Rookie Director's Guide to Budgeting: Cut!

Natalie Portman Hesher Rookie Director's Guide to Budgeting
Natalie Portman Hesher Rookie Director's Guide to Budgeting

Film director Spencer Susser's personal finance philosophy is one you might have heard from other artists before: Stop caring so much about the money, and perhaps the money will come. If it doesn't come, at least you're doing what you want to do.

It worked for him. The 33-year-old Susser made his first movie, the low-budget Hesher, in the middle of the recession. But he got bona fide star and eventual Oscar-winner Natalie Portman (Black Swan) to both act in it and produce it. For those reasons alone, we'll consider him an expert on the art of karmic money management.

"It's never about the money for me," he told DailyFinance's The Price of Fame. "If I had a real job, this is what I'd do on the weekends."

But even Susser conceded that money can be a "huge" factor in show business. It sure darkened his world when an investor got cold feet a few days before Hesher was to begin production. Susser wouldn't provide details, but he did say that in any venture as risky as independent filmmaking, you have to expect the unexpected.

"Anytime you think you're there, you're not," he said. "It can always get worse. These things come up. Someone changes their mind and they don't want their money in the movie anymore. It's a bit like walking a tightrope. It is a scary endeavor."

'The More You Spend, The Less Control You Have'

Cut to the happy ending: Hesher built reasonable buzz on the festival circuit, and will open Friday with a generous amount of publicity for a $7 million movie. The story centers around a feral squatter named Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt of 500 Days of Summer) who forms a twisted bond with a lonely lad (Devin Brochu), his depressed dad (Rainn Wilson of NBC's The Office) and flighty grandma (Piper Laurie). Portman plays a grocery clerk who joins the dysfunction.

Quite a high-powered cast for a rookie filmmaker who skipped college and film school. (Note to the hopeful: That route can save a lot on tuition. It worked for Quentin Tarantino as well.) At age 18, Susser got a job delivering videos for an editing house and learned to use the equipment during his downtime. One day he got up the nerve to re-edit a Nintendo commercial that the in-house editors had already cut. The bosses preferred Susser's version, which helped launch an editing career that Susser parlayed into directing commercials and music videos. In his spare time, he began writing Hesher, based partially on a boy he knew in high school. He then contacted Portman, whom he had met while filming off-camera footage for Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones.

But no amount of celebrity power could fast-track a production in 2009. When it came time to shoot, the financial climate in independent film was the most depressed it had been since its mid-1990s heyday. When he cut his shooting schedule from 40 days to 30 to trim the cost, he tried to look at the upside. "I'm interested in control," he said. "The more you spend, the less control you have."

Besides, he added, "I was never trying to make a career or make any money doing it. I just wanted to do what I liked in a very childish, selfish way."