In this series of special guest posts, we’re asking first-time feature directors (narrative and nonfiction) to share what they’ve learned from these debut outings, focusing on one specific aspect of production. This month: location shooting.
“In dust we trust.” A motto we would have tattooed across our necks in November 2022 when we ventured into the desert to begin production on our first feature film, The Buildout. When I say we, I mean myself (Zeshaan Younus, Writer, Producer, Director) and Trevor Dillon (Producer).
Eventually, “in dust we trust” would be akin to Maximus exhorting his rank and file in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. An acknowledgement between brothers and sisters on the battlefield. Our front line? The Anza-Borrego State Park. Over 640,000 acres, temperatures reaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit, potential wind gusts clocking in at 80 miles-per-hour, intermittent rain, and mostly zero cell reception. If it looks more like Mars than Earth and if a retired Vietnam-era war rig is required to access it, why not make an Ultra Low-Budget indie there?
In 2019, I attended the Borrego Springs Film Festival for my short, Prefigured. Part of the festival’s itinerary was a tour of the “Borrego Badlands” hosted by a local adventure company called California Overland. As I bounced around the back of a decommissioned open-air personnel carrier, I remember feeling the heavy tread of the oversized tires rattling my bones, hearing the canvas walls flap in the wind, and tasting the gritty sand we so arrogantly disturbed.
An hour later I was melodramatically contemplating my life on a desolate desert wash and heard what sounded like rolling thunder. Suddenly, beings that looked more insect than human surrounded our awe- struck tour group. They were in full regalia, sitting upon battle-hardened dirt bikes. The riders came to a stop and took a moment to silently acknowledge us. Then, in unspoken unison, a twist of the throttle took them further towards the burning horizon. As quickly as they arrived, their presence was erased by a cloud of diminishing dirt and quickly waning sunlight.
That is when the idea for The Buildout was born. A pseudo-found footage, Terrence Malick-inspired, cross-genre film that follows two women on their motorcycles deep into the desert towards something both unnatural and unknowable.
Fast-forward a few years and we are sitting at a Lazy Dog detailing all of the insane variables that need to align for The Buildout to come to life. Talent, weather, stunts, budget, permits, vehicles, cameras, bathrooms, everything. Even though it was all overwhelming and somehow already exhausting, we eventually came to a collective understanding: “We can do this.”
Piece by piece we cultivated a trusted and dedicated team that saw our greatest challenges as points of excitement. Making your first feature film? Sick. Entirely exterior shoot? Woah. Almost 100% natural light? Wild. Dirt bikes? Sure, why not? You have how much money? None? Ok, let’s do it.
Our cast and crew, by far, were our greatest assets, and on our hardest days, we’d find strength in them. A large majority of our budget was placed in fair rate structures, housing, and above-average catering.
We would eventually spend ten days in the Anza-Borrego State Park with seven of them actively on set (an insane amount of time to attempt a feature). Even with such a small production window, it is nearly impossible to recap what happened during our time out there. We can say that day one was a consecration ritual underneath a blood moon eclipse and that day nine had Anne Hathaway’s stunt double from The Dark Knight Rises doing donuts on a motorcycle Zeshaan purchased impulsively during the height of the pandemic.
For better or worse, here is some advice we can offer before you head out into the unyielding wilderness:
1. You’re on-location, use it.
Texture is important, and if some part of the natural world is impacting you on a spiritual level, don’t try and understand it – just feel it. Lean in. If it’s seemingly impossible for you to get that weird rock formation out of your brain, move an entire scene there. If you have a few extra minutes to try and get something strange on camera, do it. You’ll find more often than not that those moments take on an entire life of their own in post. There’s a random shot of a beetle in The Buildout that is now one of our favorites.
2. Put in the prep.
Every single second you can spend in advance discussing framing, crafty, narrative beats, lenses, anything at all, is literally time you will be saving yourself on set. Drilling thousands of variables will undoubtedly result in a more cohesive and structured day, every single time. Rest assured, something will go wrong and the resolution will be somewhere down in the countless permutations you’ve gone over as a team.
3. Trust the locals.
Remember that local adventure company? Well, California Overland would be invaluable as our wilderness advisor and transportation expert throughout production. More than a critical asset, they were straight up enthusiastic about what we were doing. They knew how special the desert was and they could see that we did too. It was infectious. Their expertise freed us up immensely and allowed our team to turn their brains off whenever they needed to.
4. Hire people as passionate (insane) as you are.
We surrounded ourselves with subject matter experts who possessed a punk-rock, DIY attitude. Our crew was not only technically capable, but also hungry for adventure. At no point did anyone say “that isn’t my job” and there was hardly ever an empty hand walking to and from set. It takes a special personality to throw on hiking boots and spend an entire work day covered in dirt. Find those folks, appreciate them, and if you can, make movies with them forever.
5. Be upfront, with everyone, about what you’re really doing.
From day one, we knew we were making something weird. Not edgy or manufactured weird, but the kind of weird that makes you groan and sigh when a loved one asks what your movie “is about.” The Buildout is a personal, borderline experimental film, and not everyone was going to understand it. But we do. Nowadays, that’s the only way to justify making a film of this size and scope. If it succeeds financially, critically, or on Letterboxd, great. More importantly though, we asked ourselves, will someone watch The Buildout and know us better as people?
6. Okay. What did we learn in the desert?
Find strength in those around you. There is no value to being an exacting auteur when you’re making an Ultra-Low-Budget film and every single thing is in a delicate balancing act with something else. Trust and prop up those who are investing in your vision. Lastly, take the time to feel your environment. Really feel it. The coarse dirt sifting through your fingers, the yip of a distant coyote, the slow cool wind that collectively brings relief to everyone on set. We placed our trust in nature and respected her. For that, she rewarded us with her unending grace and beauty.
Like most first-time filmmakers, there’s a lot we wish we could have done differently with The Buildout, but at the end of the day, we are proud of what we accomplished and forever grateful for the opportunity to create something special with our friends.
If you’d like to chat about The Buildout, you can find Zeshaan at www.zmyounus.com or on socials: @zmyounus. If you are in need of a great Producer or a Lazy Dog companion, you can find Trevor on socials: @trevordills.
Coming soon… The 2023 Film Independent Forum!
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