How We Made a ‘Mad Max’-Style Political Thriller for $20,000

JB Torres Medina
JB Torres Medina

I made a feature film for $20,000. It was hard. I also managed to place the movie with a reputable distributor, meaning a few people might actually watch it. That was even harder.

But for all the difficulty I and my ragtag cast and crew faced in producing and releasing Lection, our struggle might actually be good news for filmmakers and film audiences at a time when streaming technology and a global pandemic have combined forces to wreak havoc on traditional moviemaking and distribution.

If there’s a silver lining in these twin storms, it’s that small movies—and by “small,” I mean really small—might have their moment. Bigger-budget movies are getting harder and harder to make. But making movies like mine might be getting less hard. 

And that’s good news for people who like movies. It’s possible to imagine a future where blockbuster movies that play on thousands of giant screens all over the world become somewhat rarer, but tiny movies that you can watch at home, or even on your smartphone, become more common.

Instead of dropping $20 to sit through the same blockbuster that’s also playing in Buenos Aires, London and Beijing, you could spend $10 to buy or rent a small movie that appeals to your own unique tastes, quirks, triggers and kinks.

We sure hope Lection, our post-apocalyptic political thriller, is unique. Imagine a local political race, but set in a Mad Max-style universe. “The world ended,” our tagline begins. “Then they had an election.” 

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We set the entire movie in one village that we built ourselves using scraps from a local theater. When you run for office in our village, you literally run. And fight. And cheat, lie and steal. Anything to amass more followers and more power. 

With food running out and unrest growing in the world we created, a political upstart challenges an entrenched mayor. It’s not for no reason we cast an older white man as our incumbent and young women of color as our challengers. We wanted Lection to say something about the real world we live in.

Thanks to the heroic work of our sales agent John Thomas, Gravitas Ventures picked up Lection for distribution. Our flick dropped on video-on-demand and streaming platforms, plus physical media, on June 30.

We made Lection for the cost of a Honda Civic. While that’s a lot of money for me, the movie’s writer, director, editor and main financier, it’s a rounding error for most Hollywood productions.  

On the high end, Christopher Nolan’s time-bending thriller Tenet reportedly cost more than $200 million. On the low end, Capone, the Tom Hardy-starring gangster pic from writer-director Josh Trank, cost $20 million. 

But consider what happened to both Tenet and Capone. Nolan’s film was scheduled to hit theaters on July 17. But that was before the novel coronavirus forced most U.S. theaters to close. Warner Brothers has delayed Tenet’s release twice. The movie might finally drop on Aug. 12, assuming enough theaters can safely re-open by then. Some exhibitors plan to begin resuming business in July under new safety guidelines.

Capone was slated for a limited theatrical release before the pandemic hit. Distributor Vertical Entertainment scrapped the big-screen debut and instead dropped Capone on video-on-demand and streaming platforms on May 12.

Despite Hardy’s name on the poster, Capone earned just $2.5 million in its first 10 days in release, a take that Indiewire called “quite good” for a video-on-demand title. Indiewire projected Capone would earn Vertical as much as $5 million before audience interest waned. 

Despite its strong opening and the prospect of eventual sales to cable networks, Capone could lose millions of dollars for its distributor. For many movies, video-on-demand just doesn’t make money like a theatrical release does. 

It’s not for no reason that Warner Brothers keeps bumping back Tenet. “Warner Brothers is committed to bringing Tenet to audiences in theaters, on the big screen, when exhibitors are ready and public health officials say it’s time,” a Warner Brothers rep stated.

When theatrical releases aren’t possible, what are movie studios supposed to do? “There will likely be little incentive for them to simply revert to the old way of doing business when life returns to a more familiar routine,” critic Jeva Lange noted in a March essay.

One option is to make cheaper movies that are viable on video-on-demand and streaming. For us, it was the only option. I’m not saying all movies should be 20K cheapos. But in defense of 20K cheapos, they don’t bankrupt companies. 

Making a movie with no money is hard. No one got paid very much on Lection. We all worked our day jobs then hurried to our sweltering, rural-South Carolina set for a long weekend of frantic shooting. It was exhausting. Nerves frayed. Friendships shattered. 

<div class="inline-image__caption"> <p>A scene from <em>Lection </em></p> </div> <div class="inline-image__credit"> JB Torres Medina </div>

JB Torres Medina

For all that hardship, there’s freedom in being cheap. Because we don’t have to appeal to a lot of people in order to succeed by our own modest standards, we can be weird. In fact, lacking stars, sophisticated special effects and a huge marketing budget, we have to be weird to find any audience at all.

So we took chances. Lection is dialogue-free in all but a few key scenes—and for good reason. The characters are human puppets in a show of post-apocalyptic political theater. Everyone knows puppets can’t talk. Oh, and there are actual puppets in Lection, too. 

But we tried not to lean on weirdness as a crutch. For all our strange and deliberate choices in Lection, we still made an enormous effort to ensure the movie looks and sounds good. 

Director of photography J.B. Torres Medina selected his lenses and filters to give the picture rich texture and color. To modulate between tension and energy, he combined smooth dolly shots with quick-moving handheld ones. Our composers Matt Akers and Gauge Santiago sampled organic and mechanical sounds to give the score a primal, dangerous quality.

The end result, we hope, is an odd but engaging little movie—one that maybe, just maybe, is a hint of things to come. One that recognizes the risk of expensive productions that depend on packed, potentially infectious auditoriums for their profitability—and responds by producing more small movies, each appealing to its own little audience.

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