Thursday, December 18, 2014

Scott Kawczynski on “Trust, Greed, Bullets & Bourbon”

What was your filmmaking background before making Trust, Greed, Bullets & Bourbon?

SCOTT: I have a load of credits for Art Department in both broadcast TV and film, mostly for motion graphics and title sequences. Also, in terms of Production Design, I won an Emmy for MTV Unplugged in 2010, and was also the Production Designer for the short film Two Hands that was an Academy Award Nominee in 2007. For directing, this is my first feature, I directed a short back in 2008.

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

SCOTT: I had just a sliver of an idea of a simple heist gone wrong who-done-it, and I was watching a bunch of Hitchcock (Rear Window, Rope) and 12 Angry Men, and I thought of writing a small little story that takes place predominantly in one location and all the characters were stuck there.

My process is somewhat unique I guess. I don't think anyone should do exactly what another writer does, do what works for you. I am not a big outliner, I get the beats of the story done rather quickly. I am way too anxious and need to start writing. That first draft is where I get everything figured out and it takes the longest. Then I read it through and rip it apart and put it back together. And then I do that again.

I actually love the rewrite process. That is where you get to really dissect the writing and play with it. Trust, Greed, Bullets & Bourbon went through 11 complete rewrites. 


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

SCOTT: Going in, I knew I was going to fund the film myself. That sounds pretty crazy, but please understand this is a very, very low-budget film. I had a number in mind, that quickly doubled once we got into production.

Once the film was completed, when we were on the final cut of the film, I decided to do a Kickstarter to raise money for the color correction and sound mix. Honestly, I have a love/hate relationship with Kickstarter, but I felt OK using it in this case because I had a completed film done.

As for recouping costs, well, let's be honest, it's a truly independent film, so I had no expectation of making the money back. You hear this all the time, but I had to make this film, and I was going to do everything in my power to do it. That said, it is doing pretty well in terms of iTunes pre-orders and DVD sales, so I'm making a little bit back. The connections I have made with actors, crew, producers, investors and distributors has been incredible, and impossible had I not made the film.


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

SCOTT: I cast the film mainly through and IMDBPro account. Living in NYC, I went through all the TV shows that shoot in New York and made a spreadsheet of actors I thought might fit the part. I did a ton of research, watching reels and back episodes of TV shows.

From there I emailed and called managers and agents. I had much better luck with emails actually. I think because I was able to spell everything out on what I was able to accomplish and why I thought the particular actor would be great in the role. With the cold calls, I would get an assistant whose first question always seemed to be "How much money is in it?" and would never hear back from the agent. 

The script did not change very much at all once the actors were on board. However, once we began shooting we did have conversations regarding the characters and their motives. I wanted the actors to be comfortable with what their characters were doing, and if what was on the page was not believable to them, we worked together to get it to a place where it did work. If something didn't make sense, we discussed it and fixed it.

We ended up adding one additional scene while shooting for this very reason. Dialog was a little different. As long as the actors were getting across the emotion and importance of the scene, I was fine with them going off script. 


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

SCOTT: We shot on a Sony F3 with Prime lenses. It was my DPs camera so I let him make this call. I was ready to rent an Arri Alexa, but we had a shooting schedule of 12 days, so I wanted him to be as comfortable as possible. From my point of view, the camera was great. Shot beautifully and workflow was seamless. 


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

SCOTT: They say that editing is the final rewrite of the script and that couldn't be more true. The story itself did not have any radical changes, but you just trim trim, trim until it is nice and tight. We reworked one scene, because it really was not working and when we yanked out a big section of it, realized nothing was lost, and that it actually made the story stronger. The script itself was a pretty lean 92 pages to begin with, but it's so important to make it clean and tight, always moving forward. 


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

SCOTT: I am going to give you two smartest things. First, we shot in upstate New York for most of the principal photography and had absolutely no rehearsal time at all. So instead of having everyone in separate hotel rooms, we all lived together for two weeks. It really created a great bond with the cast and crew and brought us all together. 

The second smart thing goes against what you generally hear. They tell you that the first day of shooting should be simple and easy to let the cast ease into the story. I did the exact opposite. The first day, we did 64 takes of an eleven-page scene. But, there was a method to the madness. The scene is about when the ensemble all get back together for the first time after five years apart. In reality, these people would be nervous and unsure of where they stood, just like my actors. So it worked perfectly, and we got one of the toughest scenes out of the way that first day. 

The dumbest thing, hands down, is not having catering set up. I had delusions of how the food was going to work out and it did not go as planned. We got it under control by the third day, but hungry cast and crew makes for cranky cast and crew. 


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

SCOTT: Making the film really reinforced the concept of great collaboration. Surround yourself with talented people who believe in what they are doing, and you will make something great that you are really proud of.

I had the honor of working with a group of great people that put everything they had and more into making this little film, and we are all extremely proud of it. In such a collaborative art form, it is crucial. It builds an incredible amount of trust and friendship. 


Trust, Greed, Bullets & Bourbon is available worldwide on iTunes, Amazon, Seed&Spark, VHX Digital, and DVD. Just go to http://trustgreedbulletsandbourbon.com 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Hugh Sullivan on “The Infinite Man”

What was your filmmaking background before making The Infinite Man?

HUGH: I studied directing at film school, which provided me with the opportunity to make a few short films, and also to meet some great collaborators (Marden Dean, for example, was Director of Photography on both the film school shorts and The Infinite Man).

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

HUGH: There were a few ideas and desires I had. I’ve always enjoyed time travel and wanted to try my hand at it. I also wanted to look at a relationship as experienced by a somewhat troubled mind – a mind plagued by insecurities and ruminative thought. Time travel allowed me to approach these things quite explicitly. And I knew that I would be working with quite a small budget, and this kind of story seemed ideally suited to that.

The writing process was one of constant revision. Due to the inherently complicated nature of time travel, even the smallest change to a scene would reverberate throughout the entire script, and necessitate many more changes. Repeatedly. In fact, the experience of writing The Infinite Man was not too dissimilar to the experiences of its main character, Dean: constant frustration, endless revision and many, many tears.


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

HUGH: The film was financed through the South Australian Film Corporation’s FilmLab initiative. This meant the financing was pretty much guaranteed from a 1-page idea – a very strange and beautiful position to find oneself in. We have released the film theatrically in Australia, with the US and hopefully other territories to come.


How did you go about casting the movie ... and did the script change much once you had your cast in place?

HUGH: The casting process was quite traditional. Fortunately the film contains just three actors, which kept things pretty simple. I was familiar with Josh, Hannah and Alex’s work, and keen for them to read for the parts. And as soon as I saw them I knew they would be perfect.

Things changed very little as a result of casting. One thing that did have an enormous influence on the script was the location. Settling on the abandoned motel as the primary location necessitated a considerable rewrite. But I think we all felt it was worthwhile. At the very least it provided us with a place to stay for the duration of the shoot.


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

HUGH: We were fortunate enough to get a very good deal on an Arri Alexa. Obviously it’s a great camera, and while I hate to give such a dull response, I really have no quibbles whatsoever.


Did the movie change much in the editing, and if so, in what ways?

HUGH: The movie changed very little in the edit. Things were shortened, and a few scenes were removed. But with a piece such as this, where everything must fit together both temporally and spatially, it was impossible to significantly reorder things without rendering the whole somewhat illogical or entirely incomprehensible.


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

HUGH: I’m not sure what the smartest thing was, and as for the dumbest, well, I’ll let the viewer decide.

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


HUGH: Get the script right, respect the schedule and wear comfortable shoes.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Amy Holden Jones on "Slumber Party Massacre"


How did Slumber Party Massacre come about?

AMY HOLDEN JONES: Well that was kind of interesting. I had come out of documentary films and couldn't make a living in them. In those days, it was not the big scene it is now. I had won the AFI student film festival with a documentary. Martin Scorsese was one of the judges of that festival, and he used me as his assistant on Taxi Driver and then introduced me to Corman.

I had no money and I had to make a living, so I became a film editor. I worked for a while as a film editor and was beginning to get successful at it. I realized that if I keep this up, I'm going to be typed as a film editor. I did several smaller movies, one for MGM and a small Hal Ashby movie, and I was going to do E.T. for Spielberg. I thought, 'I'll be a film editor unless I make a movie,' so I went back to Roger Corman, who I had edited a film for when I was 22 years old.

So I went back and said, “What would I have to do to be a director?” And Roger looked at the documentary, and it didn't show him enough about what he wanted, because it was an art documentary in a way. He said, “You have to show me that you can do what I do.”

I had never written anything, so I was looking for an existing script. I went into his library of scripts, scripts that he hadn't made, and I took several of them. I read one called Don't Open the Door, by Rita Mae Brown. And it had a prologue that was about eight pages long. It had a dialogue scene, a suspense scene and an action scene.

I rewrote the scenes somewhat to make it better, and then I got short ends from shooting projects -- my husband was a cinematographer. My neighbor was a soundman. We borrowed some lights, used our own house. I did the special effects, and I got UCLA theater students to act in it.

We spent three days and shot those first eight pages. Then I put them together at night on Joe Dante's system -- he was doing The Howling. I would work at night, after hours, on his Movieola and he gave me some temp music cues.

Then I dropped off this nine-minute reel for Roger that had a dialogue scene, a suspense scene and an action/horror scene, to show him that I could do those three different kinds of things which make up an exploitation movie.

He called me up and had me come in and asked me how much it had cost me to do it. And I said it cost about $2,000, which is what it had cost. He said, “You have a future in the business,” and asked me how much I would need to direct the rest of the script. The truth was, I had never read the rest of the script, all I had read was the first eight pages. So I just, out of the air, said “$200,000.” And he said, “Let's do it, you're directing this movie.”

I then finished reading the script and it was a complete mess.

I just took a leap. I called Spielberg and told him the situation and he was kind enough to release me fro editing E.T. I rewrote Slumber Party Massacre in about four weeks as I cast it. And, indeed, we made if for $200,000.

What steps did you take to re-write it?

AMY HOLDEN JONES: I rewrote it to be makeable. Once I knew how little money we had, and what the situation was before re-writing it, that focuses your mind -- a lot. You don't go writing scenes at a football game with thousands of extras.

You start to think very logically -- when you know you're going to be going out there and doing those scenes -- about what you can do and what amount of time you can do it in. And my background as a film editor and a documentary filmmaker certainly helped.

Did you end up using any of the prologue that you shot on your own?

AMY HOLDEN JONES: No, we never did, because none of the actors were SAG, and in the end we had to have SAG actors, so we had to toss it, which was too bad. But we didn't really need it, as it turned out.

Any advice to writers who are working in the low-budget universe?

AMY HOLDEN JONES: Well, it's a different market in this day and age. It's a good era, in a way, for writers starting out on a low-budget project, because you can actually make a movie for almost nothing.

I wish that I'd had the technology that young writers have now, because you can take all kinds of risks without risking all that money, if you are bold enough to write and start shooting.

I think the main thing that is still true today that was true then is that as you write you have to both tap into your heart but you also have to be aware of the very practical side of what it all costs and also what sells. It's an interesting mix.

The world is full of festival movies that never get out or go anywhere. If people are trying to break into Hollywood movies and bigger movies, not make something personal that they're going to put up on the Internet, they have to look at the commerciality of their subject matter and they have to fit what they're trying to say into a framework that is in some form entertaining for people. It has to be meaningful or moving or exciting or funny or dramatic. It can't just be what you'd tell your shrink, you know what I mean?

If they're trying to break into Hollywood, they have to be aware of something commercial in the project. Take a look at some of the things that have sold out of festivals. For example, Hustle & Flow. It's about a pimp. It's about sex. And money. That’s an easy sell.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Jill D’Agnenica on “Life Inside Out”

What was your filmmaking background before making Life Inside Out?

JILL: I come to television and filmmaking via art school where I hounded a fellow classmate and film editor mercilessly for two years to get me a job in editorial, surprising myself with my determination since I had no idea what an editor did nor had I previously exhibited any interest in film or television production, other than being a ravenous fan of watching the stuff. So my formal film and television education took place in editing rooms, first as an assistant, culling through all the dailies and watching how editors approached the material and then becoming an editor myself.

Between television editorial gigs, which have supported my family all these years, I have produced and edited several independent features and shorts, earning my stripes and a few scars battling low budgets, quick schedules, limited footage, and learning curves (my own and others’.) Life Inside Out is my directorial debut.

How did you find Maggie Baird and Lori Nasso’s script and what was your process for getting it ready to shoot?

JILL: I met Maggie Baird at a La Leche League meeting 16 years ago. I was a new, exhausted mother of a ten-week-old baby, Isabella. Maggie seemed to be an old pro, with her six-month-old son, Finneas in a sling, sharing advice and support. As we left the meeting that night, I impulsively ran up to Maggie’s car and blurted, “I want to be your friend” and she graciously didn’t react like I was a lunatic. And so for the past 16 years our friendship has grown through baby playdates, co-op pre-school, and homeschooling our kids.

From very early on we shared our experiences in Hollywood and my refrain was a steady, “We know so many people in this industry, we should make our own film.” Always up for a challenge, it seemed to me that directing would be a great next adventure. The only thing we were missing was a script, which a mere 14 years later, Maggie had produced, co-writing Life Inside Out with Lori Nasso.

Going back and forth with Maggie and Lori, I wrote my own backstories, motivations and needs for each of the characters that I later used as a springboard to discussions with each actor.

Our producer, Tessa Bell, insisted that I storyboard my shots, the idea of which I found fatiguing until our production designer turned me onto Google Sketch Up. I was hooked! I created 3-D renderings of our main two sets (Laura’s house and the Club), populated them with furnishings and people and then zoomed around with a virtual camera looking for cool angles and taking screen shots when I found them. Then my DP and I discussed it all.

With the shoot approaching, and a lot of scenes left unexplored, Guido and I sat down with the list of scenes and tried to describe each with just one still, iconic image. Then we set ourselves the task of getting to that image with our shots. This was super effective and led to some of my favorite visual moments in the film: Laura peeking under her bed, pushing aside her guitar; the wide shot of Laura alone at her dining room table; close up of Laura’s hands playing piano and Shane’s playing the guitar; the pan across Laura’s extended family at the club; the cu shots behind the performers on stage, catching the spot lights.


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

JILL: The main chunk of our budget was raised in a successful Kickstarter Campaign in June of 2012. We had a goal of $35,000 and we raised over $41,000. Private investors gave us the rest and everyone on the crew worked for reduced rates.

With the help of some super supporters, we are doing a limited theatrical release on our own. And in early 2015, Life Inside Out will be released by Monarch Films on DVD and VOD. We are determined to pay back our investors, who put faith in this film and us.


What was your process for creating the music for the film?

JILL: Maggie Baird and Finneas O’Connell (our stars) are each songwriters as well as actors and Maggie and Lori wrote the film around a lot of key songs. These were written into the script from the beginning.

In addition to those songs, the movie is filled with the music of other musicians, Maggie and I spent a lot of time in pre-production going over the script and identifying what songs and musicians would be in the film and where. (We have, I think 39 cues in the movie, total, many of these on camera.) The next step was prepping the music for playback. (Most of the music in the movie was pre-recorded and used as playback on the set, with a couple of exceptions where we shot it live.) I went into the studio with Maggie and Finneas to record their songs. And we had all of our “guest musicians” send us acoustic versions of their songs.


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

JILL: We went back and forth about what camera to use. In the end, our shooting budget was the determining factor. (We were determined to shoot this movie, even if we had to use our iPhones, our producer was very much NOT interested in that option.) In any case, I wanted to leave the decision up to our cinematographer, Guido Frenzel. In the end, he chose the RED Epic with RED Primes.

Here’s what Guido has to say:  “Due to the tendency of the RED Primes to flare out more than other glass we got some of the best shots in the movie (when we played with the flairs for creative reasons,) but we also had to deal with constantly keeping an eye on keeping flares out when we didn’t want them. Otherwise I don’t think the RED is the most ergonomically designed camera for Handheld shooting, but with our HH rig it was fine in the end. (Our film was about 90% handheld.)

The Epic was a great choice for a small indie budget, but with less limited funds I would still go with the ARRI Alexa, which I think has the best digital sensor available at the moment.”


Did the story change much in the editing and if it did why did you decide to make those changes?

JILL: The editor’s cut came in at over 120 minutes long, so there was lots of trimming and some losing of scenes to do. After we had locked picture, we decided that we needed to pace up the first 20 minutes of the movie, so I went back in and lost some additional scenes and expository stuff, trusting the audience to catch on. But other than that and some re-ordering of scenes for pacing and flow, by and large we stuck to the story in editing.

I co- edited the film with my colleague Philip Malamouth. He was responsible for the editor’s cut and really created the pacing and cuts in the club scenes especially. Since I am an editor as well, I sort of took over the controls for the director’s cut, because I am comfortable with and excited about the process of discovery through editing. I would make changes and then send them back to Philip for notes and back and forth.

Also, I had to do a fair amount of editing slight of hand because of our limited footage and as the director, I knew where all the bodies were buried--the performances I loved, the scenelette caught at the end of a take but not marked or identified, the shots I could steal from one scene to use in another. I could work out pacing and story in a quiet, reflective environment, at my own speed.

And countless times in the editing room Jill the Editor said to herself that Jill the Director was lucky to have her, saving her ultra-low-budget butt.


What was the smartest thing you did during production?

JILL: The smartest thing I did during pre-production and production was to seek out and listen to the advice of people who had more experience than I did. Before Life Inside Out, I hadn’t spent much time on a set. (My years in film have mainly consisted of me locked away in dark editing rooms dealing with the footage that has already been shot.) I asked directors I respected to in effect be my crash course film school and they generously complied.

One gave me a list of books to read in preparation of working with actors, one told me to listen to my intuition and go with it no matter who was arguing with me or what else was happening. She also gave me her cell phone number in case I needed to cry or rant, in private, away from the crew. Another suggested a good stiff drink to calm the nerves. And on and on. The advice was often hilarious, always useful, and much appreciated. 

Another great piece of advice came from Guido Frenzel, our cinematographer, who told me that when I walked on set, I would set the tone for everyone. I made sure to put a big smile one my face every morning and to try and stay positive throughout the day.

In our production meeting I thanked everyone for being a part of the movie and asked that we all treat each other with kindness and respect. Also, that when (not if, when) a problem came up, to please let me know the problem and give me a possible solution if they had one, but not to waste anyone’s time by casting blame. This kept the set a positive place and made for a really nice working environment for everyone.

The dumbest thing?

JILL: Was not insisting that we get permits for all of our locations. We were working on a shoestring budget and didn’t always pull them. I am a fan of run and gun, but personally my constitution is not set up for it and our production wasn’t set up for it either. On one important day we got shut down half way through because we didn’t have proper permits and the production (and I) suffered greatly for that.

Even on days where we made it through without incident, I was unnecessarily stressed, worried that we could get shut down at any moment.


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

JILL: Now that I have made the film, all that good advice I got really resonates more deeply. I come to the set prepared, but open to new possibilities as opportunities or problems present themselves. I am much more confident and really do try to listen to and follow my gut. I respect and rely on the other professionals on the set to do their best work. I try to make quick decisions and not spend much time arguing or discussing because that’s one of the big ways you lose time and don’t make your day.

And number one, I let my crew and cast know how much I appreciate them and their work. It’s amazing what we can do together as a team!


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Tim Savage on “Under the Blood-Red Sun”

What was your filmmaking background before making Under the Blood-Red Sun?

TIM: Primarily, television commercials.  I think commercials are a great training ground for features because you must be extremely well prepared and disciplined in visual storytelling.  I’ve also worked on several short films, both as branded content for advertisers and for my church, New Hope Oahu, and these were important in expanding to longer stories.

I studied at Stanford and graduated with a BA in Communications.  I spent 4 years at a television station before moving in to commercials.

What attracted you to Graham Salisbury's book and what was the process for making the transition from book to screenplay? 

TIM: First and foremost, I loved the story of Under the Blood-Red Sun.  Second, I felt I had a specific voice in telling this story set in Hawaii.  And third, it’s an award-winning book that is required-reading in middle schools across the country with a loyal following for 20 years, so I felt it was smart investment of my heart, mind and soul.


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

TIM: Like all independent filmmakers we begged and borrowed.  Some of the funds came from the original partners – Dana Hankins (producer), Graham Salisbury (author) and me (director). 

Next in, was my best friend since high school, who believed in us before anyone else did, and then we mounted a successful (thankfully!) KickStarter campaign and raised $50K.  Since finishing the film, we’ve received support for several community organizations including a generous donation from the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii.

We deliberately planned to skip the theaters.  We’re going straight to digital purchases through Gumroad to start.  After a period of time with Gumroad, we’ll see what other distribution opportunities come our way. 

We chose this route primarily because we think the majority of our audience is young and they’re used to watching content over handheld devices like tablets, phones and computers.  This is the new paradigm for indie distribution but there’s not a lot of data available to vet the system, so we’ll have to wait and see how it works out for us.

Additionally, we believe there will be opportunities for us in educational arenas.


What tips have you learned (now that you've done it) about how to create a period piece on a low budget?

TIM: You mean other than, don’t?  Experts, consultants and owners of vintage cars and toys ultimately want to showcase either their knowledge or their stuff, don’t over pay for those things unless you plan on destroying them (at least this is true in Hawaii), but treat them with mad respect because they will save your tail.  Don’t plan on saving things in post, but just know that advances in technology have made it easier to do so (removing buildings, signs, etc).


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

TIM: We shot on the Canon 5D Mark lll with external Atomos recorders recording at ProRes 422 HQ.  The VFX shots were acquired on Red.  I love the image of the 5D and I think it gave us the most value for our budget.  The size factor was also important because some of our period houses were extremely small and we were shooting with multiple cameras.

I hate that we can’t significantly reposition shots with the 1080 size of our frame.  The 5D/Atomos connections weren’t robust enough for rigorous field production requiring extra time and effort to repair or re-rig.  I hope that on my next film we can step up to the Red or the Alexa, but overall I’m very pleased with the image of the Mark lll.


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

TIM: Probably the smartest thing we did was to extensively prepare.  We scouted every location several times, we mapped out every scene and shot.  We knew where to position big period military trucks in order to block contemporary buildings, we knew the days we needed more crew and when we could get by with skeleton team.  Obviously we couldn’t just make things up as we went because we didn’t have trucks full of wardrobe, props and equipment to support it. 

One example was that the TV show Hawaii 5-0 built a similar set to our internment camp a couple of months prior to us.  Rumor has it they spent about $100,000.  We chose a different location that had some appropriate-looking Quonset huts in the background, worked with volunteers and friends and got a comparable look for $1,000.

The dumbest thing we did was to produce a film starring an unknown 13-year-old Japanese boy set in 1941, with extremely limited financial resources.  Ultimately, I hope that will be the reason our film will succeed.


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

TIM: Test each piece of gear before putting it to work on your movie!  I have to live with a couple of shots that are problematic because of a recording issue in one of our recorders.
Choose your color grading station wisely, then have faith in it – every projector and monitor you see your film on after that will be different and it’s a wild goose chase to fine tune it for each.

If at all possible, test the film at your screening venues beforehand for picture and sound.  So far, every venue we’ve screened at has had some issue (projectors not working correctly, setup wrong, speaker output messed up, etc).


I’d also like people to know that our film is available on our website: http://www.underthebloodredsun.com