Thursday, November 20, 2014

Tim Savage on “Under the Blood-Red Sun”

What was your filmmaking background before making Under the Blood-Red Sun?

TIM: Primarily, television commercials.  I think commercials are a great training ground for features because you must be extremely well prepared and disciplined in visual storytelling.  I’ve also worked on several short films, both as branded content for advertisers and for my church, New Hope Oahu, and these were important in expanding to longer stories.

I studied at Stanford and graduated with a BA in Communications.  I spent 4 years at a television station before moving in to commercials.

What attracted you to Graham Salisbury's book and what was the process for making the transition from book to screenplay? 

TIM: First and foremost, I loved the story of Under the Blood-Red Sun.  Second, I felt I had a specific voice in telling this story set in Hawaii.  And third, it’s an award-winning book that is required-reading in middle schools across the country with a loyal following for 20 years, so I felt it was smart investment of my heart, mind and soul.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?

TIM: Like all independent filmmakers we begged and borrowed.  Some of the funds came from the original partners – Dana Hankins (producer), Graham Salisbury (author) and me (director). 

Next in, was my best friend since high school, who believed in us before anyone else did, and then we mounted a successful (thankfully!) KickStarter campaign and raised $50K.  Since finishing the film, we’ve received support for several community organizations including a generous donation from the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii.

We deliberately planned to skip the theaters.  We’re going straight to digital purchases through Gumroad to start.  After a period of time with Gumroad, we’ll see what other distribution opportunities come our way. 

We chose this route primarily because we think the majority of our audience is young and they’re used to watching content over handheld devices like tablets, phones and computers.  This is the new paradigm for indie distribution but there’s not a lot of data available to vet the system, so we’ll have to wait and see how it works out for us.

Additionally, we believe there will be opportunities for us in educational arenas.

What tips have you learned (now that you've done it) about how to create a period piece on a low budget?

TIM: You mean other than, don’t?  Experts, consultants and owners of vintage cars and toys ultimately want to showcase either their knowledge or their stuff, don’t over pay for those things unless you plan on destroying them (at least this is true in Hawaii), but treat them with mad respect because they will save your tail.  Don’t plan on saving things in post, but just know that advances in technology have made it easier to do so (removing buildings, signs, etc).

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

TIM: We shot on the Canon 5D Mark lll with external Atomos recorders recording at ProRes 422 HQ.  The VFX shots were acquired on Red.  I love the image of the 5D and I think it gave us the most value for our budget.  The size factor was also important because some of our period houses were extremely small and we were shooting with multiple cameras.

I hate that we can’t significantly reposition shots with the 1080 size of our frame.  The 5D/Atomos connections weren’t robust enough for rigorous field production requiring extra time and effort to repair or re-rig.  I hope that on my next film we can step up to the Red or the Alexa, but overall I’m very pleased with the image of the Mark lll.

What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?

TIM: Probably the smartest thing we did was to extensively prepare.  We scouted every location several times, we mapped out every scene and shot.  We knew where to position big period military trucks in order to block contemporary buildings, we knew the days we needed more crew and when we could get by with skeleton team.  Obviously we couldn’t just make things up as we went because we didn’t have trucks full of wardrobe, props and equipment to support it. 

One example was that the TV show Hawaii 5-0 built a similar set to our internment camp a couple of months prior to us.  Rumor has it they spent about $100,000.  We chose a different location that had some appropriate-looking Quonset huts in the background, worked with volunteers and friends and got a comparable look for $1,000.

The dumbest thing we did was to produce a film starring an unknown 13-year-old Japanese boy set in 1941, with extremely limited financial resources.  Ultimately, I hope that will be the reason our film will succeed.

And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?

TIM: Test each piece of gear before putting it to work on your movie!  I have to live with a couple of shots that are problematic because of a recording issue in one of our recorders.
Choose your color grading station wisely, then have faith in it – every projector and monitor you see your film on after that will be different and it’s a wild goose chase to fine tune it for each.

If at all possible, test the film at your screening venues beforehand for picture and sound.  So far, every venue we’ve screened at has had some issue (projectors not working correctly, setup wrong, speaker output messed up, etc).

I’d also like people to know that our film is available on our website:

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Stephen Belber on "Tape"

Where were you in your career before you wrote Tape?

I was not highly far along. I had just quit my day-job to work on The Laramie Project. It was the year that we were researching the murder of Matthew Shepard. I was going out to Laramie every couple of months and then coming home. So I was just starting to get paid. I had been writing plays for a long time, I'd come out of the Playwright Fellowship program at Julliard, but I was sort of adrift and not sure.

And then Tape came along. It was not one of the big plays I was planning on writing or was working on. It was something were two old friends of mine came along and they wanted to showcase themselves as actors in the New York theater world, and they said, 'Can you write us something that can really show what we can do?"

So I really wrote it for them and then one of the actors was dating this girl, so I added her because it got boring with two guys after awhile. So it wasn't like, "I'm going to write this big play." I was just doing it because I liked these guys and I liked their work and it was fun.

What was your day-to-day writing process?

I guess I'm pretty intense when I come across an idea and I don't sort of do an hour a day. My wife is French and we were living over in France, in these guys' apartment while they were out of town. She was working on a job, and I was transcribing tapes for Laramie. And as soon as I got done with my current load, I dove into this.

I remember trying to describe this idea: A comedy about date rape was how I was forming it at the time. And she sort of laughed me off and said I should come up with a different idea. But I was able to keep writing; I remember starting over at one point, fairly early on and scraping what I had when I came up with the idea that she might show up. I was writing by hand at that time. I like to get really into it when I'm writing and get a first draft done as soon as possible, and then go back in and work on it.

And you're able to do that even if you don't know exactly where you're going?

Yeah. I had, at the time, a philosophy that when you're dealing with those types of tight friendships, where you don't know yourself where the conversation is going, that it would be truer and more genuine to write within that vein and to have a general goalpost that you were headed for, but to let the turns happen.

If you're writing quickly enough in your mind, and keeping up with your pen, let those twists and turns come at you, almost as quickly as they're coming at the characters. At least for this type of play, where it's sort of down and dirty.

When you were adapting it into a film script, was there ever any talk of "opening it up"?

There was briefly talk about it. That would be the first instinct for any filmmaker. That's the great thing about Linklater. We talked a little bit about opening it up, but his inclination was definitely not to, that it was going to be more interesting to keep it enclosed.

The problem was how do you not repeat the theatrically that comes when you try to film a play, because so often it doesn't work. Because of the DV cameras that were sort of new at the time, which allowed you to go into a motel room or a soundstage that really felt like a motel room, that he was going to be able to capture a cinematic way of telling the story. So, very briefly only did we talk about doing some exterior stuff, which made me delighted, because I was worried that they were going to ask me to write stuff that didn't fit this play.

What I love about the movie is that it raises more questions than it answers, and most movies aren't willing to do that.

Well, that's the golden rule is to tie it up and provide those answers. And even in playwriting, I think, it's a very fine line. Audiences will feel ripped off if you're intentionally ambiguous for the sake of it. If ambiguity serves a purpose, at the risk of sounding pretentious, it's to turn it around and challenge them to ask themselves, 'What would I do in that situation? What have I done in past situations? And what have I done about those things?' That does seem to serve a purpose, and if nothing else the movie does poke it back at you, and it's so pointed at a particular generation were the words date rape just became a phrase.

My wife translated it into French and there is no expression for date rape there in that country yet. And it's relatively new to America. So I think the people who respond to this movie are people who have grown up with those words.

So, in terms of adaptation, it sounds like you basically handed Linklater the script to the play and said 'Have at it.'

Yeah, he was great that way. It was the opposite of what you expect the Hollywood machine to do to your work. Basically, the put it in Final Draft form. Robert Sean Leonard's character was originally Jewish; he makes a crack about himself being Jewish, but we didn't think we could pass off him as that. We also changed his name. There were also one or two cultural references which we thought would potentially date the film, so we cut a couple lines, one about David Hasselhoff.

Do you ever put a script in a drawer for a while?

Oh, absolutely. I have about twenty-five things in a drawer right now.

I think if I had put Tape in a drawer at that point I would never have gone back, because it's not the heftiest play. But I know that it hit a chord with people, because it was compact. I always complain when I see plays that are successful that they aren't as deep and profound as they should be, but that's not what audiences necessarily want or connect to. It has a tightness that is very satisfying and a compactness, and at an hour twenty, it definitely had that.

Did you learn anything from this process that you've taken to other projects?

Yes. I think letting a degree of spontaneity into my writing, which was something that I had excised at Julliard. Learning to let that back in. And knowing that that makes for better writing.

I learned that there is a market and an audience out there for dialogue-heavy films and character-driven films, and that this fast give-and-take actually can work. Everyone says it's so theatrical that it doesn't work, but if you put it out there, an audience will follow it. It's not particularly complex, it's not Tom Stoppard. But we're used to it and we can be conditioned, as filmgoers, to follow and like it.

And that drama doesn't come from just visuals. Drama comes from classic dramatic structure and shifts in emotions.

Dialogue that's fun and appropriate to the contemporary world is something that audiences will respond to.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Tom DiCillo on "Living in Oblivion"

What was going on before you made Living In Oblivion?

TOM DICILLO: My first feature was film called Johnny Suede, starring Brad Pitt. I busted my ass on that one for at least four years to get it made. Although the film reached a certain sort of audience, it never quite found an audience, and the distribution of it was, frankly, really disappointing. It made making my second film really, really difficult.

I had written a screenplay called Box of Moonlight, and could not get the money for it. Years and years went by, two, three, four, five, and I just reached a point of such maniacal desperation that I said, "I have to do something, no matter what." It was out of that intense frustration that Living in Oblivion was born.

It wasn't born out of, "Hey, let me make a funny movie." It really came out of one of the most intense periods of anger and frustration in my career. And, ironically, it turned out to be the funniest movie I've ever made. I think in some way that is part of what makes my humor my humor. It is humor based upon real, human intensity, desperation, foolishness.

One of the things that makes the script so strong is that all the obstacles that you put in Nick's way are real obstacles that you've experienced in that position.

TOM DICILLO: Whatever you write, you have to tap into something personal for yourself. I used to have an acting teacher who said to me, "If it ain't personal, it ain't no good." There's something to be said for that. Even if you're talking about a character, someone who's not you, you have to find something that is you that you really do believe and that you've really experienced and you have real feelings about, and put it in that character's mouth and in their hearts and minds.

But at the same time, I don't want to ever make it seem like when I write that it's just me. I'm not interested in that. Even with my first film, Johnny Suede -- sure, I put a lot of myself into that character -- but I also was very clearly trying to find a way to make it more objective, more universal, something that other people could relate to.

I absolutely believe that if you can find a way to tap into something that's very personal, and then make a creative leap from there, that's the best way to do it. Anger by itself is not enough. You have to have the creative imagination coming into play as well.

How much rehearsal did you have?

TOM DICILLO: None. Absolutely none.

I don't like to rehearse, anyway. My style of working is to just talk to people, get the costumes correct, talk a little bit about the character, and then just find it as the camera is rolling. What was so fascinating to me was that none of these actors auditioned and they were almost instantaneously their parts. But everyone knew the lines, I'm very disciplined in terms of that.

Most people think Living In Oblivion is completely improvised, but there's only one scene that was improvised, and that's the scene where Steve erupts at the crew at the end of Part One. Everything else was completely scripted.

Were there any things you learned writing that script that you still use today?

TOM DICILLO: Yeah. I have a tendency, if I'm going to write a joke, I set it up with a one, two, three punch. But I realized that most of the time, when I get in the editing room, I usually only end up using the one or the two, never the one, two, three. That's kind of an interesting lesson to learn: if you're going to tell a joke, just tell the joke. Don't do three jokes.

I also learned the idea of setting in motion something that, once it's in motion has a life of its own and people are really are almost instantaneously eager to find out what's going to happen. That's a crucial thing. Many screenwriting teachers will talk to you about a screenplay and say that it's all about tension and conflict. And, in some ways, that absolutely true.

But if that tension and conflict doesn't arouse enough interest to have people really want to know what's going to happen next, then you're screwed. I think Johnny Suede suffered from that a bit. It was my first screenplay and there's very little real dramatic tension in it.

I like the idea of setting something in motion -- like a cart rolling down a hill -- that once it's going, you can't stop it.

What's your favorite memory of working on Living In Oblivion?

TOM DICILLO: Oh, man, there are millions. I think I would have to say that it was the look on people's faces the first time Peter Dinklage, who plays Tito, erupted into his tirade against the director. Most of the crew that we had hired had not read the script, because we weren't paying anybody. And so we were getting people working for free, and they might work one or two days a week.

And so this crew was just standing by the lights, doing whatever they were doing, and all of a sudden Peter Dinklage, during a take, says, "I'm sick of this crap." He just erupted and everybody just turned and looked with their jaws open. They really thought he was saying it.

Then the laughter that erupted when they realized that it was just part of the movie, it was a fantastic feeling. It made me really feel that I had stumbled upon something and it was working.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

David Richards on "Nowhere Nevada"

What was your filmmaking background before making Nowhere Nevada?

DAVID: I was going to film school at the time and hadn't really done much filmmaking. I had produced 4 rock and roll documentaries of Nick's benefit concert Marianarchy. These involved shooting two days of concert footage (ranging from 20-30 bands) along with band interviews. I compiled all the footage into a two-hour documentary for the following year’s event to help promote what is, in my opinion, a fabulous humanitarian effort. These were hectic and long days of shooting (averaging 10 to 14 hrs days). I did all of the editing and production on these films and learned a lot.

Tyler and I shot a music video prior to starting Nowhere just to work together a bit and learn each others ways. I knew going in that taking on a feature length film would be a huge step but I felt I was ready for it and figured I would learn a lot. I would joke with people when they asked me if I might be in over my head. My answer to them was, "Yeah most likely."

How did you get connected with Marianne Psota's script and what was the process for getting it ready to shoot?

DAVID: While I was going to film school, Nick and I were chatting at our watering hole and I told Nick I was ready to do a feature film. He mentioned Marianne's script and if I had read it. I hadn't, so he gave it to me to check out. After reading it I knew instantly this was the project for me.

While her script was very rough and needed development, the story and the characters were solid. The music aspect of the script appealed to me right away. I said to myself, with some rewrites and development this could make an amazing rock and roll cult film. I called it a rock and roll fantasia. My past, the people and friends around me, Nick's local musical knowledge, all of it crystalized immediately. I knew we had all the pieces locally to make a great film. One reading and I could damn well see the finished film in my head. I knew this was the project. From there I went after funding, Tyler Bourns, actors, tech folk and others. I just started to sell it to everyone around me and began rewrites. Thus the journey began.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?

DAVID: Hudson Flanigan was the one and only person I really knew that I felt might be able to help us out financially. I came up with a number and picked up the phone to pitch him the film and ask for funding. Man, I was nervous doing that call. I knew Hudson casually over a number of years but was nowhere near as close to him as Nick and some other folk in our circle. Hudson had been part of the Reno music scene years before and had since moved to Portland.

I had no idea where any other funds would come from. I just knew we could start with the amount asked. It was a calculated risk. I figured if I could tell folks we had something to start with it would be easier to get them involved. Hudson said yes a few days after the pitch and one piece of the puzzle was set.

How did you cast the film and did the script change at all based on the casting?

DAVID: Casting the film came in two parts. As I was doing the rewrites I had a number of local actors in mind for certain existing roles, along with some characters added in rewrites. Most of those actors ended up in the film, though some not in the roles I first envisioned.

The leads and a few supporting roles came through auditioning at Nevada casting working with Juli Green. She was a huge help, specifically with finding the leads. We auditioned from LA and SF, but ended up casting two local actors. Juli ended up becoming another producer on the film and was instrumental in the films success.

One interesting casting was a native American role. We were not able to find an actor for it. One of the actors, a long time Reno veteran Tom Plunkett, took the role. Now Tom is very much Caucasian so I simply added one line to the script. One of the leads asks him his name and he answers, " Sam the Indian." "Sam the Indian?" replies TJ. Sam replies, "Ten percent." It became a good joke in the script and Tom was amazing as usual.

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

DAVID: We shot on a Red camera. Tyler already owned most of the equipment we needed and was willing to use it for the project. If I remember right, the Red was pretty new and I think he wanted to put it through its paces.

Tyler was huge to this production. Knowledge, talent, equipment. Without him this film would not have happened.  I loved having a Red to shoot with. As far as good and bad things you would have to ask Tyler, I only had the thing in my hands once or twice.

What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?

DAVID: Boy the smartest thing done during production? Tyler and I did a lot of scouting for locations. I really knew what I wanted. We got lucky and found perfect places such as Middlegate NV and Hazen NV. Having our locations set helped out a lot.

The dumbest thing I think would be not doing dailies at the end of each shoot day. Of course you have to understand the initial 10 days of principal shooting were on an average of 17 to 26 hours. Sleep was necessary. But dailies would have helped with continuity issues. We had a few of those.

And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?

DAVID: My partner Scott Dundas and I have started a little production company and we have shot 3 short films since. They average about 18 min or so.

Doing those films I have used many lessons learned from Nowhere.  Each film has it's own challenges ya know. I find every film I do has it's own lessons to teach.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Chris White on "Cinema Purgatorio"

What was your filmmaking background before making Cinema Purgatorio?

CHRIS: I’ve always been into fiction...short stories, novels, even poetry and song lyrics. In high school I discovered improvisation and acting; which led to my majoring in Drama in college. So my path to filmmaker came by way of live theatre making, ad copywriting, amateur photography...even graphic design.

With the rise of DSLRs, I saw an opportunity, and with my wife Emily, started making films in 2009. Cinema Purgatorio is my third feature-length project, and the most sophisticated in terms of process. It’s also my most raw and honest work to date.

Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like? 

CHRIS: I was in the middle of a disappointing collaboration with another screenwriter, when Emily and I decided to put that project on hold and make Cinema Purgatorio. We wrote the screenplay in just a couple of weeks: filmmaking couple decides to participate in a 48-hour film festival that Bill Murray is to be a judge for...everything goes bad, really bad, but in the process they realize that they don’t need Bill Murray to be successful and happy. It was really our way of encouraging each other, of refocusing and recommitting to our career plan.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?

CHRIS: Cinema Purgatorio cost $50,000 to make and that sum was raised privately from about half a dozen investors.

We launched the film in June and have spent the entire summer “touring” it around the a band with a new record. Sometimes we book theaters; sometimes living rooms. We sell DVDs and have the film available for PPV streaming.

Cinema Purgatorio will play several US festivals in the fall and spring and may eventually find a small distributor. But. By that time, the film will have paid for itself and be running in the black thanks to our screening tour and self-distribution efforts.

Plus, we will have collected many more “friends and fans” along the way...people who will help push the film into new audience groups and be excited for our next project.

How did you cast the film and did the script change much once you had your cast in place?

CHRIS: I like to write for actors I know, and over the years I’ve managed to meet, know, work with, and keep in touch with a lot of really talented people. With Cinema Purgatorio, most of the characters were inspired by actual people; so in some cases, we were looking for matches. Often, we’d meet someone at a screening for our previous film or at a local festival or see a play, and drive home talking about how they might be right for a role in Cinema Purgatorio. Once our cast was locked in, we really didn’t change much about the script...though we encouraged each actor to bring their own unique qualities and traits to their role.

You wore a lot of hats on this picture -- director, writer, producer, and actor. What are the upside and the downside to doing that?

CHRIS: The role I played in Cinema Purgatorio was pretty much based on me. So my acting challenge was to remain calm, focused, locked in and listening to my scene partners...nothing too ambitious or distracting. It actually proved quite useful to me, acting and directing, as I was able to establish a tone to those scenes through my acting.

The downside of acting and directing is that sometimes you miss things in your own performance, things you’d have rather got one more take on. Oddly enough, in the edit, I was often frustrated: “I know we got her close-up on that line...and her reading was perfect!” Only, we hadn’t covered that line in close-up; I was recalling the reading from my own memory...acting with the person.

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

CHRIS: We shot Cinema Purgatorio with Canon HD cameras: 5D, 7D, T2i and my own pocket camera, the Powershot Elph 110. I see so many would-be filmmakers hampered by this idea that they have to be using a certain kind of technology to really be making a movie. That’s keeps you in the coffeehouse talking about making movies.

With a 50K budget, you’re pretty much limited to DSLR. But. I have no complaints. At this level, I’m mostly interested in shot composition, focus, and the operator’s ability to stay with an actor’s performance. Everyone who operated camera on Cinema Purgatorio has acting and directing experience. I think that comes through in our shots: the camera as an observer of the life of the film.

What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?

CHRIS: SMARTEST: making the quest for Bill Murray a key part of our plot. This has really animated our promotional efforts. The plausibility of finding Bill and having him participate in the project has kept people interested in Cinema Purgatorio in a very committed way. When we first thought of the idea, it was almost an after-thought: “Who will be the Guffman these people are waiting for?” But now, it’s in the logline for the film.

DUMBEST: Poor archiving of media led to sound syncing problems and many other nightmarish post-production issues. Seriously, I really dropped the ball on this, and I believe it’s cost me time and money.

And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?

CHRIS: Funny movies are a much easier sell than dramatic ones...especially when you’re an unknown. Of course, you have to be up to the task. You have to make a truly funny movie. Which (I believe) is so much harder than a drama. Plus, it was more enjoyable on the set, everybody laughing and making each other laugh the whole time.

Our next project is a rock-and-roll, road movie set in 1986. I can assure you that it will be packed with laughs...and a blast to make and to watch.

VOD page for the film: