Thursday, July 24, 2014

Nikki Braendlin on “As High as the Sky”

What was your filmmaking background before making As High as the Sky?

NIKKI: Having been an actor, I had been on film and television sets so I knew the basic process of the day, but I had never made a film. I had directed small theatrical productions, which helped me be comfortable working with the actors.

I took a semester course on directing, basically to get the terminology I needed to communicate more effectively with the crew. And I self-studied via books, articles and videos. But, really, this film was essentially my schooling.

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

NIKKI: This writing process was different from other scripts I have written, because I had the location and two of the actresses (Caroline Fogarty and Bonnie McNeil) first. Caroline and I have been friends for quite a long time and we really wanted to work together. She lives in the gorgeous house we shot in. I suggested that I write a script that was set there and where she could play the lead. I’ve also been friends with Bonnie for years and wanted her to be a part of the film.

Usually I start with themes I want to explore and work down to the details, so this script’s process was sort of in reverse. I felt the two actresses could be sisters and thought the location (a minimalist mid-century modern home) lent itself to someone with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, something I was interested in examining as I struggle with them myself. I have experienced my symptoms worsen when I’m working through a particularly difficult time and wanted to examine the ramifications of someone who has never learned to identify, and thus process, her emotions at all.

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

NIKKI: I was fortunate to be able to fund the film through contributions from family and friends. And I feel doubly fortunate to have our film acquired by Cinema Libre Studio. They focus on socially conscious films, so I feel like we’re in great company.

With regard to recouping costs, that will be a long ways away but hopefully this film will help me get my other scripts made. 

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

NIKKI: The only role I cast for was “Hannah.” I saw between 50-60 young actresses because I was still narrowing down the age I wanted “Hannah” to be. I wanted her young enough that she still needed a mother figure but mature enough to understand and process the changes occurring in her life. We were extremely fortunate to find Laurel Porter for the role. She really exemplified Hannah’s depth and also her playfulness.

Caroline and Bonnie are both often cast in broad, brassy roles and I wanted to write something for them that would be different and not for what I might feel their strengths are.

In general, I think films fall into trouble when they alter the script for actors. If a writer has a clear vision for a character, it’s probably serving the overall story in the best way possible and it’s dangerous to start tweaking for actors’ perceived sensibilities. I think actors appreciate not being typecast and being able to create the character based on way it’s written, bringing their own, original ideas to her or him.

Did you find your primary location or did you need to create or alter it to make it work?

NIKKI: I knew the location before I began writing so I tried to make the house its own character. I added a few small set pieces but in general, what you see on screen is how the house usually looks and I tried to use its nuances. For example, I wrote the pops of orange that Caroline has in the house into the script; “Margaret” is trying to find the right pillows for her couch that have just the right amount of orange in them. I utilized the kitty door in the guest bathroom and great tree wallpaper in the exercise room.

It was also fortuitous to know the house well because I could make sure I kept the action moving. I wrote the scenes intentionally to be shot in different rooms and tried to shuffle them around so we weren’t spending three or four scenes back-to-back in, say, the living room. I also tried to address or use the unique details of each room in the scenes.

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

NIKKI: We shot with, and liked, the Canon 5D for a few reasons. The first was it fit our budget and the second was that we had some tight spaces (bathrooms, closets) to shoot in and the 5D is small enough that it worked well in those locations. Third, the 5D is great when you aren’t doing a lot of movement and we had envisioned a very still film.

One of the challenges we encountered during the shoot is that there is not a lot of latitude with the 5D. Because we were often shooting inside a house, looking out through windows, the outside is more blown out than we would have liked. We had to accept that we couldn’t see as many details with this camera. Additionally, the images compress more than a higher format camera.

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

NIKKI: My OCD helped a lot during pre-production. I colored coded all my notes and I was very detailed with them. I knew exactly where each character was coming from and going to, physically and emotionally, for each scene. I wrote down visuals that I thought would help the actresses prepare before the shots and I made sure every word in the script was necessary. I had every prop and wardrobe change written down. This made it easier when things got hectic. I had my own go-to and reminder guides.

The most ridiculous “directing” thing I did was to do takes where the actresses were just reacting to one another, without dialogue. My thought was that I wanted to make sure I had enough reaction shots but the exercise was very inorganic and I don’t think I used any of that footage.

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

NIKKI: I went into this project believing that collaboration is key and that belief is now cemented in me. You have to hire and cast people that understand the story and the tone and are also awesome to work with. Listen to what everyone has to say and let them feel comfortable enough to state when they aren’t sure of something. I’d much rather have honesty on set than arrogant bravado!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Daniel Patrick Carbone on "Hide Your Smiling Faces"

What was your filmmaking background before making Hide Your Smiling Faces?

DANIEL: I’ve been making movies since I was a kid. My parents had a camcorder that I would take and shoot all sorts of bizarre little stories with my friends. I would beg and plead with my teachers to let me make films instead of write papers. I never really saw it as something to do for a career, though.

When it came time to consider colleges, I realized that it was my only real interest. I ended up at NYU for the undergrad film program at Tisch and used that experience primarily as a way to deeper understand what it was about film that I loved so much and what kind of films I wanted to make. I made a few short films there that I was really proud of, but after graduating, I spent a few years floundering, working at a post house and as a freelance shooter.

In 2009, I shot a feature for Matt Petock (A Little Closer) and started to think about my own future in feature films. I took a few years to write Hide Your Smiling Faces and shot the film in the summer of 2012.

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

DANIEL: The idea for Hide Your Smiling Faces came to me in a very organic way. I didn’t actively set out to write a feature film. The project began as a series of standalone scenes that I had written over the course of a few years and sort of set aside in a folder on my computer. They revolved around experiences I had as a kid growing up in northwest New Jersey – scenes involving me and my brother, my close friends, formative firsts, etc. I slowly realized that they shared a lot of thematic similarities and decided to combine them into a single project that bounced between moments in the lives of these two boys.

As I continued, I became less interested in telling an autobiographical story and more interested in capturing those emotions of being young, inquisitive, and scared. Some of the scenes in the final script were pulled straight from my own life, but many were invented – based merely on capturing the feeling of being that age and always exploring death, the grieving process, brotherhood, and our relationship to the natural world.

When fine-tuning the structure of the film, I chose the order of the scenes more for how they informed the scenes on either side, rather than creating a traditional narrative arc. I wanted the tone and perspective of the film to carry the audience through to the end – creating an experience of being young and faced with unanswerable questions. This finessing of the structure continued though to the edit, as quite a few scenes were cut from the script during shooting and quite a few new, unwritten scenes were shot.

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

DANIEL: We cast this film more or less the same way we cast our student films at NYU. I couldn’t afford a casting director, but since I wanted to use mostly non-actors in the lead and supporting roles, we didn’t have much use for one anyway.

We put ads up on Craiglist and Mandy and saw about 150 kids over a weekend. We did callbacks a few weeks later and they slotted our favorites into the various roles. Most of the boys, including Ryan and Nate who played the leads, didn’t have the chance to meet until we were all on set together. That was definitely the biggest point of stress for me leading up to the shoot but it was the only way we could do it since the kids came from all over and no one was being paid.

The dialogue changed drastically once we were on set, but that was always the plan. The words on the page were always meant to be a placeholder for the real style of speaking that the real kids would bring to the film. We would often do a take with my script, but then open it up for the remaining takes. If you can make young actors a part of the creative process, allowing them to speak your ideas in their own words, the performances feel much more authentic.

There were a handful of lines that needed to remain intact so that the light narrative could progress from scene to scene, but for the most part I gave the kids a set of boundaries and let them improvise within them.

In general, the script remained mostly intact during production, but a lot of scenes were dropped in favor of new ones that came about in the moment. The rainy moments that bookend the film were both unwritten and unrehearsed. We got rained out of the scenes we were scheduled to be shooting and, not having the luxury of time, we came up with a scenario, pushed the kids out in the rain and caught some really natural moments.

A lot of my favorite details in the film were unscripted moments that Ryan and Nate would come up with instinctively as more and more of their own personalities seeped into the characters.

It was never a plot heavy film, so capturing authentic moments in places that felt truly lived-in was always the priority.

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

DANIEL: I kept the budget as low as I could because I knew that raising money for a film like this, from a director with no real credits, would be next to impossible. I had some money saved up, and the timing coincided with an upcoming summer break from the university I worked for at the time, so I decided to primarily self-fund the project. It was a huge risk, but my I didn’t want to wait years trying to convince producers and financiers to invest in such a tiny project. The thought was that if the film was well received, the next time around I could raise the money elsewhere.

I supplemented the money I put in with a small Kickstarter campaign and some faculty research funding from the university I was working at.

To be honest, there was no real plan on recouping the costs. There were no investors in the project outside of myself, so I was able to work without the stress of spending someone else’s money. While obviously not an ideal scenario, I do think that this allowed me to make the film I wanted to make, without compromise.

I never imagined that the film would be so well received or find distribution. I saw it more as a means to test myself and hopefully end up with something to use to raise money for a second film. In the end, I was very lucky to make a few sales and win a few very generous festival prizes. Because my budget was low, I was ultimately able to recoup.

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

DANIEL: We shot on the Red One MX. I badly wanted to shoot Super 16mm but eventually had to concede that it wasn’t realistic for our budget. I was initially very opposed to the Red because it seemed like the polar opposite, aesthetically, to the warmth and intimacy that the 16mm version had in my mind. The sharp “glossy” look of the Red seemed to go completely against our vision for the project, but we decided having that extra resolution and latitude (tons of daylight exteriors) would benefit us.

The funny thing about the Red One is that now, just a few years later, you can buy one for a fraction of the rental cost. And the Epic, a better camera in nearly every way, is a fraction of its size. It was a beast to work with, especially on such a fast shoot with such remote locations. The way it “posts” shots to the memory cards after recording was intensely stressful for me but you eventually get used to the non-traditional workflow. Post was a bit complicated too, but there were no major issues with the edit or color correction, just a few extra steps.

In the end, I’m thrilled with the image and what we were able to get out of it in the color timing. For that we worked with Platige Image, a post house in Warsaw, Poland (a prize from winning the US-in-Progress section of the American Film Festival in Wroclaw). We spent a lot of time giving the film a slightly “aged” look, like an old photograph. We lifted and fogged the blacks and pulled back the very saturated greens of the forest locations. We definitely weren’t trying to emulate film, but these adjustments helped take the edge off of the sharpness and contrast of the Red.

How did you and your DP design and execute the visual look of the movie?

DANIEL: The cinematographer Nick Bentgen and I both have a deep appreciation for documentary and wanted to carry that into the shooting of this film. This translated to the look of the interior scenes, the placement of the camera in each scene, and the kinds of coverage we shot. This is a quiet film, so the camera needed to remain just as quiet, never distracting. There were only a few moves in the film and they come at times of transition for the boys on screen.

I also wanted the emotion of the film to come from the performances, not from the edit, so we shot many scenes in masters to allow the action to unfold in a continuous manner. While obviously never trying to pass the film off as non-fiction, I wanted the audience to see these characters as actual boys, in their actual environments. We always tried to find angles that spoke to the emotional state of the boys and their emotional geography took priority over the actual geography of the locations.

I shared a lot of reference material with Nick in pre-production. Lynne Ramsey’s Ratcatcher was a film we looked at for the low light interiors. He and his lighting crew spent a lot of time lighting though windows and supplementing practical sources to give those scenes a single-source feel, which added to the intimacy of those scenes. That film was also an inspiration for its ability to shoot kids at their level, bringing the audience into their unique perspective on the world. We also looked films like Tarkovsky’s Stalker for its use of long takes and wide master shots and the way it treated its environment as a main character.

You wore a lot of hats on this production -- Director, Writer, Editor, Producer. What's the upside and the downside of juggling all those roles??

DANIEL: This was a very personal film for me, so wearing all of those hats just sort of came naturally. It was always my intent to write and direct. Since we worked on such a low budget and had such a small team, I naturally found myself handling a lot of the production elements as well. In that area though, the three other producers – Matt  Petock, Zach Shedd, and Jordan Bailey-Hoover – really  saved the day. Their tireless work for many years on the film allowed me to not get too bogged down in the nitty gritty details and focus on actually making the film I set out to make.

I didn’t initially plan on editing the film. I’ve always edited my own work and wanted to finally have the experience of having my work filtered through a great editor who could put his or her own spin on my vision. I was working overseas at the time of making this film, so I was faced with the choice of handing the film over to an NYC-based editor and not being a major part of the editing process or cutting the film myself.

Since I was so close to this story and because of how loose the shoot was, I really felt like the editing process was a continuation of the writing process – I couldn’t not be present for that. I was really the only one I trusted to finish the film the way I envisioned it. All that said, I had an incredible assistant editor in NYC, John Daigle, who was invaluable during the process.

The obvious downside to playing so many roles in the creation of anything is being so close to it that you aren’t able to tell when it isn’t working. Having so many close collaborators that I trust implicitly helped me see the film with fresh eyes.

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

DANIEL: The smartest thing I did during production was choosing to have faith in the young actors. Ryan and Nate carry every scene in the film so it was essential to make them a part of its creation. They were both willing to use events from their real lives and their actual relationships to inform their performances. Without them, there was no film, so I had to trust their instincts as much as my own.

The dumbest thing I did was not budget for a few more principal shooting days. I grossly underestimated the time needed to shoot these scenes effectively. I was incredibly lucky to have the cast and crew I did, who never let up on the breakneck speed of the production. But even still, entire sequences had to be cut. For less narrative-driven film like this, that wasn’t a huge issue, as many of the scenes work as standalone vignettes.

If the script had a more traditional structure, it would have been a disaster. Since the length of the shoot was directly related to the amount of money we had, in hindsight I would gladly have shot on a cheaper format in exchange for a few more days.

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

DANIEL: This film was one big learning experience from start until this very moment. However, I’d have to say that the most important thing that I’ve learned – something that I will carry forward into all future work – is that there is always an audience for a film, no matter how small or how specific.

A lot of first time filmmakers get caught up in one aspect of the production – landing known actors, raising a few million dollars, or attempting to appeal to a huge audience. These can all be important things, but what I learned is that making a personal film that comes from an authentic place is even more important.

If a story means something to you – and if you tell that story in a way that only you can – then it will mean something to someone else and likely many people.

Make the film you want to make, the way you want to make it. Put passion behind every frame. Audiences will feel your passion and reciprocate it. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Sarah McAnally on “The Fair”

What was your filmmaking background before making The Fair?

SARAH: I’ve worked in many areas of film production and that was somewhat orchestrated.  My very first job, while still in college, was working for producer Chuck Gordon at Twentieth Century Fox.  I was an intern for maybe a week, then his development person moved on to Joel Silver so I was given her office.  I wasn’t even 20 years old. 

What followed was working in casting at Paramount, assisting a literary agent, a stint working for Michael Jackson’s manager, and then I was a writing coordinator for Mel Brooks, and a personal on-set assistant to Jim Carrey and Nicolas Cage.  You could say my experiences gave me an insight into this business that most people don’t ever get.  I was fortunate. 

Now you may also be asking if knowing these people helped in making my movie.  Not even remotely.  In fact, one of them even fired me after learning I wanted to make a film.

Where did you get the idea and what was the writing process like?

SARAH: I started with one simple sentence – A father can’t tell his daughter he loves her.  My goodness, I wrote this so long ago, I can’t even remember the process!  I’ve written two scripts, three television pilots and a book since then. But I will say this.  Don’t wait for inspiration to write.  It’s about the time in front of the computer.  I never felt like it.  But if you sit long enough, the creativity will come.  Just schedule it. 

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

SARAH: One of the smartest things I did was hire a casting agent.  I hired Dino Ladki, who I had worked with at The Comedy Store a few years prior.  I loved the casting process.  The first time I watched a live human being say the words I wrote, it blew my mind.  No, I can’t say the script changed much.  Not that I wouldn’t have been open to it, but the actors were so professional, they just made the words work.

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

SARAH: After exhausting traditional financing avenues – studios, production companies, negative pick-up deals, private financing – I was faced with the reality that either I self-finance or I don’t make the film.  I don’t recommend that, but seriously what choice do we have? 

A plan to recoup?  I keep saying I feel like King Kong, pounding my chest and screaming from the top of the Empire State Building for people to notice my film.  Only if they do, can it recoup the money.  So thank you, John, for providing a building.

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

SARAH: Great question.  I used a super 16mm camera.  I loved the way it looked.  If I could’ve afforded a 35, I would’ve gone with that.  I do not like the way digital looks at all.  At all.  Given a choice, I will always shoot film. 

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

SARAH: The film will always change in editing.  Pacing in your head doesn’t translate to the screen.  So yes, had to cut a few scenes, and rearrange in the beginning.  We found we needed to get her on her adventure sooner, but that created a new problem.  I had screened the film for a couple of people early in the editing process.  One of them kept blurting out “Where is she now, New York?”  Not good.  So I added a voiceover that wasn’t in the original script to clarify things. 

Cutting scenes or moments will be debated.  They may not move the story forward, but they can certainly add flavor.  I tend to favor the flavor, but if you do too, be prepared to battle.

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

SARAH: Besides hiring a casting director, I guess I would say the smartest thing I did was persevering, which really isn’t an answer.  Everyday was a mountain to climb but to pick just one of our challenging days – it was a night shoot.  The location was an hour away.  Everyone was there, awaiting the grip truck, which was carrying all the equipment.  I was pulled aside and told we had a problem.  I had heard that a million times before, so when I was told the grip truck exploded, I simply said then let’s get it fixed and over here.  “No Sarah, there’s nothing left to fix.  The truck blew up.” 

What happened was the engine caught on fire, so the grips pulled the truck over to the side of the road.  The fire quickly spread, engulfing the whole truck.  The firemen arrived and grabbed as much equipment as they could before the truck disintegrated.  Somehow, an erroneous call went out for a rescue helicopter and when it arrived, its propellers spread the flames, causing a brush fire. 

So the police came and closed off the highway – at 6pm on a weekday.  It was just a total mess.  But my only thought was we could not lose a day of shooting!  The police had the charred shell of the truck, with the toasted equipment inside, towed to a salvage yard.  Of course they were closed because it was at night.  We were told we could not go until the next day - but that just wasn’t an option. 

So I had an employee get the manager out of bed and on the phone. “Get that piece of shit off my lot first thing in the morning!”  Hello to you too.  Somehow I talked him into letting us in that night for 15 minutes. 

We grabbed as much fried equipment as we could, literally dried it off, and shot until the sun rose.  It was like I was flat lined.  I had such tunnel vision that nothing rattled me. 

But it’s not like I did anything different from all the other filmmakers who somehow make it happen, because if you don’t, you simply won’t have a film.  Filmmaking is just too expensive to buy more time.  You have to make it work. 

The dumbest?  How much time do you have?  I had an opportunity to hire an experienced First A.D., but I thought I couldn’t afford him.  I regretted it every single day.    

Is there a story behind why it took so long to get the movie out?

SARAH: All any distributor wants is a ‘name.’  I heard for years that I had no stars, and if I had, I would’ve been in the driver’s seat.  They don’t care about the quality of the actors’ performances; they care about their star power.  I struggled with that for a long time. 

Then I was offered worldwide distribution from a good company.  But I soon found myself at the foot of another mountain.  I had gone with the experimental SAG contract, which is a deferred agreement.  To release the film, I first must pay the astronomical salary sum.  I had assumed the distributor would pay it, but no distributor was giving any kind of advance, especially for a small film.  I couldn’t accept the offer. 

A bit later, Brigid Brannagh, the star of the film got on the hit Lifetime series “Army Wives.”  Lifetime would pay for an acquisition.  They would not give me the time of day.  Even with Brigid on their network, and my persistence, I was stonewalled.  A festival director even called on my behalf, campaigning for them to consider the film.  She too was dismissed.  They wouldn’t even watch the screener.  It is very, very difficult to get distribution.

But if you think about it, how many networks, cable stations, or theatres play small, indie films?  If you come up with an example, I bet there is a star or powerful producer or production company behind it. 

We are competing with films that are 5, 10, 20xs our budget.  Where do we go?  It is just now that the internet is becoming a viable option, but it’s not a given.  To get onto iTunes Movies, you need a distributor or an aggregator.  And they are turning down films left and right.  But that was my plan. 

I approached the Screen Actor’s Guild and it took about a year to complete all the paperwork, which included getting permission from each and every actor for me to release the film and an agreement that the actors will get first dollar out until they are paid in full.  I can happily report that the film is currently on iTunes Movies and doing well.  And I must say too, that I’m glad this is the route the film took.  I don’t think if I had gone with a traditional distributor any of us would’ve seen a dime.

So in hindsight, I would seriously reconsider working with a guild again if I don’t have the money to afford them. 

Also, a bit of a PSA if you’re a filmmaker, keep an eye on your IMDB.  I am battling them now, and I hear over and over and over again how they screw filmmakers over.  The stats on my film are so wrong and they will not change them.  They are refusing!  Refusing.  No. 

They fancy themselves the permanent record of all films, yet they won’t honor what the filmmakers themselves are telling them about the very thing they created and what for some unfathomable reason they feel they know better about.  And their shit is just wrong, all the time.  I needed to start working on them years ago.  It just never occurred to me that what they said would matter.  But it can hurt your film.  After all you go through, a thirty-second google search can hurt your film.  Please stop using them for reference.      

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

SARAH: I’ve recently been irritated by the phrase ‘first time director.’  It’s thrown around like a badge of honor.  After completing my first film, I will be 10 times better on my second, 20 times on my third.  I have respect for those who have made more than I have.  First timers are crawling.   I learned so much I had to write a book about it.

The Fair trailer from Sarah McAnally on Vimeo.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Lesli Linka Glatter on "The West Wing"

You've directed a lot of great TV shows. I tried to narrow down just one of the shows you've worked on. And since I'm such an Aaron Sorkin fan --

LESLI: Oh my God, so am I.

Then I hope you'll indulge me and talk about your experiences on The West Wing.

LESLI: I think the reason The West Wing was amazing to do, on a directorial level, was because the producing director on the show -- Tommy Schlamme, a fantastic director and a wonderful person -- encouraged directors to come in and make it their movie.

There are many people who work in TV who want it to look like everybody else's show. But I really think the best shows do what Tommy did. To say to filmmakers, "Come in and make it your movie." And that's what he did.

That's very evident on that show. They're all different.

LESLI: They're all different. As a director, you were encouraged to do what you wanted to do. If you wanted to put five scenes together and do it as one shot, you could. It was great.

It was very intimidating the first time I got Aaron's script and I looked at the first scene I was going to be directing on my first day. It was a seven-page scene, with about ten or eleven characters, and the only stage direction was "He enters."

I just thought, "Oh my God." I had to read it about ten times to figure out what the scene was about: What's the subtext, what's the text, what's really going on underneath here.

It was thrilling and terrifying and exhilarating and amazing.

What is your preparation process like in a case like that? You get the script and then what?

LESLI: The first thing I do in any prep process is I start breaking the script down in terms of what is the theme? What is this really about? Once I figure out the theme, I start to figure out how I'm going to deal with it visually. But until I really know what it's about in a deep way, I can't even begin to figure that out.

How long does that take?

LESLI: That's ongoing. The first couple of days I focus on the script as much as I can. You're going to have to deal with production stuff no matter what. You have to start the casting process and have a concept meeting about if there have to be huge sets built. A lot of The West Wing episodes I did were really big, so there were tons of locations, so there was a lot of scouting. Plus half of the show shoots in Washington, DC, so there were all sorts of production issues and decisions.

Usually what I would do in terms of actual shot lists is that I would come in on the weekend. And I still do that, even though I'd love to have my weekends to myself. I find that during the week, with a TV pre-production schedule, I don't have time to do that. So the weekends are my creative time.

If it takes place on a set, I'll go to the set. I'll walk around, I'll imagine the scene, I'll figure out the angles, I'll see the scene.

For me, it's completely about standing in the space. That's what I do.

I have a lot of director friends who wouldn't even consider going in like that. They think I'm insane. But for me, that's my process. For other TV shows, they just want you to come in and fulfill what they've set up. That doesn't seem too interesting to me.

In the case of The West Wing, how much rehearsal time did you get with the actors?

LESLI: You only get it on the set. That was a show where they would rehearse a lot. This is unusual in TV. You'd get probably an hour. That is considered a long rehearsal. It's not like doing a film.

But then, these actors know the characters. So you have to direct them in the scene, but they're not figuring out who their characters are. They're figuring what their behavior is. So that is a different process.

During post, how involved were you in the editing?

LESLI: Very involved. You have a certain amount of time, per the contract with the Directors Guild, to go in and edit. I didn't have my cuts changed very much. Ultimately, the final cut is Aaron's and Tommy's. When the buck stopped, it stopped with them. But they were respectful. I think they want you to come in having done it well, so that they don't have to re-do it.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Nicholas Barton on "Wichita"

What was your filmmaking background before making Wichita?

NICK: Since 2009, I have been mostly a freelance commercial producer - occasionally music videos and television shows.  I've shot commercials for Wal-Mart, Dell Computers, Cargill Beef and music videos for almost every major music video network.  

I didn't go to school for film, I studied philosophy, which at first I thought might be a hindrance, but then I discovered that a significant percentage of full time video professionals had backgrounds the same as me.  

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

NICK: I've always loved the Noir films of the 40s and 50s and felt like something really beautiful has been lost in cinema.  We're in an age where there's little to know creativity left in stories and we're being spoon-fed cookie cutter A-B-C story lines because they're easy to put out.  

I've always believed that the audiences around the country are incredibly intelligent and genuinely love films that make them use their brain until the very end.  I wrote a story that doesn't really reveal itself until the final scene of the piece.  

I started writing Wichita in January 2012 and worked up about 5 drafts before signing on our producers, Ryan McGuigan & Raymond Eickstadt, in February 2013.  From that point on, I tried to withdraw myself as a writer and focus in on the production: What was possible within our budget, what we had access to in terms of locations/cast, and had to make mild adjustments to accommodate our resources. 

From day one we consistently heard how "ambitious' our film seemed to be for our budget - which to us served mostly as a euphemism for 'Good luck, but we know there's no way in hell you're pulling this off.'  There's no doubt we had to make initial script sacrifices, but more than 95% of what we wanted to do initially, we found a way to do.

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

NICK: With our production house, we have re-invested in equipment for the past 5 years and own all of our own camera systems, lighting, sound, etc.  We self-financed a portion of what was left and had a few investors who were willing to commit to the project.  

We tried to be conservative in all of our spending - travel, hotels, meals.  As opposed to putting together a massive catering budget - we had a full time set-chef who bargain shopped each day and prepared home-cooked meals.  No one worked for what they deserved and several groups brought costumes, props, and set pieces in for free.  The beauty of shooting in Kansas is pretty much no one tells you 'No' when it comes to helping out for a feature film.  We were very fortunate.

As for recouping our costs - we are starting out with a 36-city, 6-state tour.  We made phone calls for 3 straight days to anyone involved with the performing arts, locked in different venues and started hitting the road.  We're right now prepping for City #12 and are fairly confident that we'll make our below the line budget back by the end of the tour.  We're now starting to take requests from Theatrical reps on multi-screen deals and have had 2 different Video, Television, and On-Demand Distribution Offers.  

We have submitted to some of the major film festivals but are not putting our eggs into that basket in order to make up our budget.  Instead, we're trying to be pro-active and create a sustainable network of theatres and venues we can circuit on our next projects.  Hopefully, whichever distribution company we lock in will be partners and investors for years to come.

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

NICK: A significant percentage of the principle cast was pulled from the various area theatres.  My wife and I try to go to as many plays as possible and try to handpick actors who we feel like work well for our cinema style of acting.  

We held 2 days of casting auditions in a banquet hall of a Hyatt Hotel and had about 50 people show up.

Finally, we posted a casting call on the website Backstage and had over 850 applicants in the first 72 hours, so we had to put a hold on the posting until we could go through the pool of actors/actresses.  We received probably another 50 phone calls over the next week from casting agencies asking if we were interested in their actors.  

Once we locked in our cast, we really didn't adjust anything in the script for them.  

What are the key things you learned about how to successfully create an historical movie (as opposed to a contemporary movie)?

NICK: Hire a costumer.  

Have two or three historians on set that you get along with and who understand that the filmmaking process takes precedence over the history lesson.  They are guides without being co-directors.  We were incredibly fortunate to have several really great collaborators on set with us who had a fairly deep understanding of movie-making and were willing to offer insight that wouldn't be destructive to the storyline.

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

NICK: I've been an avid supporter of RED Cinema Cameras since Day One.  We were some of the first people in the Midwest to acquire the first generation RED ONE and have loved the progression of the camera systems into the new Scarlets and Epics.  

For this feature, we exclusively used the Scarlets with a set of Zeiss super speed primes.  I love the size and versatility of the camera.  We shot all but one scene in 4k raw and worked with a skilled colorist in New York (Brian Boyd) to finalize our compositions and treatments.

Media burns up quickly and by the end of our shoot with video and audio files, we had just shy of 8 TB of data to work with.  I honestly have no idea if this is standard or not.

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

NICK: Smartest: We live in Kansas and as the saying goes, "If you don't like the weather, wait an hour and it'll change."  So, we had B & C schedules ready to go weeks before the first day of shooting.  I'm almost positive if we hadn't had it, we would have rain and thunderstorms every single day.  But, since we did - we only had 2 days (out of 25) of adjusting our shooting days for weather.

Dumbest: We only had one person in place for our baby and our saloon lady.  So of course, both of them cancel on us the day of the shooting.  Luckily we were able to find replacements the day of for both.  (Huge props go out to our producer Ryan McGuigan for making this happen right away.)

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

NICK: It's a huge endeavor.  HUGE.  You'll find some people that want to be a part of it because they thinks it's cool and some people want to be famous.  I try to make a mental inventory of every time someone went above and beyond their job description and tried to make my life easier.  I can assure you, those will be the first people I have on my team for the next project.