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Building a House (or Making a Movie) November 22, 2013

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Filmmaking, Movies.
Tags: , ,

Recently, I’ve been involved in discussions about making movies on a tiny budget. While I’m aware that you can recruit friends who will work for free, doing so has ramifications.

Building a House with your Friends

While it’s true that you can build a small shelter with virtually no planning, very rarely do larger structures survive under their own weight without some kind of plan (formal or informal). Why?

Imagine that you’ve got a friend who’s a carpenter, who likes you and would enjoy working with you. Imagine that you have another friend who is an electrician, who feels similarly magnanimous toward you. Add to that a guy who took a plumbing class in vocational school and someone who knows how to mix up instant concrete. We now have a team!

“Let’s build a house!”

First things first… How much money do you have? What? The other guys don’t want to chip in? Why don’t they want to help you build a house? Don’t they realize that it will look good on their resume? (This is especially true of the “plumber” and your “concrete man.”) Don’t they realize how much fun it would be to come over and party?

Well, in that case, your only option is to put up the necessary funds yourself. So now you check the bank balance. You’ve got $5000 that you can spend without your wife sending you off to the looney farm. You say to yourself, “$5000 is a LOT of money! Surely I can build a house for that!”

At this point, anyone with even modest experience working with modern building materials will know that we can’t build a house for $5000. The raw materials alone would cost more than that.

So now let’s assume that we have $30,000, and have estimated that this is enough to buy the windows, wood, concrete, pipe, and electrical wire necessary to build a small house. You’re all set. Right?

The Plan

Right out of the gate, your carpenter and electrician are getting nervous. They look at you and ask for a plan. You hand them a drawing you made over the past couple of weeks. You note that you’ve done this yourself, even though you’ve never designed a house before, or even a small addition to a house. You have, however, lived in houses all your life, and know what you like. That qualifies you to create the drawings… correct?

Not according to the electrician. Until you can tell him where all the electrical outlets go, he can’t tell if you’ve got enough wire, or even the right size wire. It looks like you’ve got a big roll of wire, but it’s cheap stuff, and not really suited for the task. As long as you don’t hold him accountable, and nobody ever finds out he’s worked on this project, he agrees to proceed.

Unfortunately, now the carpenter is going off about the lack of detail in the plan. For some reason, he thinks that the spot where you’ve put the wall isn’t going to be able to support the weight of the roof. Now granted, this guy has built some houses before, but he’s never built this house, so you’re convinced that he’s just a whiner. Against your better judgment, you move the wall, but now that requires changes to the wiring and the plumbing. Things are not going according to the plan…

The Schedule

After several days of working in the heat, the carpenter and electrician want to know when the concrete will be done, and why the plumber seems clueless. For his part, the plumber is happy as a lark, and has now started promoting himself as an experienced home-builder who also does plumbing for new construction. He’s never done plumbing professionally before, but now he says he does, simply because he’s doing plumbing work for free.

At least you can feel good about yourself for helping your friend advance his plumbing career.

Sensing that a mutiny is brewing, you go off by yourself for a bit to figure out what’s holding up the concrete, and when you can put the electrician and carpenter to work. They have no real schedule from you, but showed up the first day and ate all the pizza you bought. For some reason, they seemed grumpy about the cold cuts and stale bread you picked up at the corner market for dinner.

At the end of the second day, they’re both wondering why they allowed you to talk them into this job. You didn’t want to blow your money on too much pizza like you did the first day, so you bought a smaller pizza, which barely fed the five of you. To keep everyone’s spirits up, you talk endlessly about the fun of having them over to your new house, and point to the various “rooms” in the vacant lot (where you hope the rooms will eventually be). Perhaps you could even submit your finished home to a show, and win an award! That would be a great thing for everyone… wouldn’t it?

On the morning of the third day, the electrician and the carpenter both call to tell you they can’t show. Both of them have paying jobs that they have to work, but they will see if they can come out next weekend. This casts a pall over the entire crew, even more so because you had bought several frozen pizzas for lunch that you were hoping would quiet the grumpy crew.

By now, the concrete man has poured, re-poured, and re-poured again something that looks like a foundation for a house. It doesn’t seem to want to set correctly, but at least the basic shape of the foundation is there. The three of you agree that the best thing to do is hang up your tools until the weekend. By then, the foundation will be set, and the rest of the crew will return!

The Construction

Over the next few weeks, the cycle continues, until you become so frustrated that you start making radical decisions. Forget the game room and the back porch. Those were nice, but it’s becoming obvious that the concrete guy was barely able to make the front steps look decent. By the time he finished the back steps, everyone will have long-since passed away in their nursing homes.

Having ditched those, you now have more time from the concrete man, so you ask him to help out with the carpentry. After all, he’s watched carpenters work, and there’s not that much to it… right?

After using up the best quality wood in the least visible places, you now find that all of the remaning wood (which will probably be visible) is covered with knots and splits. This is not good. When the carpenter (the real one) returns, he’s going to throw a fit at how bad things look.

Sure enough, the next time he’s available (which seems to be less and less, for some odd reason), he’s livid, and goes on and on about there being a reason that you asked him to help in the first place. He storms out the front hole (where the door might be… someday), gets in his car, and drives away.

The plumber seems tickled to death. Now he not only will gain valuable carpentry experience, there will also be more food!

The electrician sits around, waiting for the detailed plans you promised him two weeks ago. Now that you think about it, he’s done almost nothing to help build the house. Whenever you ask him, he just complains about the lack of a plan, and not being able to magically peer inside your brain to learn what the plan might be.

Those weird blueprint things you always saw on TV at construction sites are starting to seem like a better idea at this point. Unfortunately, the drawings you have don’t look anything like that, and your next door neighbor (who IS an architect) doesn’t see any way to take the drawing you’ve made and turn it into a blueprint. He says you’d need to start from scratch.


In a mad dash of effort, over the course of several weeks, you finally start throwing anything and everything against the flimsy wooden frame, which now sort of resembles something that might have been considered housing, at least in the aftermath of some natural disaster. You’ve got a couple of electrical outlets, which get their power from a small, noisy generator.

The roof isn’t quite complete, but you claim this was by design, as it resembles an artsy, “open architecture.” The fact that you couldn’t afford shingles or sufficient plywood roofing to cover the tiny boundaries of the “foundation” have nothing to do with this. It was a daring and artistic choice. If you don’t look at it and agree, then obviously you are not familiar with (somewhat) similar, low-budget buildings made by great architects. (Unfortunately, the ones you can think of didn’t really do anything that looked like your house, but that’s beside the point.)

The house, or at least what you’re calling a house, is finished. It has walls. It has a foundation. It has electricity! It has a roof (sort of).

It’s a house… yes?


1. Robert Kiser - November 23, 2013

While you are one hundred percent correct on all your points, it doesn’t take into account those socially facile would-be filmmakers who believe (rightly or wrongly) that the friendly acquaintances to be exploited as labor are an endlessly renewable resource.

Filmmaking, from what I’ve read and what I’ve seen up close, is such a meticulous and incredibly detailed activity that equally detailed planning should be an incredibly obvious prerequisite; when it isn’t present, or when the filmmaker claims to have it all “in his head”, everyone involved should run quickly in the opposite direction. Folks who really believe they can make a professional piece of film without the preparation of a business plan, a storyboard, or (God help me) even a story, are practicing the same type of magical thinking as unrecovered alcoholics, drug addicts, and habitual gamblers.

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