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.

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