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.

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