KEVIN: Ghosting is my second feature film. The first was Two Days Back, which premiered in 2011.
Both Two Days Back and Ghosting were the result of the Mont Alto Film Project (MAFP), a two-year practicum in filmmaking originating on the Penn State Mont Alto campus where I am a professor. The goal of both projects was to produce legitimate, micro-budget independent feature films. The MAFP provided students with hands-on experience working on most aspects of film production, but the goal was never to produce student films.
Legitimate filmmaking demands that you set the film as the standard upon which you base all decisions. You do what is good for the film, and that is not necessarily what may seem fair and equitable to all people. The people involved who had the best ideas saw those ideas implemented. The people who were dedicated and hardworking and ready to make sacrifices for the final product excelled.
Where did the idea come from and how was the writing shared among the five listed writers on the project?
KEVIN: The MAFP begins with four months of discussion about micro-budget filmmaking, narrative, story arcs, how screenplays are structured, and so on. Early on, we begin to toss ideas around. Questions of genre, character, and so forth are put forward, discussed, and either embraced or rejected.
Some students bring very strong ideas to the table. Some barely talk. But the nature of the project allows each person the opportunity to contribute as much as s/he is capable of, always without sacrificing the quality of the script. If all goes well, we end up with a complete beat sheet (usually laid out in Excel).
For Two Days Back, we had outline all beats in the film as a group. For Ghosting, we had everything but the finale outlined. Then students who are interested in writing have the opportunity to draft several sequences from the beat sheet. After the semester ends, over Christmas break, I read through what the students have written, keep what works, change what doesn’t, and write a working script, which we all review at the beginning of the next semester. Every student who stays with the project and contributes to the discussions gets a story credit and every student who tried their hand at writing sequences gets a writing credit.
KEVIN: Penn State provided about $15,000 for the Mont Alto Film Project courses. This was the basis of our budget and went a long way toward making the film possible. It wasn’t enough to do everything we needed to do to make the film professional, but it was a good start. I pay for everything beyond that out of my own pocket. My out-of-pocket amount went up quite a bit on Ghosting because, having learned from our mistakes on Two Days Back, I realized that we could up the game quite a bit with Ghosting.
The overall plan was different. We used outside professionals in key positions like director of photography and photographic design. Many of these had links to Penn State – like our DP, who was a graduate of the film program and who was working in a professional capacity when we began the project – but the idea was to have the students involved working side by side with more experienced filmmakers. Because this greatly improved our chances of making a quality, entertaining film, I was willing to invest substantially more of my own money into Ghosting.
As far as recouping my costs…well, wouldn’t that be nice. The reality is, if you’re making these extreme micro-budget films, the chance that you’ll make any money is negligible, and you’d be crazy to count on that. So I don’t. If I don’t get my money back, I am okay with that. My goal was to make a professional, entertaining film – one that audiences will enjoy. That is my reward.
Let’s face it, if you set out to be a filmmaker working on a shoestring and expect money to rain down at the end of all your efforts, you probably should find a different avocation. If I get back enough to make another film, I will be totally content with that.
KEVIN: We hold auditions. For Ghosting, we had three open-call auditions. Two took place on the Penn State Mont Alto campus and one took place at the Shenandoah Conservatory for the Arts. Because our first effort (Two Days Back) had won some minor recognition (it won best picture in the sci-fi/horror category at the Bare Bones International Film Festival), we benefitted from an increased turnout for Ghosting auditions.
From those auditions we cast about 12 of the 18 roles available. I had to hunt down the remaining six. I would find actors close by (usually in the Baltimore and DC area) and invite them to audition one on one until we have a full roster.
The script is always changing. There are, of course, actor related changes. For example, we had a role for a “Mr. Winkler” which we changed to “Mr. Vitelli” when an Italian actor (Ralph Mauriello) won the role with his audition.
But on every front, it is important to adjust your story to fit what you have. This is vital for films without a significant budget. I tend to cast the best actor for a role. We may have imagined a particular type for a role, but if an actor of a different type has chops, we shift the story. Better that than to have bad acting.
I see a lot of micro-budget films and I can see that a lot of filmmakers are inflexible on their original vision and end up with an actor who comes off as artificial on screen. It kills the material.
You wore a lot of hats on this project -- Director, Producer, Co-Writer, Editor. What is the upside and the downside of taking on that many roles?
KEVIN: Believe me, I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have to. The upside, of course, is that you have control over the quality of the work. I know I can count on myself to obsess about details and take the time necessary to make something right. So if I’m editing, I know that every effort will be made to make sure it’s the best cut we can get out of the material.
The downside, of course, is that you have to do a tremendous amount of work. Once you complete the assistant editor work, you have to do the editor’s work, then you move on to the sound editor’s work, then you move on to the music supervisor and composers work, then you move on to the color-editing work. It’s a long road.
The more you can turn over to talented professionals, the smoother everything runs. On Ghosting, for instance, I had a Director of Photography (Edwin Koester). He was invaluable. He brought so much to the production all of which freed me to concentrate on directing. I also had a godsend of a first AD in Gillian Colley. Three creative people working toward a common goal is always better than one.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?
KEVIN: We used two cameras. Our main camera (A camera) was a Sony FS100. Our B camera was a Panasonic HMC 150. The Sony performed beautifully. It has a super 35 sensor and the dynamic range is very good. I like my blacks to be black. With lessor cameras the blacks are where you run into problems. We had no trouble with the Sony.
The Panasonic, however, gave me a lot of trouble in post. I had the idea to use it for crane shots and cutaways, but when I got them in post, most of them had to either be thrown out or manipulated to death to make them work in the final cut.
KEVIN: The smartest thing I did was plan everything out. Call sheets, DODs, script-day schedules, prop lists, and so on – they are all indispensable on a professional shoot. You run your set like a professional set and it becomes a professional set.
The two things I regret most from production were 1) not checking the waveforms on the camera for every shot and 2) not have the sound mixer, when we were shooting in noisy locations, take the actors someplace quiet and give me a wild track of their dialog. We did it some, but not as often as we should have. I won’t make either of these mistakes on the next film.
KEVIN: The stronger your creative team, the better the final film will be. That and, of course, check the waveforms on the camera and record wild dialog whenever you’re shooting in a noisy location.