Nine Things I Would Have Done If Claustrophobia Had a Bigger Budget

It wouldn’t have been this crowded on a soundstage

Now that Claustrophobia (aka Serial Slayer) is out in America, it's been interesting for me to read reviews - good and bad - that say "I'd like to see what Mark Tapio Kines could do with a bigger budget." My flippant reply may be, "Then go see my first film Foreign Correspondents!" but deeper down, the comment confuses me. After all, everybody knows that throwing more money at a movie doesn't exactly make it better. (Think of all the multi-million-dollar stinkers you've sat through.) So I asked myself - first defensively, then seriously - how could I have improved my own film if I'd had more money? Given a fantasy budget of a modest $5 million, this list details what I'd have done with it. Hopefully this will give you an idea of how much movie money goes to ultimately expendable things. For even on my minuscule budget, I managed to make and sell something that had all the elements - script, actors, lights, camera, locations, music, editing - that a film needs.

  1. I'd have shot on 35mm. We shot the movie on handheld DV. The raw look worked for the story, but I mistakenly believed that, by shooting it on PAL, I'd have more of a film look when I transferred it to NTSC. Wrong. It looks like video. 35mm film is expensive, but in this fantasy scenario I would've had more than enough to cover the cost.
  2. I'd have had a longer production schedule. With 35mm, you need more time just to set up the lights and camera. No way could we have gotten all the shots we did in our nine shooting days if we had high-maintenance film equipment. With $5 million, I could've planned for at least four weeks of production, and my cast and crew could have the time to perfect their work - particularly with the lighting.
  3. I'd have built a set. Shooting on location has its advantages - you can't beat that "this is an actual house where people live" feeling - but since this film's story takes place entirely during the late afternoon, building a set on a soundstage (less expensive than you'd think) would have given us complete control over the lighting, since it would've all been artificial. Not to mention the fact that we could have designed any house we wanted. And, of course, there would have been no neighborhood noise - or cranky homeowners.
  4. I'd have paid the crew more money. Independent film people work so hard for so little. I'd have upped their daily rate to make the shoot more worth their while. And with $5 million I would have been able to afford a crew with more feature experience (though not necessarily more talent). Hire an Oscar-winning cinematographer? Maybe.
  5. I'd have paid the cast more money. This would be less of a choice than a necessity: I'd have had to pay my SAG talent a higher salary simply because SAG's basic scale increases with a film's budget. And chances are, if I was given $5 million to play with, I could afford to cast at least one kinda-big star in the film. (Not that I'd really want to.)
  6. I'd have paid myself more money. I had no salary at all while making Claustrophobia. Why should I? I paid for the damn movie myself! But given $5 million, I'd definitely have set aside a modest chunk of that for my own salary. After all, this film took a full year out of my life. I need to make a living too.
  7. I'd have gotten an orchestra for the score. My talented composer Christopher Farrell was in heaven when he got to conduct a small orchestra for his Foreign Correspondents score. And that film cost just half a million. Music by live performers isn't that expensive, especially with our imaginary budget. Chris did a great job on Claustrophobia just with the odd instruments that he played himself and sampled into his synthesizer. But he would agree that the music would've been even richer if I could have gotten musicians for him. (And - I'm sure he'd add - more time and money for himself as well!)
  8. I'd have hired the best representatives that money can buy. I'm pleased with the work that my current sales reps have done for me. But with more at stake, I'd have to get the word out. That means hitting the festival circuit. Getting mainstream press. Finding a distributor who could release it theatrically. There are people who can do all that for you, but they ain't cheap, and they usually don't touch scruffy little shot-on-video thrillers. And by "representatives" I'd also have hired attorneys who could negotiate contractual deal points for me - like, "By the way, you can't change the film's title to Serial Slayer without the director's consent." Stuff like that.
  9. But would I have made a better film? Well, it would have been a slicker film. But in the end, every movie really comes down to how well it's written, directed, and performed. With more money to spend, my original script might have gotten more beefed up - or not. I can't think of anything a bigger budget would have added to the story itself. And whether I'm making a movie for pocket change or for $200 million, I'd still be the same guy with the same creative ideas, which you'd love or hate no matter how much money was involved. That said, never underestimate the power of an Oscar-winning DP to make a director look like he knows what he's doing!