Thursday, March 26, 2009

Nancy Savoca on "True Love"

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, March 19, 2009

Stian Hafstad on "Nemesis"

What was the nature of the assignment that led you to create Nemesis?

STIAN: Nemesis was the end result of a course we had in scriptwriting. Basically we could write a script about anything we wanted and then the class voted on which ones we wanted to make. There were no specific theme we had to include or genre we had to make.

The script for the film started out with the two bus scenes, the one in the beginning and the one in the end, which is an idea I've had for many years. So I based the rest of the story around those two scenes. I've always been fascinated by the concept of super powers. Mainly because it is so extremely fun in itself, but also because it works so great as a metaphor for so many other things.

I'm also fascinated by male friendship, so I decided not to go with a traditional love story that I might have done. With shows like Friends etc, having strong and close friendships has become an important aspect of being successfull in 21th century. And I'm thinking that it might be hard for someone to stand up and say: "Hey, I'm lonely.. I could use a friend," simply because you'll at once be viewed as a failure. So I came up with an idea of a lonely guy who had that dilemma, but managed to find a way around:)

What was your background in film before you made Nemesis?

STIAN: I'm a third year bachelor degree student at the film and tv-production faculty at the University of Bergen. The two first years we mainly worked on things related to television, so Nemesis is my first live action short film. I've made a couple of animated ones in the past, but nothing worth mentioning.

How long did it take you to shoot the film? And how long did it take to edit it?

STIAN: From the script was ready we had about:
- 6 weeks pre-production
- 5 day to shoot (in other words looong days)
- 2 weeks of editing and about 2-3 weeks after that for sound- and effects work.

Who are your favorite filmmakers and why?

STIAN: Oh boy, there are so many, but I'll mention a few:)

Michel Gondry - His creativity knows no limits
Christopher Nolan - He always seems to do more/bigger/better than what is expected of him
Jean Pierre Jeunet - He paints the most beautiful motion pictures
Trey Parker/Matt Stone - The way they manage to combine intelligent humor and fart jokes in a logical way is simply amazing

What did you learn from making the film that you'll take to your next project?

STIAN: The one thing I swore was that:

If I ever was to make another student film with no budget, I would write a script that didn't include any male characters between 25 and 60. You see because of our budget situation we couldn't afford to pay the actors, so we had to find actors who were interested in doing it for free. The problem was that most men in that age have jobs, so it was hard finding anyone who had the opportunity to do it. Almost gave me gray hairs:) 

Luckily about a week before the shoot we got in touch with Trond Gil, who plays the main character, and Anders McAuley, who plays the Nemesis. They were so generous with their time and did such a terrific job acting that I don't think it could have turned out any better no matter how much money we would have had. I'm so greatfull for their effort.

The funny thing is: when I wrote the script for my graduation film, which is in production now, I made it about therapy group with 8 male characters between 25 and 60.. So I've spent the last 1.5 months calling every actor and non-actor in Bergen, handing out notes on the street etc. But it ended up allrigt there too, and we got the people we needed.

So basically what I learned was that as long as the passion to tell the story is big enough, and I'm willing to just keep going, everything else always seems to fall into place (sort of).

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Peter Rudy on "No Sleep 'til Madison"

How did you get interested in filmmaking?

PETER RUDY: I think it was the collaborative nature of filmmaking that first attracted me. I had just finished a two year stint at the Writers Workshop in Iowa City when my first screenwriting opportunity arose, and I was eager to work with a group of people who would hold me to a deadline. Fiction writing is a might lonely endeavor, especially when you're telling everyone you're working on a novel when you're actually spending every waking moment playing Sega hockey.

What had you worked on before No Sleep 'Til Madison?

PETER RUDY: When I moved to San Francisco, I met filmmaker Matt Leutwyler, who was a friend of my girlfriend. He was in post-production on one film, Road Kill with Jennifer Rubin, and in pre-production on his next one, This Space Between Us with Jeremy Sisto and Poppy Montgomery. Needless to say, he was exhausted.

He had decided that Road Kill needed a voiceover, but was too burned out to write it himself, so he asked if I wanted to take a crack at it. Given that I was working at B. Dalton at the time for $5.25 per hour, I said yes.

It was a great experience, and Matt and I clicked creatively, so we decided to work on the This Space Between Us screenplay together.

The lessons I learned from both those experiences helped out a lot when it came time to work on No Sleep 'til Madison.

You mentioned learning some lessons from your work on Road Kill and This Space Between Us that came in handy while working on No Sleep 'til Madison. Can you elaborate on what you learned?

PETER RUDY: I think the most important thing I took away from my experience with those two films was a better understanding of just how much of a commitment filmmaking demands.

Matt said something to me that I've never forgotten, and that was how you had to be prepared to sacrifice pretty much everything to be successful in this field. Friendships, financial security, a normal life; I watched Matt sacrifice all three in the pursuit of his career, which I don't offer as a judgment but as an observation of just how tough it is to succeed in the move-making business.

Matt's focus never wavered in the time I spent with him, and to be perfectly honest, I think my unwillingness to put so much on the line is one of the main reasons I don't make movies anymore.

What were the three key things (positive or negative) that you learned during the production (and post-production, not counting distribution) of No Sleep 'til Madison?

PETER RUDY: Three things.

ONE: When working with a tiny budget, shoot in your home town, preferably a
Midwestern one not jaded by previous film production experiences. The people and businesses of Madison were extremely accommodating to our endeavor, which helped us save a fortune in location costs, catering, and labor. Take a look at our film credits for No Sleep; it reads like an extended family reunion for the Moe, Knezevic, and Rudy families.

TWO: Don't skimp on the on-screen talent. No Sleep was blessed to have a very talented group of professional actors to take on the major roles. We tried to stretch our production budget by filling in the minor roles with amateurs and/or friends and/or ourselves. It didn't always work. You can add all the lighting and sound design and editing you want, but you can't cover up a bad performance. (Granted, the directors, all three of them, have to take a lot of the heat for that.)

THREE: Wisconsin is one of the few places in the world where you can leave several thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment on the side of a country road, and get a call within an hour from a farmer informing you that has your "missing luggage," and will keep it safe until you can come by his place to retrieve it.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Kelly Masterson on "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"

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.