Creating Your First Feature With What’s Around You

By: Keith Wilhelm Kopp

How should I make my first feature film? Should I wait to be knighted by a development executive? Do I raise private finance? These questions loom large in the mind of all filmmakers.

The option I ultimately went for was making my first feature with nearly no budget at all. I want to share a few discoveries that allowed me to create my film by accepting the conditions and limitations imposed on me at the time.

The writer Laurence Guy and I have created several short films together, some of which have gone on to festivals and have been broadcast. We developed an exciting feature film that needed a serious budget and we thought we would shop it around producers in Soho. London. This was an awesome experience and allowed us to get meetings with some well-known production companies. Some of the feedback was very promising. Although a lot of these places only get to make one or two features a year and they want to mitigate any potential risk. So, hoping they trusted two filmmakers who had only made shorts to make a feature was always optimistic. In the end, we knew we needed to make the leap and attempt to make our first feature on our own.

We focused on elements that have worked for us in the past: create a story that is emotive and one that focuses on a human connection, secure a strong cast, and source a unique main location. In the end, we made our film Translations in a whirlwind. Laurence wrote the script in 8 intensive weeks. We talked constantly about the story, themes, characters, and what we could actually afford to shoot. He truly knocked it out of the park within this timeframe. Then I went on to shoot the film in 9 days with a core crew of seven.

Photo Credit: Ross Wilson.

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When you are contemplating producing a feature, you will need to ask yourself what resources you have around you already that you can mobilize to keep the costs down. And you may be surprised what you do have around you when you come to think about it.

Do you know a great actor? Or like us, find someone online and get them interested in your story. Does a friend work at an interesting spot that could be a location? Do you go to a restaurant often and wouldn’t mind asking them to cater one meal for your film? You may have an army at your fingertips but you need to map it out. Once you have done this then start to seriously think about how the story you create will be both engaging and truthful to your artistic voice.

Yes, you do need some money to make your film happen but you probably need less than you think. There are some things you cannot get around and this can change depending on what type of story you are telling. What did we spend our budget on? The breakdown: actors, location, food, and a minimal amount of props. The on-set crew was super small. In the no-budget realm if you are a screenwriter or a director you are also a producer. Even if you are just assisting the producer; learn how to create a budget and then how to make it smaller.

Some examples of how we kept the film on target. We paid for our main location, but it doubled as kit storage, cast accommodation, and catering space. All secondary locations were free (we offered branding in our credits). Most people in our crew had two roles. Food was plentiful and was made by my amazing wife. Our Art Director did have a small budget for props but she was super skilled at borrowing items and making them look great on set.

Five guiding principles that made my film possible

  • Your screenwriting and directorial choices need to compliment your budget and schedule. For most of the film we have two actors, a lot of the film is shot with a shoulder rig, and our scenes were sizable but we still had to shoot five of them a day. Though within these parameters we created a film that is dynamic and cinematic.
  • Just ask people if you are in need. No one enjoys this part of filmmaking but remember that you are not risking anything by asking – besides someone saying “no”. So many people were generous and helped us.
  • Have realistic expectations. Your plan will not go 100% smoothly, so be nimble and do your best under the circumstances. I have yet to meet a filmmaker who doesn’t wish they could reshoot something in their film.
  • If a scene, prop, or any element of filmmaking will take time and/or money from the budget you must ask yourself if it really benefits the overall film.
  • Maintain relationships, and do not over-promise. For instance, a lot of my crew have helped me out with marketing over the past months. You can start this by having conversations with the crew before principal photography and ensure that they have the same visual ambitions and frugal ethos as you do. Most of all, be kind to your crew!

To get ideas, it is a good idea to watch a lot of low-budget films. It’s no good researching films that have a large budget when you are going to shoot with the change you find between the cushions. Some of the techniques they use are visible if you pay attention. Some great low-budget titles to start you off are The Puffy Chair, Following, Rafiki, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Primer, and The Brothers McMullen.

To find out more about these famous low-budget movies read our article on Our Top 5 Low-Budget Films.

Every filmmaker is different, but assess the situation and if you think that you can make your feature with a minimal amount of finance and you have a strong team around you, take the leap. In the end, you only win. That big-budget feature film I mentioned earlier is still something we are working on alongside a slate of other work and now we can evidence that we know what we are doing with a longer format story.


Romance drama – Feature film

When an agoraphobic translator reunites with her deceased brother’s best friend, secrets and passions are revealed.

Follow the film at:

Instagram @TranslationsMovie

Facebook @TranslationsFilm  

Keith Wilhelm Kopp is an award-winning American film director and lecturer based in the United Kingdom. He and the screenwriter Laurence Guy have been developing a slate of emotionally engaging and personal feature films (one of which has had support from the BFI Network and Film London). Translations, his debut feature film, is currently being packaged for distribution.. 

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