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‘Lone Wolves’ Director Sergi Arnau on getting the most out of zero-budget filmmaking

Despite having been already part of a number of award winning projects, when his time as a film student ended, Sergi Arnau found nothing but closed doors when he attempted to enter the film industry. Alongside a band of fellow graduates, he decided to show studios what they were missing by going it alone; creating polished prison drama Lone Wolves without a budget, as a means to showcase their talents. Arnau spoke to Indy Film Library about the passion, planning, hard work required to survive shooting, post-production and beyond as an independent filmmaker.

Do you remember the first moment you decided you wanted to make films?

I think many moments led me toward that decision. My first cinematic memory was when in Terminator 2 Arnold died, I remember that I ran to bed crying, I felt it so real that I thought he had really died. I had this idea that without Arnold, film itself was over; that they would no longer be able to make films. Luckily I was wrong; later, at about 14 years old I pretended to be sick so I could stay home and watch movies. That week my family had bought me a pack of films with True Lies, and I watched the set three times a day, for a week.

I was used to commercial cinema, for me, at that time I thought that Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger were the highest you could go, that you couldn’t do better. At the age of 16 I discovered Kubrick, Leone, and Kurosawa and there was another motivation. Until I discovered those directors, I could not believe that inside the cinema you could get to do things of such a high level, it did not enter my head that you could do that with a film… They were in different leagues.

Then I remember around 19-20 years old that I wrote a feature film script for entertainment. When I had the opportunity to enrol in a film school, I did it, I started very late, at the age of 26, because before I dedicated myself to professional sports, so I suppose it was not a unique moment, it was several moments that led me towards this path.

Your first feature film, prison drama Lone Wolves, hasn’t played in cinemas yet, so would you like to briefly explain the premise for the benefit of our readers?

Lone Wolves is a prison drama with an episodic character structure, similar to that of Reservoir Dogs. It is a choral film with a multitude of characters, and during the film and through the character episodes, we will discover the motivations of each character and why they ended up in prison. It has a film noir aesthetic inspired by current films such as Drive or Prisoners.

I understand that the production of the film was rather unique, what is the story behind the making of this film?

Well, we are a small group of four former film students; we met during our studies, during this period we always shot short films thinking of the feature film. While the majority of students limited themselves to shooting a shot against shot in the school studio with only two actors and one location, we started shooting a western with seven actors, 17 locations, day, night etc… At no time did we shoot short films with festivals in mind, but the school decided to send them to festivals and it went well, we won more than 60 awards at international festivals.

The problem was when we finished school and realised that we were in the middle of a desert. Without contacts, cinema is a very difficult world to access. Producers did not call us at all; we no longer knew which door to knock at, and so we decided to take a leap of faith. We decided to shoot a film ourselves, without any help or budget – our own film to demonstrate to the producers that we were capable of leading a project as complex as that of making a film. We know perfectly well that it sounds very crazy to shoot your own film to show that if you are worth it, but honestly it was this or abandon our dream. We decided to go for it!

The film took five years to finish, it sounds like a labour of love. What on earth kept you and the team going for so long?

Just starting a film with a ‘NO BUDGET’ sign has negative connotations associated with it. It’s associated with bad image quality, bad camera movement, bad sound, etc. We were clear that we did not want to make the typical film without a budget. We wanted to show that with very little budget, we could get the most out of the materials at our disposal.

And I really like that you ask me this question, because people think that the hardest thing is to shoot the film and this is totally a lie! Filming is hard because there is a lot of stress, many factors to control, etc. but in shooting the film it took 36 days in total, divided into two blocks. It was the finishing details which took many years – and this is where most projects with little budget fail. In fact I know lots of cases in which short films or even feature films have been filmed and in the end they are not mounted. Post-production must be respected; it is not going to be you going to the cutting room and making four snips, and voila! No, you have to invest thousands and thousands of hours in a good post-production so that you do not notice the lack of budget.

Post-production was very long because we could not dedicate the hours to it on a regular basis, we had other jobs that had nothing to do with cinema and in our free time we tried to make the most of it. I am a very perfectionist person and if I see that I can improve something 0.01% I try to do it, I am constantly looking for references from other films to try to help my team to the maximum and do not go blind.

That’s why we took so long, because we looked at the detail a lot, but I think the good results come taking care of shot by shot, detail by detail, sound by sound. If you look at the trailer you would never say that it is a film without any budget and shot with six or seven people on its technical team and I am very proud of that.

Was it ever hard to maintain good relationships with each other?

I think that you should ask the others; I am very heavy-handed, I always want to polish details, I think I could not work with someone as heavy as myself. I would like to thank them all for putting up with me, and making this whole trip possible.

But if I tell you the truth, we got along very well, they also saw that everything improved and I suppose that’s why they allowed me to make so many modifications. In the end, those who take this seriously want their work to be done well, not to be done quickly.

How did you go about financing Lone Wolves? It tends to be the stumbling block for many independent filmmakers, but to make something this polished, you must have been able to secure some kind of funding?

We did a crowdfunding where we barely got €3,000; in total we had less than €4,000 of budget. But this is a bit related to the previous questions, if you plan well and work on every detail, you don’t need that much money. The important thing is to be clear about what you want and to work hard to achieve it. For example. We did not go to shoot the locations with the actors and see what would happen … that’s suicide … Six months before filming I already had the technical script closed, shot by shot, with its storyboard and two reference frames from other films for each shot. Two months before filming, the director of photography settled in my house and we went to all the locations to try him and me on all the shots, frames, movements, etc. We treated the film as if it were an animated film, where you have to study each shot very well.

Many people become obsessed with financing and lose all energy along the way, focus on what you can do. Would you know how to shoot a shot with an actor and four people from the technical team and make it professional? Then do it! Then you go for the next one. Because if you make a thousand excuses you will never do it; “I do not have good actors, I do not have good locations, I do not have good cameras, I do not have money …” You have to assume that the ideal moment will probably never come, so if you want something, go for it.

Opportunities at traditional studios seem more restricted than ever, with many executives reluctant to take any kind of risk whatsoever to preserve their profit margins. Do you think that filmmakers need them anymore, if people like you can go it alone?

With this question we could talk a whole week, because it is a very complex subject. I think that this has always been the difference between studios and filmmakers crazy about making movies without a budget, but there have always been independent filmmakers who shot movies without a budget, on 8mm if necessary. Our path can serve those of us who are just starting out, but look all the time invested, all sleeping in my house with mattresses on the floor, etc… For a first project, ok, but what we took five years to do, an executive from a studio will do it in less than a year.

In the end we have to understand that the film industry does not exist to generate art, it exists to generate money like any other industry, it is profit-driven. If a producer gives you a movie with a budget of $10 million dollars, he is going to want you to produce a movie which makes MORE THAN $10 million. If you make a work of art, but do not recover the investment then you will be fired. So it is a complex world, without the executives you could not finance great films, it would be very difficult to carry out projects, create an industry that professionals can live from this etc… No one is going to give you $10 million for you to do your film without expectations, there is a wider business to think of and run after all. There are some very good executives who if they look for the middle point between quality and profitability of the film though.

Do you expect that the recession currently unfolding will help or hurt independent filmmakers like yourself? Perhaps low-budget filmmaking will be able to flourish if big studios have to scale back their operations?

I actually believe that everything will remain the same, more or less. I think that instead of making 300 million films, big studios might concentrate on 200 or 150, but the themes and the type of audience they are directed at will be the same… The big studios will continue to dominate the markets through all the distribution agreements that they have. The vast majority of films are already sold and placed in markets on that basis before filming even starts; against this it is impossible to compete, since there is very little space for others.

I think that the opportunities for filmmakers on a low budget will always be more or less the same, within a very competitive market there is always a small hole where you can enter. For example, remember the Blair Witch Project? Or to a lesser extent Primer which triumphed at Sundance.

So the work you do with the festivals is so and so important. Without you, who would see our movies? Friends, family and little else. Thanks to your work we can reach the public and with a little “luck” to the market.

What I do hope it can do is that by having less budget the producers bet more on the filmmakers who know how to handle budgets, they know what each shot costs and they know how to carry out projects without investing a lot of money.

What role do you see critics, film festivals, and social media playing in that process of changing global cinema?

Everything is very important, as I mentioned before without film festivals, the filmmakers we started would not have visibility not only for feature films but also for short films.

Social networks of course help to promote, to build an audience, before you were on TV, radio, magazines, before people knew you existed; and without spending a lot of money! Now you can make good marketing campaigns at almost 0% cost and reach thousands of people if your content is good.

Do you have any advice for former film students; or independent filmmakers more generally, looking to follow in your footsteps?

The most basic thing is not to try to like everyone; be yourself. You can shoot a perfect scene, show it to 20 people and receive 20 different criticisms. If you listen to everyone you will go crazy. That doesn’t mean that you don’t listen to anyone, of course you have to listen to your team, but keep your line going. At the same time, do not expect that you can become a success alone, or that some big-shot will come looking for you.

Another thing I would like to say is, do not take a criticism of a teacher or a student as a matter of life or death, listen to them but make your own conclusions, neither of them is Kubrick or is absolutely right, try not to doubt yourself on that basis. And one last thing; if you are a student, take advantage of every minute of your student time to learn, practice and watch movies. Think 24 hours in cinema.

To give a very quick example, when I entered film school I was one of the worst students in terms of knowledge of cinema, I did not know too much about the classics of cinema etc. Instead there were two boys in my school who were real experts, they knew all the titles, they had seen a lot of movies etc. But while they went to the bar after class just to talk, I would run to the flat to see a movie, read technical books and go over the notes. At the end of the three years I had reached them, they were still at the same point, in three years they did not have a single short film mounted while we had awards, three short films mounted and we were already preparing the film. So my advice is, if you want to make movies, make the most of your time in education, until the last second. That way, when you finish your studies, you can look back and say, I have given everything. If you can do that, sooner or later you will reap what you have sown.

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