.
Of course they did and I was able to obtain a significant amount of footage of very reasonable prices.
These scenes proved to be instrumental in establishing my character in the first act of the film
I also knew that any component of a political thriller required a chase of some sort. I wanted to chase my film.
I had a vision of the main character, Charlie Nabis, chasing the villain and turning the corner only to find a massive parade or a protest demonstration!
You might ask how I could get a parade or demonstration when I had no money. At the time I was writing the script there were massive protest demonstrations almost every month.
I also knew that Los Angeles had an annual May Day March/Demonstration. I decided to shoot the end of my chase against that event.
Can you “steal” a demonstration for your film? The answer is yes! Haskell Wexler in his film Medium Cool managed to capture very poignant and dramatic scenes with his actors against the 1968 Chicago riots.
In high school we had made an award winning film called The Incredibly Awful Doctor Sporgo and in that film two characters marched into a parade.
We knew there was a parade coming up in our local village and we put our actors in costume and went to the parade and at the appropriate moment the actors walked into the parade and did their bit we filmed it and left.
So I absolutely knew I could achieve this goal by adding great production value to the climax of the story.
Here is our behind-the-scenes piece on the chase scene:
Writing the screenplay for 8 Winds happened very quickly. By late January I completed my first draft.
In February, I decided to start filming to start filming even though the script was not completed.
I knew that once I got the ball rolling, that it would continue to gain momentum. Forcing me into a no retreat, no surrender commitment to do it.
Indeed, I shot one scene in February 2017 and half the May Day chase scene on May 1, 2017. We started principal photography on July 6th 2017!
Some final thoughts on writing script, for me, the most important parts of any film or how it begins and how it ends.
Once I know how the story begins and how I want it to end, I can create an outline of the events that will form the plot.
Once I have the plot I can populate it with characters. The important thing is to write quickly and to get from the beginning to the end without editing or criticizing what you’ve written.
You must finish while the iron is hot. Once you have completed your first draft it’s easy to go back and edit and polish and rethink how scenes play off of each other.
There is no such thing as perfect, screenplays aren’t written, they’re rewritten!
I also recommend that you vette your screenplay thoroughly.
By that I mean to say that you should show it to people whose opinion you trust, that have some knowledge of cinema, and won’t shy away from being radically honest with you if it’s not working.
I do this with all my screenplays and I did five drafts of 8 Winds before starting principal photography.
Casting – The Band Of Players
Casting is one of the most important aspects of filmmaking.
If you cast the right actors your job as a filmmaker will be so much easier. While there are many talented and great actors, not every actor is the “right” actor for each role.
Most of the supporting characters in my film had the great pleasure of having been in an “on camera” acting class for many years.
During that time I got to see a lot of actors come through the class and see how they took direction, how they looked on camera, and to see what range they had.
So I wrote parts for and cast most of the supporting roles from people I had seen either in my acting class, worked with before, or one friend who had been a regular working actor on many TV shows for several years.
However, casting the two other lead roles proved to be a greater challenge.
The role of America Afrides, the female lead, was not cast until the very end of our production.
Indeed we actually ran out of things to shoot without her and I had to shut down production for several weeks until I could find the right actress.
So all the scenes you see with me talking on the phone to America were shot almost 2 months before I knew who would be playing that character. In addition to finding the right actor, I was trying to add some value to the project by finding “name” actors as well.
I had my casting team put out a breakdown for the roles of America. The result was disappointing: most of the submissions were from actors who were not well known, and the actors who were more recognizable were asking for too much money.
After we ran out of things to shoot, I took another look at all the submissions and I found an actress, Leona Paraminski, who was well known in her country, Croatia, and I remember something that Cassian Elwes told me:
“Hire actors who are stars in their own territory, they all want to make American films, they add value to your project won’t cost as much as Americans or Brits.”
I looked at her reel and I was blown away, so I called her agent and sent her the script. Two hours later I got a self tape audition and it was spot on perfect!
The negotiations were pretty heated, at one point after her agent told me “no,” I was standing in the middle of the Los Angeles Metro station about to shoot some pick up shots for the chase scene.
I was juggling the camera in one hand and the phone in the other. I ended up begging on my cell phone at the top of my lungs to get Leona Paraminski in my film. I’m glad I begged.
She turns in the beautiful performance and adds so much to the emotional journey of the two characters. Here’s a link to her behind the scenes video:
Casting the role of reclusive billionaire John Conover was also a roller coaster on its own. The submissions that I got from the breakdowns were interesting.
Some of my friends had connections to very well-known actors and I was blessed that they were willing to reach out to them to see if they would come aboard.
Unfortunately, all of them said no. However, their representatives would often make suggestions as to other clients that they represented that might fit the role.
This was helpful too. You always want to make representatives your friend as much as possible because they often have a better idea of who is actually willing to work at the level you are proposing.
When you’re up against it, it makes no sense to chase and the actor will never say yes because the money or the directors’ credits don’t meet their needs.
Among the many projects that I’ve been involved in, I worked with a very well-known actor, who worked with every major director you can think of.
I thought, even though he was probably a little young for the role, it would add an interesting dimension to the character.
The downside was he was notorious for his work habits, and you never knew if he would actually show up. I was getting a bit desperate and I had become friendly with his manager. So we hired him.
Because he had fallen on hard times his fee was within the ballpark of something we could afford.
The shoot was going to be a bit of a challenge. It was 16 dialog heavy pages in two locations and I wanted to do it in one day.
I believed I could do it if the actor knew his lines because they were only three or four setups and in one scene I would have two cameras. But Murphy’s Law won the day.
The actor did show up, he was actually early! He sat down and got in the costume and we started doing the scene.
Fortunately, he was not as stone-cold on the lines as I had hoped. It took longer to do the first half of the day than I had anticipated. But we got through it.
We were breaking for lunch and moving to the second location which had nine pages of dialogue scheduled. The actor said “I really like this script.
I want to do justice to it. Let me come back tomorrow. I’ll be off work and will do it.” I told him that I was afraid he would come back and I really want to press forward today. He insisted, I relented.
I still had to pay for the second location for the day and then had to beg to shoot at that location the next day. I promised the owner would only be there for four hours. We got there early.
We shot my side of the scene and then waited and waited and waited. The actor finally showed up three hours late, leaving me with about 90 minutes to shoot 9 pages of dialogue!
We started shooting, it was clear that the actor still didn’t know his lines. We managed to muddle through it with somebody on book and with the two cameras rolling we covered it. Because of the lateness of the day, it didn’t match the footage I had shot earlier in the day.
I knew I would have to come back and reshoot my side of the scene to match the lighting. Thank God I’m a good editor.
I made it work! They cut together seamlessly and despite all the grief the actor put me through, the magical screen persona really made the scene work.
But the saga doesn’t end there. About six months later while I was editing the film I got a call from our distributor, yes I had a distributor before the film was finished! (that has never happened to me before).
He said, “We have a problem.” “What is the problem?” I asked. “Check the news and call me.” He said. I immediately looked on the internet under the actor’s name and sure enough he was now part of the #metoo situation, and being accused of improper sexual conduct.
I called the distributor and said “Look this film is going to be out for another six or seven months, will the story blow over by then?” The distributor said “This story is gonna stick around for a while” and that they would not release the film with this actor in it.
Having a distributor in hand was something that I thought was gold, so I offered to recast and reshoot the John Conover character.
The distributor accepted. I now found myself in a situation Ridley Scott had been in with Kevin Spacey on “All The Money In The World” except I didn’t have all the money in the world.
I had no idea how I would raise the money needed to hire another actor and reshoot the scenes.
I continued to edit the film and get it is close to a lock this possible with the knowledge that it would be possible to just drop in the reshot scenes with the new actor. Indeed, I kept those two scenes as separate reel workflows.
I began shaking the money trees, turning over every opportunity I possibly could to find the money, reshoot the “Conover” scenes and finish the film.
Fortuitously, in 2016, I was riding my bicycle to a post house to get additional DVDs for our DeMille film when I was hit by a US Mail Truck. I did suffer significant injuries and was required to have rotator cuff surgery on my left shoulder.
Ever the filmmaker I grabbed the camera and filmed them rolling me into the OR just before the surgery and used the footage in 8 Winds.
The settlement for my pain and suffering injuries finally came through in December 2018.
Additionally, I have secured two other investors and one family member gave me a gift. I was able to use a portion of the Mail Truck Proceeds as well as the other investments to start hunting for a new actor and to reshoot the scenes in 2019.
I reached out to the manager of a very well-known character actor with what I had in terms of the budget and he said “no way.”
He did suggest several other clients of his including Robert Davi. We made the deal and reshot the scenes.
Robert was a real trooper, he showed up on time, ready to work, even though we were a bare-bones nano budget production he gave a 100%. I’m truly grateful to him for that effort, and it shows in his performance.
There are so many nuances that it just tickles me every time I see it.
Again to do my editing skills I was able to cut the scenes that were shot in 2019 together with my scenes that were shot in 2017 and make them play seamlessly.
Playing one of the leads, directing, producing, and functioning as lighting director of photography, was a lot to handle.
I’m often asked what it’s like to direct yourself? The answer is: pretty simple. Especially since when I started making movies this is the way we did it. Everyone did everything to make the movie.
Since I had written the script, I knew the story intimately, I knew exactly what the character Charlie Napa’s was going through each scene.
In a sense, this is a more efficient way to work, since I didn’t have to communicate these points to another actor, who will in turn translate into his own direction which may or may not be what the story needs.
Crew – Keep It Small – And Feed Them Well
In terms of crew we always kept it small. The largest number of crew was four or five. Not including me as director/actor.
We had a photographer on the camera, Slate operator, assistant director/continuity person/on book reader and sometimes an additional assistant/grip.
Our Actors did their own makeup and brought their own wardrobe.
I decided to adopt the Soderberg/Chavo approach and use of available light for as much as possible. Thus there was no need for grip and electric equipment or gaffers or grips.
We had two small battery-operated LED light panels that I used from time to time, especially for the night exteriors. The only exception was the bar scene at the comedy club scene where I had rented a two-bulb KinoFlow in addition to my light panels.
I use a frost and lavender gel on the KinoFlow to soften the light to give the bar a neon look. But other than that there was no significant lighting.
Shooting the boat scene with Robert Davi as John Conover, I use some diffusion material around the rear cabin to soften the sunlight and bring down the contrast on his face.
When we are on the street, stealing scenes, for the most part, it was just the actors and the cameraman and the slate operator.
Sometimes it was just me, the camera, and a remote control. Sometimes it was me on the camera and an actor.
Although some people have complained about the “look” of the film. I am very happy with the result and the choice of camera.
It gives the film a much less polished look, which I wanted. The result is a “live” documentary feel that draws the audience in because of its authenticity.
The total shoot was 27 days from 6 Jul 2017 to 6 Sep 2017, plus the reshoot with Robert Davi.
Some of the days were not full days, for example the walk and talk between Charlie and Natalie in Beverly Hills with the fireworks took about three hours to shoot.
The longest days were early in the schedule and the only other really long day was the first day that Leona Paraminski worked because we had both the hospital scenes to shoot and the comedy club bar scene to shoot at a studio that had those locations as standing sets.
It was a 10 hour day. That said most of our days were in the 4 to 6 hour range.
For editing I chose the Adobe Premiere software. I prefer the PC architecture and had used Final Cut Pro which has a similar timeline feature so I was fairly proficient with it in a matter of weeks. For the most part I was very happy with it.
There are some issues with it that can be very frustrating but I was able to complete the film with it and master it in due course.
Like Martin Scorsese I like to cut music. For me films are like symphonies. They have a rhythm and flow and they build to a crescendo and music is an important part of establishing that feeling.
Like writing the script it is important to continuously hone and polish the finished film like a fine katana sword, you are constantly pounding out the unneeded material.
There were ultimately about 13 cuts of 8 Winds. As with the screenplay process I showed the film for notes in successive cuts to people whose opinion I respected and who I knew would not blow smoke at me.
Editing is like rewriting the film so after a certain point you need to throw away the script and focus on the film you have and not the film you wrote. In the case of 8 Winds the first cut came in at two hours and 10 minutes.
This surprised me because the screenplay was barely 100 pages.
With the successive cuts it became apparent that certain scenes and plot points were not working.
As painful as it is, you must be ruthless when you’re editing.
As a result one of my favorite characters, portrayed by an actor who worked more days on the film than any other actor except for me, was completely eliminated from the final film.
Other sequences were also eliminated. The final running time was 93 minutes, including credits.
Between versions, and while I was waiting for feedback, I put some space between myself and the project.
I did not look at it, so when I came back to it I would have fresh eyes. Most of the time this worked but once the picture was locked and I got into the score and sound design process I ended up watching the film many many many times!
Because I was working to get the picture finished in time for delivery to have a release date in 2020, I was not able to put space between viewings.
Unfortunately, after you watch the film that many times this perspective.
You begin to focus on all the things that are wrong with the project and you lose sight of the magic that you created.
Score – If Music Be The Food Of Love, Play On!
The score is always an important part of the film and makes a big difference in driving scenes and emotional story.
As I was editing I was using temp tracks from scores that I liked and loved as well as other lesser-known tracks that I had found or collected over the years.
This was a big mistake. Because the editing process took two years I became wedded to hearing those tracks as I was watching the film in its various forms.
I had worked with a composer on another project and was so impressed with his work that I wanted him to do the score for 8 Winds.
We had a spotting session, and I thought we were on the same page. Yet as cues started coming in, I was having difficulty recognizing the emotional beats which had been established by the temp tracks.
I had given the composer these tracks as a guide. The cues I was getting simply missed those beats.
I tried to work with the composer – giving him copious notes as to why I felt the cues were not working.
Here is an example of some of my notes to the composer:
“I looked at the rough track you gave me. Question, is this instrumentation that you plan to use, i.e., using the synth? If so I have to say I don’t really like synths.
Every time I watch Apocalypse Now the synth score comes in. I just tune out. That said, the reference clip from Drive below is synth.
My overriding concern about the track is that it is too “on the money,” it sounds like every other chase track I’ve heard. It is possible that hearing it in isolation is making it sound louder than you intend.
01;23;47;10 I think the cue comes in too big and bold.
In the temp it starts off simple with the clapping and then when we see what Charlie sees Boris it gets more complicated.
We should wait until Charlie says “Boris what the f**k is he doing here” and we see Boris and Nikolai Kasyanov [orange hat] shaking hands at 01;23;55;04 for the score to get bigger and more complex.
Like the bell but not sure it should be on this cut. I hit it with a boomer in the temp.
We should be building to the first crescendo/explosion. Thus there needs to be more tension in the build-up as Charlie starts tracking orange hats.
Like this clip from the “French Connection:”
[I really like how subtle the score is in this clip, it’s like a heartbeat, could we do something like with the percussion, i.e., flamenco, taiko, Indian drums?]
01;24;00;17 and 01;24;06;29 , 01;24;27;15 I like the bell
01;24;18;29 At this point Charlie sees he’s losing an orange hat and speeds up in the car, the music needs to reflect that – the stakes are rising.
In the temp you can hear the car speed up, subtle but effective IMHO. The cue should complement that.
At 01;24;33;23 there should be a crescendo, Charlie is out of the car and on foot chasing an orange hat, the stakes are even higher.
I believe I had a Boomer there and also this is where the second level of flamenco clapping came in, with the Indian drum.
At 01;24;56;00 I don’t like the turn that the score took here, it seems to lose tension/energy, when the opposite is happening, i.e., he is not showing up for the donation procedure, America is dying, time is running out.”
This had nothing to do with his talent by the way, he’s an extraordinary composer. After a few weeks of going back and forth on every cue.
The composer asked to be released from the project.
His position was that he was not a collaborator and that I was interfering with his process. We parted ways.
It took me the better part of two months to find another composer. It also meant that I would lose my hopes for a release date for 2019!
His name was Roc Chen and he works on a lot of large Chinese productions including the recent box office hit Sacrifice.
I really like the nuances of some of his demo tracks and thought he could add a lot to the film. I specifically asked him if he was willing to collaborate with me. He agreed.
As is often the case, the estimated time to complete the score proved to be unrealistic, I had hoped to have it in the fall of 2019. Final tracks were not completed until late December.
Roc did an amazing job, his cues hit the emotional beats that I had cut into the film. Several people have commented on how much they like the score.
Sound and sound design are other critical processes which you get to polish the film and really bring out the magic.
The wireless mics, despite interference problems, proved to be quite effective. Thanks to great dialogue editor Arnold Antony we ended up using about 98% of the production track. This meant he had to do very few lines of ADR (dialog replacement/looping/dubbing).
The other dynamic that comes into play is the balance between your score and the sound effects.
Your sound designer may tend to favor the effects over the score to show off their great effects work. I did have this tension on 8 Winds and you win some and you lose some.
In the end I do believe the right balance between the two was achieved thanks to our great sound designer Troy Ambroff.
All’s Well That Ends Well
Our film had its world premiere at the 2021 Madrid International Film Festival where it won the Best Original Screenplay Award.
It was finally “delivered” in July of 2021, it was released OnDemand and Streaming in the USA/Canada on March 29, 2022.
Conclusion – What I Would Differently – Next Time
I definitely would’ve spent the extra money to buy higher quality wireless mics that were less sensitive to interference. Although we ended up using 98 to 99% of the production track in the final film, there were times when the wireless mics would not function properly and usually it was on the takes that were the “good” takes.
Depending on the project and the nature of the scenes to be shot, I might well stick with a high-end pro-sumer camera if I was again something that required a lot of guerrilla shooting.
But if I had a higher budget and something where locations and sets are more formal and controlled, I would definitely want to use the higher-end Red or Arri camera packages.
Depending on the budget, if I was working again at micro-budget level I might consider just licensing tracks from some of the many of the online royalty-free sites.
They have a surprisingly good array of high-quality tracks for virtually every kind of mood or cue.
While I worked it out for 8 Winds there was no real cost savings given the number of cues involved, however having the tracks locked in while I was editing would’ve saved me about a year in post on this project.
On the other hand if I was working on a higher budget project, I would definitely want to bring on the composer as soon as we started preproduction and have the score ready by the time I started editing.
Due to budget constraints we did not have a still photographer on set. While most of the crew members were taking behind the scenes of production stills with their iPhones, very few of those photos were good for publicity or posters.
High-quality production stills are an important marketing tool, hence next time I would definitely have somebody with a good camera taking production stills.
It’s not necessary every day, just the days with your name actors and very dramatic scenes. Shots that will make good posters or press kits.
Also always make time to have your lead actors sit down for a behinds the scenes interview so that you will have that material for your marketing and social media campaigns.
If I had it to do over again I would’ve built a special stand-alone computer for the editing process. It would’ve made the editing process more efficient and allow me to utilize the Adobe Premiere Pro more fully.
Depending on the camera, next time I would like to do some detailed testing on the workflow through to the end of the QC (quality control) process.
Now go out there and be great immediately.