“the AD I think, the most important hire on a low-budget indie, 'cause they’re really the captain of the ship, that's making the movie happen. An AD that can work your resources in the right way and be creative which makes the movie a lot better.”
Pledge is a recent indie horror gem from director/writer team Daniel Robbins and Zack Weiner. It follows three hapless college kids as they attempt to pledge for a highly exclusive fraternity and are subsequently subjected to a sadistic gauntlet of unspeakably horrific hazing rituals. Pledge mixes humor and horror in a well-balanced and thoroughly engaging narrative with main characters you genuinely care about. At the same time, Pledge manages to effortlessly delve into themes of elitism and the culture of bullying in a way that’s relevant without being heavy-handed.
Prior to Pledge, Zack and Daniel made Uncaged, a teen werewolf horror thriller from 2016. Zack and Daniel were friends in high school and went on to make low-budget horror movies together, right here in my hometown of New York. They’ve been enjoying a great amount of success lately, as Pledge was recently acquired at Fantasia Fest by IFC Midnight and is on its way to Hulu.
In addition to being a downright great time of a movie, Pledge is a prime example of an intelligently produced, lean and mean indie horror masterpiece that looks and feels way more expensive than it actually is. It also introduces a particularly strong horror mythology that is ripe with possibilities for sequels (I’d personally love to see Pledge unfold into a franchise).
We sat down with Daniel Robinson (director), Zack Weiner (writer and actor), and Zach Byrd (one of the main actors) from Pledge, and explored the key lessons of indie horror filmmaking that they learned while making Pledge.
Here are key insights from the guys of Pledge:
- It’s all about the DP, baby. By DP, I obviously mean Director of Photography, you perverts. Your DP is the person who can make your low-budget movie look way more expensive. Have you ever started watching a super low-budget movie, and because of the low production value you find yourself completely checking out of it? It happens to me all the time, and I feel snobby saying it, but it’s a real thing that you can’t help. Because in order to psychologically believe a movie, it has to have a level of quality that translates to believability. This is critically important when making your first few films. The low-budget look can be a kiss of death for first-time film makers. It’s critically important to make your movies have the highest production value possible. So take the time needed to find yourself an incredible Director of Photography, because they are the one who is going to show you how to make the movie you want to make. Daniel and Zack also mentioned the benefit of working with a DP who has a gaffer background, because they understand lighting really well.
- Turn your cast and crew into a brain trust. If there’s a technical challenge on set, a flaw in the script, or any kind of hiccup during production, toss the challenge out to your cast and crew to help solve. When filming, you have dozens of creative people all around you, and chances are, someone on your set has dealt with the same issue before or will approach the problem from a different perspective than you do. Your job as the director isn’t necessarily to have all the answers, instead your job is to find all the answers. Your cast and your crew can be your best problem solvers and collaborators. Not to utilize them is a wasted opportunity.
- Create a director checklist. Dan has a whole list of specific pieces of advice and insight from other directors. For every movie he works on, Dan picks five specific insights that he turns into a checklist. Then he checks it off every day of filming to make sure he is maximizing his opportunity as a director. Dan also took a cue from what Coppola did on The Godfather and wrote out the potential pitfalls for each scene to make sure they all worked as well as possible. If you’re reading this, you probably read director interviews and watch feature length commentaries, so start your own list. EVERNOTE is a great place to start. Wouldn’t you want to walk on set with a checklist of advice from people like Coppola, Scorsese, and Tarantino? Make your list, and keep it with you when you shoot, or even write.
- Key Resources:
- Making Movies by Sidney Lumet
- Kazan on Directing by Elia Kazan
- Rebel Without a Crew by the incredible Robert Rodriguez - one of my personal favorites
- Go into the Story, a screenwriting blog series by Scott Myers on The Blacklist
- Watch video essays--Dan obsessively watches videos on YouTube, for free, that dissect the nuances and techniques behind some of your favorite movies.