The cost of making movies seems to climb every year, with $100 million productions being common nowadays. Yet few people would argue that Hollywood’s product is better than it was when budgets were smaller. It takes money to promote a movie and to get big stars in a movie, but fundamentally you can make a good movie pretty cheaply. And I admire the people who are inventive and unpretentious enough to go for it on a low budget, like the subjects of the documentary American Movie (which I recommended here) or Robert Rodriguez, who penned the Rosetta Stone of such filmmakers: Rebel Without a Crew.
For example, I just watched X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes, one of Roger Corman’s many low budget horror/sci-fi films. He used a common strategy for such films, which is to cast someone who used to be an A-list star but whose career is waning enough that he will take a smaller check. In this case it was Ray Milland, who clearly didn’t think the film was beneath him and turned in a good performance. The sets are spare, the actors are few and other than Milland, unknown. But it’s completely watchable and engaging. It doesn’t try to be a blockbuster extravaganza life-changing piece of cinema. Rather, it tries to entertain for 79 minutes and it does, on what is clearly a modest budget.
A film that is an even bigger triumph of low budget movie making is Rocky. Yes, Rocky, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, spawned a billion-dollar film franchise and was a world-wide hit, was a low budget film. Burgess Meredith was in the Ray Milland position; something of a name in the past but now affordable. All those shots of Rocky running around Philadelphia were an economy, using the new Steadicam technology to generate emotional momentum without having to build sets or hire extras (Mostly it’s ordinary Philadelphians volunteering to do cameos). The romantic ice rink scene with Rocky and Adrian was supposed to happen with many skaters and a crowd, but they couldn’t afford that so they set the scene instead at a time when the rink is closed.
And the climactic fight scene (which, apologies to Michael O’Hare who hates this kind of stuff, I post below) is a work of genius in inexpensive film production. Rocky’s shorts don’t match the banner image and his robe is the wrong size, but they couldn’t afford to switch props so they simply rewrote the script to have Rocky comment on the errors and make him that much more pathetic. The arena is dark because it was mostly empty — they had run out of budget for extras. Stallone’s dad is the guy ringing the bell for rounds and other friends and family pitched in as extras to stretch the dollars. They could not afford many re-shoots so if you watch carefully you will see that the people watching the fight were moving around to give the impression of a full arena (you can also see the Steadicam in some of the overhead shots and that some the key punches actually miss — a “rib shot” to the hip for example).
With such a sparsely populated set, it was impossible to portray a big crowd reaction. So what did director John Avildsen do? When Rocky first decks Apollo Creed, Avildsen cannily cuts to the neighborhood bar, so that a small number of actors can give the audience a scene of excited, cheering people packed in close and rooting for Rocky.
Inspired, resourceful work by everyone involved, on what was then a slender budget of about a million dollars. And note to Hollywood, it returned an over 200 to 1 profit so it isn’t true that you can’t make money in Hollywood without a gazillion dollar production behind you.