Traditionally, great movies take a lot of time to film. For example, Eraserhead was shot over several years, presumably because David Lynch kept running out of hairspray.
Despite this fine-art-takes-time tradition, some of the most iconic genre films of all time were filmed in a matter of weeks, or even days. In honor of the 60th anniversary of Kronos (1957), we take a look at seven films that didn't let a rushed shooting schedule preclude success.
Seems ironic that a film whose title basically means "time" would have such a rushed shooting schedule, yet this classic tale of an alien machine that sucks up Earth's resources was filmed entirely in the last two weeks of January 1957. As the tale goes, Kronos was set to film with a significantly more elaborate storyline; however, at the last minute the budget was slashed, forcing a hasty rewrite and an abbreviated shooting schedule. The budget of about $150,000 was enough to get some convincing performances, and the storyline was fresh enough to withstand the script being slashed ... though unfortunately, the special effects definitely took a noticeable hit. For instance, the giant, super evil machine that's going to take over the world walks like a giant sentient broken elevator.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Eight days is all the directors needed to film what would turn a $60,000 film into a quarter-billion dollars of profit. In fact, it could be argued that more shooting time wouldn't have improved anything: the directors later re-shot the final scene and later decided they couldn't make it any better than it already was.
By now, the story of the filming was well-known: The actors were set loose in the woods with just GPS systems and told to find various crates containing acting instructions. To naturally build the tension, the directors gradually lowered the amount of food they supplied at each crate. This "natural" style of shooting meant there was always a chance to capture good drama on screen, thus reducing film time. For instance, the actors once walked all day, only to end up in the same spot, an unrehearsed goof that created real angst among the cast. In fact, the filming wrapped up so quickly, it is rumored that the directors were able to return one of the cameras for a refund, as it was still under warranty.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
In 2007, director Oren Peli proved that all one needs for a successful horror film is seven days, two primary actors, and one now-expensive house. Peli imposed the seven-day shooting schedule himself. Using a home video camera to get all of the shots went a long way to reducing the amount of production that would have been necessary on set ... not to mention the fact that Peli lived there, and thus was able to spend the year before filming getting the house to look exactly right.
In fact, DreamWorks never imagined the film's rushed timetable would result in a viable film. Upon purchasing the rights, their goal was to refilm the entire thing with a much more grandiose production budget. However, Peli made the company include a line in the contract stating that, before they remade it, they would show a test screening. When audience members began leaving the theater in terror, Dreamworks went with the much better business plan of "do nothing and cash in for $100 million dollars."
The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)
Roger Corman spent the 1950s and '60s establishing himself as a director who could crank out a hit film in a ridiculously short amount of time. (He also established himself as a director who sometimes made a piece of hot garbage ... but at least production would be mercifully short.)
Perhaps the Corman film with the greatest legacy is the original Little Shop of Horrors. Corman had just wrapped up filming the horror comedy A Bucket of Blood. Having spent five long days shooting that film, Corman decided he just didn't have time to make any new sets, so Little Shop was made to use the same sets (and a lot of the same plot because, hey, it only took two days, so chill out.)
Another way Corman sped up production was by paying winos to fill in for various last-minute tasks, such as performing as background actors and, yes, people in charge of supervising background actors. To keep filming fast, Corman employed the multiple-camera style popularized by sitcoms: keeping the cameras in the same place cut down on time resetting equipment between scenes.
For years, the rumor persisted that the film's schedule was so rushed because Corman had a bet on how fast he could make a movie. In fact, this tale was just a cover-up of the reality that Corman wanted to get the film out before January 1, 1960, when a new law would kick in forcing him to pay his actors residuals. Luckily the new law didn't outlaw slapdash films, or most of Corman's subsequent films wouldn't have been made.
Donnie Darko (2001)
This masterpiece follows its titular character from October 2 to the weekend before Halloween; by amazing coincidence, that time period almost exactly mirrors the dates during which primary filming took place. As the movie was originally looking like a straight-to-video piece with minimal time for shots, there were many shortcuts that had to be taken. Some of these were generously facilitated by co-star Patrick Swayze: in addition to providing his ranch for filming, Swayze even dug out his old 1980s clothes, saving the producers the time to create a period-appropriate costume.
The short shooting schedule, combined with many night shots, meant that director Richard Kelly had to rush to finish shooting each night before dawn. The closest call came during the scene where Frank swerves to miss Roberta Sparrow, plowing into Gretchen instead. According to Kelly, the sun was rising behind them, and it was only due to the can-do attitude of the stuntman involved that they were able to rush this dangerous stunt in time for the shot.
It's been said that, when making a work of art, restriction breeds creativity. That is, the more limitations placed on the situation, the more opportunity there is for a creative result. Saw is the epitome of this concept. When conceiving the film, creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell decided that their shoestring-thin budget meant that they could probably only afford to film two guys locked in a room for most of the film. The tight, 18-day shooting schedule meant that lead actor Wan could not get the Hitchcockian style he wanted; instead, he had to go for a much grittier look, which would end up working perfectly for the film's rough, in-your-face style.
However, not every limitation resulted in pure gold. The rushed shooting schedule meant that there wasn't enough footage for the editing room, so Wan and his editor had to get creative. One technique they used to patch up holes was to create a "security camera" shot, but in reality the 'footage' was just a photograph. Wan quipped, "... now people say 'Wow, that's such a cool, experimental style of filmmaking,' but we really did that out of necessity to fill in gaps we did not get during the filming."
To speed things up considerably, there were no rehearsals. The final footage was taken as actors walked through their lines together for the first few times. Despite having a flu and a fever of 104 degrees, primary actress Shawnee Smith knocked out all of her scenes in just one day. Industry veteran Danny Glover did all of his shots in two days. In addition, since few actors were available for reshoots, Wan and Whannell had to play stunt doubles of many actors.
John Carpenter's genius shines through in this 20-day production that maximized each minute. First of all, instead of some fancy costume design, he literally asked his assistants to go to the mask shop and get the cheapest mask possible. This turned out to be a $2 mask of William Shatner. Blow out the hair, spray paint the mask white and the results are the iconic Michael Myers mask.
But not all of the tricks needed to quickly finish this piece would fully translate. For instance, having the film take place on Halloween in Illinois yet filming in Southern California. The crew had to manufacture brown and red leaves, which had to be cleaned up and reused after every exterior shot.
Carpenter's innovation is what truly made Halloween a masterpiece. For instance, the filming was done out of order, which caused consternation for budding actress Jamie Lee Curtis ... so Carpenter created a 'Fear Meter,' to show her exactly how scared she should act during takes. The result was a film which practically spawned decades of rushed-but-good slasher films, followed by rushed-and-really-horrible slasher film sequels.