Spielbergs on a Shoestring

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Low-Budget Legend

Comedy/horror director Mark Pirro can produce a feature for less than most families spend on a summer vacation. And unlike most road trips, Pirro's films often turn a tidy profit.

In fact Pirro was making financially successful films well before the digital revolution began. His Polish Vampire in Burbank, released in 1985 when film was the only option, has grossed more than $2 million, Pirro estimates. The flick has been distributed all over the world and has been broadcast a number of times on the USA channel's Up All Night. Not bad for a movie that cost a mere $2500 to make.

Pirro continued making movies that, like Polish Vampire, were shot on Super-8 film, including cult hits like Curse of the Queerwolf and Nudist Colony of the Dead. But Pirro was never in love with the Super-8 format. "The stock was expensive, and the color reproduction often differed from roll to roll," he says.

In 1998 Pirro experimented with very early versions of digital video but found poor image quality, balky editing software, and audio that often got out of sync with the picture.

By 2000, though, Pirro concluded that DV technology was mature enough to trust with his magnum opus: Rectuma, the story of a man whose bottom grows to Godzilla-like size and roams the streets, leaving dead bodies in its foul-smelling wake.

Okay, so it's not cinema verité. But, says Pirro, "It's easier to make a movie about a giant ass that runs amok than it is to make a movie like When Harry Met Sally on this small budget."

The movie cost just $800 to make ($250 went to the maker of the prosthetic posterior), but critics have praised it. Rectuma includes "every posterior joke imaginable, and deep-cheese action stuff that won't disappoint the target midnight crowd looking for a taste-free time," wrote Variety's Robert Koehler.

Shooting Rectuma on DV made many aspects of Pirro's job easier. "While I was editing Rectuma, I discovered I needed a shot of a helicopter. One day I heard one circling my neighborhood. I grabbed my camcorder, went outside, taped the helicopter, went inside, and simply dropped the shot into the movie. Instant production value!" That kind of serendipitous special effect was next to impossible when Pirro was shooting on film.

How does Pirro do so much with so little? Simple: He doesn't pay people. His actors work for free. And Pirro has gotten volunteer help from an Emmy Award-winning special effects artist and a Grammy-winning composer.

He gives his volunteers a credit and a finished copy of the movie. If they're struggling actors, he helps them edit their demo reel. "If they're having fun participating," Pirro says, "they won't even complain about you not feeding them."

But Pirro has also learned when to be ruthless. Halfway through shooting Polish Vampire in Burbank, his volunteer lead actor turned into a "prima donna," Pirro says. The man eventually quit, forcing Pirro to rewrite the movie and take over the lead role. Now, when Pirro sees any sign of overweening ego, he fires the actor on the spot.

If any lead role could go to an actor's head, though, it may be the one in Pirro's next project. He's currently working on a comedy about the return of Jesus Christ tentatively titled, Jesus, the Revenge. (Tagline: "He's not just mad. He's cross.") And no, Mel Gibson is not producing it.

Mark Pirro

Photograph: Anne Summa
Age: 48
Home: Van Nuys, California
Most successful film: A Polish Vampire in Burbank, a comedy about a vampire who's paralyzed by the fear that his fangs are too small.
Latest film cost: $800
Hardware: Sony DCR PC 100 camcorder, Lowell lighting kit, Compaq Presario 6000
Software: Adobe Premiere 6.5 (video editing), Ultimatte Advantedge and Primatte for After Effects (blue screen effects), Adobe After Effects (general special effects), Syntrillium Cool Edit Pro and Sony Pictures Digital Sound Forge (sound editing)
Web site: www.pirromount.com
Day job: Occasionally edits other people's films; shoots demonstration reels used by actors and comedians to apply for jobs; films focus group meetings and industrial videos.

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