The DIY Movie Experiment That Made All the Difference
Or, how a veteran filmmaker shoved all the excuses aside to deliver 'Doppel'
I started making movies because I hated “Napoleon Dynamite.” I started acting in movies so I could start making movies again.
Early on, when I actually wanted to be an actor, I remember noticing films being directed by known actors. I never understood why someone would want to be behind the camera when they could be in front of it.
I finally understood after I directed my first film – as arduous as it is, the thrill of embarking on telling a story and seeing it come to fruition was as deeply satisfying as it was terrifying.
And I absolutely loved it.
It was then that I started to ponder another question: Why would anyone attempt to star in and direct the same movie?
I would watch films like “The Bridges of Madison County” or “Little Man Tate,” imagining the amount of work that had to go into both helming and performing.
I’m sure people who do both have their reasons, as I did. But mine wasn’t something as romantic as, “it was a part that called to me in a story that I just had to tell.” No.
I did it because I “had to.” Period.
But that was the last tumbler in the sequence. The first began in 2010, right after I finished my fourth feature – a documentary on OBX beach closures and the effect it had on the people and the economy. I actually got paid to make that movie. I wanted to get paid to make more. My wife, Vickie, was on board, and we found ourselves with a solid, above-the-line team, connections to decent production keys and a growing pile of solid scripts.
The only thing we didn’t have was the money. (You hear that from time to time in this business.)
Making Movies Is a Humbling Experience
Probably one of the hardest lessons for me to come to grips with was this: nobody cares what you say you can do. They only want to know what you have already done – and whether or not it made money. So, it all boils down to your past successes (and award-winning video work – which I had done for brands like Aveeno, Neutrogena, Band-Aid, Listerine and Rogaine – didn’t count).
We had already given up on our $1.5 million project – “Among the Shadows” – which we had been developing for nearly four years at the time (not a big enough cast or track record for the budget). So we came up with another script – a thriller, titled, “Addison Chained” – and a lower budget. Then, an even lower budget. And, still lower.
We went from $900K down to $500K, then had to move on, as we couldn’t make it for less than that, unless we went with “no names.” But we knew that the only genre you could produce with no names – and still have a chance for decent distribution – was horror (and maybe sci-fi).
So, we came up with more ideas, and wrote more scripts. Fewer locations. Fewer characters. Shootable in 10 days or less. Our budgets sunk from mid-six figures to high-five figures.
As the years passed, our producing partner got a very time-demanding “day job.” We had spent nearly 15 years receiving the continual ass-kicking that is inevitable in this industry. At one point, a friend said to me, “oh, you’re still trying to do that?”
Yes. I was. And, over the years, the desire just intensified on multiple levels.
The Winning Formula, Explained
Then, I finally came to the conclusion that the only way to make another movie was to do just that. Make one. There just didn’t seem to be any other way to “get there from here.” Put up or shut up.
Throw out all the “can’ts,” and start listing all the “cans.” Basically, what resources did I have that would cost me little or nothing? It didn’t take long to finish the list, because it was a pretty short one: I had my house and my immediate family.
“Doppel” was my fifth feature film. It cost $3,000. It had no script. It starred me and my wife. We shot it ourselves. On a phone.
It would get picked up for distribution within two months of completion.
My wife and I had both had some previous acting experience, so it wasn’t a completely far-fetched idea. Neither of us felt like memorizing pages and pages of dialogue so we decided we would approach it organically. We shot the movie found-footage style, improvising scenes based on a detailed outline.
And, while that solved the “no memorization” thing for the most part, the organic nature of our approach would result in several occurrences of reshooting to “fix” story issues that would inevitably pop up.
We set out with the initial idea that the story would be about something happening to me – “Kevin” – and it would basically be told through Vickie’s character, “Vickie,” who would be unwittingly documenting the disintegration of their lives as she sets out to shoot footage for an anniversary video celebrating their new life chapter as empty nesters.
That had just recently happened to us for real.
Shoot What You Know
That was the other thing – because we weren’t sure how well we were going to do on the performance end, we chose to keep all of the story’s details as close to “real” as possible. As Twain once wrote, “if you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
So, other than some creative license with our relationship and individual particulars, the only big thing we made up was a third child, who would be critical to the story.
Even though we were basically embarking on an experiment – making a movie with no resources, no experienced talent, and no script – I still wanted it to be as good as possible. Despite all romantic sentiment, you don’t just hit “record” on your preloaded camera app. Not if you want it to have a chance to go anywhere.
First thing I ran into was the fact that the phone we were using only had one mic, and it pointed in the wrong direction. So, we needed an external recorder. We also needed to avoid a lot of “noise” that you get when cameras artificially “brighten” the picture. External lights. Suddenly, our “camera phone” was a five-pieced rig (so much for “costing nothing…”).
We definitely gave our neighbors some fat to chew as well – like me running across my property while changing my shirt (over and over again). Or digging random holes in the back yard. Or yelling at invisible people in our driveway in broad daylight.
The clincher was probably when we were taping black bags over our basement windows, while explaining to one of our neighbors not to worry if he heard screaming from inside the house – we were “shooting a project” in the basement. (That screaming wouldn’t be happening until around 2AM the next morning, so it was probably the topic of a conversation or two in the neighborhood.)
Why the Final Puzzle Piece Mattered
Once we were about 95 percent done, we still thought that it was a bit flat. We decided to hire my friend, Lonnie Park, to actually score the movie. That was a key decision, as it turned out. I’m not sure how much that may have helped us get distribution, but it definitely added a very important dimension to the overall show, as soundtracks always do.
Post turned out to be a bit arduous, as patching story holes would always require additional shooting in some capacity. “It would be so much better/clearer/more dramatic if we just added…” seemed to be how we started most of our sentences for about a month as we fine-tuned things.
Our “premiere” was a cozy dinner party with half a dozen friends and family. They all seemed to really like it. One of our friends confessed she had been trying to figure out how to “nicely” tell us the truth, anticipating that our little movie was going to be a huge disaster.
Not wanting to go the festival route, we went out to distributors immediately. It was fall now, and TIFF and AFM were right around the corner, so when we didn’t hear, “we don’t consider found footage,” we heard, instead, “circle back at the end of November.”
As it turned out, within a few weeks we heard from the Director of Acquisitions for Freestyle Digital Media. They liked the film and wanted to add it to their catalogue. We were beyond ecstatic.
Between paying the others involved and the purchases that were necessary, Doppel ran us about $3,000. Ironically, it would cost about twice that to cover deliverables (CC, subtitles, E&O insurance, legal, etc.).
Lights! Camera! Distribution!
“Doppel” was released on several major platforms on April 14, 2020 – just shy of 14 months after the idea had been conceived.
The primary purpose of our little “experiment” was to jump start a decade-long stall – and to get us to the “next one.” It did just that, and more.
As of the writing of this, we are in final preparations for the release of “Dead Air” two months from now, and are also in the middle of post of our seventh feature, “The Forever Room,” which we wrapped shooting at the end of October. Both of those have their own stories, for another time.
In “Moonstruck,” Olympia Dukakis tells Cher at one point, “it ain’t over till it’s over.” By pivoting in a direction that we would have considered “impossible” just a few years earlier, we made three features in just under two years, for a little over $50K total.
My takeaway from “Doppel” is simple: you can almost always get there from here – you just have to be open to alternative routes and be willing to build a few of the roads yourself.
Kevin Hicks is a full-time video producer, writer and film director. Owner of Hark Productions (commercial video) and co-owner of Chinimble Lore (film & entertainment production), he lives in Lansing NY with his wife, writer/producer Vickie Hicks.