BY: TED BARNABY
Gavin Michael Booth tells me that his film career is all his father’s fault. Growing up, Booth’s father exposed him to a number of classics—if slightly age inappropriate—cult films (Indiana Jones, Return of the Jedi, Highlander etc.) that would eventually warp his impressionable young mind into a hurricane of filmmaking concepts and ambitions.
As a self-taught filmmaker, Booth generated his vast knowledge of the craft from experimentation and repetition. As a kid, this typically meant paying homage to old favourites with “terrible parodies” like Indiana Jones and the Lost Remote. Whether these tribute films could keep up with the multi-million dollar budgets of the originals is disputable to say the least, but nevertheless Booth attributes his budget-maximization skills to these early projects, paving the way for his contemporary success and talent for set-building on a limited budget.
Booth’s film career has taken on many dimensions since his days of youthful parodies, spanning from music videos and movies, to fundraising and awareness pieces. He’s worked with some big names in the music industry, including D12, Third Eye Blind, Our Lady Peace and Vanessa Carlton. Despite the big names, Booth remains the master of high quality filmmaking on a reserved dollar. Booth uses his work for The Blue Stones’ debut video I’m A Stereo as an example of innovation superseding unnecessary costs, the entire video being shot on the iPhone’s “FaceTime” app.
According to Booth, too many young filmmakers are seduced by the top of the line equipment and the notion that dollars directly translate into quality and success. “If the video quality is amazing but the script and acting is terrible, nobody is going to walk away saying, ‘wow, I’m so glad they used the Black Magic Cinema Camera!’ However if you tell a great story, the audience will forgive you for any slight aesthetic flaws.” says Booth.
Indie film gear and online platforms like YouTube have made the industry infinitely more accessible. But this only furthers the importance of good filmmaking’s primary ingredient: good script writing. “The tools are there, it’s just your imagination and ability to work hard that are the only things stopping you from building a movie on any level.” Booth tells me. He laughs explaining to me that even on the bigger projects, the first stop when building a set is usually the Dollar Store or Value Village—clearly it doesn’t take a J.J. Abrams budget to orchestrate a successful film.
Booth’s most recent project, The Scarehouse, is a perfect example of how filming and editing techniques can be used to minimize a budget, but maximize the punch. Booth explains the similarities between the movies filming and editing process, and the smoke-and-mirrors framework of an actual haunted house. “When you walk through a haunted house it seems like an extremely elaborate set up with 50 costumed employees. But in reality, it’s only 4 or 5 dudes rotating masks and running around behind the scenes to create an elaborate facade.” says Booth. He explains that the editing process adopts a similar process of behind-the-scenes creative control. Booth tells me that the editing process is his favourite step in filmmaking. “Would you believe me if I told you the entire film was edited from my living-room couch on my laptop?” Booth laughs. Not only does editing knowledge give you a wealth of creative control, but it also becomes extremely useful for streamlining the filming process.
Booth tells me that even the life of a filmmaker is shrouded in a mysterious facade of illegitimate glamour and romanticism. He cautions those who are interested in pursuing the craft that the road to success is paved in poverty and exhaustion. Sacrifice and self-discipline are paramount. “I always say it’s a ten year journey of no-money, no fame, no sleep, and no proper relationships” Booth tells me. However, he contends that the struggle is worth every 16-hour day, sleepless night, and pounding stress-headache you’ll ever encounter—as long as your mission lies in storytelling and not moneymaking. Booth contends that filmmaking has never been about the allegedly romantic lifestyle, but rather carrying out a vision. Wealth, fame and glamour are transient—but a good story can forever shape the minds of millions.
When, why, and how did you get into filmmaking?
It’s probably my dad’s fault. Growing up he would take me to the movies every weekend— Indiana Jones, E.T., Return of the Jedi, Highlander. All these amazing movies were coming out when I was about 7 or 8.
I was always ahead of my age because my dad would let me watch movies that none of my friends were allowed to. But he knew I liked to read and I liked good story telling. So he got me hooked.
I started by basically improving with how to make movies with my neighbours. I didn’t have a formal education, so I started by filming these really terrible parodies like “Indiana Jones and the Lost Remote”. But you’ve gotta start somewhere. Eventually you start picking up on certain tricks—how to change scenes or create suspense and whatnot.
It’s funny because that’s still basically how I make movies now. It’s very run and gun.
How do you create a great set with a small budget?
It’s about making use with what you have. It’s funny, a lot of the music videos I direct even now, our first stop is always the Dollar Store or Value Village—or even just digging around in the garage. It’s always been a “Frankensteining” of what we have available. For example, the garage will become a set because we could put up fake walls or build and paint with cardboard. But mainly we try to chose and work with practical environments.
My first movie I actually had no idea how to budget a movie. It had barns blowing up and cars catching on fire, and all of this stuff. And we managed to pull it all off for about twenty-five thousand dollars. I still have no idea how we managed to do that. It’s a matter of calling in every favour and freebie that we could possibly get.
Write what you know, and write what you have access to. Use your imagination, and call in the favours—Facebook works great for this! My favourite trick in independent filmmaking is the buy-and-return! That trick keeps your budget super small, hahaha.
I had a fifth grade teacher named Mrs. Matheson who was really into creative writing. So I was always writing short stories—which were never really that short. At one point I even handed in a 90-page story.
So even back then my teachers started to understand that I liked creative writing and had a big imagination. In the fifth grade I started writing all the time, and developed a neighbourhood friend group. After a while we got bored of making improv videos, so we would get together and start writing everything down in proper format, writing out lines in advance and having little production meetings. We noticed the production value would be better, the props would be better, and everyone would really start to get into it. So it was really just a natural progression from writing short stories, and getting tired of making films that were terrible.
Do you follow a specific screen writing structure?
There is basic screen writing structure, but there’s really no one set way how to write. You want to make sure that it’s roughly 90 to 100 pages. That’s the sweet spot—it usually works out to about a minute a page.
I read a lot of screenplays so I try to be analytical and be aware of the changing styles. But I don’t have any formal training, nor would I claim to understand the best or most precise way to write a screenplay. It really just comes down to good story-telling. If you really think about it, most good stories follow a familiar structure, so I try not to stray too far from what works. But I think the trick to keep movies interesting is finding those twists and turns that you haven’t seen before or can’t see coming. Nothing pisses me off more than a movie where I can call out the ending within the first 15 minutes.
When I’m writing it helps because as the writer/director/editor, I’m already thinking in my head as I write how I would shoot that scene. So I have a lot of time before we even get on set to think about the shot.
When we’re on a time crunch, it helps to know in advance which shots you can manipulate during the editing process.
They say there’s three times you make your movie: you write it, shoot it and edit it. For me editing is my favourite part. It’s definitely the slowest process because you can really take your time with it and adjust the story. The fact that everything is done on a computer is amazing. The couch you’re sitting on right now is actually where I edited The Scarehouse, feet up and computer hooked up to the TV. It’s so portable now, and it gives you a lot of freedom.
With the indie film equipment that’s available today, is it a lot easier for people achieve success independently?
It is! These days with YouTube, all these kids are able to build huge followings completely independently.
I mean I’ve even shot music videos on my iPhone using FaceTime! It’s crazy. Anyone with an iPhone or Galaxie phone, you can shoot something half decent. I just watched a fan-film this morning that was Batman vs. Darth Vader, and you would swear that it was shot in a Hollywood studio. But it was just somebody who had learned how to use green screen, and Adobe After Effects—it’s outstanding! So the tools are there, it’s just your imagination and ability to work hard that are the only things stopping you from building a movie on any level.
I always hear people talking about the most expensive top-of-the line equipment they just bought—Black Magic Cinema Camera, or the Canon 5D Mark III—but it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a good script. A good script is the most important part.
Kevin Smith’s Clerks is the perfect example of an award-winning movie that doesn’t have the greatest aesthetic, or film and sound quality, but the movie is outstanding because the script is great! If the video quality is amazing but the script and acting are terrible, nobody is going to walk away saying, “wow, I’m so glad they used the Black Magic Cinema Camera!” However if you tell a great story, the audience will forgive you for any slight aesthetic flaws.
Heartache, poverty and exhaustion.
It’s all about hard work and paying your dues. I always say it’s a ten-year journey of no-money, no fame, no sleep, and no proper relationships. When you’re self-employed, sometimes your friends don’t understand because they’ll ask you to come out but you have to be self-disciplined and keep working a lot of the time. It’s caused all kinds of rifts in friendships.
It really is a 24/7 thing and you see the difference between the people who really dedicate themselves to it, and the ones that just talk about it. It’s a game of doers and not talkers.
How do you maintain your discipline? Is it easy to get distracted with lifestyle?
When you’re self-employed you always have that little devil on your shoulder telling you to ditch work to go out and procrastinate!
There’s also a risk of burning out when you’re self-employed. I do tend to work long hours, and it becomes endless weeks of that. After a while there’s a point where you go outside, and the sunlight on your skin feels weird because you’ve been inside working for so many days. There’s definitely a point where you can over-discipline yourself. But that’s also part of the artist’s addiction: when you love what you do, you have no problem putting the time in.