Thursday, December 25, 2008

Gary Winick on "Tadpole"

Why did you decide to shoot Tadpole as a digital feature?

GARY WINICK: There's the economics of it, which is obviously a big deal. There's the time factor, which is actually a bigger deal, and there's the fact that now actors and distributors will take low-end digital filmmaking seriously. It's not discriminated against at all, in terms of getting actors or in terms of distributors wanting your film."

How did the cast react to being in a digital feature?

GARY WINICK: Not only were they open to digital, they were actually curious and looking forward to it, because digital is a performance-oriented medium. Sigourney Weaver said, 'I hear it's like a hybrid between theater and film and I want to try it.'

How did you come up with the idea to use Voltaire quotes between key sequences?

GARY WINICK: I had a really, really, really unfortunate experience with my cinematographer on this movie. The camera wasn't on sometimes, so I'd get back to the edit room and the script supervisor had these shots that said that I shot, but yet they were never recorded. I had focus problems, camera operating problems.

When I got in the editing room and found out that my DP/Operator did such a poor job, I was left with some really hard, clunky ways to get from scene to scene. And that's when I came up with the Voltaire quotes. So it came out of necessity.

I went to Barnes & Noble, because I'm not an Internet guy, and went through some Voltaire quotes, and I was like, 'Oh my god, this is going to work great.'

How did you come up with the story and the script?

GARY WINICK: We came up with the characters first, and then thought of what sort of situation that we could put them in that would support a low-budget, 12-day shoot.

When you're making a low budget film, you really only have one focus, and that focus is story. Because costumes and lighting and design and all that stuff, you can never either afford it or have the time to do it right. So you really have to focus on the one thing that you know that the audience is (hopefully) going to respond to, which is the story and being engaged with those characters on screen.

I have 84 million dollars now for
Charlotte's Web, and I have huge effects, and computer people, and Stan Winston and all this stuff … but it all comes back to story.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tom Noonan on "What Happened Was ..."

What was the genesis of What Happened Was ...?

TOM NOONAN: I had never written a play. I'd written a lot of movies. So when I original wrote What Happened Was ..., I was going to do it at the theater, but the intention was to do it as a film.

I always thought of it as a screenplay, and because I'd never acted in something I'd directed, I thought, 'Well, if I do it on stage for a while, in front of an audience, I'll find out what the thing's about.' And, because I was acting in it, I wanted to make sure that we'd worked out all the acting parts before we shot it.

We did it for six weeks as a play. We rehearsed for a month and a half. And then, on the last night of performance in the theater, we took out all the chairs, and we shot the script in the theater -- I'd made the theater look like an apartment. Then, for the next six months after that, before we shot the film, we rehearsed pretty regularly. We rehearsed for eight or nine months before we shot, a couple times a week.

That's a lot of rehearsal.

TOM NOONAN: My general rule is that either you rehearse a lot or you don't rehearse at all. If you rehearse the middle, you end up not being authentic and kind of looking like you are.

When I finally shot the film, they would say, 'It's your close-up, Tom,' and I'd say, 'Okay,' and I'd just sit there and just talk. It wasn't like I was acting; I'd done it so often and what was going on seemed so real to me. I didn't have to worry about learning the words or learning the blocking or doing any of those things that you have to worry about when you're doing a film. It completely went away. It was just me, just being there. So it felt very real to me.

The movie is relatively simple when you first look at it, but it's actually got a lot of sophisticated stuff. The camera moves are all perfectly timed to counts. By the time we shot the film, everybody in the crew knew the count on every dolly move, on everything. It was very choreographed.

There's an amazing cut in the film, early on in the date, when he accidentally touches her, and it's a very quick cut ...

TOM NOONAN: There are very few cuts in the film, so when you put a cut in like that, it's very powerful. I knew that was the case and I shot it with that intention of possibly cutting it in.

There's a moment when you're sitting down in a chair, from standing, at which point it's impossible for you to stand back up again. And I find that kind of moment very dramatic.

What happened in that moment was I reached out to her with the intention to reassure her, because she seemed really nervous. And at that moment, she turned and I inadvertently touched her, not on her butt, but close, without meaning to, because I'd already started the motion and by the time she turned, it was too late to stop.

When we did the play, we rehearsed that moment over and over and over again, for days, the timing of it. Because if I touch her too soon, there's no way that she can bend over; and if she bends over, and then I touch her butt, it looks stupid. It has to be perfect.

Have you ever locked your keys in the car and as you slammed the car door you see the keys on the dashboard but your arm keeps going because the signal hasn't gotten there yet?

That's the moment I was trying to create. It happens all the time in life. I knew the wide shot wouldn't get it, and if I covered the whole thing close you wouldn't get it, so I decided to do this wide shot into an insert, to create this jarring, embarrassing moment.

It took a lot, a lot of work, rehearsing for months to get it to seem real. And we would do that for hours on end, I'd reach and she'd turn, trying to make it seem believable. It's very difficult to do that and not make it look phony.

How did live audiences react to the script when you performed it as a play?

TOM NOONAN: People were very uncomfortable, because we were pretty good at acting it. Part of the problem, during the play, was that people got so uncomfortable -- because it was like being on a first date with somebody that was not going well -- that people really didn't want to be there.

And part of what I would try to do during the play, and in the movie, was to not make people so uncomfortable that they didn't want to watch. I wanted it to be funny and make them engaging enough and compelling enough that you'd stay with the story even though it was painfully awkward.

There were times when I was doing the play when I could tell that the audience couldn't wait for it to be over, because they couldn't stand how awkward it was for the two of us. They just wanted me to leave and let this poor woman go to bed.

One of the great lessons I learned doing it was that the story of a movie does not have to depend on the story of the script. What I mean is, there were nights when we would do the play when I could tell that the audience hated me.

And there were other nights when I did the play when I could tell that the audience thought, 'Oh, this poor guy. He's being manipulated by this woman, who has invited him into her apartment on her birthday, and is setting him up to be disappointed.'

And other nights, again, people would go, 'This smarmy, condescending, asshole guy is just playing with her like a bug.' And it would change, night to night, and the story would be very different.

I learned a lot doing the play in front of people, because that's something I wanted to have in the movie. At times you think, 'God, this guy is such a jerk,' and other times you think, 'God, why doesn't she give him a break?'

The narrative of that script can hold a lot of different interpretations and different stories, without giving away that he's the bad guy and she's good.

It's really both all the time, which is what life's like.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos on "The Last Broadcast"

How did this project begin?

LANCE WEILER: Stefan and I got excited about the prospects of being able to edit on your desktop, so we got the board and started messing around and built some systems and then started making this movie almost as a lark, to see how little we could make it for. And that's when we came up with the idea and the storyline for The Last Broadcast.

STEFAN AVALOS: We came up with a very detailed outline and we did script out a lot of scenes. But then we decided to basically do a question-and-answer role-playing game with a lot of the people for interviews. We would give them the answers to the questions and then we would keep asking them the questions in various ways, and sometimes ask them questions that they did not have the answers to. We would give them only as much information as their character in the movie would have. And since we were shooting in video we would just let the camera roll, and we were able to get some great performances that way.

LANCE WEILER: We wrote it knowing what we had access to, which I think really helped to keep it low cost. Everyone in it are friends and family. We knew that if we cast ourselves in it that we were guaranteed to show up. And we knew that we would work cheap. We also structured the movie so that we would be shooting and doing a lot of the sound work ourselves; a lot of the movie consists of us actually on-camera and holding mics in the scenes. So I think it was a very conscious effort to try to work within the limitations that we had. Stefan had already made a previous film, The Game, so he was well-versed in guerilla techniques and we applied a lot of those to the making of the movie.

STEFAN AVALOS: We joked that the first thing we tried to get rid of when we made this movie was film, shooting digitally, and the second thing were the actors, because you have to feed them and hope they show up.

None of the people in the movie were professional actors, so we didn't really want to script their stuff, we thought that wouldn't work at all. Including ourselves; I didn't think that I'd be able to pull off a serious acting role requiring scripted dialogue. But it was very tight improvisation; we knew exactly where the story was going to go--the beginning, the middle, the end--so it wasn't like we were just winging it on set.

A lot of people thought it was a real documentary when it came out ...

LANCE WEILER: I think a lot of time it's the details that convince people. There were things that would happen that helped, almost accidents. Everyone brought different things at different times; like the way Tony (playing a cop) put ATF on his shirt that day.

STEFAN AVALOS: We call it Theater of the minimal. The psychologist is a friend of ours who does high-end carpentry. But we brought some psychology books, just a couple little things here and there --

LANCE WEILER: And that birdhouse.

STEFAN AVALOS: Yes, the cuckoo clock birdhouse. It's amazing how little it takes to convince people. Which is something we were commenting on in the movie: What's reality, what do you believe? And I found it amazing how readily people believed the movie, based on just a couple little pseudo-realities within the movie. I think a lot of documentary filmmakers were perturbed by that.

So was the low budget a blessing or a burden?

LANCE WEILER: Not having any money made us be more creative. I think sometimes there's a tendency to fall back on money as an answer to a problem, where we found ourselves brainstorming and trying to find ways to make things work without the money.

STEFAN AVALOS: Having no money and really spending no money gave us a carefree attitude that I've never had before or since making movies. We didn't have a producer breathing down our necks concerned about a budget that was spiraling out of control. It's ironic that no having money gave us that freedom.

LANCE WEILER: I remember the shock when we totaled up the receipts, to see what the budget at the end. We rounded up, but it was very close, maybe within 28 cents, of $900. And that was the first time we really knew what we had spent.

STEFAN AVALOS: We had wanted to make a movie for no money, but we missed the mark by 900 bucks.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

L.M. Kit Carson on "Paris, Texas"

What was going on in your life before Paris, Texas happened?

CARSON: We did Breathless, so I'd done my first Hollywood film. I do these diaries whenever I make a movie and they were published in Film Comment, and as I said at the beginning of the Paris, Texas diary, after Breathless I was not exactly hot, but I was lunch. So I went to lunch a lot and was offered projects, and none of them was anything that I really wanted to do.

At the same time, my son had gotten cast in Paris, Texas, so I got to know Wim very informally because of that. So while I was doing lunch with all of the studios and executives from all the different agencies and all that, I was watching the progress on this. I knew that they had gotten started and that there was a stop date on the talent involved, so they had to launch. There was a stop date on Harry Dean and there was a stop date on Nastassja Kinski, so they had to start shooting.

They went off and started the beginning of the movie, down in Texas, in an area called The Devil's Playground in the desert. Wim was out there for two weeks and had come back. I wandered into the office one evening to see how it was going, and he was at his desk with his head in his hands. I said, "What's the matter?" And he said, "We have shot the beginning of the movie. It sets up this great mystery, and then the script explains it all away. And I don't want to do that."

He said, "I want this movie to be about love, a movie in which love triumphs at the end, but it's not sentimental."

That was the thrust of the movie, and he'd shot the opening mystery, the first 20 minutes of the film. And then he didn't like the rest of the script. I asked him what the script was like, and he said, "There are two versions."

One version was that Nastassja's father was a big Texas oilman, and his goons had gone and beat up Harry Dean and grabbed Nastassja and stuck her in a penthouse.

The other version was Nastassja's mother was under the thrall of a televangelist and, of course, he ran heroin dens and whorehouses, just like all televangelists do. His goons came and beat-up Harry Dean and grabbed Nastassja and stuck her in a heroin den/whorehouse.

And I said to Wim, "Those are kind of corny." And he said, "Yeah."

And I said, "What if they did it to themselves?"

And he looked up and he said, "Exactly."

Sam Shepard had, he explained to me, gone on to In Country, the film where he met Jessica Lange, because he and Wim couldn't get satisfied with the scripts. And so Sam just sorta said, "You figure it out. I'm outta here. I gotta go do this movie."

So Wim said to me, "Give me the weekend, I'll call Sam and tell him that I want you to do this." And I said, "Okay, but I'm going back to New York this weekend, I'm stopping in Texas first to see my folks. You call me by Sunday and tell me in which direction I'm going to continue going -- either back to LA or on to New York."

So I didn't hear from him, I didn't hear from him, and on Sunday night, at the last possible minute when I was about to go get my ticket and get on the plane, Wim called and said, "Come back."

So I came back and they resumed the shoot, and I stayed two weeks ahead of the shoot with new pages.

Did you have a sense while you were making the movie of the impact it would have and the status it would achieve?

CARSON: No. It was really just a bunch of guys driving around Texas in pick-up trucks making the movie. There was nothing that seemed important going on. We were not shooting a film that was going to win at Cannes. It was just a bunch of guys trying to do something.

Brilliant collaborators: Production designer Kate Altman -- brilliant. Cinematographer Robby Müller-- brilliant. And the actors are all brilliant. But it was wide open in the sense that all we were doing was serving the movie. There was nothing else going on except trying to figure this out.

I remember that the movie had a budget of about $750,000. That's probably not the official budget, but that's I knew we had. I was paid, partly, I was given a '57 Chevy Bel Air, with the fins. That was part of my pay. Nobody was paid anything, really, on this movie.

You look back at it now and you say, "How could you guys do something this good without any luxury at all?" But the intention was so high; there was nothing in the way of trying to do something honest and out of your heart.

Is there anything that you learned working on Paris, Texas that you still use today?

CARSON: Silence. I learned that.

The first part of the script was Sam's and it was full of silence. I found out about the power of silence from thinking about that over and over and over again, and thinking about how the characters relate to each other. There's a lot of silence in this movie and it's very powerful.

I've learned and applied that to everything else.