Coyote – the Story of Human Trafficking

Los Angeles-based director, Mark Grabianowski takes us behind the scenes of his new short film, Coyote.  Set deep in the heart of Mexico, Coyote is the story of human traffickers’ search for the disappearance of a young woman.

What inspired this story?

I have always been fascinated with the fact that human trafficking is still practiced globally, even close to home. Mexico is only a few hours away yet people are being trafficked across the border everyday. I wanted to create a story that shows the violence and the hopelessness of these people who are locked into this life.

How did you prepare for the challenges and safety issues of shooting in the desert?

Coyote takes place in the desert of Mexico, so we needed to find as suitable alternative closer, the Mojave desert just outside of Los Angeles proved to be the perfect spot to set the film. Of course shooting in the desert is not as simple as shooting in your best friends backyard (as I did with my last film), planning and prepping for the shoot took months and involved help from many people. The first thing I got was production insurance and medical coverage for the shoot weekend. This covered up to one million dollars worth of damage and some basic medical coverage for the cast and crew. My locations person also knew the area inside and out and knew the safety precautions that were needed. We purchased 1st aid kits as well in the event that the cast or crew injured themselves. Another thing to mention was the area was prone for snakes and although the land owner hadn’t seen one in 7 years, the day before the shoot they saw a huge rattlesnake outside their van. Luckily we had no encounters.

Learn techniques for working in extreme conditions.

The cast and crew of Mark Grabianowski’s short film, “Coyote,” prepared months for the logistics of shooting in the Mojave Desert.
How did you and your DP come up with the cinematic look of the film, and how did you accomplish it?

My DP Roger Viloria and I turned out to be a great team, he was on board from the beginning and had the same vision as I did. I first met with Roger to discuss my vision for the film, I explained to him how I envisioned this story through a wide scope and the tone I wanted to capture. I showed him a look book that I created with various images that I made as well as screenshots from other films and tv shows I used for inspiration. We then went to the location and did a scout shoot. We tried different lenses and setups with the camera and came back with something we both visually agreed with. Next, we worked together a few nights to create storyboards so that we were as best prepared for this quick 2 day shoot as possible, Roger is a great artists so it was a breeze. I felt it was important for me to get my vision across but not to limit Roger in his creativity. So if he had an idea or felt that something could have been shot better I took them into account.

Learn how to define and create the look for your movie.

Director Mark Grabianowski and DP Roger Viloria discuss a shot.
Director of Photography, Roger Viloria
Mark and Roger’s storyboards for “Coyote.”
You had a limited budget – can you give us a few examples of how you stretched your budget, or came up with novel ways to increase the production value of the movie?

Well, one way to increase production value is definitely through the location you choose, the viewer needs to believe they are where the story takes place or else the illusion is gone. Unfortunately in Los Angeles, locations are probably one of the most expansive parts of a production. I was fortunate that my DP, Roger, was good friends with one of the managers of this particular location. So right away my location fee went down from what would have been over $5,000 to $150! Another way I saved money was I had the actors provide their own wardrobe. I discussed with each actor what I was looking for and they brought from home what worked best, in some cases I went out and purchased some clothing or props form the good will (Good will or any thrift store, is a great resource for costumes).

Learn how to scout locations and work with a film commission.

Describe one of your biggest challenges in making this movie and how you resolved it.

One large challenge was how to get the cast and crew up to the Mojave desert to shoot for two days and spend as little money as possible. My co-producer Cole suggested we rent a Winnebago and drive up to the area It not only could transport cast and crew from he hotels to the location (which was about 20 miles in the desert) but it would serve as a home base that had held all the food, water and bathrooms as well as a place for shade and rest. The area had cheap hotels so I was able to put everyone up for a night comfortably then every morning at 6am we would all meet at the Winnebago for a cast crew meeting and then head out to the location. It ended up working out very well. Having the Winnebago also brought its own share of complications. On the second day of shooting, it became extremely windy and the wind almost tipped the Winnebago over as well as ripped the canopy off. While I was filming the crew ran over to take care of the issue. The damage ended up costing me and extra $1000 with insurance.

Winnebagos are good for more than making meth in the desert (I’m looking at you, Walter White) – they are the perfect solution for a mobile production office.
How have you marketed the movie so far, and what kind of response have you gotten?

One thing I always do when I market my films is by getting a few film reviews from websites and bloggers. I have also just recently submitted to numerous festivals. The next step is to market the film through other venues that deal with the same subjects such as human trafficking websites and Hispanic film festivals. The issue of human trafficking is a global one and I want to be able to share this story and issue around the world.

Learn film marketing techniques and how you can use Hollywood methods to promote your film:

Learn more about Mark Grabianowski and “Coyote.”


Prepare Your Body for Production

Shooting a movie is a very demanding and exciting culmination of months of work and preparation. It’s also gruelling, with each shooting day a minimum of 12 hours and often running longer, some productions shoot 6 days a week.  When you add travel time, many crew people barely get enough time to sleep, let alone find life balance outside of work.
Shooting a feature film is a lot like running a marathon – it’s all about pacing yourself and having the stamina to make it to the end. When getting started in the production phase of a movie, be ready for what awaits you.
  • Long hours–  Shooting a movie often leads to long, tiring hours. Be sure to eat healthy food and get enough sleep before the production begins. You’ll need as much energy as you can muster, so avoid sugary junk food from the craft services table, opting instead for solid, protein-rich meals to help carry you through your day.
  • Stress–  Be prepared for problems and stressful situations on set – equipment will break, actors will have bad days, locations will fall through, it will rain and you will go over schedule. The better organized you are in preproduction, the easier it will be to overcome problems as they arise. Remember Murphy’s Law: If something can go wrong, it will. Assume there will be problems, keep a professional, level head and rely on your crew – everyone on set has the unified goal of producing the best movie possible.
  • Keep organized– The secret to a smooth-running production is to be as organized as possible during the entire shoot. From organizing the equipment to keeping the office paperwork in order, always maintain a clean, safe work environment.
  • Be prepared – You are responsible for yourself, so be prepared with an extra pair of socks and shoes, rain gear, a flashlight, the necessary tools for your job, a first aid kit, extra sweatshirt and jacket in the even you shoot into the night, mosquito repellant, and sunscreen.
  • Do your homework – Always review the script for the next day so you know what to expect. Take some time to review the next day’s schedule, shooting requirements, and location, so you can mentally and physically pace yourself for the day’s challenges.
  • Know where you’re going – The easiest way to get fired is to be late to set. If you’re early, you’re on time.  If you’re on time, you’re late.  If you’re late, your’e fired.  Always Google map the directions to the location the night before and allow plenty of time to arrive.  It’s never good to start out the day stressed because you miscalculated your travel time.
  • Don’t drink – As tempting as it may be to join the crew for a beer after a shoot, avoid alcohol whenever possible during a shoot. You are already taxing your body, eating unhealthy foods, and falling behind on your sleep. Drinking will only dehydrate you more and make you hate life the next day.

Production is an intensive process that can take its toll on your health very quickly.  Take care of yourself so you can make the best film you can.

How to Know When a Project is the Right Project

From the outside, producing a movie appears to be glamourous, fun and exciting. It is an adventure that may afford you the opportunity to work with famous personalities, travel the world, and have experiences that most people only dream of. The process of producing a movie is rarely as engaging as this romanticized facade. In reality, movie production is an arduous and challenging process that requires massive amounts of time and money. Many filmmakers fail under the weight of the demands of production and end up in debt with little to show for their efforts.

Smart producers will carefully consider the factors that go into producing a movie.

  • Make sure it’s a project you LOVE – A movie can take you years to produce.  From the time you develop the concept or find the perfect script to the moment you turn over the master tapes to a distributor, years will pass.  As basic as it may sound, it’s important to find a project that you truly love – one that you will look forward to working on, even when the going gets tough and it seems that the odds of completing it appear impossible.
  • Your movie will always cost more than you think – Even the most experienced line producers fail to account for costly line items: weather that can wipe out entire shooting days, additional equipment that may be needed on set, days that may run into over time, payoffs to annoyed neighbors when you’re shooting on location, codec problems in the editing process… there are dozens of factors that can add thousands of dollars to your budget.  Be prepared to spend a lot more than you originally anticipated before beginning the process.
  • Your movie will always take longer to produce than you think – Movies will always take longer to produce than you initially think. Especially in the independent world where money is scarce, you will be forced to develop cheaper workarounds that while saving money, will ultimately cost you time. There is an old adage that says you can produce a movie with only two of the following three options:  cheap, fast or good.  If you want you movie to be inexpensive and good quality, it won’t happen quickly.  If you want you movie to be inexpensive and quickly produced, it wont be good.
  • Don’t be too ambition with your page/day count – Shooting 4-5 pages a day is a comfortable amount that allows you time to rehearse actors and carefully set-up each scene. Productions with limited funds will try to cram as many as 7-9 pages per day.  This won’t allow any time to light or rehearse and will drastically cut into the production value of the movie.  You have to ask yourself at which point are you going to compromise the quality so severely that you’ll hinder your ability to sell the film.
  • Don’t forget Post-Production – Many producers are so focused on getting the film “in-the-can,” that they completely overlook the costs and time required to complete the post-production of the movie. From editing and sound mixing to composing and mastering, the post production process often takes longer and is more expensive than shooting the movie.  It’s a god idea to work with your post-production house at the very beginning so you can anticipate and manage your costs by pre-planning your post-production requirements.

Approach the production of a movie like you would with any investment. Look realistically at the costs and resources needed to properly pull it off.

Pre-Production on Low Budget Movies

The process of preparing to shoot a movie can be pretty frustrating because of how many different tasks you as a producer have to juggle. It’s even more challenging when you don’t have a lot of money to spend and you’re wearing multiple hats.

After I wrote a 60-minute period mystery “Time and Again,” I had about six weeks of pre-production, so I had very little time to get everything ready. The trick I found to work is that I started looking for locations immediately, since the entire schedule hinges on their availability.  During the same time, I would stop and visit thrift shops and antique stores to collect props and wardrobe after work each day, storing them in boxes at home until the shoot.  I was also calling prospective crew members and organizing the auditions, while preparing my application for production insurance and contacting the city for shooting permits.

The secret to success is to multi-task and understand that EVERYTHING WILL TAKE LONGER TO DO THAN YOU INITIALLY THINK. Remember that pre-production isn’t difficult, it’s keeping the hundreds of small tasks organized that is the challenge.

I always keep a dry erase board by my desk where I can track of all the small details I need to accomplish, checking off the ones that are finished and always adding new ones.

A few tips I learned during pre-production:

  • Complete the final script, copy and distribute to cast and crew – Nothing happens without the script, so save your (and everyone else’s) time by finalizing the script before you start pre-production.
  • Breakdown the script, create production board and make the production schedule – The sooner you can determine the number of shooting days, how much you can afford to spend each day, and when you are planning on shooting, the sooner you can ask people to get involved. With a schedule in hand, you can ask “Are you available on X day.”  “Can I use your lighting gear the afternoon of Y day?”
  • Set-up a production office and bring on necessary resources –  And yes, your production office can be your home.  Just be ready to have a lot of people coming and going, equipment, props and costumes stacked up, and room for a table and chairs for conferences and meetings.
  • Set-up insurance, bank accounts and company structure –   It’s always wise to separate the production from your personal life.  This keeps your finances separate, but protects your personal assets in case someone gets hurt on set.  Always hire a good attorney and accountant to help.
  • Begin location scouting – Start this right away.  Locations are not always easy to find, and the sooner you can start looking, the better.  Also remember that you don’t have a location until you have a signed location agreement.
  • Begin scheduling auditions for principal actors and extras – Contact local talent agencies to assist.
  • Begin talking with crew members, focusing on main crew positions –  Call the film commission for the production manual that lists all local crew members. If you time your production right, you may get some amazingly talented and qualified crew people if you schedule your shoot off-season.
  • Prepare agreements, deal memos and contracts with cast and crew – You can download all the contracts and forms you need from FilmSkills, but always consult an attorney for any legal documents you plan on using.
  • Review budget with newly hired crew members to determine feasibility – You hire qualified department heads for a reason, so listed to them.  They will tell you if your vision is attainable, and if not, what you can adjust to make it happen within your budgetary restrictions.
  • Research and assemble props and costumes – Start this right away, and keep an eye out everywhere you go.  Also use FaceBook and other social media to put word out for any unique props or costumes. You never know what someone may have gathering dust in their basement.
  • Contact local film commission and establish relationship for permits and city services – Never shoot without a permit. You’d be surprised how many cities are willing to work with new filmmakers.
  • Begin set construction and set decorating – If you need help building sets, contact a local general contractor.  While they usually build additions, renovate office buildings, and build homes, a GC may be up for the challenge of building a movie set.  He may even have access to scrap materials to help you cut your costs.
  • Negotiate with vendors for cameras, lighting and grip equipment – Again, if you time your production so it doesn’t coincide with another film, you may be able to get your gear for a great deal (or even free). Offer to plug the rental facility in your social media to help.
  • Contact post-production services including editors, composers and visual effects artists – It’s never to early to think about production, and the sooner you do, the more help you will have on set. It’s better to start the editing process as early as possible so you can pick-up any missing shots while you are still in production.

All in all, start early, be prepared, and surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing. It will help you, and ultimately, the project.