Thursday, February 16, 2017

Alex Grossman on "Hickey"

What was your filmmaking background before making Hickey?

ALEX: I started as a copywriter in advertising and then transitioned to directing commercials and shorts. The goal was always to write a feature but along the way I realized the best way to get it made was to direct it as well.

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

ALEX: Idea started with a story I heard on NPR about a Circuit City store that, in the midst of the recession, told its employees they were closing at the end of the day. This, coupled with some semi-autobiographical family dynamics was the basis of the film.

What was your casting process and did you adjust the script to fit the final cast?

ALEX: I was lucky to work with Amey Rene, a terrific casting director in L.A. She’s responsible for finding almost all of the talent in the movie.

Some of the comedians playing bit parts are people I know from my time with the Groundlings and UCB. And my female lead, Flavia, I cast for a commercial and always had in the back of my mind for the role.

The script definitely changed to fit the roles. When I initially wrote the movie I conceived it as a kind of John Hughes meets Judd Apatow movie. But one we decided to shoot in Venice, I realized the roles needed to reflect that and become more racially diverse. Zedrick Restauro is a good example of that in the role of Jeremy, a character I initially wrote as a nebbishy Jewish guy but ultimately went to Zed, a hilarious young Fillipino actor.

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

ALEX: We shot with a Red Epic and it was great. It’s a real workhorse and didn’t give us any issues for the duration of the shoot.

We shot with anamorphic lenses which I wanted to give the movie a more cinematic feel. And we shot in 4K which, in retrospect, wasn’t really necessary. It just made the post process more cumbersome as we had to downres the footage for editing and then bring it back up for completion.

Did the movie change much in editing?

ALEX: Yes and no. The main story and characters stayed the same. We did cut a few scenes that weren’t working and really whittled down each scene as best as possible. With a comedy I think it’s important to overshoot and then make decisions on what isn’t working in post.

What's your distribution plan and your plan to recoup costs?

ALEX: The movie is being distributed by Gravitas Ventures domestically. They’ve secured deals with all the major VOD and DVD outlets and money should start trickling back in later this year. My investors get their money back first plus 20%. Any additional income is split between them and the production team.

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

ALEX: Smartest thing was staying calm. So much can and does go wrong during production it’s really important to be able to stay flexible and make good compromises.

Dumbest thing was writing a movie with so many damn actors and scenes with such a limited budget and production schedule. Every character in a scene adds coverage which adds time. Many scenes in the movie have four or more characters and it’s tricky to get all the footage you need, much less all the footage you want.

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

ALEX: Holy shit, I learned a ton.

Coming into the movie, I felt pretty comfortable working with actors, but not as comfortable with camera movement. After three weeks of designing shots I felt like I got a crash course in filmmaking. 

My DP, Seamus Tierney, is a star and was super gracious about taking my crazy ideas and translating them into shots that worked.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Paul Foster on "Unwanted"

What was your filmmaking background before making Unwanted?

PAUL: This is really my first film.

I have a YouTube Channel that I have run for almost 3 years and it has a healthy following. The more I learned, I realized I started getting more creative in my productions for that channel.

Finally I did a review on a car and was told it looked almost professional. That was when I realized it was finally possible to complete a dream I've had since I was a kid. Be a filmmaker.

Where did the idea come from and what was the process for writing the script and getting the script ready to shoot?

PAUL: It was a discussion I had with my wife over dinner one night. I wanted to shoot something creative where lighting was a factor, music and camera work. It was originally intended to be a short. simple concept, one location and have about three actors.

It took me a weekend to write the original script, which ultimately when through 6 revisions. The process for writing in those stages was the original treatment was done and once I secured the Holman House in Pittsburg, Texas, I re-envisioned the script to fit the location.

I repeated those steps to add elements of the history of the house to the story, because this was a 103-year-old haunted house we were filming in.

What was your casting process and did you change the script to match your final cast?

PAUL: We had most of the cast in place prior to the audition, however I needed to cast my main two leads so we held an audition at the Reserve in Longview. We had about 100 people come out to the audition and were able to fill the remaining parts for the film which had grown to 11 actors.

After we did that, I had them over to my home to do a read through on the script. because we were working with mostly amateur actors and I wanted to give them the best chance to succeed. I got to know their personalities, we went back through the script and localized it to the cast.

What was your approach to special effects -- did you write to existing resources?

PAUL: I have worked in After Effects for a couple years. I had always planned on handling my ghost effects and makeup in post. This was a way to get my skills out there for others to see. 

What type of camera did you use and what did you love (and hate) about it?

PAUL: We shot the entire film on a Canon T6i. There were a couple pickups shot on a 70D but the T6i was our workhorse.

The upside is this camera is a good film camera for young up coming filmmakers to cut their teeth with.

The downside is it is not a good low light camera. Our solution was to pair with Rokinon Cine lenses which were very fast and great in low light. So that helped.

Did the movie change much in the editing, and if so, why did you make the changes?

PAUL: No, we did a pretty extensive pre-production plan and stuck to it through the edit. There were some effects that got left out because of time constraints on the release, but they didn't take away from the film at all.

Can you talk about your distribution plan for recouping costs?

PAUL: My production company is a full service production company, as in we handle all aspects of a films production from beginning to end. We also realize that there seems to be a trend within the indie film community to do a circuit of showings combined with DVD sales to get things to VOD. They usually don't sell tickets to the initial premiere but show it for free. We took a different approach. 

We promoted the film all year long, providing unheard of access to behind the scenes activities. We even live streamed the final day of filming to the fans. Then we promoted the premiere well in advance and sold tickets to the event.

The idea was to recoup most of the costs for the film within the first 30 days of release. This would also allow us to get the money needed for VOD.

That plan is in place and working very well for us. The key to this plan is capitalizing on the momentum of a film while it is hot to pay for it.  

What's the upside to wearing so many hats on a project (writer, director, DP, editor, producer)?

PAUL: You learn so much about every aspect of the film process. You understand the different roles and I think every filmmaker needs to understand these roles to be good at what they do.

Moving forward I will have others fill these roles, but my experience will prove essential in their success.

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

PAUL: Smartest thing was bringing in great actors out of the gate along with my AD Pete Luman. I found I couldn't have done this film without him.

Dumbest thing I did was try and shoot with a steady cam vest and stabilizer using prime lenses lol. every time we swapped a lens I had to re-balance the stabilizer.

And, finally, what did you learn from making this feature that you will take to other projects?

PAUL: Preparation is everything. Too many indie filmmakers rush through all of the prep and planning because they just want to get to the filming part.

The more you are prepared, the better result you will get and less work you will have to do in post-production.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Dan O'Bannon on "Dark Star"

How did the script come about?

DAN O'BANNON: John (Carpenter) and I were talking and he said he was going to do this graduate film project. I was very taken with it, and I started pitching ideas back at him. First thing you know, I was helping him make that film. At first he just wanted me to act in it, and I did that. But I was very excited about working on all aspects of the thing.

By the time we got through, the thing was about 50 minutes long. And when we took it to the USC Cinema department and started talking to them about taking it to festivals, we were told it was too long -- that it should have been 20 minutes long, and then they would have taken it around to festivals. But because it was 50 minutes long, they couldn't do anything with it. John and I were pretty upset about that, because it meant nobody would see it.
What did you do then?

DAN O'BANNON: A friend of ours said he would put $10,000 of his own money into it if we could expand it into a feature, and then we could try to get it distributed. It was a tough decision, because it was pretty tight at 50 minutes. Expanding it meant we were going to have to shoot a lot of scenes that were filler, and that would lessen the tightness of the story and make it into an episodic film.

Since they weren't going to take it around to the festivals, we were pretty much stuck. We only had one option--go ahead and shoot some extra scenes. It was kind of disappointing, because that meant we had to go from the most-impressive student film ever made to one of the cheapest features. It wasn't a question of choosing between two venues; there was only one venue offered.

We added a lot of stuff with me in it, because I was the most reliably available as an actor. And we added a lot of slapstick stuff, like the whole subplot about me chasing the alien balloon around, up and down shafts and things. All of that was done to pad.
How did the elevator scene come about?

DAN O'BANNON: We were talking about that old Harold Lloyd film, where he's climbing over a building and how funny and scary it is. We had this idea that we could do this funny thing with this creature going up and down in the elevator shaft. And then we had to figure out how to shoot it.

The first thing we thought was that we'd go find an elevator shaft somewhere, but that didn't get very far before we realized--never mind practical or impractical--it was dangerous. So we finally came up with, let's just do it on its side. What the hell. At least we can do it that way, and maybe if it's funny and exciting people won't care.

I ended up having an appendectomy right after I shot that scene. I just had that board down to my butt, and I had to keep my legs up, waving around in the air. Sometimes I think that I forced some food or something into my appendix from all that stress. I was 26 years old, and you really don't think what that sort of thing is going to do to you. You just have a good idea and you start to do it. And then you find out how hard it is. Today I wouldn't be able to do it all, even if I were willing to try, which I wouldn't be.
What's the biggest lesson you took away from Dark Star?

DAN O'BANNON: I learned all the wrong lessons on
Dark Star. When I finally directed a movie for real, I thought I was supposed to do everything. And I ended up making everybody mad. I was over-prepared for directing and I was mis-directed by having gone to film school, and thought that the director was supposed to be an auteur and do everything himself. When I actually tried doing that in a real movie, I found that I couldn't get anything I wanted, because they would sabotage me.

It basically took me two pictures to learn an entirely different orientation toward directing.

What I learned was very simple: A director doesn't make a movie. Everybody else makes the movie. That means the director doesn’t have to know how to do anything. All the director has to do is be there and stand there and make creative decisions if he feels like it. I had to swivel around 180 degrees and stop worrying about exactly how I wanted to get everything on the screen and start worrying about how to trick 300 people into doing it for me.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Shawn Whitney on the MicroBudget Film Lab

What is the goal and mission of the MicroBudget Film Lab (MBFL)?

SHAWN: My goal when I started MBFL was to kind of "pay it forward" for other filmmakers who were trying to launch their careers by making microbudget feature films.

I had made two microbudget features and had to piece together all the elements myself from different sites, books, etc. and I wanted to bring that experience and information base together under one roof, so to speak, along with other resources. 

What was your filmmaking background before starting the Lab?

SHAWN: Besides the two microbudget features that I've made, I have also worked as a "development executive" in the film industry for the last 9 years.

My entry into the film world was primarily through being a screenwriter - that's what I went to school for and that's my touchstone for everything else. Even in my development role, while I do provide notes on cuts for films, my primary role is either in developing new content (ie. writing) or in providing story editing services to projects that come into the company where I work and which co-produces and finances films.

What's the biggest misconception that people might have about the micro-filmmaking process?

SHAWN: That the films are crap. lol.

But the reality is that some of the most important films that have ever been made would qualify as microbudgets, whether that's the films of the French New Wave or DOGME films or mumblecore films.

Access to few resources has a flip side, which is no pressure to conform to industrial, commercial standards. Filmmakers are free to experiment and that has produced some great cinema.

And also that it's just not possible to make a good film for next to no money. There's a lot of filmmakers out there - or people who want to make films - who think that there's a "proper way" to make movies. Whether that's chasing around financiers and rich dentists or trying to work their way up over decades through the commercial film industry.

What's the most common mistake made by first-time micro or low-budget filmmakers?

SHAWN: Bad scripts. Scripts are under-valued in the commercial industry. Screenwriters are undervalued. It's all about the stars first, the effects, then the director. Screenwriters are way down the list.

Besides the question of whether that's unfair or not, it means that filmmakers - including microbudget filmmakers - undervalue the importance of their script. They just want to get it done and get on to buying the flashiest new gear on the market.

The second biggest mistake, I think - and a related one - is that microbudget filmmakers try to make miniature versions of Hollywood films - action movies, thrillers, etc. that simply copy the model of H-wood movies. The result is films that have all the bad elements of Hollywood and none of the positives (like big bucks to blow shit up or make a car chase look exciting and not goofy and cheap).

Filmmakers should spend more time on their script than any other element of the process. It's the one part that is free and it's the one thing that, if you get it wrong, will ensure a bad movie.

I know there's some filmmakers out there shaking there heads and saying: "get good sound." Sure, yeah, you need good sound. But everybody has figured that out it's been repeated so many times - which is a good thing. I almost never see movies with bad sound anymore. But more than 90% of microbudget films I see have weak scripts.

Where do you see the future of distribution headed for non-Hollywood films?

SHAWN: I don't think that distribution mechanisms are a question anymore. It's cheap and easy to distribute now. The real question is where is marketing headed. It doesn't matter that you can rent or sell your movie to people in every country on the planet if nobody knows about your movie and even if they did they wouldn't watch it.

I think that filmmakers will have to collectively brand themselves - beyond just "we make movies cheap". What I mean is that groups of us will have to find other groups of filmmakers with similar aesthetic, political, social, etc. goals and create cinema movements. Movements in the arts are another form of branding - in the good sense (hopefully) - where you create a kind of avatar for a series of values, stories, looks, etc. Then people who are inclined towards those things - your niche - know where to find them.

And when they find them - "this is a DOGME film" or "These films are trying to update the principles of Neo Realism" or whatever - they know what to expect. They become a known quantity. In Hollywood films that is the role that stars and franchises perform: when you see a movie with Robert Downey Jr. playing Iron Man you know exactly what you're going to get.

Why is this a great time to get into micro-budget filmmaking?

SHAWN: There's the obvious reasons that people always talk about: gear is cheap, for instance. Or editing suites, etc.

But I think that there's a less talked about reason, related to what I said above regarding film movements and cinematic branding. We live in a time of great upheaval and that is leading millions of people to question their world, including representations of their world. A truly vital, independent cinema should be able to tap into that ferment of ideas and experiences and find a home amongst a much bigger audience than has been possible in the recent past.

But it will require filmmakers coming together consciously with that intention, to be part of that turbulent flow of change and desires. Too often we all get trapped in our own little bubbles, struggling to just get our films made. We're like the Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. We need to take a breath and collect our energies and ideas so that we can multiply their impact a hundredfold.

What's next for you as a filmmaker ... and how is your approach to this project informed by your work on the Lab?

SHAWN: I have a few things in the fire - some in the conventional, commercial industry and some in the microbudget sphere.

As far as microbudgets go I've started working on a project with a filmmaker here in Spain, where I'm currently living with my family. I'm hoping we can shoot that this year - it's still in the idea formation stages. And I have a microbudget scifi that I'd love to shoot in the next year or so as well. 

I'd also like to create a hub, a lab, for the formation of multiple microbudget movements. A place where people can gather internationally to gestate ideas, strategies, aesthetics, collaborations. The more the better because it generates the potential for more great work.

Within that I'd also like to gather with filmmakers whose ideas are simpatico with my own. I'm hoping to launch something to facilitate that in the coming months.

This latter project in particular is an outgrowth of what I've learned and seen through MBFL. I've been contacted by filmmakers from all over the world looking to find audiences and other filmmakers. It's been very fulfilling and inspired me to want to expand that.

I've already created a Microbudget Launchpad competition that provides coaching through the script development process (keeping in mind my views on the key weaknesses that I see in microbudgets) and then a competition for a $2500 production investment for the best script.

I'd love to be able to expand that into a stable fund over time that doles out three or four investments (repayable if the film ever makes money) per year and increases the value and number of the investments in each round. If MBFL could fund 12 or 24 feature films per year, I'd be pretty freaking ecstatic.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Christopher Boone on "Cents"

What was your filmmaking background before making Cents?

CHRISTOPHER: Before making Cents, I had made several short films and worn pretty much every hat in film production starting as a PA way back in my college days and producing friends’ short films as well.

For the past several years, I’ve been focused primarily on my screenwriting, and I think of myself as a writer first and a director second. Although when I put on my director’s hat, I have no problem tearing apart my own script to make the best movie possible.

Where did the idea come from and what was your process for writing the script and getting it ready to shoot?

CHRISTOPHER: The idea came from a number of different thoughts eventually colliding into one another.

First, I’m a father of two kids, a daughter and a son. When my daughter was about eight years old, I began to wonder what life would be like for her when she hit adolescence. I read several books and articles about life in middle school for girls, and I was both fascinated and at times horrified about how these girls use language, looks and social media to communicate with one another and tear each other down, usually without any adults even noticing. That was a world I wanted to explore in a story.

I’ve also always loved math and wanted into figure out a way to include math in a story. I started to imagine a twelve-year-old girl who was off-the-charts smart at math. How would she handle that? Would she show off her skills or hide her gifts? If she hid her talent, why would she do that? This led to the creation of Sammy Baca, the main character in Cents, and the relationships  she needs to navigate with the three girls, Katie, Hannah and Emily.

Finally, I needed a plot device to move the story forward, and that’s when I remembered the riddle my high school calculus teacher had taught me about the difference between $1 million and a penny a day on the first day of the month, doubled the next day, and doubling the previous day’s amount for the rest of the month. I thought it would be interesting if a character actually tried to put that into practice. And that’s how I figured out the penny drive and used math to structure the story.

What was your casting process like and did you adjust the script at all to fit the cast?

CHRISTOPHER: I’m fortunate to live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we have fantastic film tax incentives. As a result, we’ve built up an amazing crew and talent base right here.

For casting, we worked with local talent agencies to find our actresses. I actually discovered Julia Flores who plays our lead Sammy when we cast our teaser trailer prior to our Kickstarter campaign, and realized I needed to make this movie quickly before Julia aged out of the role because Julia immediately understood the core of Sammy’s character. I really felt like I could put the weight of the film on Julia’s shoulders and she would shine.

I feel incredibly lucky to have found such a phenomenal group of young actresses, including Lillie Kolich as Katie, Jy Prishkulnik as Hannah, and Claire Carter as Emily. Each of them brought so much to their respective characters and made them their own with such natural, honest performances.

Then, to work with seasoned actresses like Monique Candelaria as Angela, Esodie Geiger as Ms. Dyer, and Lora Martinez-Cunningham as Principal Martinez, all of whom have appeared in several films and television shows filmed here in New Mexico, was truly a gift. Monique, Esodie and Lora were so generous with our young actresses, which made for a really fun and inspiring set.

As for the script in relation to the cast, I didn’t make many major adjustments other than tweak some lines of dialogue to make them work for a particular actress. I’m also not precious about my words, so I told all of our cast members to adjust lines to make them easier for their performances. Some of my favorite scenes are ones where we did an extra take or two for talent to run with the dialogue, and their natural cadences lend so much more to the performances.

What were the challenges of finding and working with a largely young cast?

CHRISTOPHER: We were really lucky to find such a talented young cast right here in New Mexico. Honestly, that was one of my biggest concerns before making the film knowing our limited budget and time constraints, but again, living in New Mexico was the real advantage for casting.

I’d say what would typically be seen as a challenge shooting a film with a young cast — shorter shooting days because of labor laws — actually became a benefit. We worked 10-hour days from call to wrap because of the time limitations of our main talent, which meant our crew wasn’t overworked or dangerously driving home in the middle of the night while deprived of sleep. The mood on set was much happier than on sets where you grind through 14- or 16-hour days. Plus, a 10-hour day forced me and our entire crew to stay focused to get through our pages every day. In the future, I plan on sticking to 10-hour days regardless of the age of the talent on set after this experience.

Can you talk about how your team raised the budget and the distribution plan for recouping costs?

CHRISTOPHER: To raise the funds, we put together a business plan to approach individual investors. I put my own money into the film up front to show people that I had skin in the game. We launched a Kickstarter campaign in January 2014 after extensive research on crowdfunding and raised over $60,000 in a month.

Even after the success of the Kickstarter campaign, my own money, and finding a few investors between friends and family, we were still short of the budget we needed to make the film. My wife Jennifer believes in me more than I believe in myself and told me we needed to finance the rest of the budget to make this film happen for all of the Kickstarter backers and the audience we believe needed to see this film. I could never have made this film if it wasn’t for my wife.

To attract distributors, we applied to a handful of major U.S. film festivals, knowing all along that getting into any of those festivals would be a stretch. Despite some interest from one festival, we weren’t accepted into any. That outcome was already baked into our business plan, so we took the film into our own hands and launched a series of one-time screenings of the film both here in New Mexico and in cities where we had partners and networks. We also started an outreach campaign for community screenings, working with Girl Scout councils around the country to screen the film and host workshops for middle school girls based on the themes in the film.

Finally, we joined forces with Hybrid Cinema to continue our outreach and marketing efforts and Big Time PR for our publicity campaign while we worked with Quiver Digital to release Cents on VOD and digital HD to iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo on Demand, VHX and over 130 cable/satellite providers, starting on November 15, 2016.

What type of camera did you use and what did you love (and hate) about it?

CHRISTOPHER: We shot Cents in the summer of 2014, and our DP Corey Weintraub used his Sony F3 as our main camera. Also, our Steadicam and B-camera operator Ariel Rakes brought his Sony FS700, and we occasionally used a Blackmagic Cinema Camera and a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera when necessary. We also had access to some great lenses through Corey’s kit and our community college partner, CNM.

Since I’m not a DP, my biggest concern wasn’t which camera we used, but rather whether we could get the images I wanted. I had a very specific vision of a natural look, mostly handheld, with a few key images that would be very composed later in the film.

I also wanted to shoot the first two-thirds of the film with a shallow depth of field to give the viewer that feeling of being inside the bubble of each of our young character’s minds because none of them truly can see too far beyond themselves. That is, until the consequences of Sammy’s actions circle back on her, and that’s when the world comes into starker focus and our frames get more expansive.

Did the movie change much in the editing, and if so, why did you make the changes?

CHRISTOPHER: Editing is the final rewrite, and I was lucky to work closely with our editor Reuben Finkelstein, who has a great sense of story. We tightened the film up in several places and rearranged a few sequences along the way.

After we finished our rough cut, we were able to screen it for over 300 sixth and seventh graders to get their reactions and comments. Based on their feedback, we cut a scene or two and did some additional 2nd unit photography of key inserts to clarify some story points as well as exteriors to smooth out some transitions.

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

CHRISTOPHER: The smartest thing I did was work talented collaborators, starting with my fellow producer Ella Sitkin, who brought their passion and expertise to this project to bring it to life. For that, I’m grateful to each and every one of them.

The second smartest thing I did during production was actually in pre-production when I spent a week with Corey storyboarding the entire film. Because we had limited time on set every day, those storyboards were crucial for me to communicate with Corey to make sure we were both on the same page and got the shots we needed every day.

I also learned when to let go of those storyboards. For example, one day we had to evacuate our school building location for an hour after lunch because a brush fire in an arroyo nearby was sending smoke up through a school drain. After the fire engines left, we had less than one hour to set up and shoot a key scene in the cafeteria when Sammy gets pelted with pennies.

With only twenty minutes to shoot the scene after it was properly lit, I wasn’t sure we could get it done. Corey stepped up and quickly remapped our coverage, throwing three cameras at the scene at once and rotating those cameras to capture all of the action. Reuben pulled the scene together magically in the edit, our post sound supervisor Josh Reinhardt and our foley artist Lara Dale created a sound design to give the scene real impact, and our composer Kathryn Bostic laid down a music cue to underscore the raw emotions.

And, finally, what did you learn from making this feature that you will take to other projects?

CHRISTOPHER: I learned several lessons from making this feature that I’ll use moving forward.

From a story perspective, I definitely want to jump into my next story even faster. Maybe that’s because I had to watch this film so many times in the edit and with audiences during our roadshow, but I want to pull audiences into the next film much faster. 

I know from talking to audiences that Cents intrigues them in the early scenes to pull them along, and Sammy is a compelling character that they want to follow, but I’m working on jumping into my next story when it is already underway and trusting my audience will catch up with me the next time around.