Filmmaking, on a Budget
Cinematheque: Andrew Kightlinger (COM’10) talks about Dust of War tonight
Like any good sci-fi thriller, Dust of War—the story of a lone soldier fending off a brutal warmonger to rescue a girl believed to be the savior of humanity—features explosions, a postapocalyptic world, and aliens. But most impressive is how director Andrew Kightlinger got it made, given a budget tight enough to challenge the most resourceful filmmaker.
Kightlinger (COM’10), a recent graduate of BU’s film program, comes to campus tonight to screen and talk about Dust of War, his first feature, as part of the BU Cinematheque series, a College of Communication program that brings accomplished filmmakers to campus to screen and discuss their work.
The 27-year-old filmmaker says that “Dust of War was a very hellish movie that took 30 days to shoot, and we were working for under $200,000.” The film, which was shot near his childhood home in South Dakota in 2011, turned out to be “the best crash course on how to produce a movie,” he says.
Kightlinger credits a great support team for getting the movie made. His friend Steven Luke came up with the idea and approached him to write the screenplay and direct (Luke produced and played the main character, the soldier Abel). The pair’s coproducers were old high school friends. John Bernstein, a COM associate professor of film and television, helped consult on the script, and the lead villain, the warmonger, was played by Bates Wilder, a Boston theater staple and a former College of Fine Arts adjunct professor.
BU Today recently spoke with Kightlinger about the challenges of working on such a tight budget, how he managed to woo actor Tony Todd (Candyman) to appear in his film, and his advice for aspiring filmmakers.
BU Today: What do you do to prepare before shooting a film?
Kightlinger: The first thing I do is watch movies from the genre I’m working in and read screenplays and books. I lock myself in a room and I draw the movie on pieces of paper. Once we get on set it’s obviously going to change from what I drew, but it helps to make the movie once in your head, and then you know what works and what doesn’t.
Whenever I start a film project, the first thing I think about is how much is this going to cost me. In film school they prepare you for that, but they don’t let you go out and do it per se. A lot of film schools will pay for your films, and BU gives you some money, but not enough to make the whole thing. BU encourages the filmmaker to go and find the money, which is a good exercise for what they can expect as an independent filmmaker. And then when you have the money, you have to put it in the right places.
How did you work around the constraints of Dust of War’s budget?
For my BU thesis, I made a short film called You Don’t Know Constantine. It was a very expensive movie and was a beautiful disaster. The movie looks good, but it wasn’t cohesive; it wasn’t the movie I set out to make. It cost too much. I was young and reckless, but it was a great learning experience.
So Dust of War was successful in the sense that we managed to make a film for basically $200,000. It was very low-budget for the type of movie it is. And a lot of that was begging, borrowing, and stealing, putting money on credit cards that I am still paying off today, and raising money from local dentists, doctors, and business leaders.
We went into the film with the attitude that we would raise as much as we could beforehand and whatever we couldn’t raise, we would raise in post. All the books tell you not to do that, but if we had waited to make the film, it never would have been made.
We live in a strange time where you can go out and make a movie for $50,000, and if it is any good you can probably get it on Netflix and make your money back. It is a strange market, but money still makes art move, especially film.
How did you balance writing, directing, and producing?
That kind of sucked. It’s good to have control over certain things, and I haven’t yet had the luxury of producing a script that someone else wrote, which I hope to do one day. Sometimes when you write your own screenplay, you are in your own artistic prison and you have to find a way to chisel out as you are shooting the film.
You’ve described this film as Mad Max bitch slapping Terrence Malick. What did you mean?
Whether or not we were successful in attaining that image, I don’t know. The reason for that description is that I believe going into a film, you have to have an artistic framework, you have to ask yourself what you’re trying to make. The cinematographer and I both said, “We like Malick, his filmmaking style, and the way he photographs nature.” When we were shooting the film we would ask, “What would Malick do?” The camera technique is very much Malick. It’s like “Hey, forget about the art—let’s have some fun.”
How did Dust of War come to be filmed in South Dakota?
It was our backyard. Another artistic inspiration for the movie was the prairie painter Harvey Dunn. I examined what he did, and I wanted to pretend that instead of a frontier woman churning milk in the prairie, it was a guy with a sword. We shot in a lot of the same places that Dances with Wolves shot. It was also a way to keep the budget down, by shooting in places that we knew we could essentially get for no money. We basically shot the movie in a five-mile radius.
How did you persuade actors Tony Todd (Final Destination 5) and Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth, Fantastic Four) to be in the film?
We wanted some well-known sci-fi actors to help sell the film. We had a connection who knew Doug Jones. We got the script to him; he loved it and said OK. Tony Todd is someone we went after. I’ve always been a fan of Candyman and other things he has done.
I basically acted as casting director and hired him. Doing another feature, I would definitely hire a casting director, because it’s a whole other beast. It’s creatively draining. But for this film, everyone put on a lot of hats. That’s part of indie filmmaking.
What’s next for you?
There’s all kinds of fun stuff happening. I just did a short film, Paper People, that successfully played over 30 film festivals and will be on iTunes. I did another short film, Destroyer, which is a fun one starring Alan Ruck from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. That will hopefully get into some cool festivals. I’m circling around three or four different features, one of which will be a micro-budget film that will hopefully shoot in South Dakota in May. It will almost be a kind of mumblecore movie. The next thing will be a drama, moving away from a sci-fi angle. I’m definitely interested in explaining the human condition. It’s harder to sell that kind of movie, so that will be a learning experience. I’ve been offered a few director jobs as well. My goal is to make two features this year.
What advice do you have for students interested in becoming filmmakers?
Film is collaborative art. Just as we are citizens of the world, as filmmakers, we are citizens of a creative collective. We love, we hurt, we laugh, we bleed, we think, we direct, we write, we act, we raise money, we mold light, we trim runtimes, and we make really good sandwiches and obscenely strong coffee. Everybody is essential and you are in the team-building phase of your artistic lives, so don’t fear collaboration, because ultimately, movies are only possible in the collective.
Dust of War screens tonight, Friday, February 14, at 7 p.m., followed by a talk by Andrew Kightlinger, at the College of Communication, Room 101, 640 Commonwealth Ave. The event, part of the BU Cinematheque series, is free and open to the public.+ Comments