Thursday, July 30, 2009

Thomas Hofbauer on "In the Company of Strangers"

What was your filmmaking background before you made the film?

TOM: I had little actual "filmmaking" experience when I began the process of making In the Company of Strangers. I had produced a number of small TV spots and a couple of industrial films but nothing on a scale like In the Company of Strangers.

In 1998, I had also produced and co-directed a 22-minute comedy short called Around the Bend. This was a compilation of about eight comedy sketches that four of my fellow comedians and I had written over the preceding years. This was very cheaply produced but allowed me the opportunity to put such a production together. It was a great training ground which helped me go on to produce something on a larger scale. I learned a great deal about budgeting -- both time and money --scheduling, planning a shoot and all the little things that sometimes get lost with a first-time producer or director on a large shoot. But In the Company of Strangers was my first real foray into a bigger budget film (and yet, by Hollywood standards, it was a micro-budget film).

One technique that I used to prepare myself for making
In the Company of Strangers was to thoroughly think through each scene and shot every chance I had. I would try to visualize exactly what I wanted to achieve in a particular shot or set-up and then I would imagine all the things I would need to make that happen. Since I did this with every shot in the film, by the time shooting actually began I had already "shot" the film a hundred times in my head and I had a pretty good idea of what was going to be required. This really helped the process move along. And this thinking through the shots was not limited to camera angle and shot selection. I thought about things like communicating with actors, dealing with locations, providing lunches and craft services, and even how my cast and crew would work on the set.

Where did the idea come from to make In the Company of Strangers?

TOM: When I was in college I had some neighbors in my dorm who thought that it would be fun to go out on a Friday night and try to beat up some gay guys as they came out of a local bar. This struck me as an odd and stupid way to have fun. That turned out to be the initial impetus for the script.

The next influence was a program I had heard about that had been initiated in Ireland to try to eliminate the religious hatred that had spurred the unrest in Belfast and other areas of that country. In this program, young Protestant children were allowed to spend their school vacations in America with a Catholic family and vice versa. This was designed to allow these children who had only known hatred to see that, at the core, there was not much real difference between Catholics and Protestants.

I thought that this concept, if utilized in a sexual orientation type of story, would make for an interesting idea. My belief is that all of us, regardless of race or gender, religion or sexual orientation, want the same things - love, acceptance, success, happiness, and the right to live as we choose so long as we don't infringe on another's rights to the same things. And if we can recognize our shared core desires through the differences between, perhaps we might all get along better. This film was my attempt to illustrate that idea.

What was the process for writing the script?

TOM: I started writing the script nine years before actually shooting it. At that time, I didn't feel I was a strong enough writer to actually write it successfully without it drifting into a maudlin or overly pretentious area. So I shelved it for a while and worked on other scripts with a writing partner. In writing those scripts, I felt that I became a stronger writer with more of an understanding of character, concept and structure.

At that time I was living in LA and trying to find a film job or create an opportunity as a screenwriter. My writing partner and I had seen some glimmers of hope and a few offers for our scripts but we were never able to finalize any deal. Finally, I decided that I didn't want to leave all the decision-making to people in LA and returned to my hometown of Toledo, Ohio to make my own film. That is when I produced Around the Bend which was successfully completed but never sold.

My next challenge was to make
In the Company of Strangers. I pulled out the script and realized that although I thought I could make it for a relatively small amount of money, the script was not finished. I started back in on it in January of 2001 and, like many writers, I got stuck in the middle of the second act.

However, I knew how I wanted the story to end so I went to the end of the story and wrote that scene. Then I imagined what scene might have led up to that final scene and I wrote that. I did this over and over again from the end of the script until I had reached the place where I had gotten stuck. One day I finished writing a scene and realized that I had actually completed the script. I went back and read it from the beginning and even though it still needed a fair amount of tweaking, I discovered that I had a mostly completed screenplay. It was definitely an interesting way around my writer's block.

How did you fund the film?

TOM: The film was funded primarily by investors (65%). I have an old high school buddy who has gone on to be quite successful in the manufacturing world and he was not only my primary funder but also the first person to invest in the film. His investment opened the door for other smaller investors. The remaining 35% or so was self-financed through a second mortgage on my house and several credit cards.

By the way, funding a film with credit cards may seem like the wise thing to do. After all, it seems like so many filmmakers have had some success with this but, having done it, I certainly do not recommend this plan of action. If you are like most indie filmmakers, your film is not going to see the inside of a theater nor is it going to garner a lucrative distribution deal and you will spend most of your time trying to pay off your credit cards or trying to climb out of a terrible financial hole.

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

TOM: Pre-production on
In the Company of Strangers lasted about six months and included finishing the script, casting, scouting locations and raising the money. The actual shoot lasted 25 days and, I am proud to say, we never lost a day and were able to remain on schedule the entire time. Editing the initial cut took about 4 months but the edit to the version I currently have took a much longer time. In fact, although the film was shot in 2001, the cut I am happiest with took me until the middle of 2008 to find. My first cut had a running time of 115 minutes which was way too long for a low budget message film with no name actors. The current cut (and the version that is available for purchase from my website) is 89 minutes - quite a difference. It is also a much tighter and I believe a much better film.

What obstacles did you have to overcome to make the film?

TOM: Finding the appropriate amount of money to make a film is always the biggest obstacle. The hardest thing was learning to ask perfect strangers to lend me money even though my track record was thin.

I had no trouble finding a highly competent crew. It was a tougher search finding actors who could do the work well. It was shot in 18 locations in the Toledo area and that was also not a problem. All the people we contacted were more than accommodating in allowing us to shoot in those homes or places of business.

The hardest part of the whole process has been trying to get it into festivals and seen by sales agents or distributors. The few distribution offers I have gotten have been very poor and clearly are designed to the advantage of the distributor and not the filmmaker or the investors. This is a tough pill to swallow when you have a finished film and you would like to get it into the marketplace but the return to the filmmaker is so tiny that you cannot make that move knowing that your investors are expecting some sort of return upon such a deal being struck.

When the offer comes through (at least in the cases I have been presented) the money coming back to the filmmaker is essentially non-existent.

What did you learn from making the film that you can take to other projects?

TOM: There were so many things I learned from making this film. First, it's important to allow the people I hire to work on my film to bring their best stuff and to listen to them. It's not necessary to bow to every suggestion but in my experience, often an actor or a crew person would have a different take on something than I did and many times those suggestions were better than what I originally had in mind. This happened several times with an actor's approach to a particular scene.

Second, preparation is the key to a successful film shoot. Prepare EVERYTHING and leave no stone unturned.

Third, I must remember to trust in myself as a filmmaker. If I believe in what I'm doing, then I won't lose faith in my ability to bring life to my story.

Fourth, and this is purely technical, I will always get plenty of room tone or natural sound when shooting on location. Even though the norm is 30 seconds of nat sound or room tone, I like to have at least 60 seconds of good, clean, uninterrupted tone or sound for every location.

Fifth, it's important to always remember the money people who help me realize my dream. Sadly, I didn't do this. I meant to thank each of my investors when I first publicly screened the film and, in the excitement of the entire night, I simply forgot. It is my biggest regret of that evening because without those people, I never would have been able to make my film - "our" film.

Finally, a piece of advice that I can give to other first time filmmakers - remember that your first film is your first film. It will probably lead to other films or other opportunities so even if it is not the commercial success that you had envisioned, it will still provide you with the experience and the background necessary to do bigger and better things in the future. The experiences I learned working on
In the Company of Strangers were helpful in landing me a crew position as a cinematographer and de facto location producer on the 2005 Academy Award nominated documentary film, Twist of Faith, a Kirby Dick film.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Marc Clebanoff on "Break"

Where did the idea for Break come from?

MARC: The idea for Break came from my mind simply trying to incorporate very specific actors and elements all into the same film, while doing it in a way that I knew would be very saleable.

You couldn't pick a more different movie to make after The Pink Conspiracy. Was that planned?

MARC: I don't think I've ever made a film that was planned. It always tends to happen for me through circumstance. To be honest, as much fun as making a comedy like The Pink Conspiracy was, I prefer to make films that are more dramatic or suspenseful, so in that regard, Break made a little more sense for me.

What was the process for writing the script? 

MARC: I wrote Break based on several actors I had at my disposal. After working on my last film, The Pink Conspiracy, Chad Everett had asked me to write him a really dark supporting role. Concurrently, my good friend Frank Krueger and I were working on putting something together that incorporated martial arts. Not only are we both long time practitioners, but we were looking to do something with Xin Wuku, the infamous "urban ninja". To cap it all off, my long-time associate Michael Madsen and I had been looking for something to do together as well. With those elements in mind, I locked myself in a room and wrote Break, a comic booky noir action thriller about a hitman hired to take out a terminally ill crime boss and his lover.

How did you fund the film?

MARC: Initially I wrote Break with the intention of doing it on a micro budget. I was very fortunate that I was able to find an investor willing to put some real money behind it. It was sort of an accident though. I wanted $250K. So I asked for $350K. Low and behold I ended up getting the $350K. All the money came from one private investor though.

Break has a terrific cast: Chad Everett, Michael Madsen, Charles Durning, and the late David Carradine. How did you gather such a talented group (what's the secret)?

MARC: There is no secret to attaching talent. I've just been fortunate to establish relationships over the years. With the exception of David Carradine, everyone in the cast was either in my previous film The Pink Conspiracy, or I already knew them. 

Chad Everett, Frank Krueger, Sarah Thompson, James Russo, Mackenzie Firgens and Whit Hertford were all in The Pink Conspiracy. I had known Michael Madsen for close to a decade and we worked on a film called Hell Ride together the year prior. Xin Wuku was a martial arts connection, and Charles Durning I met at a film festival. I told Charlie about the film I was developing and he asked me to write him a role. I thought he was kidding. He wasn't. So I did it. Carradine was the only actor I had no real prior relationship with, but I did know his manager, which helped.

What obstacles did you have to overcome to make the film?

MARC: I encountered plenty of obstacles. Primarily location related obstacles. Considering Los Angeles is the birthplace of cinema, it's a pretty un film-friendly town. Even with a decent budget like we had, things were still tight. It's all relative. Bigger budget, but bigger elements. 

Once I was ready to sell the film, however, the biggest obstacle presented itself - the economy. A film like this with a bread and butter cast is typically a no-brainer sell. Unfortunately with the global recession, buyers were making bottom dollar offers, which has made things difficult. 

Luckily we have been able to get some amazing domestic distribution and we are more or less riding out the storm before we handle most of our foreign business. Things are already looking up. The fact that Break is so easily accessable is a good thing. 

It's not easy for a small independent film to get on the shelves in Blockbusters the way we have, or move as many units as we have been. Fortunately I have a very diverse cast, many of whom have very extensive fanbases. That combined with the unfortunate death of David Carradine, has made Break a pretty in-demand title.

Official Website:

Also: Marc is currently running a contest. You can purchase the film via Amazon, Barnes & Noble Online, Blockbuster, etc. and then submit a picture of yourself holding the DVD. The most creative pictures are going to win a 12x18 Break movie poster signed by the cast, including David carradine (he signed it just 4 weeks before his death).

Thursday, July 16, 2009

David Burton Morris on "Patti Rocks"

We really can't talk about Patti Rocks without talking about the film that came before, Loose Ends. How did that film come about?

MORRIS: I saw Memories of Underdevelopment, a Cuban Film, at the Walker Art Center, and I rushed home to my wife, Victoria, and I said, 'You know, we can make a movie really cheap. I just saw this great movie, it was black and white. If we can scrape together $20,000, we can make a movie.' And so we did. She wrote it. And it shot for two weeks, Loose Ends. That was sort of a calling card. We went to 20-25 film festivals, didn't win anything really, but Roger Ebert discovered us and Vincent Canby and Andrew Sarris and we got all these great notices.

Finally got enough money, in the early 80s, to do a movie called Purple Haze, and that did very well. It won Sundance, and that was our first real movie. It was 35mm, color, we actually a shooting schedule and a budget. And that did very well. And we looked like we were on our way.

I then, subsequently, got fired from two studio pictures and was very unhappy -- we're now talking mid-80s -- and I was thinking about quitting, I was thinking about getting out of the business because I was really unhappy. And I thought back to the only time I had a really good time making a movie was my first film, Loose Ends. And I thought, maybe I should think about writing something for those guys and making it back in Minnesota and sort of re-creating my enthusiasm for making movies.

How did you and the actors create the script?

MORRIS: We did a lot of just riffs on sex. We had another movie in mind. And I had all these long cassette tapes filled with Mulkey and Jenkins riffing on women, and I thought, this is interesting. Somehow I got the idea of putting them in the car, driving all night to see Patti to talk her into having an abortion. I did a first draft and I'd give it to them and we'd tinker with it and do some more improvs. Jenkins lived in Chicago, so we flew there a couple times and do some more improvs, and I'd type that up.

How did you come up with the title?

MORRIS: The way I got the title was interesting. I was at the Chicago Film Festival, on a panel. I was dinner with a group of people from the festival and this woman was sitting next to me. I said, 'What do you do?' She said, 'I sing in a band.' I said, 'What's the name of the band?' She said, 'Patti Rocks.' And I said, 'Oh, that's a really good title.'"

How did you get the financing?

MORRIS: I'd known Sam Grogg, because he was head of the USA Film Festival in Dallas. And he'd started a film company called Film Dallas. So I gave him the script and said, 'What do you think?' He said, 'We'll make it.' It was the easiest thing I've ever done. I wrote it and within a month they'd given me $400,000 to make this movie.

He had very few notes. He just said, 'They have to get out of the car midway through this movie.' I said, 'What do you want them to do? See a flying saucer?' He said, 'I don't know, you'll think of something.'

Did you make any big changes to the script once you got the money?

MORRIS: I wrote it for the summer, because Mulkey's running around in his underwear. But we couldn't get it all together, and we got the money in November, and I said, 'We're going to make the movie. We've got the money, we're going.' And it actually turned into a more interesting film, just because of the look of the snow and Mulkey running around in his underwear in 23 degrees below zero.

I had a lot of fun making the film. We had our problems, obviously, because of the money and the cold, but it just re-enthused me for making movies again.

Did you worry about the subject matter at all?

MORRIS: I thought it was risky, in terms of the subject matter. I didn't know until after it was done how people would react to the language in the picture. The ratings board first gave us an X for language, and that had never happened before. I guess I was just so used to it. Not that I talk that way, but certainly I hear that. I was kind of surprised by the reaction.

When I first started putting this together, I thought people are either going to love or hate this. I had no idea I was going to divide audiences, and it did. And it did. People loved the movie or hated the movie. More people loved it, thank god, than hated it.

At the very few personal appearances I made before the movie, I'd say, 'Some of you people might get uncomfortable during the first two acts of this movie. Just wait, okay?'

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Stian Hafstad on "Small Penis"

Where did the idea come from to make Small Penis?

STIAN: It all started with the first scene. I was watching a series where one of the characters was going to an AA-meeting. It suddenly struck me that it would be funny if instead of doing the whole "my name is .. and I'm an alcoholic", he would rather pull down his pants and say "I have a small penis".

At first I did not really believe that it could amount to anything, but the more I thought about it the more I liked the idea.

First of all because it has a big comedic potential. Secondly because a small penis in my opinion works great as a metaphor for the insecurity I wanted to address with this film. Everyone has a part of their body that they're not satisfied with, and for some this really weakens their quality of living because they worry so much about it. And last but not least because the subject still, in 2009, is quite taboo.

What was the process for writing the script?

STIAN: I made a first draft which in many ways are quite similar to the final product. Then I had some sessions with a tutor who gave some grate advice on how to improve it. 

The biggest problem for me was to choose if I wanted a external or internal conflict, that is when in the film to introduce that the group leader had a normal sized penis. If the main character had found out about it earlier in the film we could have had a bit more drama between the two, and the main character could have threatened to expose the leader to the rest of the group. In my opinion this would add a lot more tension to the film, and a better dramatic structure. However I also liked the idea of the internal conflict, where the main character gradually learns to accept himself as he is. To me this just seemed to work better with the genre, and in my opionion resulted in a funnier film.

How did you create the song for the film? It's very catchy.

STIAN: The song was written by our sound guy, Erlend Myrstad. I told him I wanted a gospel song, and that I wanted to use the groups mantra as basis for the lyrics. So he created this brilliant song that I really love. We know some people who know some people who sing in a choir, so we got them to come and sing it for free. 

If any of your readers by any chance would like to download it, they can do so here for free:

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

STIAN: It was shot in 5 days over a 7 day period. We had about 14 days to edit it, but we did not use all of them, because our footage linked up with the storyboard very well. 

What obstacles did you have to overcome to make the film?

STIAN: As I mentioned, the subject is a bit tabooI remember a phone call I had with a potential actor.

Stian: “Hi! My name is Stian Hafstad, and I’m calling from the University of Bergen. We’re making a short film and I was wondering if you would be interested in auditioning for us?

Man: “Yes, sure. I’d love to. I really enjoy acting. What’s the film about?”

Stian: “The film is called Small Penis, and is about a support gr..”


Stian: “Hello? Hello? Are you there?”

So we had many encounters with people who did not like the subject. 

Also, we had to postpone the shoot for one day, and reshoot some scenes, because the guy who played the youth version of the main character punctured a lung in the filming period. But luckily we managed to find a replacement quite quick so we got the shots we needed. And that is why the main character looks so different when he's a teenager and when he's an adult.

Now that you've completed your graduation film, what's next?

STIAN: My bachelor's degree is in film and televison production, but we have only done fiction for the last year. The two years before that focused on documentaries and televison, and media science theory. So I am hoping to get in to a good film school where I can continue developing as a filmmaker and get some more experience. I am also writing on some new scripts, so if I could get funding for one of them, and just skip the film school step, that would be great:)

Small Penis from Espen Hobbesland on Vimeo.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

John Gaspard on Low-Budget Filmmaking

Here's an excerpt from an on-line interview I did recently.

You're the author and co-author of several books, most notably Digital Filmmaking 101. Tell us about them. What inspires you to write?

JOHN GASPARD: We wrote Digital Filmmaking 101 originally as a series of notes to ourselves, to remind us of the steps we took to make a feature for very little money. We later expanded those notes into a complete book to provide beginning filmmakers with the tools they would need to make a feature for what most Hollywood films spend on coffee and rolls.

My second book, Fast, Cheap and Under Control: Lessons Learned From the Greatest Low-Budget Movie of All Time, was designed to help keep new filmmakers from re-inventing the wheel every time they go out to make a feature. There is a wealth of knowledge in the low-budget movies that have come before ours, and it's a foolish filmmaker who doesn't heed those lessons. In the book I talked to both old-school low-budget filmmakers (like Roger Corman) and people from the current generation (Swingers, The Blair Witch Project, Open Water, etc.).

The latest book, Fast, Cheap and Written that Way: Top Screenwriters on Writing for Low-Budget Movies, does just what the title suggests. I spoke to over twenty top screenwriters who had previously worked on low-budget films and got their secrets on how to write for a tiny budget. Interviewees included George Romero, Tom DiCillo, Stuart Gordon, Bob Clark and Kenneth Lonnergan, among others.

Your films were made on very low budgets. Grown Men cost under $13,000. How did you manage this?

JOHN GASPARD: Well, as soon as you realize that you won't be paying anyone, that cuts your costs significantly. Second, you should write the script to conform to locations and props that you can get for free. Third, you should shoot as quickly as you can -- 12 to 15 pages of script a day is not uncommon.

The main reason to make a movie for such little money is not just to save money -- it's also to help you maintain control of the movie. Without backers breathing down your neck, you can make the movie you want at the pace you want. You may never see that money again -- a high percentage of low-budget movies never see the light of day, let along turn a profit -- but the satisfaction of making the movie YOU wanted to make greatly outweighs the cost.

Do you have any advice for the amateur filmmakers reading this?

JOHN GASPARD: See as many movies as you can -- low-budget independent films, Hollywood films, classic movies from the Golden Era. You can learn something valuable from every movie you watch, so the more you see the more you learn.

Read scripts to learn how to write one. And I mean real scripts, not transcriptions of finished movies. Learn what the words look like on the page and how that gets translated into images on the screen.

And, most important, don't ever try to fund your movie with credit cards. Don't believe what you read about other filmmakers doing this -- it flat out doesn't work.