Lights Film School recently spoke with Tom Whelan about his recent film “The Art of Travel”. Tom was hoping to spread the word amongst our film students that would be interested in learning how his Hollywood production got made for only $300,000. What’s more, it’s an adventure “soul searching” film and was shot in many locations. These types of films usually cost much more money to shoot, yet Tom was able to stick to his vision and get the film completed without sacrificing locations and staying more or less within budget.
The Interview is extensive and Tom gives excellent advice to up and coming filmmakers. This is Tom’s third feature film so it’s safe to say he’s familiar with both the business side of filmmaking and the artistic elements within the process. We highly recommend aspiring filmmakers read our Lights Film School exclusive interview below. But first, be sure to watch the film’s trailer.
1. When did you decide to make this film “The Art of Travel”?
Since I was a little kid, my parents would strap me to their backs and they’d travel off to some foreign country with me in tow. The when I turned 17, instead of wanting a car, I’d ask my parents if I could travel instead and believe it or not they supported me. I’d get $1,500 to survive with for 4 weeks and I would travel to Europe, Canada, Mexico, with a very good friend of mine and explore what the world had to offer at a young age. I always knew from the age of six that I wanted to be a filmmaker and I was fascinated with any movie I could get my hands on. So my major two loves in life were filmmaking and traveling, so I always knew that one day I would combine the two. I went to film school and graduated in 1993 and then moved to Los Angeles where I worked on numerous independent films and eventually got a job working on a TV show called “Charlie Grace” for Warner Bros. After working for about a year in a half in the indie world, I got to know what it was like in the Studio world. I knew I would eventually combine both styles of filmmaking to make my first film. But since I was 16 I knew I wanted to make a film in the vein of “The Art of Travel”. Every year as I traveled in different parts of the world I thought more and more about a story line and then finally after “Malcolm in the Middle” was over and in it’s final year, and with two other feature films under my belt, I knew it was time to make “The Art of Travel”.
2. I can see that it’s your first major writing experience as well. It’s the first time you produced / directed and wrote a feature film that you can call your own. Did you feel it was a challenge convincing people that you were capable of a project of this size?
I had made two feature films prior to “Art of Travel”. While working at Warner Bros. on a TV show called “Lois and Clark,” I met a few people around the studio in various departments that had nothing to do with filmmaking, but they always had the dream to go out a make a film. I convinced them that we should pull together all our resources and make a film called “Border to Border”. We ended up shooting this film in five states and in Mexico all on 35mm. We’d approach actors on the studio and ask them if they’d do cameo’s that we’d shoot in Los Angeles. (It’s amazing what’s actors will do when you can skip their agents!) Then we spent 2 ½ weeks with the actors and a crew of about 22 people and shot all the location footage from Seattle, Washington to Ensenada, Mexico. When we wrapped, we were able to get a room on the studio for two months to edit out film next to Kevin Costners editors, who were working on “The Postman” at the time. Once the film was done, we hit a bunch of film festivals and won some awards. Then a company called Independent Artists picked us up for distribution. At that time we all felt on top of the world. Then Independent Artists declared bankruptcy and claimed our film as an asset. The film was thrown into a vault and never found the light for distribution! Then our feeling of being on top of the world became on of the biggest bitch slaps you could imagine.
Then I started work at Fox on a TV show called “Malcolm in the Middle”. At that show I met Brian LaBelle and Emyr Graciano. During the second season of the show, we all kept talking about making a low budget film that we could shoot entirely on location with a small crew of 6 people. I had traveled to Malaysia to attend one year of college about 4 years earlier and we all decided that we would shoot in Thailand and Malaysia and do a story about two traveler backpackers who meet in Thailand and fall in love and then have to decide when they reach Malaysia if they should stay together or go separate ways. We decided to shoot the film during hiatus for the show. We managed to raise about $65,000 from family and friends to go make the movie. We wanted this film to be a calling card of sorts, so we could show investors we knew what we were doing and then eventually we’d use this film to go out a raise more money to do a film on a grander scale called “The Art of Travel”. We shot “Somewhere” for 4 weeks with a crew of 6 people and used only two actors. We traveled over 1,650 miles while telling the story and during the filming we realized that if the dollar was strong enough we could really make the production look amazing. We got home, edited the film, and then Skywalker Ranch got a hold of the film somehow and called us up and told us they would “donate” their Sound Mixing facilities for our final mix. We spent one week at the ranch working on the final sound edit. Then we started getting into film festivals and actually won some awards. With ‘Somewhere,” I was able to convince investors that if we had more money we could shoot a film like “Somewhere” but on a grander scale. With “Border to Border” and “Somewhere” it was rather easy to convince investors I could make the film.
The biggest battles that we faced while making the film was convincing everyone that shooting on location in Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, and Bolivia was the way to go. You haven’t lived until you call a Hollywood agent and tell them you want to use their client in your film and pay them SAG scale and oh yea, shoot the film on location in the jungles of Panama! Good times. We would get thrown at us, “Why not shoot in Hawaii or Florida?” Then we’d say, “It’s not Panama.” We stuck to our convictions and eventually won each battle to convince all the agents their client would make it back home alive.
3. What were some of the major personal obstacles in making this film?
The biggest obstacle was convincing everyone involved to shoot the entire film on location. In film school you’re taught that when you finally make your feature film that you should limit the number of characters, limit the number of locations, and don’t shoot with animals, children, or on the water. I believe the opposite, when you’re off making your film, you really need to stand apart from the other 1,000 low-budget films that are being made too. People automatically think that if you shoot around where you live, you’ll be able to save a lot of money. Think I think this is true for the most part but if you live in New York or Los Angeles then I have news for you- it can be pretty dam expensive to film in those cities. When I’m shooting in LA, a major bitch is finding shooting locations. In LA everyone knows that they should be paid for use of their location and you need permits and insurance and meals cost a pretty penny. Shooting on streets in LA opened a whole new can of worms. The beauty of shooting in a foreign country is that, for the most part, they have no clue what’s involved making a movie and they will bend over backwards to help out your production. If my location calls for a city street in Managua, Nicaragua as long as I have someone from the city and permission to shoot there then I can practically shoot anything and anywhere. It’s crazy. I want to shoot on a busy street in Managua, so I pay about 4 police officers about $30 each and they’ll shut down one of the cities main streets for us to get the shot. Try that in LA and it’s going to cost you an arm and a leg. The two most expensive days on the entire shoot were the two days we shot in Los Angeles. The scene in the church where Conner is getting married, I wanted candles lit on the alter. I had to call the Fire Department to get the permits and a person to come out and supervise the scene. Those eight lit candles
on the alter cost the production about $1,100. Just know there are thousands of things you can get away with shooting on location in a different country that will add a lot of production value to your film compare to trying to shoot a low budget film in Los Angeles.
4. What were some of the major business obstacles in making this film?
The biggest obstacle was getting all the equipment from country to country on a budget level. Every time we flew from an airport to another airport it took about four hours to check in the entire cast and crew. We’d be flying with anywhere from 22 to 29 people. Our bags and equipment totalled about 125 bags. Just the baggage charges alone where hefty. The other obstacle we had to deal with was getting all the production equipment into the four countries. For Nicaragua, we got a letter from the Embassy in Washington granting us permission to bring in the equipment into their country. We were the ‘first” Hollywood film in their eyes to actually shoot in Nicaragua so they we’re really open to helping us out. In Panama we paid all the permits to get the equipment through customs, but we started to run out of money towards the end so we snuck all the equipment in Peru and Bolivia. It was a risky, crazy, move on our part but sometimes you just have to take chances in low-budget filming and our gamble worked. We would have had to pay the Peruvian Government about $60,000 to put in a bond that would take about a year to get back if we registered all the equipment with customs, and we would have been lucky to get our bond back, so we gambled and snuck everything in. That was a great obstacle to overcome!
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