Thursday, October 16, 2014

Jeffrey Johns on “Waiting in the Wings: The Musical”

What was your filmmaking background before making Waiting in the Wings: The Musical?

JEFFREY: I worked a lot on musicals on the stage from national tours, to theme parks, to regional theater.  When I moved to Los Angeles, I got more interested in film and television.  I began working on independent films as an actor but then got on set as much as possible to see the business side filmmaking.  When I decided to make a film....I knew it had to be a musical.      

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

JEFFREY: It actually comes from my obsession with talent-based reality shows and online contests and the many, many, video submissions I have made in my career along with antics I experienced while auditioning and performing in musicals.

I had a lot less (okay none whatsoever) experience with the stripper world.   The stripper part of the film was loosely based on my experiences with one specific production, NAKED BOYS SINGING.  I am still baffled how I was cast in NAKED BOYS SINGING, but my agent insisted I attend the audition to get rid of my squeaky clean image.  I planned on throwing the audition because I could NOT be naked on stage……..well I got cast!  

At one point, the performers in NAKED BOYS SINGING were asked to attend a big party at a club.   I’m not a club guy so it was an interesting experience for me.   I saw go-go boys dancing on a pole and thought, “if that was me I’d be tap dancing around that pole while taking my clothes off – I’d make it theatrical!!”  Immediately I knew that that would be a good idea for a short film and it just grew into something much bigger, but that was the inspiration.

Which is harder? Writing a screenplay or acting in a movie you wrote? And why?

JEFFREY: For me, definitely writing the screenplay.  It took me over a year to get through the first draft and I worked on it A LOT!   About a year and a half into the script, I approached Arie Gonzalez (a friend and songwriter) and wanted his thoughts.  He said, “I thought this was going to be terrible, but it’s actually good” and he jumped in and began writing the music.  

Most important, he was instrumental in bringing the actual musical to life.  He really turned my ideas into great songs.  I went through the script and said, “I want a song here” and he made magic.  The song in the costume warehouse (“The World Needs Music”) blew me away the first time I heard it.  It was exactly what I wanted, but even better than I pictured it in my imagination.

Arie wrote half the songs for the final film and the other half were written by several talented songwriters.  I think the music is the heart of the film and am thrilled with all the songwriters involved.  It was such a collaborative process to even get the musical ready to be filmed.  I had such a strong team behind me and many table reads and feedback sessions before we even thought about rolling the cameras.

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

JEFFREY: We were on sites like Kickstarter to get funding.  As a first time feature, it was hard to get enough money to finance a musical with the quality product I wanted.  I knew I wanted to move forward so I took a second mortgage on my house for the remainder of the funds. It's hard to make any film, but making a musical adds a lot of additional expenses from recording sessions, to musical directors, to musicians, to choreographers.

How did you cast the movie and did the script change much once your cast was in place?

JEFFREY: Absolutely......the most notable change was the casting of Rebekah Kochan.  She's a brilliant actress and I really wanted her in the film.  She was busy on another project so couldn't get her for all the filming days we needed her. One thing that came out of that was breaking her character's leg so she could be removed from some of the musical numbers.  Ironically, the re-write worked so well it actually improved the script.  

How did you approach the casting of your celebrity cameos (Lee Meriwether, Shirley Jones, Sally Struthers, Christopher Atkins)?

JEFFREY: Lee Meriwether met me in Las Vegas while I was working on a show (Tony 'n Tina's Wedding).  She was actually the first one onboard with the project.  She really loved the script and has been one of the most incredible support structures for the filming.  

The others took some time and determination.  I made many, many, many phone calls and finally got the green light from the cameos.  We ended up filming the scene with Shirley Jones about 8 months after the rest of the film wrapped.  Ironically, the entire film was edited prior to even filming the Shirley Jones scene, but think it was well worth the wait.  She's really incredible in the film.   

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

We used the RED SCARLET.  I love that camera.  The quality is amazing!!!

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

JEFFREY: I think casting the film myself was the smartest thing that I did with the production.  I knew exactly the characters I wanted and worked tirelessly to get the perfect cast in place.  I had over 3,000 submissions.  

The dumbest?  LOL. Well, it certainly was a learning curve.  I think the biggest challenges came with the instrumentalists recordings.  We went to production with just piano tracks on many songs and added the full orchestration in post-production.  I think it would have made life easier on everyone if the choreographers and performers had the full orchestration to dance and perform to.   I was so lucky to have such a talented cast.  

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

JEFFREY: I am still learning and still working on the film.  Just because the actual film is complete....the marketing of the film and the festival circuit has just begun.   In addition, I'm working on the stage adaptation of the film and a possible sequel.  

I learned SO much from the process, I could go on for days.  The most important advice I would give anyone is - get a good editor.  They are vital to making the final film.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Gary Herbert on "Thursday's Speaker"

What was your filmmaking background before making Thursday's Speaker?

GARY: Thursday's Speaker is my first feature film.  I've been making short films over the years with the intention that I would eventually, some day, get the chance to make a feature. In film school I discovered motion graphics which is what I do now as my day job but I never lost my desire to create narrative works. I've always done a lot of writing.  I had been writing screenplays over the years, as well, but none of them ever felt good enough to move forward with.

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

GARY: I had known some people in AA and the whole community always fascinated me. I met this guy who was an AA speaker and I went to a couple of the speaker meetings and it was amazing.  Some of these guys were so great at telling their stories. My humor immediately went to the idea that, maybe this guy is a fraud. What a great character that would be to write about.  So that was the beginning of the idea.  

I had been working on a different screenplay at the time.  I was sending it out and had submitted it to a screenwriting program, but as I did so I realized that I just didn't love it.  I had been writing it with the idea that it could be something that I could make on my own, totally low budget. But in the end, I had kind of written more toward that goal instead of just being inspired.  

So I tossed it and asked myself what kind of thing do I want to write that I'm going to love, that I can spend the next five years or so with. So I had the idea for this character, Rodrigo, who was this complete fraud of an AA speaker, just a drunk who picks up girls at the meetings and lies about his sobriety.  Everything came out of that. It was fun to write.

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

GARY: I wish I had a financial plan for recouping my costs!  I financed it myself, so everything was out of pocket.  The plan was to do the festival circuit and try to find a distributor that way.  We didn't get into the major festivals, which puts us in a precarious position.  We played at a number of smaller festivals, which was great, though, but there's never any distributors at those.

Also, we don't have any recognizable names, so now we're talking to distributors about possibly doing VOD or maybe distributing it ourselves as a last resort.  It's gotten easier to do that in recent years but I still don't have the expertise to really do the film justice.

You wore a lot of hats on this production -- director, writer, executive producer, composer. What's the upside and the downside of working that way?

GARY: Obviously, the downside is that you can't focus on each job as much as you'd like.  I spent my whole pre-production period working as a producer, so I didn't have the time I'd like to do my preparation as a director. All the things I ended up not being happy with came out of that.  

The upside is that I love doing all those things... well except the producing. I can't imagine making a film and not being involved in everything.  I have some post-production expertise because of my day job, so I'm reasonably competent in handling that stuff.  Plus, I have friends I can talk to when I need to know something.  

I wasn't planning on writing all the music, but I was having trouble finding someone who could get me what I wanted. I already had an idea for the main theme that I had written on the Ukulele and most of the music just came out of that. I have a little music studio at home so I could record most of the bits and pieces of what I wanted there.  

The other upside is that I didn't have to pay a writer, editor, or composer.  I did pay some friends for songs that they contributed, though. I guess another downside is that the process probably goes a little slower when you're doing that many things yourself.

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

GARY: My wife, Lisa Stacilauskas, is a DP and shot the film.  We shot with the Canon 5D mk2. We wanted to buy a camera package but didn't have a lot of money to spend, so we ended up getting that camera, some nice Zeiss lenses and gear.  We figured that my wife could rent it out on jobs and we'd have our camera to use whenever we needed to get pickups or whatever. It's an easy camera to work with.  It's light and small, good for hand-held.  

We had to do some stealthy shooting to get some of the shots that we didn't have permission for, so it was nice to be able to really strip it down and just toss it in a backpack with a minimal hand-held rig.

The problem with that camera is that at the time, there was no way to record raw.  The footage is compressed which degrades it.  It gives you less latitude in color correction. Also, and I'm not sure if this is due to the compression, it has a tendency to moirĂ© on small patterns, like shirt textures.  I spent a great deal of time in post just cleaning up moirĂ©. 

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

GARY: Certainly the smartest thing I did was cast Del Zamora.  Del is a fantastic actor with tremendous experience.  Just having Del on set helped things run smooth and I think he was a good example for the younger actors who didn't have as much experience.

Del was fantastically prepared.  I couldn't have asked for more.  His performance really makes the film.

Certainly the dumbest thing I did was not giving myself enough time to do my directing prep.  I was just trying to get caught up on the weekends, but since I was also handling other things, it was not enough.  

Another really dumb thing happened during production.  The teen girl character, Melody, wears a lip ring.  I had bought the ring (it was the fake kind you could just slip on and off) during pre-production but didn't buy a backup.  Why? What was I thinking?  Not sure. Of course, it was misplaced at lunch one day and we spent an hour looking for it and finally our gaffer, (thank you, John!) fashioned a look-alike out of a paperclip or something. I felt like an idiot. Because I was an idiot.

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

GARY: I learned a lot making this film.  I learned that you can't produce a film yourself and focus on directing at the same time.  At least I can't.  I'll have more help on the next film.

I've also learned a painful lesson about trying to sell an indie film in the current marketplace. If you don't have a recognizable name, you're taking a big chance.  

Also, genre films are still selling and everything else, not so much. I'm going to think a lot harder about the market realities before I make my next film.  I'm currently working on an animated project that I'm going to try to sell as a TV series before I attempt another movie.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Ali Selim on "Sweet Land"

The purpose of these interviews is to help demystify the filmmaking process ...

ALI SELIM: First, let me tell you, I can't help you de-mystify it. It's the most mysterious thing I've ever done, still to this day.

Had you ever written a screenplay before this?

ALI SELIM: No. I dabbled. I took a screenwriting class from Tom Pope in 1984, and I churned out something to get a grade. I can't even remember what it was. Then we had this idea when I was at Departure Films in 1989 that we were going to try and make a movie and I think I cranked something out then as well. But again, I don't even remember what it was. I just didn't know any better. I thought you slap some words on a page, got the camera out and that was that.

This was really my first effort at telling a story that was structured and constructed. But had I put words on a page before? Yeah. Had I ever done anything seriously or taken myself seriously? I think this was the first time.

Did you think about budget at all while you were writing Sweet Land?

ALI SELIM: No, I guess I didn't. If I had thought about that, I think the script would look very different. No, I just let it rip and left it up to (producer) Jim Bigham to make it happen. He was great. He's an old friend and he really connected with the script for a lot of reasons. He wasn't just a Line Producer, he was a guy who really wanted to see it made.

He was the one guy who would go through the script with me and say, "If we get rid of this, it will make that better." He was great about hanging on to the parts of the story that would drive it forward, and yet getting rid of the things that were a little too big. He was more budget conscious, and that caused me to re-write, I guess, but while I was writing I didn't really think about it.

Was there anything you were sorry to lose because of budget restraints?

ALI SELIM: There was nothing I was sorry to lose. I learned a lot from Jim Bigham about how to be efficient, not how to be cheap or just say no -- let's be efficient and talk about what the story is. When you don't have millions and millions of dollars and tons of days, I think you just naturally give up some of those shots that you would see in King Kong, which are great -- those big, wide street scenes of New York -- but I don't know that we need them in a film like this.

There were a lot of those little things along the way where, if we'd had the money, yeah, we'd get the train pulling away from the station as she was walking away, but you don't necessarily need it.

Did you re-write it at all after it was cast, to fit the actors you cast?

ALI SELIM: A little bit. I think I did a lot of re-writing for Ned Beatty, who was interested and willing to be a little more terse and mean. The character wasn't originally that way, and I like what he brought to it. And so I re-wrote a lot of his dialogue to reflect that.

I re-wrote Frandsen, too. My grandparents had a friend like that character, an immigrant living hand to mouth on a farm in Minnesota, and yet he was more influenced by what he heard of vaudeville and what he saw at the movies than what his real life was. It took Alan (Cumming) a little while, but when he got that, we re-wrote Frandsen to make him more fun in that way.

Do you think you wrote it any differently because you knew you would be directing it?

ALI SELIM: I don't think so. I don't know what writing another kind of script is like, so I don't know if I adapted this to the fact that I was going to be directing.

I do know that my writing is vastly more sparse or suggestive than most screenwriters. My Assistant Director was pulling his hair out, saying "It's not in the script, it's not in the script!" And I think, actually, that's what attracted the actors to it. It doesn't have the kind of screen direction that says, "She raises her left hand and puts it on the cool granite counter." There's none of that in there. It's more just a kind of rumbling suggestion, and I think the actors really seemed to appreciate that, because they all talked about not only the sparseness of the dialogue, which is as sparse as the script.

I'm writing another script now and I'm finding that it really isn't just the taciturn Scandinavian farmers that caused me to write that way, it's really more my writing style.

Are there any lessons from Sweet Land that you'll take to future projects?

ALI SELIM: I think I learned some lessons about dialogue -- how much actors really bring to the show. We did a couple rehearsal readings in Montevideo, once all the actors arrived. And immediately following those readings, I think I went through and cut about half of the dialogue. Just watching their faces I thought, Boy, they don't even need to memorize this stuff in Norwegian or German or whatever it is, they just need to act and look and work between the lines.

And then when we started editing, I bet we lost another half of what was left. And I'm finding that it's really helpful in writing the next script. Write it for the actor, don't write it for the producer who's reading it.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Watch "Ghost Light" for free

Thanks to all the readers who continue to make this site a pleasure to curate.

As a special thank-you, here's my last feature, "Ghost Light," which you can watch here for free.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Jason Chaet on "Putzel"

What was your filmmaking background before making Putzel?

JASON: In addition to making films, I am a theater director and acting teacher based in NYC. I got into independent film when I became involved in the early stages of the film Kissing Jessica Stein, when it was moving from being a play to becoming the film.  I directed workshops of the screenplay in both NY and L.A., then served as Creative Consultant when it went into production.  It was a great experience. I learned a ton and fell in love with indie film.  

After that, I started developing film projects while continuing to direct theater. I directed a couple short films, and worked on feature scripts at the same time. Putzel is my first feature film credited as director, but I had the luxury of having directed hundreds of different types of projects (mostly theater) before I did Putzel.  

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

JASON: Screenwriter Rick Moore and I were throwing ideas around one day when I realized that I hadn't left the upper west side of Manhattan in months. I was working there, living there, and most of my friends were still there (and it was before my daughter was born).  It was a very strange realization and as soon as I said it Rick said “that's a movie.”  

It took us a while to figure out what the movie would be, going through many different incarnations. It really took off when Rick had the very good idea to move it into the smoked fish/appetizing store world (which is a very upper west side type of business). Once we had that, the story built itself quickly. The process was great, Rick is a tremendous writer, a real craftsman and we collaborated very well in developing the story and script. 

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

JASON: We started trying to finance the film in the fall of 2008, which may have been the worst timing in history!  The initial budget was 1.6 million, but because of the economy we had to shrink it several times. We found creative ways to lower the budget, finally settling on a budget a little under 200K.

Once we secured our hero location (the fish store) we were able to raise the money through private investors and shoot the movie in 18 days, for a little under $200K. Even though the budget was significantly lower than we hoped, we didn't sacrifice much in terms of the look and feel of the film. 

Our plan for recouping costs is a combination of the VOD, DVD, Special theatrical engagements and The Jewish festival circuit.  The film plays very well mainstream, but because the film is about a Jewish family, we've been lucky to do well on that circuit. We continue to play those fests into next year along with the international VOD and DVD release.  

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

JASON: We worked with Barden/Schnee casting who were incredible. Paul, Kerry, along with Allison Estrin gave us great advice and helped find an amazing cast.  Some of the actors we were able to get with an offer, some auditioned, and a few of them were actors I had worked with during my time In NY. 

The script didn't change much once we were cast, although we did add a scene for Susie Essman’s character Gilda to help complete her arc. It's the last scene between her and John Pankow where she finally tells him off.  She's great in the scene, as is John. Other than that there were the typical changes to scenes you make during editing, but no major changes.  

Where did you shoot and how did your location help and hinder your process?

JASON: We shot the whole movie in NYC, and with the exception of one interior on the upper west side of Manhattan.  There is no better backlot in the world than NYC, but of course it can be a challenging place to shoot.  Crowds are tough, noise is very tough but you get these wonderful visuals.  We really wanted to capture the small town elements of big city life, and we had to shoot on the upper west side to do that.  There were a number of locations that we had very little time to shoot at (both interior and exterior), so that was a little bit of a hindrance, but for the most part the locations were worth it. 

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

JASON: We shot on the Red One, with the exception of one sequence (the subway) that was shot on a 7D.  Our cinematographer Ryan Samul is a genius and I would work with him again anytime. He really made the film look beautiful and we were lucky to have him. 

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

JASON: Smartest Things: Working hard to be on location and getting the most bang for our (very small) buck from shooting on the upper west side. In my early days working off-off-off Broadway I managed a kosher dairy restaurant at night, and I knew that all the kosher bagel places had to close every year for ten days during Passover. So (producer/actress) Allegra Cohen and I went around the upper west side of Manhattan and asked a bunch of those places if we could shoot there when they were closed.  One place said yes and we were set.  Since one third of the film takes place in the store, this was a huge get and made making the movie at this budget possible. Also, I think getting permits for Columbus Circle, the very small park we shot a comically edgy scene in, and Riverside Park were critical moves.  

Additionally, we did six-day weeks but gave cast and crew two days off between each week which was a great idea that (producer) Sheri Davani had.  

Finally, we hired a great cast that even on this small budget made working very easy. That went a long way in making it easy for me to set a tone that was creative and easygoing.  Which I believe is always the best way to work. 
Dumbest things:  Because of location constraints, we had shoots on sixth floor walk ups two days in a row. And of course those were the two hottest days of the year to that point. No way to anticipate that, but if I could do that over I would.

I think it’s par for the course on this kind of film, but we didn't have nearly enough pre-production.  Didn’t hurt us too much, but it’s not ideal.

Didn't do alternate takes for some of the edgier moments in the movie. In hindsight, it would have been nice to have options for alternate cuts of the movie that could play to wider audiences.  But, of course, hindsight is always 20/20...right?

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

JASON: So much from each phase of the process.  Every time I develop and direct any kind of project (theater or film) I learn a ton of new things.  Different ways to work, different techniques, different ways to be ambitious.  

In particular on this project I learned so much from watching our D.P. Ryan Samul, then working with our two tremendous editors Federico Rosenzvit and Joel Plotch during post-production. We had some challenging days in the edit bay, but their work was incredible and I’m grateful to have collaborated with them.  Because of budgetary constraints I had to be the editor for the last half of post-production.  But this was only possible because of the tremendous work Federico and Joel did.  Plus I learned a ton about editing just watching them!

Also, I learned a lot about achieving clarity in the story in the first ten or so minutes of a film.  When we started letting people look at rough cuts, we were pleasantly surprised by how much people enjoyed the film. But the complaint we heard over and over again was about their confusion in the first ten minutes. Until we started showing other people, we hadn’t realized how complex the goal of our hero Walter was, and what we needed to do to exposit it.  Adding the prologue (with the Robert Klein v.o.) was something we resisted for a while, but we finally gave in when we realized how much clarity it brought to the exposition, and how it allowed the audience to relax since they knew more about what was going on. 

Finally, one of the best notes we got in this area was from our Exec Producer Mary Jane Skalski.  She told us not to worry about laughs in the first ten minutes, even though it’s a comedy.  She wanted us to make things clear and get people to invest as much as possible.  It was a great note that I’ll never forget.

Finally, I have learned so much about the fest circuit and distribution.  Enough to probably fill up another interview!  One thing I’ve loved on the fest circuit is meeting other filmmakers, especially those I’ve seen at multiple fests.  I’ve stayed close with a number of them and we try to help each other out in any way we can.  Indie financing, production, and distribution is tough and we need all the help and support we can get.