How did you get interested in filmmaking?
NANCY SAVOCA: My family says I started talking about it when I was really young, but I don't remember that. But I think it was in high school, during that last year when you can take whatever you want. I was taking things like Folk Poetry and Music Theory. And there was a History of the Movies class. That was the first time I understood what a director did. It was explained that there was actually one person who was in charge of putting all the different elements together in a film.
And that was something that was really interesting, because I think in my teenage years I was really interested in the arts -- I loved music and I loved drawing and I loved watching actors perform. There were so many things that I loved, yet I didn't feel that I was particularly good at these things. But I was a great appreciator of good music and good performance and good photography -- I could appreciate it.
So I realized, when I learned about filmmaking, that that's what a director does. They are the ones who say, "Oh, that's the piece of music we need to use," and "That's the take we need to print." Basically we're there to cheerlead all these great artists and get their best work and put it all together.
When I found out that's what it was, I was like, "Oh, sign me up! That sounds good. I can do that." I was about seventeen at the time.
What did you do when you got out of NYU film school?
NANCY SAVOCA: Right after film school was finished, we started writing True Love, that summer. I remember one of the things that sort of upset me were rules. Like people had these ideas, these rules. Like one person said to me that summer, "It's great that you're writing your first feature, but you usually have to direct two shorts to do a feature." And then somebody else said, "No, no, no, So-and-So just went out to LA. You have to get an agent and write two screenplays for other people, and then you get to direct your first feature."
And I thought, "Who made those rules? I've never heard of directors who follow these rules. Is someone making up new ones just so we can jump through hoops? This is stupid."
So Rich and I co-wrote True Love in a couple weeks in a cabin in Vermont, which was so bizarre because we were writing about the Bronx and we were in the middle of nowhere in Vermont.
When we came out with it, basically nothing happened. We were showing it around; we didn't know. I didn't even have, at that time, the vocabulary to say this is an independent film or not an independent film. I just wanted to make this story because I hadn't seen it before. It was the old 'write what you know,' so I wrote what I knew, which was my experience, which happened to be right before we started film school: Which was that I got married, and that year that I got married, everybody in my neighborhood got married. So we went to a lot of weddings and witnessed a lot of the things that ended up in the script.
So basically it was six years of trying this, that and the other thing. About every six to eight months we'd take the script out and polish it up. But for whatever reason, there was just nothing else I could think to do. I just knew that this was the story. Whether that was smart or not, I can't tell you. But it was six years.
So what was it that finally got True Love off the ground?
NANCY SAVOCA: John Sayles.
What happened was I was sort of half-ass shooting this documentary that wasn't working. And one of my friends said, "What are you doing shooting a documentary? You have this script." And I said, "Yeah, but I need money to shoot that script and we don't have money." But it put this idea in my head and we decided to take what tiny little money we had to do the documentary and take that money -- which was basically all the savings we had at that time -- and do a ten-minute sample reel, which is sort of like a long version of a trailer.
So we put an ad in Backstage and did casting, found a crew that was mostly commercial people or people who had worked in independent films and were working a step below and wanted to step up. And since everyone was working at one level higher than normal, nobody needed to get paid, which was great, because everybody was doing it for their reel.
So we shot this thing, we cut it, it looked great, the performances were great -- we got these great actors -- and we started sending it to all the people who had rejected the script, and we were universally rejected again. After spending all the money we had.
We were just depressed. And then we decided to do a screening in Manhattan and -- because, during those six years of working -- we had met so many people in the film business. So we just cast the net really wide and we invited everybody that we knew to invite everybody that they knew.
We had wine and cheese and ten minutes is painless. I don't know why, but people showed up. Diane Keaton showed up. I don't know why. But because it was New York and it was such a little closed community, for some reason, people showed up.
What happened after that was that I got a phone call from John Sayles and he said, "Look, if you want to do this movie down and dirty, guerilla style, I'll be your first investor."
So how did you feel on the first day of shooting True Love?
NANCY SAVOCA: Great. Nervous as hell. Ready to puke -- I couldn't tell if it was morning sickness. But nobody knew I was pregnant. Nobody knew because I found out two weeks before we started shooting and the one thing you don't want to tell everybody who'd investing in you on your first film is, "Oh, by the way, I'm pregnant."
I think today it might be a little easier. Or maybe not. Who knows. But I definitely knew to keep my mouth shut.
I was nervous on one level but also just like -- excited, but relieved. It was like, "Okay. Well here I am. Let's go." And it was that leap into the void of "Let's go. I don't know what's going to happen here, but I'm here. You're here. Let's go."
Tell me about your experience at Sundance with True Love.
NANCY SAVOCA: It was pretty amazing but I wasn't there. I wasn't even there.
We finished editing the movie in late 1988. John Sayles said there was a festival we should look into, called the United States Film Festival in Park City. We did a temp mix on the soundtrack and sent it in and we got accepted.
The festival was the last week of January and my due date was the 27th of January, so I wasn't going to go. So one of the producers went, with my lawyer and the music supervisor.
I was at home and I started going into labor one evening. And the phone rings while I'm in labor. My husband picks it up and then he says, "Oh my God. Oh my God. I'll put Nancy on, but I'm not sure she can breath."
So I take the phone and say, "What?" And everyone was screaming. It sounded like Beatlemania or something. Everyone was screaming. And someone was saying, "We won! We won!" And I said, "What?" And they said, "The film won!"
But I really didn't understand what had happened, because nobody could talk really, and also because I was hugging the wall and breathing. And so I said, "I have to hang up because this kid's going to be born." I hung up the phone and we went to the hospital.
The next morning the baby was born. And the midwife said to me, "What happened to that little movie you were working on when you were pregnant?" And I turned to Rich and said, "Did we win something last night?"
We came home with my son a day later, and my house looked like a funeral. Everybody sent flowers. It was a small apartment and there were flowers everywhere. Disney sent a t-shirt for the baby that said, "My Mom is the world's greatest director." Every single major studio was acknowledging the award and the baby.
I was flabbergasted because independent film, before that night, at Sundance, a new wave began for independent film. It was born in a different way that night. I didn't happen to be there, but I was a part of it. And that particular year, they changed the name from the US Film Festival to the Sundance Film Festival.
I have a poster that says "True Love: Winner of the United States Film Festival," because MGM didn't realize that they had changed the name. And that was the year that all the studio executives showed up. There had been rumblings; the year before a lot of great movies were there and they were saying, "Oh, I guess something's happening at Sundance, so we have to go." And that was the year that they all went.
Thursday, December 5, 2013
Thursday, November 28, 2013
What was your filmmaking background before making Skook?
CONNOR: I was still in film school at NYU when I first read the script. I had just wrapped on the first phase of shooting on my thesis film The Naturalist which also screened in-competition this year at the New Orleans Film Festival. I actually set off for Pennsylvania to shoot Skook weeks after graduating.
ASHLEY: I started making shorts on my camcorder in my parent's basement when I was 12. By the time I graduated high school, my friends and I had made over 30 shorts (mostly B-horror films and parodies of Disney Channel Original Movies). I went to the film school at NYU and graduated in 2010. I then went to work for a small production company in New York (where I met Connor), where I worked on a number of shorts, music videos, and associate produced a feature. Skook was my first feature length creative undertaking.
Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like?
ASHLEY: Even though the story was fabricated, the themes of the film were deeply personal. College was an extremely transformative period of my life. I remember returning to Schuylkill County and feeling like I was seeing it with new eyes. I found it amazing how much a person's relationship to their home can change when they leave it, even if only for a small amount of time.
I wrote the script over the course of a month in the now defunct Second Stop Cafe down the street from my apartment in Brooklyn. The script went through several rewrites after I sent it out for notes.
CONNOR: Ashley and I had started writing together at this production company, and realized that we actually had very similar visions and approaches to writing (we also share a very ridiculous, often crude sense of humor). Ashley and I would goof off a lot and she would tell me weird stories about her hometown, Skook--so that was really my first exposure to this place.
Ashley sent me the script to get my notes, and I loved it and thought to myself "wow, it would be really great to direct material like this." It was a total actors' playground; it was a straight-forward, no-frills script, and filled with laughs. The Naturalist is a very specific, aesthetically-complex world, and it was hard to communicate such a personal vision to actors, especially at the pace we were working. Skook had a universality to it and I knew that aesthetically it called for simplicity, so I had time to really sit down and work with the actors, a lot of whom were totally untrained.
CONNOR: We used the RED One MX, actually the very same camera I was using for The Naturalist. It gets beautiful results, it really does. But both films I shot almost entirely handheld, so my DP's got very exhausted during these 14-16 hour days, as it's a heavy camera. It's also prone to overheating and crashes, so I would get nervous about losing footage--but we never did.
It's funny, the RED looks like an insect when it's all built up, and because the software was so tempestuous and the stakes were so high, I often felt like I was dealing with a creature who had the potential to make or break my dreams. That said, my trust was never broken and I have 2 films from it, so we're very close.
What are the advantages (and disadvantages) of acting a role that you wrote?
ASHLEY: I come at so much of the writing process (especially dialogue) from an actor's point of view. I go through the script with the mindset of each character and scrutinize motivations, reactions, and speech. I read all of their lines. In a way, I'd be prepared to play any character in the film -- I just might not fit the part!
Connor and I saw eye to eye on the vast majority of my performance, however there were times when we hit roadblocks due to my attachment to the script. So, there were a few disagreements (most of which were quickly solved), but in the end, I always trusted Connor's vision for the film, and am glad that I did.
What is your plan for distribution and recouping your costs?
What is your plan for distribution and recouping your costs?
ASHLEY: The film cost a little over $10,000 to shoot, so in a way, we've recouped almost all of it by winning the prize at NOFF! We are hoping to play at more festivals, and attract as much attention to the film as possible. The local community has been incredibly supportive and we will, of course, be doing a screening in Skook as well. We will be reaching out to distributors and making as many connections as possible. We are both new to this process so it's going to be quite an adventure!
CONNOR: We just finished the film in time for our New Orleans screening. New Orleans is an incredible festival because they're willing to take a chance and focus on these star-less, no-budget indies. Being recognized by them was incredible and I hope now more festivals will take note of not just Skook, but other micro-budgets that have something real to say.
Hopefully there will be another year of traveling and promoting the film--I'm just excited to have people see it. In the long run, I hope we'll be streaming somewhere--but the plan was never to recoup our budget, that's why we kept it cheap. Our plan was to get some clout to make another film, and with a bit more investment upfront I think we'll blow it out of the water.
CONNOR: I think the schedule was both our smartest and dumbest move. This packed schedule got the film in the can, but it left us all mentally and physically exhausted, so I think everyone made some silly calls at some point.
We were shooting 6-8 pages a day, while still trying to maintain a high aesthetic and dramatic standard. I think we pulled off, but it’s hard to have clarity of mind when you're operating on just a few hours of sleep. We didn't really take days off, either. We were such a young crew, so we could do it, but we all have limits.
ASHLEY: Smartest: Choosing the cast and crew that we did. Skook was such an upbeat, drama-free set, and I think the project really is a testament to the people who contributed to it.
Dumbest: I sometimes have the tendency to bite off more than I can chew. There were only two producers on set, and both of us were already wearing numerous hats. If I were to make the film again, I would have had a larger producing team.
CONNOR: I learned a lot in the editing room--it was almost a year of editing, so I've had a lot of time to reflect on the calls that were made, and figure out how to work with some of the weaker stuff. At the time of shooting, we took more of a documentary approach: shooting everything, lots of improv. It was funny stuff, but I realized it wasn't essential to the story, and in the end it was cut. Attention spans are getting shorter by the second, and with a run time of 72 minutes, we're not wasting anyone's time.
ASHLEY: Half of what I know about feature filmmaking I learned from making this film, so in terms of specifics, I wouldn't even know where to begin. Making this film was the hardest and most fulfilling thing I've ever done.
Thursday, November 21, 2013
What was your filmmaking background before making Don't Know Yet?
TERRY: I began as a screenwriter in 1991, after a career sailing tall ships all over the globe. Time at sea inspired me and gave me time to write - like everyday. I developed the discipline of writing and I discovered how much I liked writing for the screen.
Over the next ten years I took every screenwriting and filmmaking seminar in the country: Robert McKee, Michael Hauge, Maine Photographic Workshop, Dov Simens, Linda Seger, Judith Weston, and the Action/Cut seminar among others. During this time I banged out a screenplay a year, went through a few agents, placed in some big screenwriting contests, talked to a lot of Hollywood agents, and never sold a thing.
It was in the late 90's that I decided to make films myself. Being a sort of independent guy anyway, this seemed like the way to go. Since then I have written, produced, or directed 7 short films, plus our feature film Don't Know Yet in 2013. DKY is the fourth feature I have developed with my company, A Bunch of Us.
Every feature I put into development was nearly made. All had money and actors attached, and one, Sugarfoot, had a distributor and Gregory Hines - the world's greatest tap dancer - contracted at one point. Hines tragically passed away, the distributor was sold, and the investor's came knocking. I gave their money back. The experience of putting that project together around the millennium taught me how fragile the whole filmmaking process is. It helped me realize how many elements had to be synchronized in order to make any film possible.
So the short answer is, I began as a writer, and developed skills as an entrepreneur-producer-director.
Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like?
TERRY: I was channel surfing around Thanksgiving of 2011, when I happened upon The Addiction starring Lilli Taylor and Christopher Walken. Taylor spoke a line that would keep me busy for the next two years: “He picks up hitchhikers and takes them wherever they want to go.” I stopped in my tracks and turned off the TV. Who would become a taxi driver for hitchhikers? My head began to spin with the possibilities and, for the next few weeks, I jotted down ideas about characters and story.
When New Year 2012 arrived, I blasted through the first draft of the screenplay, about 75 pages, in five days. Then I sent drafts to my trusted allies - people I knew in the industry who would be totally honest with criticism: professors, actors, a cinematographer, and an editor. I took what I needed from each - and then went with my heart until the writing ended, at 89 pages, in early June.
I think there were only 4 or 5 drafts of the script. It sort of came out all at once, and was only modified and polished over the development period. In the end, for better or worse, I listened to my heart whenever making story decisions. So, honestly, I rejected a lot of what I heard about character and conflict. I wanted to make the film that I wanted to make. I also knew this would be a film that could be produced with a small budget and a local crew. I was confident that it could also attract a talented cast and financing.
You broke a lot of low-budget rules -- large cast, multiple locations. What was your plan for overcoming those challenges?
TERRY: I used a talented crew of young professionals - all of whom were former students of mine. They had a ton of energy, and moved mountains on enthusiasm alone. We had a meticulous shooting schedule and were all determined not to let any delays get in our way.
We had a twelve-hour day max, which we rarely went over. With minimal takes and a lot of hustling, we were able to stick to our schedule. Having great actors also helps, because there were few flubs. The weather also had to cooperate, which it did, and didn't. It was blistering hot on our 2 longest exterior shoot days at the junkyard. We had to cut a couple of scenes short and one we just didn't shoot. That was the only scene we didn't get to. We had to re-write that scene on the fly.
I hoped that our editor, Nate Daniel, could make some scenes out of this. He did. We also planned for a bunch of improv on set. Having a lot of extra improv footage made the story bigger, without much prep. We shot 89 pages in 17 days, which is just over 5 pages per day. Twelve days were within 20 miles of our home base of Wilmington, NC, and 5 days in the mountains of NC.
Since this is a road movie, we shot a lot from the car on the road, which we knew would make it seem as if we had dozens of locations. Exterior shoots had no lighting set-ups, except for a couple fire scenes. Our longest days were interiors, because of the lighting set-ups with minimal crew. Most cast members had 1-2 days at most, which helped create the large cast feel. James Kyson had 17 days. Lisa Goldstein Kirsch, only 9 days, although it seems like she appears in most of the film.
TERRY: Our DP, Joe Ensley, used his Panasonic AF-100 with several excellent prime lenses. Joe had a very simple steadicam counterweight that allowed for smooth moving camera shots. We never used a dolly. We had access to several additional AF-100's due to my position at the University of NC Wilmington in the Film Studies Department. We used three of these for the balloon scene. One in the picture balloon, one in a following balloon, and one on the ground.
I can't say I hate a camera. There was really nothing to hate about it. I loved it because it was so portable, easy to operate, and made an exquisite image in a variety of conditions. We shot a beach scene that went into deep dusk. I worried we were running out of light, and when Joe showed me the exposure, I was stunned. We could have shot even longer. Joe and I bought an affordable car mount for the camera, which was easy to set up and use. On the first day we experimented with the mount, we happened to be outside of Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington, NC where Iron Man 3 was shooting. As we assembled the tiny rig, the gates of the studio opened and 4 huge semi-trucks rolled out with IM3 gear aboard, including several Cadillac SUV's picture cars. Joe and I laughed as we waved at the union drivers passing by. The most expensive film ever made in North Carolina juxtaposed with one of the cheapest!
TERRY: During principle photography, late June into mid July of 2012, we were also editing. In August we had a rough cut. Our plan was to get the film into the festival circuit asap, so I started submitting to more than 50 film festivals and film markets for 2013-14. We also knew that the AFM was a must attend event in November of 2012.
Joe Ensley and I went to Santa Monica and presented clips from our almost completed film to nearly 60 companies in 3 days of marathon pitching. We had a lot of interest and made some helpful connections for the future, but no sales. At AFM we were testing the waters and finding out what kind of film we had made and what market it could find. I also wanted to get the film in front of producer's reps in LA and NY as soon as we had a finished film.
In the spring of 2013, I began an email and phone campaign to several hundred producers reps, following up over the summer. In September 2013 it finally paid off when I went to LA for a meeting with Circus Road Films, who I signed with to rep us for domestic distribution.
How did you achieve the last shot in the movie -- the fly-away?
TERRY: I have a friend who is a union driver for the film industry in Wilmington, NC. He was starting a side business with his home-built hexicopter camera rig - a portable six-bladed helicopter. We were his first shooting effort. We used a small, lightweight HD camera - I can't tell you which one because I don't remember, but it was the size of a pack of cigarettes. It was a windy day, and we had to do a lot of post-production stabilizing to smooth out that image. Cudos to Nate Daniel, our amazing editor.
TERRY: Smartest thing was to choose "go" over "no go" when we were faced with inclement weather. We shot at high altitude for two days in the mountains, clouds, and rain of NC. We always showed up and were ready to shoot when the weather broke. Had we called a day because rain was imminent, we would have missed some great opportunities to let the weather contribute to the film rather than detract.
Dumbest was having me as the driver of our RV. I ran into an overhanging tree limb that tore into the A/C unit atop the van, and I also smashed the rear-end when I hit a road sign while making a tight turn. These were the only two incidents that went wrong with the shoot. If those were our only mishaps, then we got off easy! Things could have been worse! I did spend my whole contingency on those accidents.
TERRY: That young crew members who are well trained and eager will do the job and surprise you at every turn. The average age of our 12-core crew was 21. We had some seasoned pros in key positions, all graduates of the same UNC Wilmington Film Studies program, but the undergraduates carried the load.
Our production was a test case for a model of filmmaking that I have always wanted to undertake. This model uses several key professionals who guide less experienced film students with support from a university film program and some moderate financing. I learned that the model works great! I will continue with the same model in the future, but I hope this time, with a bigger budget.
Thursday, November 14, 2013
What was going on in your writing career before you started Before the Devil Knows You're Dead?
KELLY MASTERSON: Nothing. My career was dead in the water. I was working at a bank in Manhattan.
I had started as a playwright in the late 80’s and had limited success. By the late 90’s, I had adapted one of my plays (Into the Light) for Hallmark but it did not get produced.
I wrote Devil in 1999 and it was my first original screenplay. The script was optioned by a succession of producers but I had lost hope by 2006 after several false starts.
I got a call out of the blue from the producers (Michael Cerenzie and Brian Linse) that the project was a go. They had Sidney Lumet on board to direct. The entire cast was in place – Philip Seymour Hoffman, Albert Finney, Ethan Hawke and Marisa Tomei. I was totally shocked.
I got that call on May 16th and they started shooting on July 10, 2006. I had no time to react. I quit my job at the bank as soon as the money cleared.
What was the inspiration for Before the Devil Knows You're Dead?
KELLY MASTERSON: I had read a novel I admired called Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwarz. I really liked the structure. It involved a terrible incident followed by an examination of the incident from the point of view of the various participants. I thought it would make an interesting structure for a movie.
I invented my terrible incident: the robbery and shooting of the mother. Then I took each character and followed them to and from the incident.
I also knew it was a tragedy and purposely gave each of the main characters a tragic “flaw” – obsessive behavior they cannot break. For example, the father becomes obsessed with the notion of revenge and cannot stop himself even when he discovers it is his own son who must wreak revenge upon. Devil was the result of my structure and character choices.
Were you involved in any re-writing before or during the production?
KELLY MASTERSON: Fortunately, and unfortunately, no. The good news is I didn’t have to rewrite the script based on someone else’s vision or ideas. I wrote the script and tweaked it here and there over the years. Sidney did a rewrite to get his final shooting script but I was not involved nor consulted. I wish he would have come to me and asked me to make the changes he wanted. The end result, though, is terrific and I am very proud of the movie.
What surprised you most about the transition from script to screen?
KELLY MASTERSON: Lots of things surprised me and most of them pleasantly. I was surprised by the casting of Brian F. O’Byrne as Bobby, the punk accomplice. I had written the part as a 22 year old, stupid kid. I had see Brian on stage in Doubt and thought him remarkably gifted but not right for Bobby. His performance, however, is spectacular and casting a 35 year old made him more pathetic and frightening. It was a stroke of genius on Sidney’s part.
I was surprised by the remarkable restraint and outer calm Phillip brought to Andy’s breakdown late in the film. I wrote a cliché scene in which Andy trashes his apartment. Sidney and Philip came up with an eerie, fascinating, slow meltdown that is so much better. Most of all, I was most surprised by the deep, rich, tense and painful relationship between Hank and Andy – Sidney’s rewrite and the performances of Philip and Ethan took this to a level that surprised and enthralled me.
What did you learn in the process of writing Before the Devil Knows You're Dead that you'll take with you to other projects?
KELLY MASTERSON: Raise the stakes. I don’t mean, put the hero in more jeopardy or add a ticking clock. I mean dig deeper – make it more personal and more emotionally significant. Get right into the guts of the characters. While I often try to pull my characters in two or more directions, I think Sidney’s contribution took my material into richer psychological territory. This gave the wonderful actors great stuff to work with in which the emotional stakes were very high. When I am working on projects now, I ask myself the question: how do I get further into this character and really rock him?
What advice would you give to screenwriters who are still struggling to get their work seen and (hopefully) produced?
KELLY MASTERSON: Don’t give up. I wrote for 20 years before Devil got made. And find your voice. I tried for many years to imitate others or to write in “commercial” genres and did not have any success. I wrote Devil from some original place within myself and never dreamed it would get made, let alone succeed. Keep at it.
Thursday, November 7, 2013
What was your filmmaking background before making Desperate Acts of Magic?
JOE: Desperate Acts of Magic is the first feature film that Tammy Caplan (my producing partner and girlfriend) and I directed. But back in 2005, we produced our first feature film, Never Say Macbeth. We asked our friend Chris Prouty to direct that one. Never Say Macbeth went on to do festivals, and came out on DVD in 2008 through Vanguard Cinema. We've also made a few shorts. We both have acting backgrounds and degrees in theater.
Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like?
JOE: I have a background as a magician and have performed over 500 kids’ birthday parties, and used to compete in magic contests quite a bit. Many of the events in the movie actually happened to me. Tammy and I were banging our heads against the walls trying to find money for two higher-budget projects that we had written.
I was struggling to come up with a new idea, and she suggested I try an acting exercise that we learned from the Pacific Resident Theatre called "A Perfect Scene" where you identify a moment from your life (real or imagined) that you can act out better than anyone else on the planet because it had such a huge impact on you. And I remembered this time that I competed at a magic convention, and the events that transpired there had a huge impact on my future in magic. So I decided to tell that story. That was February of 2010 when I started writing it.
Meanwhile, I saw that the International Brotherhood of Magicians convention was going to be held that July in San Diego, and I thought if I could write the movie fast enough, we can shoot a lot of it at the convention and we can get locations, extras, and production values for free. I actually thought I might compete in the convention contest for real, and we would just capture it for the movie.
I had been inspired by a film called The New Year Parade, which was a sweet drama about divorce, but is shot against the backdrop of the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia. I thought it was a brilliant way to have high production values without paying for them. Unfortunately, the convention said no, and told me I couldn't shoot any convention activities. But we went anyway, just for one day with a crew of one, and shot tons of b-roll, and some small scenes, especially the scenes in the large dealer's room.
JOE: We shot a day or two per month for eighteen months, and Tammy and I both kept full time jobs the whole time. So most of the money came out of our day job money. We would shoot a day, and then save up for the next day. We also kept our living expenses very low, and didn't go out much. Meanwhile, we also set up a website with donation buttons, similar to Kickstarter.
We did get donations from friends, family, fans of magic, and other supporters of the film. Since it was through our own website (as opposed to Kickstarter), we could keep those donation buttons up during the entire eighteen months of shooting. As we shot the film, we would meet new people who would become interested and involved with the production, and they might donate or encourage others to donate. Kickstarter is great, but everyone who succeeds tells you it is a full time job, and we already had full time jobs in addition to making the movie.
Ultimately, we raised about $18K from donations. Right before we released the film, TV producer Lee Aronsohn discovered the trailer, saw the donation buttons, and made a deal with us to come on board as an executive producer. He invested some money into our distribution costs. He also gave us some great feedback and guidance to tighten and improve the film. The entire budget was around $77K, plus an additional $60K for marketing and distribution and all of that was spread over three and a half years.
As for recouping our costs, well, we never expected to fully recoup our costs. It's very rare for a film made under $100K to do so. But our revenue is coming from theatrical box office (we released in NYC and L.A., both 4-wall rentals), screening fees from magic clubs, Tugg screenings (we had one successful Tugg screening in Dallas), DVD sales at magic conventions, DVD and poster sales off our website, DVD sales to magic shops, and V.O.D revenue. Gravitas Ventures released our movie on iTunes (in 6 countries) and cable V.O.D. on November 1st.
JOE: We both did everything. I was on-camera for most of the scenes, so Tammy was watching the monitor most of the time. But we both gave notes to the actors, and guidance to the crew. The two of us also handled props, costumes, and production design. And we edited the film as we went. Sometimes, I would start editing a scene, and she would finish it, and vice-versa.
Since we were shooting a day or two per month, we were able to edit scenes in between shoots, and see where things weren't working. And then if we needed a pickup, we could grab it at another shoot.
Did actress Valerie Dillman have magic training before you cast her? If not, what was your process for training her?
JOE: No. Valerie had no magic background. But she's an excellent actress, and was excited to learn magic. I had acted in plays with Valerie at the Pacific Resident Theatre.
Casting this role, the lead role of Stacy Dietz, the female street magician, was very challenging. There are so few female magicians in the world and even fewer who have an acting background. Due to budget constraints and the long drawn out schedule, it was challenging to cast a magician outside of the Los Angeles area. So we took a chance on Valerie, and it worked out very well.
Each month, Tammy and I would brainstorm methods for the magic with our magic consultants, Tony Clark and David Regal. Then we would teach Valerie the magic, and she would practice diligently for each shoot. It helped that we were only shooting a day or two per month. She only had to prepare magic for a few scenes at a time.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?
JOE: We used the Canon 7D. We loved how small and unobtrusive the camera was. We didn't always have permission for our shoots, so the Canon 7D helped us with our under-the-radar guerilla shooting. We shot at the magic convention, at a hardware store, at a gas station, and in a hotel lobby, all without permission. We could never have done that with a big camera.
The negatives are it goes out of focus pretty easily, and it can have a moiré effect, especially with busy patterns on clothing. We also had a dead pixel through almost our entire movie, which we had to painstakingly remove during post.
You wore a lot of hats on this project -- director, writer, producer, actor, editor. What's the upside and the downside of working that way?
JOE: The upside is you have more control over the process. When you hire someone, for props, or costume, or make-up, etc., it's their job to make that aspect the best it can possibly be. And the pay is so low, so the pride in their work is one of the biggest rewards. But sometimes their desire to do a great job can slow down the production, and increase costs. They don't always see the big picture, and realize that their perfect prop, costume, or makeup is less important than getting the day in the can.
But it's very hard to tell that to the crew member, and you end up having to choose your battles, and lose some of them. So we didn't have a make-up person, a costume designer, or a props person. We did it ourselves so that we could focus on it when it was important, and ignore it when it wasn't.
The downside to that is of course, things get missed. A shirt gets forgotten. Faces get sweaty. (We joked that this movie could be called Sweaty Acts of Magic.) And because I was acting in most scenes, I had to try very hard to stay focused on what I was doing as an actor. I had to struggle to not to think about the stresses that came with my producer hat - like when the owner of the bar we were renting told us in the middle of shooting that we'd have to pay triple if went over-time.
JOE: Probably the smartest thing was how we dealt with my car, which got rear-ended and totaled in the middle of production, with one more scene to go. It was an important location. We needed to find a matching titanium-colored 2000 Honda Civic with black stripes on the side. Although this may sound like a common car, it proved to be extremely difficult to find. We tried rental car places, picture car providers, used car lots, and Craigslist, but the car could not be found.
Then one day, walking in my neighborhood, I saw an exact match. I ran up to the driver's window at a red light, and banged on his window, freaking out the driver who thought he was being car-jacked.
Finally Tammy and I came up with an idea. We had a scene to shoot where we needed six audience members. So we put out a casting notice looking for actors who owned a titanium-colored 2000 Honda Civic with black stripes. Hundreds of actors submitted for the role offering various cars, including a blue Jaguar. Ultimately only one actor had an exact match and she was cast. But as backup, the other five audience members were all cast based on their similar colored cars.
A dumb thing we did was to shoot our three shell game scene near an A.T.M. machine. Customers kept using the A.T.M. machine and there was a constant BEEPing that we couldn't shoot around. When we scouted the location, we should have listened more carefully. The beeping was a real challenge in editing.
We didn't get a permit for that scene (or any scene for that matter). And we probably should have gotten a permit or shot in a more populated area. We only had a couple extras. That scene looks like the three shell game hustler picked a rather secluded location to run his game, which doesn't make a lot of sense.
JOE: We were really happy that we made a movie that a core group of people (magicians and magic fans) really want to see. And I always kept that audience in mind while making the movie. That's why we didn't use any special effects. That's why we avoided cutting in the middle of a magic effect. And that's why we cast a lot of well-known magicians (at least they are well known in the magic community).
By doing that, we had a real target audience that we could market the movie to, and because they have magazines, websites, stores, conventions, and organizations devoted to magic, it was cost effective to market to them. In other words, they were easy to find.
So on my next project, I will hopefully be able to identify the target audience for the film before we start shooting. And if I cannot find that target audience, then I better keep my budget ridiculously low.