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.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Lisa Menzel on "Thinking Speed"

What was your filmmaking background before making Thinking Speed?

LISA: Before Thinking Speed, I was a novelist, an entertainment critic and a photographer. I had been a stage actor since the age of 14 and I did bit parts for student films as favors to friends. A friend of mine was working on shorts in LA for Thinking Speed. She warned me about how challenging it would be. I told her I had to attempt it. And I wanted to shoot it with a Chicago backdrop to be true to the story. I learned as I went. And post was much the same, with many hours of effects and software tutorials to get the look I had in mind.

Did you write the novel first and then adapt it into the film? What was that process like?

LISA: I did. Thinking Speed began as a 130 or so page novella as a college entry project. It caught the attention of Columbia's fiction chair, Randall Albers, who encouraged me and introduced me to Irvine Welsh. Welsh was also very supportive of other short stories I was doing at the time. Gayle Redfield, a sci-fi writer from Seattle moved to my town and began counseling me on expanding it into a 400-page book.

When I began casting for the film, the script wasn't finished. One of the actors we hired was very interested in preparing early. So I was getting him act after act until it was assembled. Looking back on it, I wished I had not such a crash course in screenwriting, because the novel is abstract and meant to be convoluted to keep the audience guessing. But the pacing is more like a book.

So even I watch it in sections - in its three acts. Today, I would have made a 90-minute film, which would have covered the book store, the van, the bar and the conclusion. The bonus is having visuals of the entire novel to accompany reading once the book is released. 

Can you explain your production process and your thinking behind shooting the movie the way you did?

LISA: Well after my friend decided to change career paths on account of doing more editing than she bargained -- as she favored photography and expected more autonomy in the industry than freelance work -- my fiance, Luke Sejud, told me he would step in as AD, DP and technical supervisor. He wasn't versed with composing shots yet, but he was pretty much a tech guru in every other aspect. He told me if I could handle composition, the business end and pre-production, he could build what we needed and set the film in motion.

It was a grueling 176 day process with over a hundred hours of reads because we had more newcomers than seasoned actors. Our first scene was the Woodstock flashback, which was daunting because the track had issues and we had to get all the drivers and classic cars lined up and out before the summer heat had set in. We shot in the hottest and coldest weather the gear could stand. Many actors had scheduling conflicts so we also went out together and shot backgrounds for the green-screened footage. We often joke we were half a filmmaker. Although now we're both seasoned shooters and can offer each other a lot more. A lot more gear has been donated since as well.

You wore a lot of hats on this project – in fact, I think you may have set some sort of record. What's the upside and the downside of working that way?

LISA: The downside is obviously burnout. You start to go all Howard Hughes Bring-In-The-Milk crazy. Ice Station Zebra is threaded up. You grow long fingernails. You wear tissue boxes as shoes.

Seriously, though, you're isolated from the world and you get a little awkward when you return to society. I was in post for five years. Cameras have come a long way and the new footage is much easier to work with. And of course, people expect you to have all the abilities of a large studio or post house. You have the job of telling everyone it's coming, but you know there's so much to do. The nature of the film is something any major studio would put a five year ETA on, so that has been encouraging.

Lastly, it's just you. You take responsibility for everything and it you are critical of yourself, you may not survive yourself. It's important to have a support team if you must take this route.

The upside is it's just you. Many people come up with excuses as to why things can't be accomplished. No one is asking for formulas. Keep in mind with this freedom comes the possibility you may be making a very personal picture with which others may not identify. But a small niche audience is all you need. Over the years, your film is either forgotten, dissected for process or good parts or criticized for its downfalls.

However, the greatest thing being a lone artist is when it comes time to work in a team, when the team has a problem, you have more than likely encountered it already. And you can put out a lot of fires with very little effort. You become as my composer Bob Mason calls it a walking callous with a black eye.

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

LISA: We used the Canon HV20. I loved Tony Wash's Hopscotch and wanted to use the camera he used. Luke made modifications to mimic film. It did well in low light, which was important on such a dark film. We had a problem where actors were tripping over wires and jacks were breaking. So we had a little down time at the end on account of parts. Canon was awesome in getting us working again. It was actually hard at the time to find replacement shooters who had HD cameras with the same specs to match what we already shot. 

I love Canon in general for its color and warmth. This camera though had two drawbacks. The first drawback was jello effect, which is the slightest movement makes this wobbly meniscus and distorts the scene. Those frames were cut. The tape took a good three months to scan before I could even cut, which was a 26 day process out of 52 hours of footage.

The main pain was the green screen software. Before switching to Primatte, we used Keylight and it has a sizzled edge effect. I couldn't work with the software real time and we had those early South Park renders where a minute could take up to 5-40 hours depending on how much post it had.

In September of 2012, I thought I was done and then realized I had sizzling edges in my screener and had to start all over with a different keyer. Some scenes had to be rotoed if they didn't key out. And people ask me where the effects are. Then I know I've done my job. They think it's actually night and we're actually there and I know it's right.

Now we use 5D, 7D and 50D and it keys beautifully. On the next few projects we'll likely be using Black Magic for its performance in low light.

Can you describe your post-production process and how you put the finished movie together?

LISA: So three months of scanning, 26 days of cutting and then originally there were 85 scenes. I did an Excel sheet of scenes that were ready to go and I built custom filters for the two-strip look I wanted. Then I went on to day-to-night scenes. Then green screen.

There were 85 scenes cut down to 72, I think. And then more effects and 3D were added. Lots of compositing. Each time the color would change, however, because effects, composites and different elements had to be relit in post and blended. I took the first still of every shot for a gallery to compare side by side.

We worked on many different screens to get something that looked good on both cold and warm monitors. Contrast was challenging on composites. But nothing was as hard as the Clock Goblin's eyes. One eye could take 26 hours to animate. The trouble with the software was it had trouble locating where the original eye was, it would have to track and replace with chrome. But sometimes it was way off mark. I listened to everything Van Morrison ever wrote at the height of a heat wave working on the eyes in each scene. So if you go through his whole discography starting with his band Them, that's how long just the eyes took.

Thankfully, we now have cameras and software that make undertakings like this merely a few hours work from start to finish. I can turn around a trailer now in the span of three days. When it was all done in October of 2013, we added soundtrack and the composers added some pieces. Once rendering was over, I had 20 hours a day I didn't know what to do with. Amen for advances is all I have to say.

What was your approach to choosing and creating music for the movie?

LISA: The book came with its own music that was written in. If you watched a scene with certain songs, it was a perfect match. However, some of this soundtrack was very expensive to clear. And the composers started digging in before any of us realized this film needed around 100 pieces.

So I contacted artists directly that owned the music like The New Amsterdams and Dead Ghosts. The rest were obscure Creative Commons and Chicago bands. Some of the music I requested was released to me once I was finished. I had to go back to Universal and tell them thank you, but we're done. But Universal was very, very nice and helpful. Easily, some of my favorite people to talk to.

Also Bob Mason and I have had a band for seven year called Quiet Pills. He donated some music from his other projects and we wrote a new piece. I finished up the end credits by myself. Ben Kopec was essential in teaching me composing - where to begin, end and timing to cuts.

If I had it to do again, I would have put in less music, but I kind of like it as a long rolling music video. It has the feel of Pink Floyd's The Wall. Craig Dodge who did the trailer music told me if he had known I needed him, he liked it so much he would have done the whole thing. I'm working with Alan T Yurich right now, so we definitely have room for Craig. I'm always up for a musical collaboration. It's probably my favorite part of the process.

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

LISA: Smartest thing I did during production. There were some on the fly rewrites that went well based on actor scheduling. Probably during the chase scene when Sasha Rossof was getting close to bedtime and we made the change that she went missing only to be reunited with her at the end added another dimension. I had some day to night that was cut because it just didn't work but getting ahold of a generator for night scenes on our budget was tough.

I made some casting changes and decisions I wasn't thrilled with, but they were necessary. I think I could have asked for more assistance. A very dumb thing that cost me a lot of time was green screening the van in daylight from the outside. The light shot right through and we were green. To get around this, I turned us blue in post but I had to roto everything which resulted in less van - which is a scene people seem to enjoy. You still get a lot of it, but you could have had even more. I just couldn't draw any more at one point. It was like 20,000 frames of hand drawing humans, which made me a much better artist, yet caused a great deal of stress.

But the dumbest thing I could have done didn't happen on production but well before. I think I should have been looking at avant-garde distribution beforehand before some of those guys went out of business. It would have meant we would have had more budget to work with and therefore more help and a faster turnaround time. I just knew I had to make it and started making it.

I would have searched for some more names as well for audience value. And we definitely needed more motion shots. More planning for shots rather than just adhering to the location. It was a miracle for what it was, but I would never do it this way again. Also I would not begin a following so early. Five years is a long time to wait. I would tell my cast to wait on promotion. I know they're excited but once the toothpaste is out of the tube, you can't put it back. 

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

LISA: I have written several scripts since which have all landed the support of a team. First thing is I would look at catalogues of sellers and distributors and find the right fit for my film. Next, I would partner with as many people as I could for as many platforms as I could.

There is a new option for theater runs now called Tugg. If someone wants to see your movie beyond DVD or VOD, you can get say 60 of them together, sell the tickets, take the promoter's fee and that's your theater run. Gone are the days of $300K releases. However, you do have to change your files over DCP if they aren't already in that format. Other than that, it's a dream come true and many theaters may be saved based on the sheer amount of movie fans looking for their favorites on the big screen. They're even reviving classics like The Crow and Gremlins. It's something that still can be offered for this picture.

The most important lessons filmmakers can remember are these two. One: Relationships are important. So be kind to people you want to work with and don't give any more time to troublemakers than you would to a spider. Never take anyone for granted and whatever "fame" you are chasing, put it out of your mind. You are here to do good work, learn and realize fame is creepy people asking you for money you may not have.

Two: If you need help, ask. Many people will tell you no, but so many people are waiting for you to reach out. Do what you love. Selling out is not worth it.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Eric Branco on “Stay Cold Stay Hungry”

What was your filmmaking background before making Stay Cold Stay Hungry?

ERIC: As a child, I acted in a few stage productions.  As I got older, directing drew my interest more and more.  I briefly attended the School of Visual Arts and double-majored in Directing and Cinematography.  It wasn’t really a fit for me, and I started looking for work in the film industry while I was still in school.  I ended up leaving to work as a Grip.  I worked my way from Grip, to Best Boy Electric, to Gaffer, to Cinematographer.   

I work mainly as a cinematographer these days, which I love.  My career as a cinematographer has been building steadily, and it seems like the path I’m on will lead me to shooting larger projects and then directing smaller, character driven films between projects. 

I've directed a multitude of shorts, but Stay Cold Stay Hungry is my feature debut. 

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

ERIC: The original plan was to drop out of film school and shoot this movie the following summer.  Ten years later, here it is.  

What really inspired me to get this movie made was the experience of shooting a feature with a friend of mine, Chad Peter.  I had just come off a relatively straightforward season of shooting tailgating videos for Monday Night Football, and was really starved to do something creative.  Chad invited me out to LA to help him with Apocalypse, CA, a feature that he had been shooting for a year or so, and I immediately said yes.  It was a really tough shoot with a tiny tiny budget, but he handled it really well, and made me realize that I could do the same thing with Stay Cold Stay Hungry.  

I started going over the script again while sleeping on his couch, and called my writing partner Brandon Taylor as soon as I got back to New York.  He really helped me find the story I was trying to tell, and helped to filter out the material that wasn’t moving that story forward.  We had a draft I was happy with just a few months later, and went into production a few months after that.

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

ERIC: We were entirely self-funded.  I spent a few months looking for funding, and found that investors didn’t believe that I could make a movie for as low a number as I was asking for, and because I was an unproven director, didn’t want to give me more either.  I was really stuck in a no-man’s land of financing, and eventually said “The hell with it”, and just started shooting.

Once we started shooting, the plan was always to self-distribute.  We're about halfway through our festival run now, and then we'll probably four-wall a small theatrical release and put it up on iTunes.

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

ERIC: I had known both actors for years.  I actually met Johnny in high school, and we made a few shorts together over the years.  We were very close (I spend Christmas Eve with his family in Queens), and I bounced ideas off of him as I was working out the story for Stay Cold Stay Hungry.  It became clear that he knew the character as well as I did, if not better.  I don’t remember when I officially asked him to play Harley, but it was a very organic process.

Stephen Hill is an actor I had known from an acting studio we used to frequent.  I had long been a fan, and respected his work tremendously.  I gave him a call while I was away shooting a feature and sent him the script.  He called me a few days later and left one of the nicest voicemails I’ve ever gotten.  He basically said “I’m in for whatever you need,” and he was.

I don't know if this was a product of casting, but the script did change quite a bit while we were shooting.  The original script was much more a film where we followed one character, and then other came in and out of his life.  The final film is much more even handed in how we tell the story.  I feel like both characters are on equal footing now.

We didn’t really improvise while on set.  It was more a situation of being open during rehearsals and finding things that worked better than what I had originally written.  We rehearsed extensively before shooting, and when we found something that worked well I wrote it in.  Once on set, though, we stuck to the script for the most part.  Stephen Hill did write a tremendous scene where we really get a window into the heart of the character he plays.  Aside from that, though, it was all on the page.

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

ERIC: I definitely bit off more than I could chew with this one.  I was writing, producing, scheduling, directing, shooting, recording sound... And although I cut the scenes, I even acted in the film.  The most challenging obstacle I faced was just keeping it all straight in my head, and developing the muscle that allowed me to shut everything out once we got on set and just focus on directing.  It’s a skill that I had to learn while making this movie, but it’s served me very well on projects since.

As hard as it was, though, I wouldn't trade it for the world.  Most shooting days, it was just myself, Johnny and Stephen.  It almost felt like rehearsing a play in that sense.  That same rush of feeling completely safe with people you trust entirely, and making discoveries that you might not have hit upon in a larger group.  That same rush of something really clicking, and being filled with an overwhelming excitement to eventually share it with audiences.  Not to mention having the freedom to shoot at our own pace and completely blow a scene up and start from scratch if it wasn't working.  You definitely don't have that freedom on a traditional set when there's 50 crew members looking at their watch and you're about to go into meal penalties.

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

ERIC: We shot on the Canon 5D Mark II.  It was just the right camera for this kind of film.  We shot without permits, and most days it was just myself and the two actors.  Shooting with such a low profile camera granted us access to locations where having a larger camera would have drawn attention to what we were doing.  

We shot everywhere with this thing, on the subways, on buses, in the library.  I’m not much of a gearhead, but this is a case where the technology truly allowed us to make this movie.  I don’t think we could have done it differently.

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

ERIC: The smartest thing I did was cast the actors I did.  Not only do they both give powerhouse performances, but they also became family while shooting this movie.  I've never felt support like Johnny and Steve gave to both the film and myself.  I still feel it every time we're all together for a festival screening or other event.  I couldn't have been luckier to find these guys.

The dumbest thing I did was not getting a publicist on board from the start.  Naively, I thought that all I had to do was make the best movie possible and people would see it.  After dealing with the festival world for a few years now, I realize that couldn't be further from the truth.  If people aren't aware of your film, and if it doesn't have significant buzz surrounding it, you aren't going to get eyes on it.  It's as simple as that.  You really need someone championing your film to those who can get it out into the world from the start. 

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

ERIC: Oy.  I don't know that I can boil this entire experience into just a lesson or two.  It's not even a matter of learning, actually.  It was a life changing experience.  I'm truly a different person because I made this movie.

I can say that it's made me both a better director, as well as cinematographer.  In doing both on a long-form project, I really came to understand what a director goes through emotionally while making a feature length film.  As a cinematographer, I find that after shooting this film, I'm much more emotionally supportive of my directors than I may have been in the past.  I can also see when they may be falling into traps that I've fallen into myself, and I try to raise a red flag if I can.  It's my duty as a DP to help my directors make the best film they can possibly make, and if I can offer some experience of my own that can help move us toward that goal, I'm obligated to do that.