Blood On The
I've been reflecting on low-budget film-making this week (some of you may be
able to work out why). I'd like this column to be a haven for films of all genres and all
vintages, all origins and all ambitions, and it occurs to me that we haven't examined a
really lo-fi piece of work yet. And so, I'd like to share with you the 24 LAS
I-Spy guide to low-budget cinema, taking as a case in point the most obscure and
blatantly cheap film in my video collection, Bruce McDonald's 1989 debut
I've condensed my wisdom on this matter down to seven key points, and here they
1) It shall be made in black and white. Well, this gets done for a number
of reasons, one of the main ones being that B/W film stock is cheaper (and less
obviously grainy, in the case of 16mm) than its colour equivalent. It also makes the film
a lot quicker and easier to light. There is also the important artistic point that B/W
gives a film instant atmosphere and credibility and stops it from being mistaken for a
home movie most of the time. People often shoot in B/W even when they don't have
to because they think Pretension is a Friend to the Under-funded.
Roadkill is in B/W, though to my untrained eye it looks like a 32mm
production. And, yes, it is pretentious in places, but the director manages to create
some really nice compositions and doesn't worry too much about flashy camera
2) There shall not be much of a coherent plot. Mainly because you're
highly restricted in terms of what resources you can use, and your screenwriter's
probably a rookie who thinks he's Quentin Tarantino. Roadkill's is as follows:
psychotic musical impressario Roy Seth (Gerry Quigley) sends work experience
trainee Ramona (Valerie Buhagiar, the Julia Roberts of low-budget Canadian cinema)
to search for his errant band, the Children of Paradise, who've gone AWOL while on
tour in the Canadian wilderness. Ramona wanders around for about an hour's running
time meeting various weirdos and progressing from timid pedestrian to confident
driver. The climax is deeply stupid and destroys what little credibility the film has built
up. The late Joey Ramone makes a cameo at the end.
3) The Director shall misguidedly attempt to demonstrate his versatility.
Someone like Jonathan Demme can make a comedy-romance-thriller all in the space
of two hours; the first time film-maker probably can't but often insists on trying
anyway. This stems from a belief that the first film is a calling-card/showreel and it's a
good idea to demonstrate all the strings to your bow at once. Thus a film which could
have done one thing impressively well usually ends up doing about three suckily.
Once again, Roadkill is on the money here. The road-movie plot leads to
an episodic structure, and while some of these interludes are very, very good
(Ramona's brief liaison with a 15-year-old boy (Mark Tarantino) in a quiet backwater
town is weirdly touching, while her encounter with serial-killer wannabe Russell Skelly
(Don McKellar) is witty), most of the important ones stink.
4) Some of the acting shall be very ropey indeed. Obviously: you won't
be able to afford many proper actors, if indeed any, and it may well come down to
casting whoever's available, suitable or not. And there are many dud performances in
our featured text, some of them in quite major roles.
But there are some good ones too. Valerie Buhagiar is hugely watchable as
Ramona and never less than convincing in a tricky and crucial role. She's gone on to
be a minor star in Canadian TV and theatre. Don McKellar has been even more
successful, starring in Atom Egoyan's Exotica and David Cronenberg's
eXistenz since Roadkill was made.
5) There shall be much doubling up of personnel behind and in front of the
camera. Once again, for reasons of cost. McKellar wrote the script (which
explains why his character has all the best lines - he wants to be famous, he says: for
a Canadian there are two ways to achieve that, ice-hockey or serial-killing, and he has
weak ankles), while McDonald himself has a fairly significant role as the head of a
film crew trying to make a documentary about Ramona. The rest of the crew pop up
playing the film crew, while the film's musical director, a Mr Nash the Slash, plays
himself in one scene. Ramona's parents are played by Buhagiar's mum and dad. It's
shameless, but it keeps costs down.
6) Try to be ingenious, not clever. Profound messages and intellectualism
are not your friends. Stick to telling a simple story as well as you can with the available
resources. There's clearly a Driving = Sex = Death moral trapped somewhere inside
Roadkill, but it's never really made clear - nor is the significance of Ramona's
bad habit of running over animals as she progresses along her way. Similarly, the
gimmick of the film-within-the-film isn't as innovative and challenging as McDonald
thinks it is, it just comes across as a bit obvious and cheap.
The most successful parts of the film are the more conventional ones, making use
of simple props or close-ups, or simply concentrating on two characters having a
conversation. Nothing beats an interesting story, well told, no matter how simply that
7) Making any kind of film at all is an achievement worthy of reward.
Having said all this, most short film projects never see the light of day at all and no
matter how wretched the finished result may be it is still a testament to uncommon
reserves of grit, resolve and ingenuity.
And for all its many flaws there are many good things about Roadkill,
truthful performances, nice lines, and impressive shots. Unsurprisingly the makers got
their reward in the form of 1991's superior Highway 61, another quirky
road-movie directed by McDonald and starring Buhagiar and McKellar (and, if you're
very good, I may review that for you one day too). So, should this have moved you to
attempt your own meisterwork for the silver screen, stick to it - and I expect an
executive producer credit at the very least.