Thursday, September 24, 2009

Joe Leonard on "How I Got Lost"

You've worked in a lot of different capacities in the world of film and TV (DP, editor, post-production supervisor, etc.) How does that sort of experience help you as a director?

JOE: I didn't come out of film school thinking I was going to find work as an editor, but I discovered pretty quickly that it was one of the only skills I had that would allow me to work on the projects I was interested in. I survived the lean years when I was writing the screenplay for "How I Got Lost" by cutting commercials and taking 2nd assistant editor or post-PA jobs on independent flicks with filmmakers I respected (like my good friend Danny Leiner). I absorbed all of the the discussions about story, character, pace and tone. I liked being in that room, and I learned from it. Eventually, the jobs got better and better till now I'm lucky enough to be editing on a TV show -- it could not be more different from my movie, but I love coming to work every day.

Editing is a pretty pure aspect of the filmmaking process, particularly if you make sure to clear off your desk and take out your trash every day. Also, having a toothbrush handy is not a bad idea. You gain a certain perspective as an editor. You aren't dealing with all of the chaos and stress of the set, and you don't have to cope with the ways the project has changed. You're just a problem-solver with a singular purpose -- and being a problem-solver, you end up learning the sorts of things to avoid if possible. Most of it isn't avoidable, of course -- at least not on a 24 day schedule on an independent film budget. But, on set I am already worrying about the mood in the edit room 6 months down the line. I want it to be positive. I want to shoot a few things that will still have me excited. I want to not scream obscenities at myself 6 months back.

Besides these straight-forward lessons, there are a lot of subtle ones you start to pick up on after sitting in a dark room and facing dozens of different scenes. I have arguments with my friends about this, but you really come to love the art of what an actor does. Moments, breaths, small shifts of the eyes -- all become life and death. So when I am directing something, I look for those moments, those small beats of reality. I'm keyed into what the actor is doing and thinking always about what I can do to help -- if anything. Usually it's just getting rid of something that is distracting the actor, or finding a way to bring it into focus for them, or finding some way to disarm their defenses.

I've shot a few things. But man, am I terrible. I have an okay eye, but I hate messing things up. I don't act anymore either, thankfully -- not since high school. But I learned a lot acting. I do think you can learn something from trying any part of the process on for size for yourself. But it's important to be self-aware enough to recognize where you have talent, and where you need help. It's more fun working with people anyway. If I wanted to do everything myself, I'd be a painter or sculptor or something.

Where did the idea come from to make How I Got Lost?

JOE: I started writing "How I Got Lost" after 9/11, when I was living in the East Village. My friends and I were all in the same boat -- all trying to start our lives in a place where it was hard to live and get by. But we were bonded to the city. I found two characters, Andrew and Jake -- one a lot like a few friends of mine, one a lot like me -- and I started to follow them through their troubles. I was reading a lot, and that's when I read "The Sun Also Rises" for the first time. It felt like it had just been written. It felt like it could be me and my friends.

So I was inspired by that, and by a feeling I had inside about this story that I just kept trying to get at. Finally, I started paying attention to everything my brother was doing. He's my younger brother, but he's much more grown up than I am. He was working as a beat sportswriter, and I thought "wow, that's a great world, and wouldn't it be the perfect world for someone who moved to New York to be a writer to hide in after the whole world went wrong in September 2001." So I followed him around and took mental notes, and I talked to my disillusioned banker friends who worked on Wall Street, and I followed both stories all the way down the line.

What was your process for writing the script?

JOE: After the three years it took me to get a semi-coherent 100 page draft, I decided to shoot a short film of the first 25 pages or so to see what worked and what didn't. That was a great test, and not that expensive in the end. I also did a lot of readings.

Writing doesn't come easy for me, so planning a reading or a shoot was a great way to figure out how to make the scenes and characters stronger. When I moved to Los Angeles in 2004, I didn't give up on it. For some reason I couldn't -- every 6 months or so I would crank out a new draft. Eventually it became more focused, and I started to get stronger and stronger feedback. I applied to labs and grants, and I finally was a finalist for one in 2005 -- the Richard Vague Production Grant, an award NYU gives to alumni to help them make their first feature film. I didn't win, but I was a finalist the next year and was lucky enough to win then -- I felt like Muhammad Ali.

I kept re-writing the movie up till we started shooting in 2008, and re-wrote certain scenes on set, and certain sequences and voice-over in the edit room. It was a process that started 8 years ago, and ended in April of this year, when we finished the sound design.

Did the script change much while shooting or in the editing?

JOE: Yeah, it changed a lot. One funny thing that happens (for me anyways) is that whatever the theme of the film, whatever the journey, that ends up being the journey you experience making the film. In this case, we had a story about getting lost and then figuring out where you wanted to go to begin with. So there was a lot of searching for the movie throughout the process for all of us. Through the work -- with my actors Jake Fishel and Aaron Stanford, with Chris Chambers (the D.P.), with my producers Massoumeh Emami and Jared Parsons, and my editors Sarah Broshar and Sam Mestman -- we found it. Everyone contributed something very important to the story being told.

I didn't follow the script religiously -- I knew it too well, and I didn't want to ever be caught saying "but this isn't how I thought it would be." When that happened I wanted to be able to just look at it and be able to make the adjustment so it was its own thing that fit into canvas I had in my head.

How did you get the film funded and what were the challenges in doing that?

JOE: We won the Richard Vague Production Grant in 2006, which is an amazing award given out by NYU to alumni making their first feature film. This got us off the ground and gave me something to tell prospective investors about. I made a fold-out note card with basic info about the project with the help of a friend -- and that was just fun, but it also absolutely reflected the project. It was full of typewritten notes and Edward Hopper images, and storyboards scribbled on bar napkins from over the years.

I put together a business plan for the film with the help of some young producers I knew, and we started trying out pitches for the project. I was terrible, awful at first. I'd never had to sell something my entire life (I don't think working at Applebee's in high school counts). But eventually I got down one very simple pitch: "I believed in this story, we have a good plan to make a unique and remarkable film, and to do it we need your help." So we went to private investors and asked them directly. Many of them were family friends I had known since I was 5 years old.

Our main investors ultimately were family -- my parents, and my producer Sam Mestman's family. They were the executive producers. Which is appropriate. Not only would there be no movie but I would never have been able to pursue making movies without my parents' support.

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

JOE: Making a feature is a marathon, so you have to train and you have to pace yourself. It is also an incredible honor, so appreciate it like it could be the one game that you play in the big leagues.

Don't give anyone money up front who promises you more money back.

Kick in the back door, and don't ask anyone permission to make your movie.

Don't listen when people say no. Except when it has to do with fireworks.

Be grateful for the people you get to work with -- the actors, the crew, the PAs. And let them know.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Jon Springer on "The Hagstone Demon"

What was your filmmaking background before you made the film?

JON: The Hagstone Demon is my second feature as writer/director. There was a period of time after I graduated from college that I was shooting other people’s movies for free, and I did that for about five years. So I came into the field as a cinematographer, using the volunteer work to develop my craft, and then became more interested in directing. I’ve had a fairly st

eady output of shorts and features since 1992. Around the same time I got involved in shooting and directing commercials, and I had about 800 of those under my belt before it was all over.

Where did the idea come from to make "The Hagstone Demon"?

JON: Certain scenes were drawn from Joris-Karl Huysmans’ novel La Bas, which I had read a few years earlier. In it, Huysman describes a black mass ritual he attended in Paris, and his account has a sort of journalistic banality that was disturbing in it’s own right, so that’s what I set out to capture visually. But the story itself has more of an autobiographical

significance for Harrison Matthews, the screenwriter, because the protagonist is also a caretaker of a brownstone and also a writer.

What was your process for co-writing the script?

JON: Harrison usually takes a script through two or three drafts before I take it from him. At that point I work on the plot and structure, and also insert the set pieces that become essential to the character of the film. More or less I take his characters and fit them into the genre.

Harrison is very good at character, dialogue and scene transitions, whereas my strong points are plot, theme and subtext. What is nice about Harrison is that he does not necessarily start out imposing this or that genre formula or convention on the story. His characters determine how the events unfold. Because of this approach, you can watch The Hagstone Demon and it will be impossible for you to predict what will happen next.

What was the key for doing the film so cheaply?

JON: Since I can do the writing, shooting, producing, directing, editing, etc., myself, I eliminate the need to hire people to do those things for me. I learned this approach doing commercials. The downside is that it takes its toll on you, especially if it’s a feature. Shooting Hagstonenearly wasted me, and I’m not exaggerating. The size of the crew also affects the budget. I always work with a small crew, so that the company can move fast and be agile and adaptable as conditions change. This strategy increases the amount of setups possible per day, which means I can shoot much more detail into the picture.

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

JON: I came from a commercial background, where I was used to directing through the viewfinder. So that was always natural to me. The disadvantage to this is the fatigue that can result from, say, operating twenty takes of a guy walking across the room. But the camera operating usually doesn’t hamper my ability to judge the performances, and there are many directors who do that, Steven Soderbergh for example.

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

JON: The advantage to editing my own footage is that I am aware of the original purpose of each shot composition and camera move, and this boils down to keeping the visual subtext intact. The greatest downfall to editing your own footage is leaving in sequences that you are attached to aesthetically. It may feel satisfying but it ultimately hampers the economy of the storytelling.

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

JON: The only thing I learn from shooting films is how I could have written them better.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dave Boyle on "White on Rice"

What was your filmmaking background before you made White on Rice?

DAVE: I didn't go to film school, but I'd always planned on becoming a filmmaker. I got odd jobs on film sets and worked on my friends' movies. My first job was as a security guard, watching to make sure people didn't steal the equipment.

I made my first feature in 2006: Big Dreams Little Tokyo. It was a low-budget comedy about a white guy who wants to be a Japanese businessman. It's on DVD and available on Netflix, Amazon, etc.

Where did the idea for White on Rice come from?

DAVE: I was feeling a little bit like a loser and wondered what it would be like if 15 years passed and I was in my 40's and still living in my sister's basement. That idea seemed kinda funny and I started elaborating on the story a bit.

I met Hiroshi Watanabe around that time, and thought he'd be a perfect comedic lead for this kind of movie. I cast him in the role more than a year before shooting the film, and began tailoring the part for him.

What was your process for co-writing the script with Joel Clark?

DAVE: Joel and I had an unusual collaboration. My producer, Michael Lerman, introduced us in New York and we hit it off immediately. However, we only met once before working together on the script via email over a 6-month period. We finally saw each other again when the movie played at the Newport Int'l Film Festival in Rhode Island.

Did you write it with the idea that you'd direct it ... and, if so, did that change how you wrote it?

DAVE: Yes, I was always planning to direct it. But it's weird, even when you're directing something that you wrote, sometimes you have to think hard about what the writer was envisioning in certain scenes. I guess writing and directing use different parts of my brain.

How did you finance the film and what did you learn in that process?

DAVE: This was a co-production between my production company and two others, all of who pitched in to help on the fundraising end. The biggest thing I learned was just that there's more than one way to skin a cat---everyone has their method for finding financing and they're all different.

And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you can take to other projects?

DAVE: I really learned a lot about how to stretch your production dollar as far as it can go. This wasn't a "no-budget" movie, but we certainly had to get creative in order to achieve the aesthetic I was looking for. I hope I get another chance to put those lessons into action sometime soon.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Brooke P. Anderson on "Off the Ledge"

What was your filmmaking background before you made the film?

BROOKE: Ahhh where to start ;)

The short version is I grew up as an actress in Australia, having started when I was 4 years-old. As my Dad was working in the US, I’d go back and forth between the two countries a lot. I remember working on a series in Australia and becoming interested in the director's role on the project, so I ended up avidly watching him set up shots and was constantly perusing his storyboards.

After graduating high school in South Carolina, I decided I wanted to study “behind the scenes” and learn all I could about writing, producing, directing and everything in between about filmmaking. I took numerous courses at UCLA from Business Accounting and Law, to setting up Production Companies; Lighting and Cinematography; Writing a Screenplay etc… to broaden my knowledge on the industry.

In 2005 I decided to utilize what I had learned and shot my first short film, “Forced Entry.” Initially done as a directing exercise, I figured “why not try the festival route” in an attempt to learn a little more. I was fortunate that it did relatively well on the circuit and was accepted into a bunch of fests and won numerous awards. I also got to travel to some places I had never been, and be introduced to other film communities around the US and Canada, which was pretty cool.

Where did the idea come from to make Off the Ledge?

BROOKE: After I 1st AD’d an indie feature shooting in Vegas a few years ago (Diamonds & Guns), not only did I meet my best friends on this project, but I also met my future Producing Partner - Dawn Higginbotham. Dawn and I ended up clicking and formed our Production Company, CORDOVA PICTURES, which at the time was to pitch a beautiful project that Dawn had written.

Unfortunately, the timing and cycle of the market was off as the Studios all wanted Snakes on a Plane – (this was prior to its release) VERY different to our humble Little Miss Sunshine-esq film.

While waiting at a fancy restaurant for a meeting regarding this other project, Dawn was telling me about a short film idea she had and wanted to make about two different side of the tracks people stuck in a bathroom at a club. After the meeting, I was driving home and couldn’t stop thinking about the idea. That evening, I had a friend over for dinner (Andrew Piñon), and told him about Dawn’s idea, and although I loved shorts, it was time for us to shoot a feature. And to be honest… it all started over a bottle of wine ;)

Andy and I started hashing out Dawn’s short to carry through into a feature. Every 10 minutes I’d leave a message on Dawn’s cell: “Hurry up and come over to my place,” and Andy and I would continue to embellish the story, and the ideas kept intensifying. Eventually Dawn made it over and questioned the abundance of voice messages, we in turn pitched her short idea expanded by 80 minutes. She looked stunned, and silent… then suddenly the wheels started turning in her head, and she jumped right on board. It was time to make a low budget indie feature and prove ourselves as filmmakers, no longer talkers, but doers. We all sat down and hashed out a plan, and by the time the sun rose, we had the framework for Off the Ledge.

What was the process for writing the script? How did you work with your co-writers?

BROOKE: Writing Off the Ledge was interesting. None of us had ever co-written before, yet all had individual screenplays between us and were familiar with one another’s work. Although our strengths in particular genres differed, our common bond was our need and want for strong, three-dimensional characters; as we all believed no matter how great a concept was, it was negligible if you didn’t care about the characters taking you on that journey.

We initially started out with development meetings, just hashing out the story and the characters and tossing ideas at each other, all centering around Dawn’s original concept of the two characters in the bathroom. The club transformed into a New Years Eve Party as we all felt it was a great night for the characters to unravel; that night has so many expectations as it’s about resolutions and new beginnings etc…

So we worked on who these people at the party were? What were their strengths and weaknesses? What makes them tick? What do they all think of each other etc… And we all had to take the budget into account, which obviously puts restrictions on what you can and can’t feasibly pull off on screen to a certain extent.

Once we had an idea of who the characters were, and why they were all at the party, and how they eventually end up by the end of the night, it was time for the first draft. Our plan was to give it to Dawn to write the 1st draft. Then Andy and I would read it, compile our notes and sit down for another meeting and throw all of our thoughts on the table. Dawn went back and incorporated our notes, then we did it all again and gave it to Andy to write his draft. After Dawn and I gave notes to Andy, it was my turn to write the draft. After the three of us had dived into the script, we ripped it all apart again and worked on another draft.

Each of us as writers brought a different element to the project. We all brought our different experiences to the story and it turned out to be a script we’re all really proud of. Even through the brainstorming with resulted from numerous heavy discussions, I believe it really pushed us all to make it a very strong story, and we’re all still friends which is always good, no deaths at the writing table ;)

Within a month we had gone through 6 drafts and had started pre-production.

How did you fund the film?

BROOKE: Short answer is private equity. As we all know, getting money to fund a passion project is bloody hard. Dawn and I put a formal proposal together for Off The Ledge, with a very detailed breakdown of our plans for the film. We knew our whole budget was less than someone’s paycheck, and we were all talking a massive risk with it; our budget shooting schedule was in there, comparable films and the budget verses what they grossed etc… there was a risk page an overview of the indie filmmaking industry an estimated best and worst case scenario.

We gave this proposal to some investors that were interested in our prior project, but at the time felt it was a little too high of an investment considering we hadn’t had a feature under our belts. With this ultra low budget film, they were right on board.

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

BROOKE: Our initial schedule was 10 days. We tacked on an extra day at the end of the film, and a ½ pick-up day while we were in editing to grab some insert shots etc… Not a hell of a lot of time for a cast of 20 and to shoot a 100-page script. Everything was go go go… and Dawn and I didn’t sleep (If we’d shot a Zombie film we would have fit right in ;)

Our 1st assembly took 3 weeks. Harvey Rosenstock agreed to edit our first cut, and we were honored to have him on board, (he even came with a referral from Martin Scorsese which was pretty cool) We gave Harvey our notes, and he polished his edit into a first cut, then unfortunately had to leave us for another project.

We worked with Harvey’s assistant tweaking and polishing the film for a bit, then ultimately brought on Todd Fulkerson as an additional editor to lock the film. I guess Todd had it for about 2 weeks… but he was doing our project on the side, so we’d get to work with him for 2-4 hours every few nights at like crazy midnight hours. It was all pretty insane, but we were grateful to have the help and support. It’s a tough way to edit a film however.

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

BROOKE: I think the biggest challenge was lack of hands on deck. In terms of pulling the project together, it was pretty much Dawn and I doing everything. From Location permits and insurance, to casting and pulling together the crew for the actual shoot, to budgeting and scheduling and even drafting all the contracts. We became accountants and lawyers and music supervisors (pulling together over 40 tracks for the soundtrack). We didn’t even have an assistant to field calls…

The first time we had a “team” was the day we walked on set. It was a pretty cool feeling; but our other issue was some of our crew were fresh out of film school, so they may have had the knowledge, but not experience, which made it tough for us as we were only learning ourselves, and therefore never had the chance to relax and let everyone do their jobs.

When Dawn, Andy and myself wrote Off the Ledge, and Dawn and I decided to produce the project, I was never supposed to direct it. We went out to our first choice for Director, and were stoked that he really liked the project; our only disparity was the ending, which unfortunately was the reason we wanted to make the film and ironically what attracted many of our cast to the project. At this point we were either going to make the project or shelve it, as we were in the midst of casting and had already set the production date etc… so Dawn and Andy nominated me as the director like 2 weeks before shooting. As a producer on the film, and as I was playing one of the characters, this was a really tough situation. Not only would Dawn be sole producer while working on set, but I had the added hat of director.

Our location was a nightmare, 2 weeks prior to shooting (those dreaded 2 weeks) our initial location was pulled from us, and we had written our shooting script around this location. So everything had to change and we scrambled to get another location. The only one we could find within our budget was a WHITE house. There was NO color in this place, floor to ceiling white walls, which is not good for film.

Our DP Brett Anderson (who thankfully agreed to come from OZ and shoot my first feature) and our Production Designer Lauren Clifton had to work together to make this house work. With one prep-day, Lauren had to wall paper the entire house, and my Dad and Lauren ended up building faux walls in the Master Bathroom to make it more camera friendly. Brett lit the home very specifically to try and help Lauren’s design and it was just a team effort to make it all work.

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

BROOKE: We’ve definitely learned what “not” to do. We’re a lot wiser and less naïve. I know I’ve learned to trust my instincts more and not second guess myself as much as I did. I’ve also learned how important it is to surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing and hopefully know a lot more than you so they can catch your falls.

Dawn and I were very green when it came to making a feature, it was our first, and although we knew a fair bit between us, this was the best experience either one of us could have had. In actually doing it, and being responsible for every aspect along the way, it taught us an immense amount, and we’re now armed for the next projects. Even though we’ll have pros in our team supporting us, we’ll be in a better position of being able to communicate better with our future team as we’ve had hands on experience with it all.

I’ve always know this is a film BUSINESS, and although it was a juggle with the creative and business aspects of making the film, there is so much more business than I had ever imagined. It’s not just the workings of the business in terms of shooting on set and the business of getting distribution etc… but Dawn and I initially set out to do everything “the right way” and “by the book” as it was our first project under our production companies (Cordova and Gala Films) and we wanted to be reputable. But having a Production Company is not only expensive, but a lot of work. The taxes, the licenses, the payroll etc… and it’s ongoing - every year. We learned the hard way about a few of them as there was no-one to tell us point blank “this is what you have to do”.

So I’m now a firm believer that you learn the best by doing. It’s also great to talk to fellow filmmakers who have done it before, because you can learn from their mistakes and therefore be aware of those and potentially avoid them. Even though your sure enough going to have your own ones, it’s better to be forewarned.

I’ve also learned we need sleep… It’s hard to give 100% when sleep deprivation sets in on set. ;)