For his new sci-fi mockumentary, Ghosts With Shit Jobs, author-turned-director Jim Munroe didn’t let a low budget get in the way of high-quality filmmaking.
Tax credits are great for spurring economic investment in Canadian film, but somewhat useless for local directors without the luxury of bountiful coffers or Cronenberg-level clout. Production costs quickly add up—especially when it comes to science-fiction films. (Hell, even the 1998 homegrown sci-fi horror hit Cube had a six-figure budget, and that was just an hour and half of advanced calculus and whooshing noises.)
That was the challenge faced by Jim Munroe when he began making his second science-fiction feature film. Although the 39-year-old writer has enjoyed success in the indie publishing and gaming scenes (he’s published several books and graphic novels, and will speak at MIT in July on behalf of The Hand-Eye Society, a Toronto indie-gaming non-profit he founded), his first film effort, 2007′s Infest Wisely, was a bit of a flop. Attempting to push no-budget filmmaking as far as it would go, the full-length feature was shot in six months and cost just $700—and while it was lauded for clever writing, the production values understandably, sucked.
“A lot of people felt that the audio and the video were distracting,” says Munroe.
For his sophomore flick, Munroe and his multi-director crew had their work cut out for him: They wanted to make a lo-fi sci fi film with the same no-budget philosophy as their first film, but with production values that were on par with the quality and content of the script. In the end, frugality, friends, and luck prevailed.
Filmed entirely in Toronto, Ghosts With Shit Jobs foresees a bleak, dystopian future, where slum-ridden Torontonians toil in demeaning jobs foisted on them by an economically dominant China. (Read The Grid‘s review here.) Despite the formidable odds against him, Munroe filmed the full-length sci-fi feature for roughly $5,000—here’s how he did it.
1. Pay for what you need
As with Infest Wisely, Munroe went into Ghosts With Shit Jobs trying to spend as little as possible. This time it was more of a maxim, rather than a hard-and-fast rule.
One of Munroe’s earliest and most important expenditures was… insurance. While decidedly un-indie (at least in spirit), the insurance was invaluable, allowing him to obtain a city permit to film movies in public spaces, turning Toronto into one large de facto sound stage.
“We had done a lot of guerilla filmmaking in the past,” says Munroe. “The hit-and-run thing has a certain energy to it but, because we were trying to make the production value good as well, we were just like, ‘We don’t want to mobilize all our resources and then have one or two people who don’t like people who make movies decide that they’re going to make trouble for us and call the cops, or those types of things.”
Having insurance also made it easier for Munroe to rent equipment, freeing up his attention from administrative issues, and letting him focus on the movie itself.
2. Work with what you have, not what you wish you had
When it came time to write the script, Munroe eschewed the rocket-car chases and wire-strung kung-fu that has permeated sci-fi films for the past decade. His decision to avoid crowd-pleasing special effects was simple: He knew he couldn’t pull them off, and was interested in exploring other sides of science fiction often overlooked by big-budget features.
“Don’t try to do the things that are very difficult to coordinate and orchestrate,” Munroe says. “We’ve seen so many of those things that we have a very almost sixth sense about them being fake, so it’s very hard to get them pitch-perfect. There are so many other interesting facets of human experience to put into the medium. People might be super into gunfights but, in the end, you’ve just added another gunfight to the million that already exist. ”
Munroe, for example, drew from the experiences he and many of his friends shared as new parents.
“We just had so many fucking babies around,” Munroe says, “it would have been a sin not to take advantage of it.”
This surplus of human larvae inspired Munroe to create the film’s “Baby Maker” segments, which focus on a particularly shitty profession that involves a young couple refurbishing robotic babies for export overseas. It’s a low-cost narrative solution that still manages to induce uncanny valley shivers, especially when it comes time to “salvage” defective baby bots.
3. Cast wisely, and let the good vibes roll
In order to expand beyond his standard rogues’ gallery of friends and acquaintances, Munroe put out an online casting call on Mandy.com, a free listings site geared toward aspiring creative talent. The response was huge. So, in one afternoon, Munroe and Ghosts producer Anthony Cortese sat in a Parkdale-library conference room and listened to roughly 50 people read lines for the half-dozen or so major roles in the film.
That said, sometimes even the most promising cast and crew candidates don’t work out, and sometimes you have to cut the chaff. (Warning signs to look out for: complaints from other cast members, and two-faced mood swings on and off the set.) And while pro directors working with proper production budgets may proceed with whoever they can get to avoid hemorrhaging money, Munroe says that indie directors can afford to be more selective with hires, and should be, since happiness is the only real currency exchanged on an all-volunteer set.
4. You don’t need money to find great talent
Ghosts With Shit Jobs was funded entirely through volunteer power. From pre-production through to post-production, 50 volunteers contributed a total of 6,500 hours, the equivalent of three years of full-time work. As it stands, no one has seen any money from the production, but Munroe hopes that’ll change soon.
“This is not something I view as some kind of idea to not pay people. I definitely look forward to the day when I can get as controversial a titled and themed movie approved to the point where it can get funding, from either investors, or some kind of funding body. We knew going into it, with the type of topic and title and whatnot we had, that there wasn’t too much chance it would get funded, especially given that we don’t have a ton of credits or experience in the film industry.”
Volunteers who spent upwards of 10 hours signed a profit-sharing agreement entitling them to a percentage of profits determined by the amount of time they spent on the film. Everyone receives the same rate of compensation, regardless of whether they were an editor or an extra. For Munroe, having creative control is a perk in itself, not an excuse to leverage more cash. And while profit-sharing is a great motivating tool, the cast-and-crew contracts also sign over full ownership and control of the movie to Munroe—crucial to selling or licensing the film in the future.
5. Find hidden talent
When it comes to incentives, Munroe says that many volunteers don’t care about the prospect of money—they’re drawing their compensation from the experience itself. This was especially true in post-production, with Munroe securing two talented engineers who he would never have been able to afford financially.
He recruited a post-production sound editor with professional experience, albeit in a more junior position; Ghosts gave her the opportunity to work with actors, have more control over the audio than her work normally allowed, and add a senior production credit to her résumé. Ghosts’ visual-effects supervisor has also worked professionally, with credits on big-budget features like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Resident Evil. She met Munroe through a mutual aquaintance.
“Both of those people basically saved our asses,” he says.
6. Online = Going for broke without going broke
Munroe’s no-budget philosophy extended the to film’s initial promotion campaign. He posted the trailer online last September, choosing to spin the roulette wheel of YouTube fame. The gamble paid off—the trailer went viral, attracting over 100,000 hits and generating positive buzz from Wired and The Atlantic.
By the time he signed up for a Kickstarter campaign to fund for the completed film’s screening tour in April, fans were eager to convert their anticipation into dollar amounts. In total, Jim raised just under $20,000. The majority of the funds came from people he had never met; one eager fan paid $1,000 to have the film screened in his hometown of Tampa.
With screenings in London and Berlin already under his belt, Munroe will screen the Toronto debut of Ghosts With Shit Jobs May 30, 7 p.m., at The Royal (608 College, #COL). Tickets available here. Munroe will then embark on a cross-country tour. If all goes well, online distribution through iTunes and Netflix should follow. And all for less than the price of a week’s stay in a Trump Toronto suite. Your move, Cronenberg!