Written by Eric Silvera & Sean Kenealy
These two filmmakers took their time making their first indie feature, and it paid off.
In January 2014, Sean Kenealy and I sat in a pizza joint near Union Square in Manhattan. We’d been writing together for a couple of years, and after a couple of garbage efforts, we completed a fun action screenplay, and the partnership was cemented. It was time to brainstorm ideas for our next project.
Sean pitched, “I want to make a feature-length action movie that takes place in one room with two people sitting in chairs talking to each other for $5,000.”
I said, “I don’t know what that means.”
“We can use fast-paced dialogue, and descriptions of what’s happening, and quick cutting to make it feel like it’s action-packed, even though it’s just us sitting in chairs. We’ll call it How To Write and Star in Your Own Action Movie.”
I was intrigued. Then Sean added, “We have no Hollywood connections, and any other script we write is just going to sit in the slush pile. You do stand-up so you can perform, I act, we both write, and you studied film in college. Let’s make something that can’t be ignored.”
Later, I walked through the East Village and kept picturing a car chase with two people sitting in chairs. If the camera was constantly moving, roving around the chairs, and there was quick cutting, strong sound design, and we took the scene seriously, maybe it could feel like a car chase.
I texted Sean: “I’m in. Two-person action movie. Let’s do it.”
Thus began a six-year journey to make the roughly $30K-budgeted In Action—while working full-time careers not in entertainment/film and raising families—that culminated in an award-winning film festival run, distribution acquisition by Gravitas Ventures in December 2020, and release in May 2021.
In this article, we’ll share info on how we were able to get this project off the ground without any industry connections, our experience running a Kickstarter campaign, tips we used to save money during production, ways we went about filming action scenes with two people, and our dealings with distributors.
How the Hell Do We Write This?
We made a list of action tropes we’d embrace: a mismatched heroic duo, core eccentric villains with generic henchmen, one-liners, and over-the-top violence.
But what about the story? We agreed it was best to develop a storyline for an actual movie and ignore the two-person premise during this process. We joked about all the crazy action movie ideas we emailed back and forth. What if they got mistaken as real ideas by CIA officials monitoring us?
In Action was built from that idea. Two idiots writing an action screenplay get flagged by the government based on the content of their emailed plot ideas.
Live Reading & Prototype
We wrote for several months, and once satisfied with a draft, performed live table reads in my apartment to understand what did and didn’t work. We also hoped to entice potential producers we invited during these sessions (and by producers, we mean a grad school classmate who produced a short film, and someone who worked at an ad agency). We made strong revisions based on the audience feedback, but no producer fully committed…
We then decided to film a reading of the script as a prototype to prove the idea played. Over a single day, and using two camera operators and a sound person, we shot the original premise: An Action Movie with Two People Sitting in Chairs in One Room.
Sean edited the prototype. Turns out, it didn’t fully work… but there were a few scenes where the idea truly coalesced. Sean cut a short trailer from those moments. The trailer is… not good. Or rather, Sean and I are not very good in it. Actually, we’re pretty bad.
However, the trailer, combined with our excitement, convinced an associate producer and our producer, Alex Nordenson, to jump on board. While he hadn’t produced movies, he was a producer at an ad agency and understood the intricacies of production, shoots, and the creative process. Alex was instrumental in getting the film made, the consigliere throughout the production process.
The prototype taught us that for the Two-Person Action Movie premise to work, we couldn’t just sit in chairs describing the action. The vision had to evolve into something bigger, more cinematic. Two actors in limited locations on a tiny budget was still the goal. However, we revised the script to show more, tell less, and pinpointed sections that could use mixed media (animation, hand-drawings, etc.) to enhance action sequences. Also, we’d include a small number of actors, but they’d be used as props—the audience would never see their faces. We’d voice these characters. All to help the world feel lived in.
The revised draft, evolved concept, and prototype trailer were enough to excite some core crew members to join the production (met through friends of friends). This part of pre-production made it clear that the only way to succeed with this idea was to make some mistakes, learn from them, adjust, and move forward.
How do you raise money for a movie starring two people that nobody has ever heard of and a head-scratching premise? Turns out it’s kinda impossible.
So, we turned to Kickstarter in Summer 2015. We pitched the concept (“The World’s First Two-Person Action Movie”) and our plan to prove that a no-budget movie with only two actors could be just as fun and entertaining as a $200MM FX-driven blockbuster by focusing on a strong story and core action genre techniques: rapid-fire editing, great sound design, a pulse-pounding score, and practical effects.
Our goal: $22,000 to be raised in four weeks.
Filmmakers and artists are savvier about crowdsourcing platforms now than we were back in 2015. Most of our filmmaker friends have moved away from Kickstarter to leverage IndieGoGo or Seed&Spark, which have flexible funding options (i.e. you get to keep the money even if you don’t hit your goal). We chose Kickstarter because of its name recognition, which meant family and friends understood/trusted it when we sent out funding requests.
The campaign was ultimately successful—we raised $22.7K—but we’d never want to do it again. Here’s our advice/what we learned:
- Keep your video pitch short, capture user attention quickly, and get to the point. The video completion rate for our pitch was around 40%, and our video was relatively short (3:34).
- If your goal is to raise a large amount of money, and you have no connections/celebrities hawking your campaign, treat fundraising like a full-time job. Build a schedule upfront of social media posts, emails, text messages, and phone calls you’ll make throughout your campaign to build awareness and get people to donate. People have the best intentions to contribute, but forget easily, and need to be reminded.
- Find unique ways on social platforms to capture attention that doesn’t automatically say, “Help, I need money.” I used pictures of my baby son wearing a onesie that said “InActionMovie.com” and then my caption said, “Help, I need money.” His cute face led to contributions.
- Reach out to film sites/blogs, relevant genre sites, etc., that may be interested in your film. The majority won’t respond, but some might. A few niche action blogs featured our two-person action movie Kickstarter, and that furthered awareness.
- Kickstarter’s algorithm will make a campaign more visible on the site if it receives a large volume of contribution activity. On Friday afternoons, we would send out mass emails asking for contributions to help move us up the rankings of active film campaigns heading into the weekend. This would lead to a burst of donations that kept In Action noticeable on the site as users perused over the weekend.
- We spent a very small amount of money on Facebook ads to target action movie fans. Don’t waste your money.
- Kickstarter takes 5% if the project is successfully funded, and another 3-5% payment processing fee. So basically, they’re collecting 8-10% of your goal. Due to this, set a higher goal than your anticipated budget. We set $22K so that we could reach our planned $20K budget.
- If you raise over $20,000 and have 200+ contributors, the funding is considered taxable income. This was buried on the Kickstarter site and we weren’t aware until after the campaign ended. You can offset the taxes if your project is set to film right away and you spend all the budget that year on deductible expenses (save your receipts). Otherwise, expect the raised money to increase your income, and you’ll pay taxes on it.
How to Stretch Your Dollar
We have some additional tips for increasing the impact of your budget.
Be creative with your sets
We looked at a handful of studios in NYC. Our script called for multiple locations—bar, wedding, hotel, living rooms, conference room, grocery store—and we planned to rent a space and transform it into multiple settings with creative set design. That said, after looking at multiple spaces, we still couldn’t afford anything.
So… we got scrappy, creative, and maybe a little crazy.
One day Eric sat at his desk, looking around his mobile ad tech company’s small office. He noticed how different areas of the office could be used for the film’s set. One area could be a bar, another could be turned into a hotel room, a third could be converted into a wedding reception. There was a tiny kitchen, bathrooms, and a conference room—all locations needed for the first and third acts. Me, Alex, and In Action’s DP Mateo Marquez visited the office and could see the potential too… and even if they didn’t, it was a free space.
With the permission of Eric’s VP of Sales and CEO—voila—we had a set!
It took a lot of magic and creativity from Mateo and our art directors, Karleah Del Moral and Tara Keegan, to figure out how to shoot, light, and redress the tight parameters of our locations so that each setting felt different. But they made it work.
After weekend shoots, the two of us would return Monday at 6:30 a.m. to get the office back in order. Eric’s coworkers would notice a wire plugged in differently or a small amount of blood splatter on their desk, but nothing to indicate that a “chase sequence” had been filmed in the middle of the space, for example.
For Act 2 (our underground lair) I found a 750-square foot photo studio in Long Island City, Queens. It was cheap, grungy, and could be transformed into a cell, dark tunnels, and other dungeon-like settings. We used every square foot of it, including the stairs and door that led to the studio.
Find creative ways to source your props
Most of our props for the hotel, office, bar, grocery store, and wedding scenes were purchased at Bed Bath & Beyond the day before shoots… then we returned everything.
Was this annoying for their staff? 100%. Did it save us thousands of dollars? Also yes.
We utilized our 99-cent store for smaller props and Craigslist for larger items.
And when all else failed, there were many props we simply just asked our friends and local businesses for. If you’re sincere and passionate about your project (and also offer to give them a credit), many people are more than willing to provide some free stuff. We scored prop guns, 200 empty beer cans, clothes for wardrobe, and more. You just have to ask!
Cultivate your crew
It was essential our crew felt safe, appreciated, and that they were part of the team. Keep your crew happy, and they’ll come back.
Start on time, end on time, and be sure to always feed them (and not just pizza)! We shot over a handful of weekends, and we were fortunate enough to have our crew return each shoot (if they weren’t happy, no way they would’ve come back).
Unlike many other awesome and talented DIY filmmakers, Eric and I were not skilled enough to handle major post-production duties and needed to bring on new team members. We learned the best way to do this is be upfront with your budget when hiring editors, sound designers, animators, VFX artists, etc.
We mainly used the site Mandy to post classifieds. A lot of talented people look for jobs on that site, and most were out of our price range. However, we were honest with people who did reply to job posts about our limited budget and what we could pay. We also conveyed our excitement and passion and shared film footage. This all worked to get them on board.
If you’re honest and excited, others will be too. Sure, nine out of 10 people might not care, but there will be one person who’s pumped about what you’re doing, and take on the job for a fraction of their normal fee. They may ask for longer timelines to do their work while they supplement their income with better-paying jobs. But if they’re into the project, it’s a fair trade-off.
Think of everyone you know!
Two weeks before production was set to begin, we lost our initial crew (long story, for another time). Eric reached out to a family friend he used to babysit, Ethan Greenfield, who was now an adult and recent graduate from Hunter College’s film program.
Ethan had known about In Action since we shot the prototype in 2014, and he offered to help whenever we needed. This was the time. Ethan introduced us to several of his film school friends, many of whom recently graduated and were working PA jobs on NYC productions. This babysitting connection helped us build our core crew, including our awesome DP, Mateo Marquez.
We also asked friends to work as PAs (most of whom had never been on a set, but were happy to help), play dead bodies, have their “neck slit” or beat us up. Basically, if you’ve got someone you trust to work for free and they’re willing to, use them.
A Quick “Bang” Shout-Out:
A VFX artist quoted us over $1,000 to insert gun muzzle flashes into all our shootout shots. Our incredible editor, Billy Nawrocki, bought After Effects’ 3D muzzle plug-in “Bang” for $50 (it’s now $75) and did the work himself, which looks great.
He noted, “It’s very user-friendly, even for someone like me who has rudimentary skills with After Effects and VFX, in general.” (He’s being modest, by the way).
Side note: we used Wild Union Post for some compositing work and small visual effects. They were great and worked with us to help prioritize costs.
Bringing Two-Person Action Sequences to Life
In Action mainly consists of two characters (rapidly) talking to each other, but our goal was to show that something with these unique parameters could still be fun. There are fistfights, knife fights, foot chases, car chases, shootouts, explosions, one-liners, and eccentric villains… but with two people involved.
There are several “action set-pieces,” and we knew we’d need to vary them stylistically to keep the viewer’s attention. Below are three examples of our approach.
A Car Chase with Two People Sitting in Chairs
This sounds absurd, we know. And, you’re right, it is. But this was our dream set-piece and we were going to include it, even if it took a lot to convince the crew.
The set was designed as a large black box using black curtains, with two gray car seats in the middle.
The scene takes place in the early morning as the sun is rising. We lit warmly on the left side, and, from the right, used a blue filter for a cooling effect where the sun had yet to reach. We also set up a small light on a revolving base to simulate the headlights of other cars passing us by.
We storyboarded the car chase with the two of us sitting in chairs as if it were a real car chase. This helped us to shoot the scene knowing exactly how we’d want to cut together the major beats during editing.
We filmed with two cameras and captured 20+ static shots. Additionally, we placed the camera on a slider and set up several different shots and angles where the camera would slide towards the two of us, or away from us. When edited together, it provides the sense that we’re moving.
A crew member hid behind the car seats and kicked us at the moment our “car” was “rear-ended” for an additional layer of veracity.
In post, we added an aggressive sound design (whizzing bullets, whooshing cars, honks, shattering glass), mixed with Kevin Prockup’s original, pulsating score, and Billy cut it together like a Michael Bay film.
The result is a funny scene (we think), completely ridiculous (definitely), and as Ultimate Action Movie Club noted, “is filmed with so much motion and movement and fantastic sound design that it kinda, actually, really works.
Animated Action Sequence
In an early version of the script, we wrote monologues where the characters Eric and Sean battle a henchman on a long ladder and the roof of a moving elevator, respectively. There was no way to film this from a live-action perspective within our parameters, and we already had enough monologues. We decided to include animation to vary the viewer experience and have a “real” action sequence.
We revised the monologues into a traditional script format with stage directions and dialogue.
We used an artist friend to provide sketches of what we wanted the look and feel to be like. We provided all of this to our animator, Richard Walsh, told him to make it gritty and bloody, and let him run with it.
We guided with notes along the way to ensure it met our vision, but Rich really brought this sequence to life.
Single-Take POV Fight Scene
How do you fight a henchman when you’ve committed to a two-person premise? Make the camera the villain. Inspired by the Ordinary World scene in Matthew Vaughn’s Layer Cake, we shot a single-take POV fight, with the character of “Eric” fighting the camera.
Like the car chase, we created a black-box environment. The scene takes place after an “explosion,” so we used a smoke machine to fill up the box and a single high key light beam from the right corner to create a sense of moodiness and disorientation.
Mateo worked as the camera operator in this sequence as well. We spent time blocking—there’s punching, ear-biting, and neck-breaking—to pace out the beats.
We took several tries, including a failed take when our ear-biting make-up FX didn’t work out as planned (note, if you only have one chance to nail make-up FX… nail it), but we eventually captured what we were looking for.
In post, Billy used the plug-in Red Giant, which has some great effects to add chromatic aberration to the lens, camera shake, and more. He used those to gradually provide the feeling of the “henchman” losing consciousness, his vision becoming blurred, and then finally expiring. The landed punches, timed with the camera shake effects and sound effects mix, really brought the fight home.
Festival Submission Advice
Shortly before beginning the film festival submission process, we were given the advice: treat the festival submission process like you’re applying to college. We built a list of our reaches, our “this feels like we have a good shot and we’d be happy there,” and our safety festivals.
Festivals can have significant entry fees so we wanted to ensure we weren’t throwing money away by applying to festivals that would almost never consider us. The “college application” advice was apt and shaped our approach to applying. Here’s our process:
- Understand the genre your film fits into (if it’s easily definable). It was hard for us—we’re a mix of action and goofy comedy, and found “underground” festivals were most accepting of this.
- Build a list of festivals that focus on your film’s genre. Then determine if they’ve previously accepted films like yours. If so, they’re likely a good fit.
- Also, research what other festivals those similar films played. Add any new festivals not on your initial list to consider further.
- Once you build a list with options that make the most sense, you can begin to broaden.
There are so many festivals to choose from, but FilmFreeway.com is a good way to sort through and further your research. We used the site often to get a sense of other filmmakers’ experiences at the festival (i.e. what was it like when they attended, was communication good before the fest), the history of the festival, their requirements, if any films that have played the festival were acquired for distribution, if there will be industry attendees, panels/networking events, etc. Festivals have entry fees, so you want to ensure the fest offers some value.
FilmFreeway will provide links to festival websites, and you can learn more/get a sense about fests from their direct site. If a festival has an outdated website with limited information, but is “now accepting submissions,” they’re likely just looking for your submission fee. Expect a rejection.
Entry fees add up quickly, so have a good sense of your festival application budget. If it’s limited, be discerning, and/or aim to apply during the early-bird phases when fees are lowest. Film Freeway also has a Gold Membership package ($10.99/month) which provides various perks, including 10%-50% off on entry fees. Per the recommendation of two filmmaker friends, you’re likely to save money with the discounts, despite the monthly fee. Unfortunately, this rec came near the end of our submission process and we didn’t upgrade. However, if we were Gold Members, we would have saved about $440 in fees.
Lastly, while it’s important to be discerning when making your list, you should also take a few chances. For us, the 10th Art of Brooklyn Film Festival was a reach for our no-budget, weird concept-of-a-film; we applied on the last day for submissions after debating whether to for weeks. We were accepted, and AOBFF opened the path to eventual distribution.
In July 2020, early into our festival run, a producer’s rep (a fancy way of saying “sales agent”) reached out offering to help us find distribution. We agreed to work with him, as we had no clue how to find distribution on our own, and assumed In Action would be ignored if we sent it to large distributors (even if they offered the option to submit). He had direct access to acquisition teams, and we gathered tons of materials for him (trailer, poster, press kit), which he used to share with them.
The first company that made an offer was terrible. Receiving an offer is exciting, but look out for distributors that prey on independent filmmakers, and read your contract’s fine print. A small bullet in this contract said they would charge $5K in marketing costs every year for 10 years. Most of their movies were available to view for free on YouTube, so what kind of marketing were they doing?
Your rep (if you go that route) should help sort through this (ours did when we asked), or if you have any friends that regularly deal with contracts, ask for their guidance.
After that sketchy offer, all we heard were crickets. Our rep told us most distributors passed on our movie (“even the guys that take everything”), and we’d soon be out of options… cue sad music.
He then suggested we try a new poster—something flashier and professional to get people’s attention. He told us our initial poster stunk and it “looked like two hairy, Eastern European dudes trapped in a hostel basement with the wrong title font. It doesn’t scream comedy.”
We designed two new posters, one by a friend who worked in graphic design, and the other from 99designs.com.
99designs is a creative platform that connects clients to a vast network of designers around the globe. They offer poster design contests where you provide a brief with details of what you’d like and any assets that can be leveraged (if available), and designers will submit ideas. There are different contest levels—Bronze to Platinum (cost ranges from $299-$1,299)—and the winning designer receives the funds. We did the Bronze level ($299) and received 10 submissions. While the higher-cost contest levels may be valuable, we’d recommend starting at the Bronze level, because we still received several awesome design concepts.
With the new artwork, our rep went back out to different distributors (all of which already passed on the film), and to our amazement, after six months of rejections, five offers came within a week.
This was a key lesson in the importance of a poster for a small indie film. Some distributors might change your poster and say the cost is part of the marketing fee they will need to make back before providing payment residuals; others will just use what you provide. When you’ve made a small indie film, the poster needs to be eye-catching and feel bigger than the film may be, because that will be your main promotional tool.
We spoke with all the distributors and chose Gravitas Ventures. Several of the offers were similar (placement on several SVOD platforms, the distributor would take 20%-30% of revenue) and one offer from a small distributor seemed like we’d make some money quickly. However, we selected Gravitas based on their strong reputation, large distribution reach, and a good connection with the acquisition team, who really seemed to get our movie and had a sense of where it could find an audience.
Patience and Persistence
After our Kickstarter campaign was fully funded, a family member put us in contact with their friend who produced a few films. It was a call to gain some advice. The producer had no interest in jumping on board. He told us he loved the film’s concept, but with our budget, we should consider making a short, something that could be a proof of concept.
He said, “If it doesn’t turn out great, nobody needs to see it and you can make another short film.”
We heard this before, but really believed we could make the idea work as a full-length. He continued, “All right, but if you’re going to do this as a feature, make sure it’s good because this is your one shot. If your first feature doesn’t work, you won’t get a second chance to make anything else.”
We don’t know if that’s true, but the line “make sure it’s good because this is your one shot” stuck with us throughout the entire process. Our interpretation was, if this was our “one shot” we should be patient and take our time to hone the film so we feel proud of it. We shouldn’t rush just to say we made a feature film.
As a DIY/indie filmmaker, you really have to believe in your idea, yourself (especially when a lot of people won’t), and take the time to make your film as “good” as possible even if it takes longer than anticipated.
We could have finished our film by the end of 2018, but the extra year of post-production allowed us to make the film stronger than if we just said, “Fuck it, this is fine as is.” (Which we almost did a few times.)
The result: on the first several days of release In Action was featured on the iTunes/Apple TV homepage under the “New & Noteworthy” section. That’s pretty exciting for a $30K film with a weird concept starring two dudes nobody’s heard of.