With major movie budgets ballooning, it’s important to remember that you don’t need the equivalent of Ethiopia’s GDP to make a movie. The rise of digital technology has launched a renaissance in low budget filmmaking. Some of these are amateur productions filled with jumpcuts and visible boom mics, but many are brimming with the character that can only be provided by the creative desperation of a cash-strapped auteur. Which of these films we’ll still be talking about in 2036 will depend not so much on budget but on spirit.The micro-budget classics of the late 80’s and early 90’s have blazed a path to the cultural canon, often for less than the cost of a secondhand car. Here are some of our favourites.
Preceding the early 90’s American indie movement by a good few years, young New Zealander Peter Jackson made a series of low-budget sci-fi/horror films that had the giddy energy of a kid’s gory sketches come to life. 1986’s Bad Taste delivers exactly what the title promises with a ridiculously silly gorefest tied together by a nonsense plot. It’s glorious silliness is perhaps best evidenced by the fact that Jackson plays two separate characters in the film, a bold (and by all accounts necessary) bit of casting that led to a scene where he murders himself on a cliff face.
On the other side of the globe and a few years later, a young Robert Rodriguez was volunteering as a human lab rat to bankroll his first feature. The resulting El Mariachi is a lean, lo-fi action film that somehow also feels like a blockbuster. Much like Jackson, Rodriguez didn’t let his low budget limit his vision, choosing to cut costs behind the camera rather than in front of it. He shot the whole feature length film as a one-man crew and would often cast random villagers in minor speaking roles. To cut down on the productions greatest cost, the film itself, he changed angles every time an actor made a mistake to keep all scenes down to a single take. All dialogue was recorded after shooting was complete on a tape recorder and dubbed in later. El Mariachi cost less than $7,000 and launched a directorial career that gave us Sin City, Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn. It was a bravura debut, chock full of action and bursting with character.
A couple years later, Kevin Smith took Rodriguez’s economical production model and made Clerks, a black and white comedy set in a convenience store. But instead of simply copying Rodriguez’s use of action setpieces (as if such a thing were possible) Smith chose to doubledown on character. Shooting at the store where he worked, Smith’s movie crafts a series of crass conversations, character quirks and banal details into a highly effective comedy. Considering Smith would go on to make movies a movie about renegade angels and sentient Nazi sausages, Clerks is almost heroic in its smallness. With its low-key, realistic dialogue and precisely drawn characters, it’s now seen as a precursor to the modern mumblecore comedies of the Duplass brothers or Lena Dunham.
Though all of these directors went on to direct much bigger (and in many cases better) movies, it’s hard not to be a little nostalgic for the ramshackle charm of their micro-budget debuts. Halfway through the third dwarven shanty in The Hobbit, I know I would’ve appreciated a little less polish and a little more bad taste.