Thursday, September 11, 2014

Joel Allen Schroeder on "Dear Mr. Watterson"


What was your filmmaking background before making Dear Mr. Watterson?

JOEL: I attended the University of Southern California’s Cinematic Arts program, and found myself working on a lot of documentary content after graduation.  I’ve cut countless short-form nonfiction pieces, and I’ve shot a lot of behind-the-scenes content.  It isn’t that I’ve never been interested in narrative filmmaking, but my skill set sort of led me to documentaries.

Where did the idea come from?

JOEL: The real genesis goes back to a script I was writing many years ago, in which I wanted to reference a Calvin & Hobbes strip.  The script wasn’t really working well-enough, though, and I gave up on it.  It did spark the idea for a documentary about Calvin & Hobbes though.  

And like I say in the film, the thing that really interests me about Calvin & Hobbes is how perfect a legacy the strip has.  There’s the mythology surrounding Bill Watterson and his reclusiveness and all that, but the most brilliant thing about it to me is how he’s had an impact on millions of readers with his pen and ink and paper.  Many other ideas for films had come and gone, but this idea stuck.


At what point in the process did you decide to not only narrate but also to appear in the movie?

JOEL: I think I knew from early on that we’d need narration, but I didn’t plan to be in the film.  However, it became apparent that we sort of needed a bit of a tour guide since we wouldn’t have Watterson himself.  Finding someone else to fill that role would have been complicated, as we had essentially no budget, no serious schedule, and plenty of limitations at the beginning.  And the other members of the team—Chris Browne, Matt McUsic, and Andrew Waruszewski—encouraged me to take on a bigger role.

If the tag at the end of the movie is to be believed, you never attempted to contact Mr. Watterson. Was that your plan going in?

JOEL: The end tag is completely true.  I wanted to respect Watterson’s privacy.  Nevin Martell’s book Looking for Calvin & Hobbes had come out a couple years after we began the film, and Watterson had turned down Nevin for an interview.  That was a 100% confirmation that we would not have him for our film, as we knew he wouldn’t participate in a film about his strip if he wouldn’t participate in a book about his strip.  

The last thing I wanted to do was make a film about Calvin & Hobbes that would annoy Bill Watterson.


Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs? How much of your budget was raised via Kickstarter?

JOEL: I put in about 10-15% of the budget and countless hours of unpaid time.  The rest was raised via Kickstarter, about $121,000.  By raising most of our budget through Kickstarter, we not only found evidence that Calvin & Hobbes had a tremendous cultural impact, but it meant we didn’t have to worry about recouping costs to pay back an investor or loans.  We could just focus on making the film.

Any tips for a filmmaker thinking of using Kickstarter?

JOEL: I could talk for hours with a filmmaker who is thinking about using Kickstarter to raise funds.  I love the concept of Kickstarter for so many reasons, and obviously I love it even more because of how we were able to find success via Kickstarter.  

Since every project is different, I’ll just say this: your Backers (I always like to capitalize Backers) are putting their trust in you that you’ll complete your film, and films take time. Don’t promise things you can’t deliver, and keep your Backers informed.  Be open and honest, and let your Backers get to know you.  Respect that your Backers have contributed their hard-earned cash to your project, and don’t take them for granted.  Do not think of them as simply regular retail customers who are buying your product.  They are helping you to make it in the first place.

How did you go about getting the rights to all the comic strip images in the movie and what did you learn from that process?

JOEL: More than a year before the film was complete, we began to seek advice regarding Fair Use for most of the images in the film.  It was a big learning experience, as there are guidelines you need to follow in terms of when and why and how much of images and video you can legally use.  Luckily, there are great resources for learning about Fair Use for documentary filmmakers.


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

JOEL: Our earliest interviews were shot on a DVX-100b, a camera I absolutely love, but one that is standard definition (this was in 2007).  We quickly realized we needed to go HD, and began borrowing a Sony EX1.  I have no complaints about the EX1, but we wanted to have our own camera that would be at our disposal at any moment.  

We bought a Canon 7D, which is a great option for budget-conscious filmmakers, but it does have one major flaw: you’re going back to dual-system when it comes to audio and video.  It isn’t the end of the world—especially for narrative filmmakers, but it definitely makes things a bit more complicated when you’re shooting a documentary.  

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

JOEL: Smartest?  Jeez.  You’d have to ask somebody else that question.  I’m not sure I have the perspective to name the smartest thing—although convincing some really talented collaborators to be a part of it was a good move.  

But I can tell you the dumbest.  We lost about 90% of the video from our interview with Andrew Farago, curator at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco.  Somehow one of the cards wasn’t transferred or backed up or something…  But there’s maybe a nice thing about dual-system…we still had the audio.


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

JOEL: I think I’ve probably learned a million little things that are too many to name.

Going through the whole process has been an education.  We had such a small team involved in the film, and I was a part of every single little miniscule piece of the project.  

This has been a big confidence-builder.  It was my first feature film, but now I have no doubt I can repeat the process.  I know what it takes to finish.  

And one thing I know for sure is I’ll never have an HDcam-SR master made of any future film unless I am told I definitely need it.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

David Burton Morris on "Patti Rocks"


We really can't talk about Patti Rocks without talking about the film that came before, Loose Ends. How did that film come about?

MORRIS: I saw Memories of Underdevelopment, a Cuban Film, at the Walker Art Center, and I rushed home to my wife, Victoria, and I said, 'You know, we can make a movie really cheap. I just saw this great movie, it was black and white. If we can scrape together $20,000, we can make a movie.' And so we did. She wrote it. And it shot for two weeks, Loose Ends. That was sort of a calling card. We went to 20-25 film festivals, didn't win anything really, but Roger Ebert discovered us and Vincent Canby and Andrew Sarris and we got all these great notices.

Finally got enough money, in the early 80s, to do a movie called Purple Haze, and that did very well. It won Sundance, and that was our first real movie. It was 35mm, color, we actually a shooting schedule and a budget. And that did very well. And we looked like we were on our way.

I then, subsequently, got fired from two studio pictures and was very unhappy -- we're now talking mid-80s -- and I was thinking about quitting, I was thinking about getting out of the business because I was really unhappy. And I thought back to the only time I had a really good time making a movie was my first film, Loose Ends. And I thought, maybe I should think about writing something for those guys and making it back in Minnesota and sort of re-creating my enthusiasm for making movies.

How did you and the actors create the script?

MORRIS: We did a lot of just riffs on sex. We had another movie in mind. And I had all these long cassette tapes filled with Mulkey and Jenkins riffing on women, and I thought, this is interesting. Somehow I got the idea of putting them in the car, driving all night to see Patti to talk her into having an abortion. I did a first draft and I'd give it to them and we'd tinker with it and do some more improvs. Jenkins lived in Chicago, so we flew there a couple times and do some more improvs, and I'd type that up.

How did you come up with the title?

MORRIS: The way I got the title was interesting. I was at the Chicago Film Festival, on a panel. I was dinner with a group of people from the festival and this woman was sitting next to me. I said, 'What do you do?' She said, 'I sing in a band.' I said, 'What's the name of the band?' She said, 'Patti Rocks.' And I said, 'Oh, that's a really good title.'"

How did you get the financing?

MORRIS: I'd known Sam Grogg, because he was head of the USA Film Festival in Dallas. And he'd started a film company called Film Dallas. So I gave him the script and said, 'What do you think?' He said, 'We'll make it.' It was the easiest thing I've ever done. I wrote it and within a month they'd given me $400,000 to make this movie.

He had very few notes. He just said, 'They have to get out of the car midway through this movie.' I said, 'What do you want them to do? See a flying saucer?' He said, 'I don't know, you'll think of something.'

Did you make any big changes to the script once you got the money?

MORRIS: I wrote it for the summer, because Mulkey's running around in his underwear. But we couldn't get it all together, and we got the money in November, and I said, 'We're going to make the movie. We've got the money, we're going.' And it actually turned into a more interesting film, just because of the look of the snow and Mulkey running around in his underwear in 23 degrees below zero.

I had a lot of fun making the film. We had our problems, obviously, because of the money and the cold, but it just re-enthused me for making movies again.

Did you worry about the subject matter at all?

MORRIS: I thought it was risky, in terms of the subject matter. I didn't know until after it was done how people would react to the language in the picture. The ratings board first gave us an X for language, and that had never happened before. I guess I was just so used to it. Not that I talk that way, but certainly I hear that. I was kind of surprised by the reaction.

When I first started putting this together, I thought people are either going to love or hate this. I had no idea I was going to divide audiences, and it did. And it did. People loved the movie or hated the movie. More people loved it, thank god, than hated it.

At the very few personal appearances I made before the movie, I'd say, 'Some of you people might get uncomfortable during the first two acts of this movie. Just wait, okay?'

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Kevin Yeboah on "Traces"

What was your filmmaking background before making Traces?

KEVIN: Before making Traces, I started a production group called BoahVille Productions with my friends. We were all in the Media Communications program at August Martin High School and just gravitated toward each other. This was around 2008.

We started by making two short films titled Just Business 1 and 2 and a documentary for our media production class. Once we graduated from High School we went on to create several projects including a web series titled For Colored Brothers and several music videos. I have served as director and editor on many of these projects and have my own documentary series.

During this time I also studied Film & Cinematography at The City College of New York where I earned my Bachelors in Fine Arts.


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

KEVIN: Traces was actually conceived all the way in 2010 after we finished filming Just Business 2.  Though I love the Just Business films (mostly because they were our first attempts at telling a story), I felt that they were very amateurish and lacked character depth. With Traces I wanted to reach for something big and create an interesting story with interesting characters.

One day while bouncing ideas off of Ebony Ruth (another BoahVille member), we realized that a mystery drama would create numerous possibilities for an interesting story and from there we just ran with it.

At the time I was watching a lot of film noir and that really influenced the lighting style of Traces. The memory loss aspect was inspired by Christopher Nolan’s film Memento.

The writing process was very interesting because the plot of the film morphed greatly from the original draft. We always had the same premise, but each character’s actions and motivations greatly evolved throughout the writing process.

This is because I never felt satisfied with the story. When I finished the third draft of the film, I felt that while the plot was great, the characters fell flat and were not interesting.  So during the fourth and final drafts I focused heavily on enhancing the characters and their interactions. I’m really satisfied with how it came out because each of the main characters, for selfish and selfless reasons, have something on the line or something to protect in this film.


Can you talk about how you raised your budget, how you managed your Kickstarter campaign and your financial plan for recouping your costs?

KEVIN: Our budget was primarily raised through the Kickstarter campaign. The rest of the budget actually came from scholarship money that I received from school.

The Kickstarter campaign was a fun project because it gave us the opportunity to really bring a lot of attention to BoahVille and Traces. I was constantly updating and spreading the word about my Kickstarter campaign. From blog sites to social media, I used everything I could to promote and bring attention to it.

I’m really happy the campaign was successful because the equipment that we purchased truly added to the quality of the film.


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

KEVIN: We used a Canon 60D DSLR camera with a shotgun Rode mic mounted on it. I love this camera for several reasons. It has great quality, shoots well in low light, and is very convenient when it comes to shooting in small spaces.

There are some drawbacks though; the camera lacks several things that would greatly help when filming. For instance the LCD display does not have a sound monitor. So instead of just shooting a given scene, we would have to do a practice run of the scene while monitoring the sound to make sure the levels were good, and then film the actual scene after that.  This is a great waste of time on any set.

Luckily we found ways around that and were able to seamlessly film while monitoring the sound.


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

KEVIN: I believe the smartest thing I did during production was figuring out how to continue the story of the film while omitting what I considered to be a major part of the plot. We needed a location for an important scene but the cost of the location was way out of my budget. So in the middle of production I had to figure out how I would be able to continue the story without this scene in a way that made sense.

So I spoke to David Cole (Michael in the film) and we found a very unique way to make the story work despite the absence of that scene. Unfortunately I can’t go into detail about the solution we came up with (don’t want to spoil the story) but I believe we did a great job of finding an organic way to get the point across without that scene.

The dumbest thing I did was to rely on the LCD screen to make sure my lighting was good. This led to me filming a whole scene and believing that the lighting was perfect. When I reviewed the footage later I noticed the entire scene was dark and we had to shoot it all over. Never made that mistake again.


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

KEVIN: I truly love Traces because it was an experience that taught me so much and helped me grow as a filmmaker. I believe the most valuable lesson I learned from this process is that it is extremely important to pay attention to the ISO when filming. I never knew how much the ISO could affect the quality of the image until I worked on this film.

I also learned how to manage time well and stay organized when creating a film. Everyone has to be on the same page and kept up to date with scheduling, weather, locations, etc. Communication and teamwork are very important.

Even though I love Traces and am certainly proud of it, I find that part of me isn’t satisfied with it. But I believe that is a good thing because it shows that I have grown from this experience.


When I watch Traces now I think to myself “oh I could’ve done this to make the scene better” or “I could have shot this from a better angle.” I like to see the flaws in my films because it makes me a better filmmaker. I learn from these flaws and take these lessons with me to my new projects. And I can certainly see an improvement in my skills with every project I do.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Meredith Edwards on “Imagine I'm Beautiful”

What was your filmmaking background before making Imagine I'm Beautiful?

MEREDITH: I've been involved in film and theatre in one way or another for the past ten years, but it wasn't until I moved to New York in 2008 that I took the reigns and started creating my own career opportunities.  

Before Imagine I'm Beautiful, I co-created, directed, produced and starred in a full length multimedia play entitled Degeneration X that ran over two months at The Living Theatre in Manhattan's lower east side.  The play merged live theatre and film to tell the story of a young man's psyche as he is faced with a rare and degenerative eye condition.  

The film portions represented half of the experience and served as vignettes, transitions and hallucinations caused by the syndrome.  We shot over 13 days in the scorching Brooklyn heat of summer, 2011.  It was juicy guerilla-style filmmaking and the content offered much freedom on set and in the editing room.  It was a wonderful learning experience and playground for me.  I had also made project trailers for both Degeneration X and Imagine I'm Beautiful (then titled, Under Her Skin).  In my gut, I felt ready and confident to tackle a feature film next.  

How did you come to be a film director?

MEREDITH: I'm not a film director just to tell stories nor am I anywhere near a film buff.  I'm a film director when I feel like a story is aching to be told.  Then my vision becomes very clear.  The story not only needs to be meaningful for me, but a message that I deem meaningful, needed, and useful to bring about for others and the world.  

I'm constantly asking myself, "why?" -- why does this particular story need to be told? And if the answer is overwhelming for me, I know I must tell that story.  If not, it's not my story to tell.  I consider myself an empathic and compassionate person.  I think that helps in molding a story and working with a team of collaborators, which is what every filmmaking endeavor is.  


How did you get connected to Naomi McDougall Jones' script and what was your working process to get the script ready to shoot?

MEREDITH: I sat across from Naomi at a mutual friend's dinner party.  We were both talking about our current projects and she mentioned her new screenplay was a psychological drama.  That's when my ears first perked up, as that's kinda my thing.  She followed that by saying they (she and her producing partner, Caitlin Gold) were looking for a director.  

The script ended up in my inbox.  I remember reading it very critically because I was head over heels in another project and had no business sniffing in another script at the time.  But destiny took over and after reading it, I knew this was also my story to tell.  

Over the course of the next two years, the script, the story, and the team continued to evolve, making the film what it is now.  Naomi and I had countless meetings, phone calls, and email exchanges about character and story journeys.  When the director and writer are two different people, which can be rare in indies, the story becomes a shared one.  

After I came on board, there were then two baby mamas.  And since Naomi was also a producer and starring in the film, she still had her hand in the pot versus a screenwriter who flies away once the script is out of their hands.  Naomi was fantastic in allowing me to do my job as the director all the way from pre-production to post.  She trusted me whole-heartedly as her director, and her two producing partners, so that she could engulf herself in the role of Lana, which is what it deserved and frankly the only way it would work.  

We were also working in the constraints of an extremely low budget, which was a great challenge that I think helped the film in the end.  I remember just weeks before production day 1, myself, Naomi, Caitlin, and our third producer, Joanna Bowzer, had an epic meeting in which we had to face the reality of our budget.  We were forced to cut locations, cut characters, cut story days, and in doing so, we cut the fat and made the story so much clearer and tighter.  Limits and boundaries in this way can be a really good thing.


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

MEREDITH: Being a character study psychological drama, casting was probably the most important part of this film.  We had several casting sessions over months leading up to the production, because we never settled until we knew it was right.  Especially important was the role of Kate, our anti-heroine playing opposite Lana.  Katie Morrison was a Godsend.  As soon as she spoke the words off the page, the story lifted, took form, and it was very clear we had our other leading lady.  

You really have to trust your gut and intuition during casting.  It was important to me to cast actors with a wide range of flexibility and courage, as these roles were no walk in the park.  All our actors were hungry to go deep; they loved rehearsals, they wanted to talk about it, question it, the roles excited them.  To me, that's what makes the work juicy.  

Like any film, I think the vision inevitably changes once your cast is in place.  It's one of the most exciting evolutions in a film's journey; watching the story come off page and out of the mind's eye.  The script was dissected much more once embodied by real human beings and we adapted to whatever came out of that.  I think it's important to allow space for that molding within the infrastructure of the story.


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

MEREDITH: The smartest thing I did during production was the way in which we handled the more intense and dramatic scenes of the film on set.  We would rehearse the scene all the way through on a closed set (with only myself, the actors, and our DP, Piero Basso), so that the dynamics, levels, and flow were in place.  

Once the set opened and shooting began, we maintained those levels until the scene was wrapped.  You could feel the temperature change and our entire set adapted.  These scenes were physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding of our actors and creatives, and I wanted to respect that. We had an intimate crew and in doing so, this process connected us all so much deeper into the story.  I believe this helped us get the performances and shots we needed.

As for the dumbest; well, I'm reeeeeally into the subtle details.  They can make all the difference.  But, in the editing room, I realized I probably spent way too much time on some of these details.  I had Joanna (who also served as our first assistant director out of the goodness of her producer heart, god bless her soul) arrange the folds of a white blanket on our red couch one too many times between takes.  There was also this little elephant statue that became a constant point of communication between Joanna, myself, and our script supervisor, Patty.  I think we see its little trunk one time in the whole film. Hahah, ahh this makes me laugh.


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

MEREDITH: The producers raised the budget from an even split between private investors and two crowd-funding campaigns (IndieGoGo) that ran a year apart.  We have been fortunate to now sign with a distribution company, Candy Factory Productions, whose strategy will be ideal for marketing this kind of film.  Because of this deal and because we were able to keep costs very low on this film, we have every expectation that we will recoup our investors' money and then some through a theatrical tour driving online sales.

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

MEREDITH: If you allow some space around your project’s core so that it can breathe, move, and flow as it will, your project will take on a mind and heart of its own and that, to me, is the magic of filmmaking.  

It’s easy to get caught up trying to maintain full control over the project and your vision for it, but that’s where things get convoluted and uninspired.  From pre to post, you will be faced with many surprises, many unforeseen turns.  If you can find a way to embrace rather than resist, you come to realize every step is all a part of your project’s unique growth and journey, ultimately leading to what it is and will be.  That’s kind of an overarching life philosophy that I abide by, but it very much applies here as well.  Why wouldn’t it?  

Also, act off your intuition rather than your instinct, responding vs. reacting.  As a director, you make many decisions, and most of them very quickly, so communication is key.  The more connected you are to your intuitive self, the better you are able to respond rather than react to manage the needs of your project.  

And finally, I’m constantly reminded how finding the right team, the right collaborators, is the most important thing.  If you have that, you have everything you need.