ARTHUR: I went to film school and then worked on shoots, gradually climbing my way up to line producer/production manager. I directed a low budget feature, Caleb's Door, and a few experimental shorts along the way.
After line producing over a dozen features and post supervising a few, I felt like I was ready to direct again. Line producing taught me an enormous amount about how to make films, and what kinds of mistakes to avoid.
Where did the idea come from and what was the process of writing the script?
ARTHUR: The idea came from creative and career frustration. I'd written a more conventional sci-fi script, Vision, that was going to go into production, but the financing fell apart. I thought, what if I could write something cheaply enough to shoot it on a really small budget, that would also be more daring, more personal.
I've always been interested in the intersection between time, identity and reality. What if our nonlinear experience of time - the way we slip between daydreams, memories, the present moment, and anxiety over the future - was the truth, or at least just as valid, as the linear way we're told time works? So I started with that idea, and some characters and scenes I'd been thinking about for a long time, and stitched the story together.
The script came along very quickly. I wanted to drop the audience into the world without explaining very much, and challenge them a bit. Whenever I saw a character explaining too much or making things too logical, I stripped it out. I rewrote the script several times, mostly focusing on the characters' journeys. Then I did a few smaller passes to try and trim away any "budget"-busting elements.
ARTHUR: Sort-of. I wrote a lot of daylight exterior scenes, and tried to keep the number of locations to a minimum. In New York City, many city properties (streets and parks) are free, except for the one-time permit fee. So over half the script takes place either on a street or in a park.
I did know I could count on the crew and vendors that had worked with me on prior projects to give me good deals. I had enough friends with apartments that I figured I'd find a few who would be willing to lend them out cheaply.
Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your distribution plan for recouping your costs?
ARTHUR: The budget was raised from a few friends of mine, two not-very-successful crowdfunding campaigns, the New York State Tax Incentive refund, and my own pocket. I work as a computer programmer, teacher, and line producer, so I've been able to cobble together a good living, and I don't spend much on myself. Some people go on vacation or buy a car. I lived in a studio apartment on a pretty barebones budget for a long time. Even so I still had to go into a fair amount of debt.
My original distribution plan was to market it to the art house crowd and to fantasy fans, via festivals. Plan A was to get a medium-size distributor on board for a small theatrical release, home video, and streaming.
However, in the two years it took to finance, prep, shoot and finish post on the film, the entire market changed. Theatrical and home video tanked for most small films, the art house festivals hated the film (or at least rejected it), and streaming became the best bet for recoupment.
What saved us was that the genre festivals liked the film, and pegged it as sci-fi. So we had to spin a new strategy, that went something like this:
1. Use genre festivals and sci-fi/comic/fantasy conventions to generate word of mouth, fans, and reviews
2. Get the film to sci-fi podcasts, magazines, review sites, for reviews
3. Aim for genre domestic distributors
4. Aim for genre-driven foreign sales agents
5. Generate additional revenue from soundtrack sales, self-selling DVDs and Vimeo / VHX downloads
6. Use special screenings (at bars, sci-fi clubs, microcinemas) to further build a fan base and drive some DVD and download sales
After asking around for referrals, we hired Circus Road Films as our producer's rep. He took the film to distributors for nearly a year, and we rejected a couple of sub-par offers before getting a decent one from Green Apple. They eventually got it out on various VOD platforms.
We put it up on VHX and Vimeo, and then approached TomCat Films (also referred to us), who are taking it to AFM and to different foreign distributors. While all this was happening we pushed the film out to festivals, sci-fi/comic conventions, special screenings (at sci-fi bookstores, theme bars, sci-fi clubs, basically whoever would screen it), and put the film on Vimeo and VHX and the soundtrack up everywhere.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?
ARTHUR: The Canon 5D Mark II, owned and operated by our DP, Ben Wolf. We shot 1080/24p, with separate source audio. We kept the camera kit really stripped down - no onboard or secondary monitor, no matte box, no follow-focus, no special rigs, no dolly.
We had a tripod and a hi-hat, two prime super speed lenses (28mm and 50mm) and two zooms (25mm-85mm and 70mm-200mm). Ben brought his glidearm, which made a huge difference in terms of getting dynamic and steady moving shots.
We had a number of memory cards (I can't remember how many or the capacity). Ben downloaded the footage at the end of the evening to a LaCie Rugged drive attached to his MacBook. We made backup copies to a second and third drive.
In post I transcoded the footage from H.264 to ProResLT (4:2:2). Verne Mattson, our colorist, graded and output the final film in ProResHQ (also 4:2:2). All of our equipment, including camera, lights, grip, wardrobe, HMU, props, crafty, etc. fit into a cargo van (barely).
What I loved: with such a minimal setup we were invisible on the street. That kept passersby from staring too much (since we couldn't control the streets with an army of PAs we just asked them to keep moving). It also allowed us to move from setup to setup very quickly, and put the camera in really tight spots. There's a few interiors that are barely six feet wide. Ben put the camera on the glidearm, leaned it against the wall, and suddenly we had all this room to frame a decent shot. I also got to be right where I like to be when I'm directing, which is standing next to the DP and looking at the actors, rather than back at video village.
What I hated: Sometimes not having a monitor caused us some grief later on. We had a sensor smudge that somehow went undetected through one of our most difficult scenes, a chase. Our VFX artist, Vickie Lazos, brought the locked scene into Photoshop and After Effects and painted out the smeared pixels. One. Frame. At. A. Time. I don't know how she did it without going crazy, but she gets big kudos for it. We had a few boom shots that had to be erased in post, though fortunately none of them was supercritical.
ARTHUR: The final film is very close to the shooting script. There were only two scenes that were shortened considerably, because they slowed the story down and didn't have a big payoff. Dan Loewenthal, the editor, did make a lot of subtle changes to improve the pacing and keep the mood and tension up. There were little snippets of dialog that were chopped, beats that were tightened. He also added scenic footage of the city to move the story from scene to scene.
We spent a lot of time finessing the transitions from one timeline/time "slippage" to another. Should they be abrupt, leaving the user confused? Should there be some audio leading the visual transition? Most of the time I wanted the transitions to be abrupt, so you would feel as disoriented as the main character. Dan sometimes suggested softening the transition a bit, to keep the viewer from feeling completely pulled out of the story. Often we were able to find a good compromise.
Early on in post, Dan, Quentin Chiappetta - the sound designer and composer - and I talked about music and sound design. Sound design is very important in every movie, but especially so here, since it can further serve to "build" a sci-fi world. I was interested in putting in Middle Eastern/Moroccan oud music, because I love the bluesy feeling it evokes, and how uncanny it sounds in a New York City context. Dan had worked on an Egyptian soap opera, so he laid down some temp tracks. We found that it sort-of worked but didn't really draw the viewer into the story.
Quentin has very eclectic tastes, and felt that by incorporating elements from other musical paradigms, he could create a score that would still sound a bit unworldly but warmer. Using our discussions and temp tracks as a jumping-off point, Quentin crafted something really terrific and original - but also restrained (there are many scenes in the film that have no score). He also came up with a really great sound design, that shaped the world and got us into the main character's head a bit more.
ARTHUR: The smartest thing I did during production was hire good people who I could trust and collaborate with. Most of the crew were folks I'd known for years. I also spent a lot of time in prep - months, part time - putting together the script analysis, the crew, the props, the locations, the cast (big shout-out to Kat Hinchey, the casting director). If you spend the time in prep, the shoot will go more smoothly, and you'll still have plenty of room for experimentation.
The dumbest thing I did during production was overschedule two of my days - the only two we went into overtime on. The entire shoot was 13 days. So it was critical to balance each day so I didn't run everyone ragged or start having to chop stuff out. Stunts just take a long time to deal with, and we had two major stunt sequences in the film (all of the stabbings by the tree, and the chase scene outside of the Mine). In both cases, we went into OT and had to scrap some setups just to make our day. I probably should have added one more day to the schedule.
Runner-up: leaving my cellphone in the equipment van while going to pick up the keys for one of the locations. Somebody broke into the van and stole the phone. Fortunately, they left everything else, but it caused some logistical problems and cost money I wasn't counting on spending.
ARTHUR: I really like working with small crews. Our average crew size was 7-12 people (DP, Gaffer, Mixer, Boom, Costume Designer, HMU, and 1-4 PAs). We were able to improvise and adapt very quickly to changes in weather, location, and blocking. It's a bit of a challenge - everyone has to do more work - but I think it's worth it. And everyone feels a little more personally involved in the film, as opposed to being part of this big machine.
I learned a lot about working with actors, namely that there's always more to learn. Which is a wonderful thing, really. Directing actors demands that you work in a process-oriented way, as opposed to a result-oriented way. And also know when to stop talking. Those are two things I can always get better at.