‘Napoleon’ complex

Low-budget entries seek to capture 'Dynamite' heat

Last year’s Sundance festival served as evidence, yet again, that audiences — and distributors — were willing to embrace inexpensively made films with no star power behind them. Take, for example, Jonathan Caouette’s $218.32 international festival sensation “Tarnation,” or Jared Hess’ mid-six figure, $44 million grosser “Napoleon Dynamite.”

This year’s lineup also proffers some cheap treats that might spark interest.

On the low end of the low-budget range are a handful of films shot on Mini DV without a crew. Scott Coffey wrote, directed, produced, shot and co-starred in “Ellie Parker,” which first appeared at the fest as a short in 2001, starring a then-unknown Naomi Watts as an L.A.-based actress struggling to maintain her sanity.

After shooting several more 15- to 20- minute “episodes” — and watching his close friend Watts join the A-list — Coffey decided he’d stick with video and shot more footage this year, editing everything together into a single narrative.

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Ben Wolfinson also served as his own d.p. on his deadpan quirkfest “High School Record.” Wolfinson, who cast the film entirely with L.A. musician friends, says his biggest expense was hiring a vegan chef for the duration of the shoot.

Andrew Wagner took the money he’d saved for a down payment on a house, then recruited his mother, father and sisters to star in his DV road movie “The Talent Given Us.” “We wanted the intimacy and rawness of my family situation to come through,” Wagner says, “so I decided just to cast them as themselves and stop trying to re-create it. Plus, all I really had to spend money on was feeding them.”

Other helmers, intent on shooting on film but without financing approaching the seven-figure range, cobbled together private equity from family and friends, then hustled for grants, reduced cast and crew rates and in-kind donations.

With less than $75,000 put up by writer David Paterson for the 16mm “Love, Ludlow,” producer Amy Hobby and director Adrienne Weiss got a deal from Kodak and deferred all actors salaries via a SAG experimental film contract.

Paterson, a Long Island firefighter, also rounded up donations from local businesses from set materials to dry cleaning, and persuaded his local church to let him build a set in the basement. He’s also wrangled free T-shirts, hats and posters to use in Park City, as well as sponsorships from Coors Light and Twinkies to help pay for his trip.

Seattle filmmaker Rob Devore secured a grant from Panavision, then got nonprofit org Northwest Film Forum/Wiggley World Studios to help secure small investments for “Police Beat,” which was cast with nonprofessional actors.

Projects with a little more money to play with (although many won’t go on the record with an actual figure) cut costs by shooting in out-of-the-way locales, where location fees and cost-of-living expenses were minimal.

For “Between,” a 35mm mystery-thriller shot in Tijuana, writer-director David Ocanas persuaded cast and crew to work for reduced fees in exchange for points, then kept production costs down by shooting only during the day.

“We had a zero-dollar location budget,” Ocanas says. “When you set a goal like that, it’s amazing how it keeps you honest.”

Recent AFI grad Georgina Garcia Riedel crewed up with her former classmates and some well-known actors (including Elizabeth Pena and Steven Bauer) and traveled home to Arizona to shoot her 35mm anamorphic “How the Garcia Girls Spent Their Summer.” Financed with private equity, the film tells the story of three generations of Mexican-American women searching for love and sex over one summer in a border town.

Craig Brewer found an angel in Hollywood helmer John Singleton, who put up much of his own cash and served as producer (along with Stephanie Allain and Dwight Williams) on the Super 16mm Memphis-set drama “Hustle & Flow.”

“John was frustrated with the system and the lack of risk-taking, so he and Stephanie decided that if they couldn’t do something risky in the low-budget world, then why do it at all?” Brewer says.

Commercials helmer David Slade, whose debut feature “Hard Candy” plays in Midnight screenings, called in a lot of favors to get his film made. “Everyone worked on a flat rate of $100 a day,” he explains. “We shot fast — three six-day weeks — and picked up a ton of post favors in London, where I am from, offered up by people wanting to be a part of the project.”

So far, the buzz on several of this year’s low-budget Sundance entries appears to be positive. But as one experienced sales rep warns, “A lot can change in 10 days.”