Tears, favours and pesto pasta: the challenge of making a feature film for $4000

At least once a week Imogen McCluskey would burst into tears about what she had taken on.

During an exhausting 18 months of post-production, the young Australian director regularly wondered about the wisdom of trying to make a feature film for just $4,000.

Actor Maddy McWilliam, director Imogen McCluskey, actor, Alex King and writer-producer Béatrice Barbeau-Scurla at the State Theatre.Credit:Louise Kennerley

The idea for Suburban Wildlife was simple: a freewheeling drama about four long-time friends on the cusp of becoming adults – navigating leaving town, job hopes, family pressures and sexual identity – in the week after graduating from university.

The filmmakers raised $4,000 through crowdfunding to make what they call "a love letter to adolescence and suburbia".

But even after shooting the film around Sydney over 14 days with four unknown young actors – Maddy McWilliam, Hannah Lehmann, Priscilla Doueihy and Alex King – McCluskey struggled to get it in any kind of shape, which led to tears.

"Once a week at least I'd come into the kitchen and go, 'Oh my god!'," she says. "It was so stressful. I was thinking, 'When is this going to end?'"

It has finally ended, and happily too, with Suburban Wildlife getting a hometown premiere at Sydney Film Festival on Saturday night after debuting at the Cinequest festival in California.

In the US, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez famously made the 1992 action film El Mariachi for $US7000 and his latest film, Red 11, for even less. The 2007 horror hit Paranormal Activity reputedly cost just $US15,000.

And while it's increasingly common to make micro-budget feature films using digital technology in this country, very few are either selected for leading festivals or get a cinema release.

So how do you make a film for $4000?

Four long-time friends on the cusp of adulthood in Suburban Wildlife: (from left) Hannah Lehmann, Maddy McWilliam, PriscillaDoueihy and Alex King.Credit:Chelsea Thistlewaite

Having met while studying at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, McCluskey and co-writer-producer Béatrice Barbeau-Scurla recruited fellow students and friends who were prepared to forgo fees to get a start in the industry.

Still students at the time, they used the school's equipment, called in favours and were later joined by two production companies to help cover the cost of post-production, doubling their budget.

On the cusp of adulthood: Hannah Lehmann in Suburban Wildlife. Credit:Sydney Film Festival

Surprisingly, funds during the shoot went largely to catering – "pesto pasta, hummus and carrots" – as well as production design, costumes and filming in an Airbnb when they could not source a free location.

McWilliam describes acting in the film as "better than any drama school you could go through". And McCluskey thinks it has helped set up multiple careers.

"It's really put us in good stead now," she says. "We know we can do it in some way so we're just itching to do another one. For maybe $8000 this time."

Festival weekend highlights:

  • Australian black comedy Judy & Punch, State Theatre on Saturday at 6:35pm.
  • All Night Cine-Love In at Dendy Newtown starts with Eraserhead on Saturday at 10pm.
  • Aretha Franklin concert film Amazing Grace, State Theatre on Sunday at 4:45pm.
  • Indigenous documentary In My Blood it Runs, Event George Street on Sunday 7pm.
  • Epic German drama Never Look Away, State Theatre on Sunday at 8:35pm.

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