I'm character actor David Ury, best known for being crushed by an ATM on Breaking Bad, and as Schizo-Head in Rob Zombie's coming film 31.
I recently finished the short film Augustine, which was my production teams first foray into producing our own film. It's been three years since we started work on it. It has just finished its festival run (where it got one win and a few noms) and now we've uploaded it online. Click here to watch the short film.
Below is the complete story of how the film was made.
I first met Tahmus Rounds on the set of the CBS drama Bones. We were both doing guest roles on the show and when we met, we immediately recognized each other from auditions. We both made our livings playing creepy characters in various dramas and films. We quickly became friends and a few months later I was hanging out at his house when he busted out his toy robot collection.
For years Tahmus had been repurposing old toys and turning them into bizarre, somewhat frightening looking robots. He had a whole army of them. As soon as I saw them we began discussing ideas about how we could make a little short around them. This was in early 2012 and around that time I had been flirting with the idea of going to film school. I'd looked at some of the local programs like UCLA extension. All were charging thousands of dollars for a class on making a short film. I figured, why spend thousands of dollars to learn how to do something but have nothing to show for it. I might as well learn by doing.
So we took on Augustine as an alternative to film school. For a couple hundred bucks I enrolled in something called No-budget film school, a program taught by producer Mark Stolaroff and a cinema language class with director Tom Provost. These classes focused on how to shoot a film with pretty much no budget.
Having been an actor for 11 years in Hollywood at the time, I was lucky to have friends from shows I'd worked on who were willing to come aboard. On Disney's Zeke and Luther I met actor Reid Ewing (of Modern Family fame), who played our lead. I also met our Director of Photography Otis Ropert, who had previously been a camera operator on The Shield. Otis had just purchased a Canon 7-D camera and was looking for a project to test it out on.
Soon co-director David Neptune jumped aboard. He had been working in the equipment room at the New York Film Academy and enlisted a huge group of crew who volunteered to be grips, gaffers, make up artists and even stunt doubles.
We had two days of principal photography planned and a half day of exteriors and pick ups. We had about two weeks of pre-production. There was a big learning curve. How do we get insurance? Where do we audition our actors? How do we fill out the union paperwork? Our total budget was only about $1500 and with a crew of nearly 20 people for two days, just paying for food took up most of that. That meant that everything else had to be done pretty much for free. We got our location free, our crew and talent volunteered, the second biggest expense was the big red pick up truck. We decided we needed a creepy old looking truck. We could have gotten a modern truck for free, but that wouldn't have conveyed the tone and feel we were going for. So we bit the bullet and shelled out $300 for an ancient pick up truck that ended up being nightmare to maneuver on the narrow roads where we shot. In fact, we nearly smashed it into another car.
Our initial shoot was a tough slog. With every scene issues arose, sometimes due to budgetary constraints, sometimes due to time constraints and sometimes things just didn't work as planned. We had to lose a lot of shots that we'd planned, and often got much less coverage of scenes than we had anticipated. I remember the day we wrapped I was overcome with anxiety. "Did we get it?" "Did we shoot enough to make this work?".
The answer was....no...not really. We put a rough cut together and....meh....it was kind of okay. There wasn't enough movement to create excitement. Most of the shots of robots were stationary and it just didn't make for compelling viewing. We also needed more action in our chase scene. Luckily, we were able to go back and shoot pick up shots with a skeleton crew of just four or five of us. We got enough footage to fill in the gaps.
WHERE WE WENT WRONG
Within a couple of months we had a rough cut and here is where things got really sticky. The main problem with our film was that it was heavily reliant on music and sound design. Two things which we really didn't know how to do ourselves and we didn't know anybody who worked in those fields.
We got hooked up with a sound designer who was willing to volunteer but could only help out in between his regular gigs. He was a busy guy, and months later he hadn't really had much time to work on our film. Soon it was 2013 and we still didn't have a film. Finally we decided we had to move on. We found another sound designer who was willing to help out for a reduced rate and we got back on track. The music was also key to this short. We needed a chase theme that played off of the robot's melody (Here's to the bus driver/Ach du liber Augustin). Because it was such a specific sound we needed, we couldn't go with license free stock music which was widely available online. Finally we found a young composer who was willing to work with us, again at a reduced rate. These difficulties with sound and music delayed our final cut by about two years.
In mid 2014 we finally finished and started submitting to festivals. We were targeting the major genre festivals Shriekfest, Screamfest , and After Dark. The submission fees were high and we could only afford to submit to about five of the big tests. We didn't get in to any of them. Next, we used FilmFreeway.com to search for horror tests with no submission fee. We were lucky enough to get into several of these and our film got a great response. Winning best short at Calgary Horror Con and getting nominations for best screenplay and international short at Australia's Monsterfest.
It's been on line for just a couple of days now and so far the response has been great.
We learned a lot over the course of the short film. Whether or not we learned more than film school could have taught us I can't say. But using the lessons we learned through this experience we've gone on to make viral videos like "What Kind of Asian are You?" which has viewed more than 10 million times around the world. We have shot dozens of projects now and all have gone much smoother than Augustine. We learned how to anticipate our post production needs (sound, music, FX) before we start shooting. We learned how to use SAG union actors for online content without having to break the bank. Most importantly we learned how to think on the fly and rewrite on the fly so when budgetary/time constraints arose we could come up with work arounds.
I can't help thinking that if we made this short today, with all that we've learned in the past 3 years, it would be incomparably better. But then again, you have to start somewhere and I think I can speak for our whole team when I say that I'm pretty happy with how it turned out.