Thursday, August 27, 2009

Daniel Pace on "The Appearance of a Man"

What was your filmmaking background before you made the film?

DANIEL: I made two films prior to The Appearance... 

My first feature was a 90 mins horror/thriller movie in 16mm titled Twisted Fate, and with a budget of $16K borrowed from a friend. I had no experience or training of any kind in filmmaking prior to this production. As a result, I made a lot of mistakes in production, in storytelling, in direction and in editing, but I learned a great deal. However, it was decent enough to qualify as scary (or interesting) and we sold it to small video-distributor, and made a small profit. 

That gave me the incentive to go for the second one; a more ambitious coming-of-age drama, with a million dollar budget. This movie was to be done in Argentina, where I’m from, and mainly funded by the Argentinean Film Institute, but right in the middle of pre-production and using investor’s money, the Institute was intervened by the government with accusations of corruption and all projects were cancelled including mine. 

Disheartened and penniless I returned to the US, but I wasn’t going to stop or wait much longer. Practically in the plane on my way back I wrote 14 Ways to Wear Lipstick; a super low-budget dark-comedy that was and official selection at Slamdance and a number of other festivals around the world. 14… was made with $30K and in 35mm. Right after 14… I began planning The Appearance of a Man.

Where did the idea come from to make The Appearance of a Man?

DANIEL: In March 13, 1997, a very strange light formation appeared in the Phoenix sky. Basically there were seven lights in a v-shape, which morphed into different shapes as they flew over Phoenix. Actually I didn’t see the lights that night but I heard the news later, and then the controversy, theories and all kind of explanations in the following days, and weeks. 

The whole episode intrigued me to the point that I wanted to do something; a documentary, maybe a movie. I began to ask questions. 

One night I was introduced to this gentleman, whom I’ll keep anonymous, but who is an artist here in the Phoenix area. Right away he told me he knew what the lights were along with a fascinating personal story. So I begun to follow his leads and while everyone was wondering whether it was an UFO or a military exercise, I went into a completely different direction.

 I went to Mexico, where similar sightings had been reported along with accounts of “alien” encounters and to follow the artist’s leads. After several eyewitness interviews in Phoenix and in Mexico I started realizing that whatever people were seeing and coming in contact with - man or alien, fact of imagination - the experiences these people went through had a mystical, or spiritual dimension, which affected them deeply. But most revealing was the existence of a common pattern in the accounts from Mexico and the accounts from Phoenix. 

As bizarre as all these stories were, they were very mysterious and intriguing. There was something paranormal in all the accounts, even something spiritual, something that we can’t just explain with our understanding of science; something that transcended our sense of reality.

What was your process for writing the script?

DANIEL: Typically I don’t write a script until the entire concept is in my head, including beginning, plot points, twists, and the end. I think of many ideas but I also discard most of them. 

Whatever story I’m going to tell, it needs to interest me in a profound way. When I have an idea I like I let it mature and I visualize it. I sit in the dark and try to see the movie in my head. Then I ask myself questions, “Do I like this movie?”, “Will I watch a movie like that?”, “Is that the type of movie I typically watch?” “Is that really the story I want to tell and I will put my soul into it?” 

None of the questions are complete disqualifiers but rather a way to get to the movie I really want to make. Once I have all the “ingredients” like scenes, plot points, even pieces of dialogue then I begin to write it and I do it as fast as possible. 

I didn’t use any particular structure technique for this movie; I believe each story needs to find its own structure to be told effectively, but I did pay attention to narrative twists and visual elements which are crucial to keep the story moving. One thing I didn’t do in this script, and against my own writing process, was to write the last twenty five minutes of the movie. I just shot it with no script. It was too visual to even bother.

How did you fund the film?

DANIEL: It was privately financed in part, and I used points to compensate some of the members of the team. Some crew worked for free. We also got a lot of freebies, such as locations, vehicles, etc. 

Free crew in my experience doesn’t work, unless you’re planning your shoot for one or two days. People get tired; have other commitments or just bail because there’s a party somewhere. In some cases it may work; I never had luck with that. In general, I believe, regardless if the person is paid or not, you need to set clear expectations and define his or her job as concretely as possible.

How did you juggle the roles of Director and DP?

DANIEL: I love the camera. I love to play with angles, movement and lighting, so to me it’s something very natural. The challenge is to be able to pay attention to exposure, focus, framing, composition and movement and also judge the actors’ performance, but that’s why you shoot 17 takes ;). 

The fact is that I can actually pay attention to the acting as well. I rarely had to review the takes but I’ve done it a few times. For a number of scenes in the movie I had another DP, Vince Pascoe. Vince is great, but regardless of the DP, you still need to have a communication with him/her to get what you need. 

I think visually and I have a strong sense of angles and camera positions, but many times I go by intuition so I need to grab the camera and explore possibilities. I tend to storyboard everything I shoot and that helps me visualize the flow of the scene, but many times a particular location or situation may give me new ideas, so I go with that. 

The point is I want to be free to change my mind as I wish and that lack of “sticking with the plan” frustrates many DPs.  I had a great lighting technician, Geoff Nangle, who is one of the most resourceful guys I know. He can hang a light from the sky.

What are the advantages of editing the film yourself? Disadvantages?

DANIEL: The obvious answer it that when you edit the film yourself you are in total control of the storytelling, exactly as you envision it. You get to see and experiment with every single frame of footage you shot. 

Of course, you can probably achieve the same picture working closely with a seasoned editor. But in order to successfully edit your own film you need to have the courage to throw away your best shots if they don’t serve the movement of the story. Sometimes you love a shot and use it even though in context it doesn’t work. 

It’s crucial also, if you’re going to edit your own film, to listen to your instincts; don’t ask for advice or an opinion on every cut. One advice when you ask for opinions: Many times you suspect that something doesn’t work. If the opinions I get confirm my suspicions then I know I have to work on that. Once you have the first draft, get as many opinions as you can; don’t change something because one person pointed something out. You should be the final judge.

The main disadvantage of doing it alone is that you don’t have another point of view to explore different possibilities and ideas. The other issue is that, after looking at a scene for a thousand times it begins to lose its effect, to the point that you don’t know anymore if it works or not. 

But if you want to edit yourself, work fast, be critical, explore different combinations, follow your instincts and get that first draft in front of a critical audience quickly. 

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

DANIEL: From a production point of view you need to parallelize your productions activities as much as possible. Pick a capable and skillful team. As a whole, your team (production and technical) should have all the skills needed to complete the picture. Every team member should be given well defined tasks to work on and work in parallel. 

Planning, budgeting and realistic scheduling is key; if you can’t do it yourself, get experienced people in that area. Pre-production and Filming is chaotic. Post-Production is complex. For an independent filmmaker on a low budget it is crucial not to go through any of the production phases alone. Post-production is brainy and technical and also incredibly time consuming, it’s crucial that your team includes highly technical people for the post. 

Main photography may be over, but I shot and additional fifty hours of footage during the post-production phase. All phases are important but post-production is very critical to the successes of your film. This is where the story takes shape, where bad acting is corrected, where problems are fixed. Especially in a digital era, a great deal of work, such as compositions, effects, music, sound design, is done in post. This is where I would allocate a great deal of my budget and human resources.

I think it’s crucial, in order to grow as a filmmaker, to be your own strict critic; I believe that is the only way to grow. Like in many other artistic activities, you’re sharing the deepest parts of who you are and where you come from through your work, and critiques and rejections can sometimes hurt. 

But being hurt doesn’t help you grow, instead, learn from it, get better, perfect your craft, go and make another film. 

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ali Selim on "Sweet Land"

The purpose of these interviews is to help demystify the filmmaking process ...

ALI SELIM: First, let me tell you, I can't help you de-mystify it. It's the most mysterious thing I've ever done, still to this day.

Had you ever written a screenplay before this?

ALI SELIM: No. I dabbled. I took a screenwriting class from Tom Pope in 1984, and I churned out something to get a grade. I can't even remember what it was. Then we had this idea when I was at Departure Films in 1989 that we were going to try and make a movie and I think I cranked something out then as well. But again, I don't even remember what it was. I just didn't know any better. I thought you slap some words on a page, got the camera out and that was that.

This was really my first effort at telling a story that was structured and constructed. But had I put words on a page before? Yeah. Had I ever done anything seriously or taken myself seriously? I think this was the first time.

Did you think about budget at all while you were writing Sweet Land?

ALI SELIM: No, I guess I didn't. If I had thought about that, I think the script would look very different. No, I just let it rip and left it up to (producer) Jim Bigham to make it happen. He was great. He's an old friend and he really connected with the script for a lot of reasons. He wasn't just a Line Producer, he was a guy who really wanted to see it made.

He was the one guy who would go through the script with me and say, "If we get rid of this, it will make that better." He was great about hanging on to the parts of the story that would drive it forward, and yet getting rid of the things that were a little too big. He was more budget conscious, and that caused me to re-write, I guess, but while I was writing I didn't really think about it.

Was there anything you were sorry to lose because of budget restraints?

ALI SELIM: There was nothing I was sorry to lose. I learned a lot from Jim Bigham about how to be efficient, not how to be cheap or just say no -- let's be efficient and talk about what the story is. When you don't have millions and millions of dollars and tons of days, I think you just naturally give up some of those shots that you would see in King Kong, which are great -- those big, wide street scenes of New York -- but I don't know that we need them in a film like this.

There were a lot of those little things along the way where, if we'd had the money, yeah, we'd get the train pulling away from the station as she was walking away, but you don't necessarily need it.

Did you re-write it at all after it was cast, to fit the actors you cast?

ALI SELIM: A little bit. I think I did a lot of re-writing for Ned Beatty, who was interested and willing to be a little more terse and mean. The character wasn't originally that way, and I like what he brought to it. And so I re-wrote a lot of his dialogue to reflect that.

I re-wrote Frandsen, too. My grandparents had a friend like that character, an immigrant living hand to mouth on a farm in Minnesota, and yet he was more influenced by what he heard of vaudeville and what he saw at the movies than what his real life was. It took Alan (Cumming) a little while, but when he got that, we re-wrote Frandsen to make him more fun in that way.

Do you think you wrote it any differently because you knew you would be directing it?

ALI SELIM: I don't think so. I don't know what writing another kind of script is like, so I don't know if I adapted this to the fact that I was going to be directing.

I do know that my writing is vastly more sparse or suggestive than most screenwriters. My Assistant Director was pulling his hair out, saying "It's not in the script, it's not in the script!" And I think, actually, that's what attracted the actors to it. It doesn't have the kind of screen direction that says, "She raises her left hand and puts it on the cool granite counter." There's none of that in there. It's more just a kind of rumbling suggestion, and I think the actors really seemed to appreciate that, because they all talked about not only the sparseness of the dialogue, which is as sparse as the script.

I'm writing another script now and I'm finding that it really isn't just the taciturn Scandinavian farmers that caused me to write that way, it's really more my writing style.

Are there any lessons from Sweet Land that you'll take to future projects?

ALI SELIM: I think I learned some lessons about dialogue -- how much actors really bring to the show. We did a couple rehearsal readings in Montevideo, once all the actors arrived. And immediately following those readings, I think I went through and cut about half of the dialogue. Just watching their faces I thought, Boy, they don't even need to memorize this stuff in Norwegian or German or whatever it is, they just need to act and look and work between the lines.

And then when we started editing, I bet we lost another half of what was left. And I'm finding that it's really helpful in writing the next script. Write it for the actor, don't write it for the producer who's reading it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Jeffrey Goodman on "The Last Lullaby"

What was your filmmaking background before you made the film?

JEFFREY: Before Lullaby, I made six short films. I also worked production for about two years out in Los Angeles. First as a production assistant then as a loader and camera assistant.

The highlights of my production experience were probably driving the camera truck for about a year on Marcus Nispel commercials/music videos and loading the film Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her for DP extraordinaire Emmanuel Lubezki.

Where did the idea come from to make The Last Lullaby?

JEFFREY: Lullaby is based on the Max Allan Collins' short story "A Matter of Principal." The short story centers around Max's great character Quarry, who is also the star of a couple of other short stories by Max as well as about seven or eight novels.

How did you work with the writers on getting the script ready to shoot?

JEFFREY: It's something that never really stopped, actually. The script was written by Max Allan Collins and Peter Biegen. But then we had to make revisions to the script, due to weather, during the shoot. And then we continued to make revisions all the way until the very last day in the editing bay. I don't write but felt particularly fortunate to have two very talented writers on the project.

How did you fund the film?

JEFFREY: I raised the money for Lullaby myself. I have 49 private investors, 48 of whom are from the Shreveport, Louisiana area where I live and where we shot the movie. To help incentivize investment, I used a combination of state tax credits and federal tax deductions as part of my fairly extensive business plan.

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

JEFFREY: Money is always a tough thing to find. So I had to figure that one out. Also I think a first feature for any director is completely overwhelming. So much of the process is new, and you're constantly hitting a wall and having to find a way to keep going. I had an unusually great team though.

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

JEFFREY: More than anything, I learned that it's a really tough time right now to monetize a finished film. In fact, I cover this challenge and struggle in my weekly blog for MovieMaker magazine ( Knowing this will definitely affect the way that I budget my next film as well as approach distribution once the film is done. For instance, I'll make sure next time around to have even more money in the budget for P&A and a staff that can continue to work for the film as we try to get it out into the world.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Teddy Gersten on "Rope"

What was your filmmaking background before you made the film?

TEDDY: I'd say I had sort of a mixed background when it came to filmmaking. Rope was the first film I actually made myself. Meaning I directed and edited it. In the last few years I have worked an an editor on a couple short film and an independent feature. But before that I didn't really have much of a filmmaking background.

In college I studied film theory and I worked for the school TV network where we would shoot and edit news segments here and there. But in terms of any film production, there wasn't much. I did work as a Production Assistant on a few commercials and a couple films, but I'm not sure that counts.

Where did the idea come from to make Rope?

TEDDY: Rope was originally a short story which was written by my mother, Kres Mersky, who stars in the film. She wrote it a few years back and would occasionally preform it at different venues where people just fell in love with it. So one day decided decided to try and make a short film out of it.

What was the process for writing the script and how involved were you?

TEDDY: Turning the short story into a film script was pretty straight-forward. Since the story is basically a woman talking to camera for ten minutes, in order to make it somewhat interesting, we went through the script to try and find the most interesting pieces we thought we wanted and would be able to shoot. In terms of the dialogue we didn't lose anything before we started shooting. Once it was all put together we decided in post what we thought needed to be cut.

How did you fund the film?

TEDDY: All the equipment was put on my credit cards. The locations were either my parent's or friends houses. And the crew and actors were either friends or family.

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

TEDDY: We shot the entire thing in two days. One day for the dialogue and a second day for the all the pickups. It was a pretty scaled down shoot, to say the least. It was basically me with a camera, a light, a bounce card and some actors. I would edit the film when I came home from work at night, so the whole process took about 2 weeks.

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

TEDDY: The whole process was pretty stress free. The only frustration I'd say was not having enough money to do certain things (better camera, lighting, etc.) But I'm sure that's something sure every independent filmmaker must face.

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

TEDDY: I learned that things go a lot smoother when you admit to yourself upfront that you have no idea what you're doing. And not to be afraid to ask questions.