Being broke with dreams of the silver screen is not a quality combo, in New York or LA, but making an indie flick on an itty bitty baby budget is shockingly do-able for the scrappier and more motivated among us Brokesters. Especially with innovations in technology that make quality achievable with an almost grossly small amount of equipment, making a halfway-decent movie no longer requires a Hollywood set or lots of expensive equipment and the insurance that comes with it – just grab a tripod for your iPhone and you’re set.
In a far away place called the West Coast, former Brooklynites Tess Harrison and Colby Day recently did just that. Their short, experimental horror film, “Happy Vacation” is a “surprisingly inexpensive scary movie” they filmed entirely on an iPhone and GoPro. With a micro budget of $2,500, they made it happen, and it really is quite pretty. It clocks in at six minutes and 43 seconds.
Here’s what Harrison and Day had to say about being bicoastal, which side of the country is better to have no money on, and why the favor-economy can make all your dreams come true.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned, about movies or life or otherwise, from shooting a short film on an iPhone?
Tess: The main iPhone specific takeaway I had was color is everything in movies. The raw footage from the iPhone was stylized but the color added a gloss that made it look like a movie. Having baller post people is like THE KEY for films and people don’t talk about it enough.
Colby: I think in a broader sense it was a nice reminder that sometimes the stars actually do align. When you’re making something with no money you have to ask for so many favors that you start to get a kind of “oh, here we go, get ready to hear no,” attitude. But sometimes you hear yes!? We wanted our friend Maria to be in this but she lives in New York. We knew it was silly but reached out and said “hey dude we’re making a movie for no money in California do you want to have a vacation and also make a movie and also we can’t pay you to do this?” And she said, “Yeah, I want a trip, booking a ticket.” We asked around for a pretty pool and ended up with multiple options even though we couldn’t pay for the location. This short kinda just fell together that way and so much of making low budget movies is troubleshooting and problem solving that you forget sometimes people will just jump and say “yes” and it will work out. Always ask!
Tess: Sometimes starting with a production timeline is the only way to begin – ok we are shooting in March now what…
Colby: I think sometimes jump before you can see the other side?
Were you driven to make the movie on your iPhone exclusively for budget reasons, or would you do it again even if you had access to more heavy-duty equipment?
Colby: We wanted to use our money to buy equipment instead of just renting it, and the lens for iPhone was an easy (cheap) way to invest in something we knew we could use again and not just have to do a Kickstarter for every single project. I’d absolutely use the iPhone again, you can get beautiful and stylish stuff but it is NOT good for low light and we had a lot of night in the script initially.
Tess: It started as a budget concern – but more because we knew we wanted to shoot essentially IN the water and we weren’t up for renting a camera and housing or serious insurance to cover that. The vibe of the Moondog lens also lent itself to our story. The anamorphic lens, that super stretched out wide frame, allowed us to see a lot of the world from a confined, claustrophobic space. I would for sure use a better camera at night. Our poor colorist had to work really hard to get the night stuff looking good enough.
Colby: Honestly if you want to make something really pretty and can find a way to do that where there is a lot of natural light the iPhone is a great option. The lens is $130, it’s cheaper than anything else you can get and looks really pretty. People can’t believe we shot on iPhone, and we didn’t even shoot on the newest model, we shot on an iPhone 6.
Tess: Yeah I keep forgetting to tell people we made it on an iPhone and when I do it is FULL SHOCK FACE.
What inspired the movie? Did you have a bad experience in a swimming pool?
Tess: No thank god we can both swim and we are not writing you from a ghost Airbnb! We decided to collaborate on a short before we had a story in mind. A lot of my previous films have been restricted to a specific location – it is a fun, challenging way to write – what could happen here? So we chose a – What story takes place entirely in a pool?
Colby: Tess and I knew we wanted to do a movie about two people on a trip, and maybe a goodbye type of trip? Which quickly morphed into a movie about ghosts and death and magic. It’s a little more stylistic than either of us is used to, which was also a goal – let’s shoot something that looks really pretty and like a music video. With low budget indie DIY stuff you generally don’t get to do that. So a big goal for us was how do we make the prettiest looking thing we can?
Do you think the horror genre aspect made the experience significantly easier or harder?
Colby: I don’t think Tess or I liked watching horror very much before this, so we were really surprised as we started thinking and then especially on set with how fun it is when you find something spooky or unnerving.
Tess: Totally – when I would tell people what we were making I was just as surprised as they were. Most of my movies are sad relationship moments. I have a serious respect for the horror world now. Because there are certain tropes or story patterns that horror movies traditionally follow you can explore interesting things within that framework. I’d say it’s hard to make a good movie no matter what the genre but each genre brings its own challenges. Horror seems to be about quiet, building suspense and releasing it.
Colby: Genre is super fun. Playing within a sandbox and style is really cool and lets you kind of work with expectations in a fun way.
Both of you peaced to the West Coast after living and meeting each other in Brooklyn. What’s your Goodbye To All That-reasoning for ditching BK?
Tess: Romance! My fiancé needed to be out here for work. It took me about a year of thinking about it before I was ready to make the jump. I still have Brooklyn shame for saying that I like it here but I do – I like it.
Colby: California is nice! But yeah as someone who lived in Brooklyn for a decade you’re not supposed to say that. Both places are great! Both places are dumb! You can love/hate them both. I only told people I was going to move a couple weeks before I left because I didn’t want to have the “why would you leave?” conversation with everyone I know.
Tess: I literally did that same thing. I didn’t say goodbye to anyone, I just disappeared.
You’ve both had experiences being bi-coastal. What’s that like?
Tess: I feel like by the time you are “bi-coastal” it’s less fun and more, “oh shit I travel so much for work do I even live anywhere or have a real home will I ever have a break again no? Okay.”
Colby: For, like, the last year I lived on Tess’ couch while she and I separately were traveling back and forth to New York. It’s super weird. I think being a vagabond and getting rid of all your things makes you need to get better at reaching out to people. Mainly to ask for places to stay, but also because you don’t get to see people anymore.
What’s the better coast for making a movie with no money?
Tess: Most of our LA crew I knew in Brooklyn. The other actress, Maria Wilson, still lives in Brooklyn. I did a couple shorts with our DP Cale Nichols in NY as well. Colby and I know each other from NY. It was almost like a Brooklyn Movie Grows in Laguna Beach.
Colby: I think Brooklyn people understand better, “we are so poor and will make you dinner on set from whatever we have in our groceries,” in a way that makes them really scrappy artists and collaborators. But I think the West Coast is a little friendlier as far as, “oh you’re an artist let me help you out with your career and building a sustainable future so you don’t kill yourself struggling?” It seems like everyone is nicer here, and that may be fake but is also still nice? Am I shallow?
Tess: I feel like being broke in LA isn’t as painful as being broke in BK. Broke in BK is pizza and rain, broke in LA is tacos with killer salsa and sun.
What’s the better coast for generally existing with no money?
Tess: LA. NY. No LA…No wait BK. I think it depends on what you love. LA is quieter than New York. And nature is great. But I wouldn’t have thought I liked those things when I was living in Brooklyn because I love everything about Brooklyn. I say try both. The dirt of New York is definitely sexier than the dirt of LA.
Colby: I really appreciate being somewhere where I can see like…a hill or… trees. Getting outside is great. But I think if you’re picking a place to be young and scrappy and broke and have three jobs that’s a New York thing. That’s more fun there than here.
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