How to Make a Movie When You’re Broke
Threesomething is a story of friendship, loneliness, and a botched threesome. It aims to explore the awkwardness at the heart of so many male friendships and expose the kind of feelings we’re not supposed to talk about, much less make movies about.
The film is the product of a creative partnership and best-friendship between James Morosini and Sam Sonenshine and co-stars Isabelle Chester. They made the film on a micro budget with limited equipment. Rather than limiting them, this scrappy, stripped-down approach put the emphasis on story telling and raw emotional honesty.
I sat down with James and Sam to ask them how they did it and how anyone with a phone can too.
For someone who hasn’t done this yet, how did you get started?
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James: We just started shooting. I knew that if we dove in it would be good. We just went for it. There were so many parts of the process we didn’t know how to do but I had faith that we’d figure it out when we got there
Sam: the idea we started out with was to build the story chronologically by shooting it chronologically. So we would shoot one scene and then go off on our own and decide what should happen next in the story.
Over the course of shooting it, a story started to form before our eyes. We’d shoot some stuff that was interesting and some that wasn’t and we’d follow what was interesting and as we would build more and more stuff it became easy to see different directions the story could go in. So we shot straight through ’til we had the bare bones of a story and then went back and filled in the gaps.
By and large, what you see on the screen is a series of happy accident, curated by the editing process.
Can you give an example of one of those accidents?
James: Every scene… We knew we wanted the characters to have a threesome. Beyond that, we just went one scene at a time.
Sam: As we were shooting we developed these character-selves. We noticed the way our personas were reacting to one another and as we got into it, those reactions became more specific.
Was there a shooting script?
James: We had a detailed outline but the writing was happening on our feet. We’d shoot a take and look at what worked and what didn’t and then shoot it again focused on carving away what didn’t work and exploring what did. Then there was another round of “writing” in the editing process.
The shooting was creating a bunch of clay. The editing was forming that clay into something that made sense. The edit gave us a broader view of what needed to be filled out in the story.
What does an aspiring filmmaker need in terms of equipment?
James: I’d say you need a phone, an extra battery for the phone, and maybe some sound equipment that you can get for easily less than $500.
On the 3rd day of shooting our DP just didn’t show and we were like “are we gonna wait on this guy or can we just do it ourselves on our iPhones?”
That’s how you do it. You look at what the next step is, you take that step, and then you focus on the next one. You just follow the opening and let that be your guide.
That whole night, we shot on an iPhone and we didn’t use any of that footage but it kept our spirits up and served its purpose in that way. That night, we realized we don’t need anyone or anything. We can just do it.
James: I’d say figure out what you have to say and then find the person closest to you and try to get them onboard. I don’t think I could have done this on my own and it’s way more fun co-creating and co-producing with Sam. We pick up each other’s slack. If one day one of us isn’t on, the other one will keep us engaged.
But if he’d have said “no” I still would have done it. If I didn’t have a best friend I could still make a movie but I’d have to figure out a different story that’s conducive to doing it solo.
Really, putting any limitations on yourself is the biggest mistake you could make.
How do you figure out what you have to say?
James: Ask yourself “what’s the thing I’m not supposed to feel?” what are you most ashamed of? What are you embarrassed by? Now, what’s a scene that would bring that out? Okay, now that that’s happened, what happens next as a result of that? Okay, and what does that lead to?
Sam: Journal. Journal every day. I find when I do three pages in the morning when I wake up maybe at first, nothing comes out and I just write about how much I hate doing it but eventually you start to notice that you have a lot going on you might not be aware of.
James: I think it’s a matter of honesty. Most people are walking around not saying how they’re actually feeling.They’re hiding something.
You’ll meet someone who’s a film buff, technically proficient, really smart, and you can just tell he’s deeply insecure and deeply lonely. You can tell that he’s never told anybody that. He’s not being honest with himself and so his work is very shallow because he’s not being honest about not loving himself and not loving his life. He’s trying to be this other person that he’s seen in the media and it’s not working out. But he’s not admitting to himself that it’s not working out. I guarantee you if he made something about how everything he’s doing to try to be liked and trying to be accepted isn’t working out it’d be a great fucking film. But he’s not making that film.
“Stop reading this fucking article, and go do…”
Sam: The one theme that kind of unites the three characters, the one thing their dealing with is they all really want to latch on to someone but they don’t know how to make that connection.
In the beginning of the movie he wants to label us best friends and I’m pulling back. He and Zoe are struggling. That’s something we feel in our own lives. We all walk around with different degrees of loneliness. I find sometimes when I try to make a connection I end up even lonelier. I don’t know what the question to pose people would be, but there’s something in wanting to express that you really really like someone and there’s no easy way to say that without freaking them out or exposing your own loneliness.
What did your expenses look like?
Sam: We bought water and snacks and lunch. We paid for people’s rides The only expensive stuff we paid for sound gear. The reason we thought that was worth it is that now we own it and can use it to make more movies.
What are some obvious things filmmakers could make use of but often don’t?
James: This goes back to the theme we started with. People overlook the embarrassing moments in their lives. If you want to say something original, try taking a look at your own feelings. What are the feelings movies aren’t supposed to be about?
If your goal isn’t to attract a massive audience, don’t even worry about genre. Just say what you have to say and it will find its own genre.
How did these external factors (like technology and budget) influence the storytelling process and visa-versa?
Sam: Buying our own gear wasn’t easy but it didn’t cost that much in the end. We were able to shoot in new places and different conditions. When we were talking about shooting the whole thing on the iPhone I found this steadycam for the iPhone. It’s not perfect but it allows you to shoot with your phone and not have it look shaky.
Being able to shoot whenever you want makes you feel like you’ve cracked some code, like we discovered a secret we weren’t supposed to know about.
James: Shooting the way we did makes it so whatever we were feeling in that moment, that’s what we shot. I don’t think what you have to say needs to be totally articulate. You don’t even have to know what you’re saying consciously.
If you’re having a shitty day because you’re comparing yourself to other people, great, that’s what you have to say today. If you’re over the moon because you just met someone special, great, that’s what you have to say. You feel like you’re not where you want to be in life, shoot that.
You work with the best idea you have in that moment and know that it’s just your first draft. It’s a rehearsal, not a finished product.
None of this needs to be perfect and I’ll always have the opportunity to go back and reshoot and edit what I don’t like or not use what I don’t like.
If we shoot for three hours, it’s okay if I just use two or three minutes of that footage. Maybe we use ten minutes. You parse out what’s specific enough and intelligible enough for other people to understand. That’s how we shot the movie.
You put it all out there and find what’s honest and what resonates.
Sam: something we talked about a lot through this whole process is all the different ways that being on a film set can sometimes actually stunt creativity.
It’s easy to say just get friends together and shoot something but by the time you call twenty people and get them together so that some of them are able to trek out there to wherever you’re shooting, you find that the shot you were trying to get doesn’t actually make sense and now you’re chasing sunlight and the sound gear isn’t working.
There’s a million moving pieces and everyone’s feeling a lot of pressure. It’s really easy to get caught up in that and be like “uuuuhhh okay we have to do something now…” or just run with something without taking that extra breath to see what needs to be explored in that moment
James: But it’s a total balancing act at the same time. We’d be shooting something and I’d say to Sam, “This is stupid. This is not honest. It’s not working.” So we’d step back. The way we shot this allowed us to take a breather when we needed too.
Sam: yeah, telling everyone on a set, “we need a minute here” makes you extremely unpopular on a traditional set.
James: …And this is not original. We didn’t make any of this up. This is from us studying people like Joe Swanberg, Mark Duplass, and Lynn Shelton.
As a caveat to everything we’ve said, this is just a hodge-podge of our makeshift film school of podcasts and interviews. We may sound smart but all this is just taking ideas from other people who took those ideas from people they liked.
Can the tools become a distraction?
Sam: the whole shoot, the only equipment we ever paid for was the sound equipment that we owned. The cameraman was using his own camera. There was this one scene we wanted to re-shoot. The cameraman suggested that we rent a stabilizer, so rented one for 80 bucks.
We were really excited about it and it ended up handicapping us immensely the entire weekend. It was absurd. We ended up getting some nice stuff that made our movie look nicer…
James: Kinda though, like we could have shot the same stuff with a tripod or a handheld…
Sam: Having this huge, heavy, very complicated piece of equipment just ate up so much time. We were out in Malibu in the mountains and all this heavy equipment limited how high we could go and we were attracting all this attention at one point. It was just kind of a nightmare.
James: Spectacle is expensive but you can shoot honesty on your phone. But you end up balancing the two and navigating that polarity. I want this to be honest but I also want the shot to be smooth as we’re walking backwards. You have to be real and ask “what matters more to me right now?” That weekend, we weren’t being honest we kept saying “but it would be so cool to get these steady shots…” and then that’s not the movie we’re making and we weren’t being real with ourselves about that. We wasted all this time getting pissed off at each other because nobody fucking knew how to use this equipment. It was a nightmare. It all came from trying to look more together than we actually were–trying to be something we’re not.
Sam: the other night James and I were meeting with my girlfriend, Emily, who’s one of our producers, we were having this deep, emotional conversation and James got this idea and went and got the boom mike and started rolling the camera. And Emily started crying once the camera was rolling and we ended up getting a three to five minute short film out of it. It was so honest. What we’re going for is capturing that honesty but in a way that’s visually articulate.
“You don’t get there by staying safe”
James: And it’s like capturing lightning in a bottle because you may be working with that feeling one day in script form and then you schedule and organize all these resources to shoot it two weeks later and the feeling where the scene began is gone.
You say to yourself “this is honest” and it’s like: No, that was honest two weeks ago. You need to find something new here. You need to blend what’s actually happening now with the whatever everyone is organized around. It gets tricky. You blend what you’re excited about in the moment with those other moments in which it was written and conceived.
I equate inspiration with honesty. We’re trying to disregard the “how to” the biggest “how to” of this would be stop reading this fucking article and go do. Ask the questions you need to ask to get started and then boldly go into the unknown and start failing.
That’s the big one, start failing right now. It’s about stumbling from mistake to mistake until you find something real.
You don’t get there by staying safe and relying on things you think you know or the things you think you’re good at.
If I had to give a “how-to,” the instructions would be:
Use the best camera available to you
Use the strongest feelings you can communicate.
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Images courtesy of Threesomething.