Thursday, November 26, 2009

Tom DiCillo on "Living in Oblivion"

What was going on before you made Living In Oblivion?

TOM DICILLO: My first feature was film called Johnny Suede, starring Brad Pitt. I busted my ass on that one for at least four years to get it made. Although the film reached a certain sort of audience, it never quite found an audience, and the distribution of it was, frankly, really disappointing. It made making my second film really, really difficult.

I had written a screenplay called Box of Moonlight, and could not get the money for it. Years and years went by, two, three, four, five, and I just reached a point of such maniacal desperation that I said, "I have to do something, no matter what." It was out of that intense frustration that Living in Oblivion was born.

It wasn't born out of, "Hey, let me make a funny movie." It really came out of one of the most intense periods of anger and frustration in my career. And, ironically, it turned out to be the funniest movie I've ever made. I think in some way that is part of what makes my humor my humor. It is humor based upon real, human intensity, desperation, foolishness.

One of the things that makes the script so strong is that all the obstacles that you put in Nick's way are real obstacles that you've experienced in that position.

TOM DICILLO: Whatever you write, you have to tap into something personal for yourself. I used to have an acting teacher who said to me, "If it ain't personal, it ain't no good." There's something to be said for that. Even if you're talking about a character, someone who's not you, you have to find something that is you that you really do believe and that you've really experienced and you have real feelings about, and put it in that character's mouth and in their hearts and minds.

But at the same time, I don't want to ever make it seem like when I write that it's just me. I'm not interested in that. Even with my first film, Johnny Suede -- sure, I put a lot of myself into that character -- but I also was very clearly trying to find a way to make it more objective, more universal, something that other people could relate to.

I absolutely believe that if you can find a way to tap into something that's very personal, and then make a creative leap from there, that's the best way to do it. Anger by itself is not enough. You have to have the creative imagination coming into play as well.

How much rehearsal did you have?

TOM DICILLO: None. Absolutely none.

I don't like to rehearse, anyway. My style of working is to just talk to people, get the costumes correct, talk a little bit about the character, and then just find it as the camera is rolling. What was so fascinating to me was that none of these actors auditioned and they were almost instantaneously their parts. But everyone knew the lines, I'm very disciplined in terms of that.

Most people think Living In Oblivion is completely improvised, but there's only one scene that was improvised, and that's the scene where Steve erupts at the crew at the end of Part One. Everything else was completely scripted.

Were there any things you learned writing that script that you still use today?

TOM DICILLO: Yeah. I have a tendency, if I'm going to write a joke, I set it up with a one, two, three punch. But I realized that most of the time, when I get in the editing room, I usually only end up using the one or the two, never the one, two, three. That's kind of an interesting lesson to learn: if you're going to tell a joke, just tell the joke. Don't do three jokes.

I also learned the idea of setting in motion something that, once it's in motion has a life of its own and people are really are almost instantaneously eager to find out what's going to happen. That's a crucial thing. Many screenwriting teachers will talk to you about a screenplay and say that it's all about tension and conflict. And, in some ways, that absolutely true.

But if that tension and conflict doesn't arouse enough interest to have people really want to know what's going to happen next, then you're screwed. I think Johnny Suede suffered from that a bit. It was my first screenplay and there's very little real dramatic tension in it.

I like the idea of setting something in motion -- like a cart rolling down a hill -- that once it's going, you can't stop it.

What's your favorite memory of working on Living In Oblivion?

TOM DICILLO: Oh, man, there are millions. I think I would have to say that it was the look on people's faces the first time Peter Dinklage, who plays Tito, erupted into his tirade against the director. Most of the crew that we had hired had not read the script, because we weren't paying anybody. And so we were getting people working for free, and they might work one or two days a week.

And so this crew was just standing by the lights, doing whatever they were doing, and all of a sudden Peter Dinklage, during a take, says, "I'm sick of this crap." He just erupted and everybody just turned and looked with their jaws open. They really thought he was saying it.

Then the laughter that erupted when they realized that it was just part of the movie, it was a fantastic feeling. It made me really feel that I had stumbled upon something and it was working.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jamin Winans on "Ink"

What was your filmmaking background before you made Ink?

JAMIN: I grew up with a video camera in my hand and learned filmmaking mostly by doing it. I joke that Ink is actually my 4th feature film because I made two feature length films by shooting on VHS and cutting on two VCRs when I was a kid. I went to film school for a year, but dropped out realizing my time was best spent just doing it. I made my "first" feature, 11:59, in 2003-2004.

Where did the idea come from?

JAMIN: When I was a kid I was in love with Snow White. Consequently I was terrified of the witch in old woman form. I used to believe she would sneak into my room and try to steal me out of bed to take me to some place terrible. That image stuck with me a long time. It's not just coincidence that Ink looks a lot like the witch from Snow White. And that's where the movie started from. I had the scene of a monster stealing a kid out of bed and angels trying to stop him. The story just kept building from there.

What was your process for writing the script?

JAMIN: I outline heavily. My scripts are usually complicated and involved so I'll often spend months, if not years, outlining. The actual script writing is quick. I tend to not write a single page until I'm absolutely certain I have everything worked out. In the case of Ink I finished the script and then made several revisions over the course of pre-production. There were probably at least a half-dozen revisions. During that time I got feedback from trusted people whose opinions and taste I respect.

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

JAMIN: We've been building a fan base over the past 10 years or so. During that time we've found some supporters who have been willing to invest in projects. With Ink, Kiowa (my wife and producer) and I really wanted to be investors ourselves. So we mortgaged our house to be the first investors. We then we started to talk to our friends and supporters and gave them a fairly elaborate and visual business plan. The fact that we were investing ourselves certainly helped others feel more comfortable. We raised the financing we needed over about 8 months.

The thing I've learned about financing both our films is that it just takes time. It takes time and leg work to get to the right people and ultimately convince them that this is a project worth supporting.

What sort of camera did you use? What was good about it? What was not so good?

JAMIN: We shot entirely on the Sony V1U. It was the smallest HD camera available at the time (weighing about 3 lbs). Originally we were going to shoot with the Sony CineAlta, but realized it was just too big for the situations we were shooting in. We needed a camera that was light and could fit in small spaces. We were shooting an enormous amount of setups a day and having that small camera was a saving grace.

On the other hand, the issue with the V1U is that the latitude is pretty weak. When shooting night exteriors, we needed to pump out a lot of light to register on that camera. It made night scenes really rough. The Sony EX came out immediately after we wrapped. It's not much bigger than the V1U, but has a much better latitude. If we shot Ink today we would use that camera.

You wore a lot of hats on the film -- writer, director, editor, composer, producer. What's the benefit of doing that? The downside?

JAMIN: Yes, and Kiowa was the producer, production designer, costume designer, and sound designer. The benefit is absolute creative control. I'm able to make the decisions I want without encumbrance. The other advantage is that there's less time wasted on communicating between "departments." So it can be really efficient. The downside is that there are only so many hours in the day. I can only work so fast when I'm doing everything. It can also be nice to have other collaborators throwing in their two cents. You don't get that when you're working on your own.

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

JAMIN: More than anything I've learned how powerful fans can be. We've had a fan base that's carried us and Ink for the past several months as we've taken it out theater by theater. Because of the time we're living in, we're able to connect with a lot of our fans personally through our social networks. They've become friends, advocates, and have really kept our spirits high as we fight to get Ink released. More now than ever, I suspect our fans will be a big part of the ongoing filmmaking process.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Paul Solet on "Grace"

What was your filmmaking background before you made "Grace"?

PAUL: I've been running around with a camera since I was a little kid, making short films and writing stories, and I was lucky enough to have parents who were really supportive of the arts, so they always encouraged that stuff. I started making shorts seriously in film school, and kept it up afterwards, but "Grace"is the first feature I've directed.

Where did the idea come from?

PAUL: The basic idea came from the medical science involved. I was having a conversation with someone and it came up that it's actual medical science that if you're pregnant and you lose your child and labor isn't induced, you can actually carry a baby to term, and that this is a decision that women make more frequently than we talk about in polite company. To me, that was such a powerful idea, it was a perfect jumping off place for a genre story. I've always been fascinated about the power of the mother child bond, so "Grace"was born from that.

What was your process for writing the script?

PAUL: I'm a very thorough outliner. I spend a lot of time working out the acts, then the sequences, then the scenes, then the beats, and while I'm doing that I'm working on the characters, who they are and what they want. I never jump into writing until I have an extremely thorough outline. The same was true of "Grace". Even still, the script grew and changed a great deal over the years. I probably wrote 75 drafts of it.

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

PAUL: I wrote it with the idea that I'd probably direct it, but if someone had come to me who I thought had a real vision for the script and would make a great film, I'd have let them. The people I met with just weren't those people, and I believe in the story enough to see it done right. I always write with the goal of having it down on paper in a way that anyone can understand without further explanation, even if the intention is for me to direct it. The goal is always to come up with a perfect reading script.

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

PAUL: A lot of people were interested in purchasing or optioning the script, but they weren't going to let me direct it because I hadn't done a feature before, and they weren't coming up with anyone good to do the job, so that was a challenge.

It wasn't until Adam Green saw the short and solicited the feature - at the urging of our friends at -- that "Grace" was born. And even once Adam and Ariescope had optioned the script, we had a hell of a time landing the dough. In the end, Adam took the project to Anchor Bay, and they loved it so much they offered to finance it. But it was a long road. Lots of footwork, and lots of faith were required....

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

PAUL: Treating people right really is the best policy. I encouraged this crew and this cast to take ownership over the project and let it be a show that reminds them why they're in this business, and then I focused on creating an environment in which everyone could do their best work and be respected and appreciated for it. That's the only way to do a movie as ambitious as this in the amount of time we had to shoot.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Kelley Baker: The Angry Filmmaker

First things first: Why are you angry?

KELLEY: I'm angry for a lot of reasons. I'm pissed that good films can't get distributors because they don't have stars. I am angry that all sorts of Hollywood 5 and 10 million dollar pictures are called "independent" when they're not. I'm angry because a lot of doors have been closed to Real Independent Filmmakers and very few filmmakers seem to care. I see filmmakers give their movies to distributors for nothing, no advance. If you don't get an advance you'll probably never see any money!

I see too many people wanting to be filmmakers for the wrong reasons, to make lots of money and to be famous. And filmmakers aren’t working together to help each other. So many independent filmmakers from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s were going to change the system, and now they are part of it. They are more interested in money and being critical darlings then fighting the system the way they once were. They have been sucked in to the system and most went down without a fight.

What's wrong with independent film today?

KELLEY: The independent film industry is no longer even remotely independent. It's been mainstreamed by Hollywood and is now simply another over-hyped product. Like commercial radio, pop music and Starbucks coffee, the industry has become a homogenized mess of conglomerates owned by a handful of extremely powerful corporations. It begs the question: Independent from what? We need to take the word "Independent" back!

Indie has become a marketing phrase. I have a tough time sitting through a ten million dollar "indie" movie. I want people to recognize that "indie" doesn't mean stars and all of that other crap. WE are Independent Filmmakers and WE make movies whether WE have a deal or not. I want to see more theaters and media art centers providing places for us to show our work, instead of just giving us lip service about how they support independent film. I am fed up with these "independent" film festivals that show all these movies with big names in them.

Real Independent Films are still being made; they just don’t have access to audiences. I always say that independent filmmaking is a live and well, it’s independent distribution that is dead. You have to play by the industry’s rules to get your film seen if you want a decent sized audience.

I opt to do things differently. Like early punk bands, we have to find our audiences and cultivate them. That’s why I spend half the year on the road touring and showing my films.

I've told filmmakers forever to never put their films on credit cards. Give me your best argument against that habit.

KELLEY: I’ll use my own experience for this one.

I spent a ton of money on my first feature, Birddog. A lot of people told me they would help me get distribution when I made my first feature. I believed them and I probably shouldn't have. I was the Sound Designer on films like Good Will Hunting, My Own Private Idaho, Far From Heaven and Finding Forrester. I had my "indie street cred" but that didn't seem to matter ultimately. I had a screening for friends in LA and everyone liked the movie, then they told me how hard it was to get a distributor and they all walked away.

No one helped. So I arranged screenings for distributors. I screened in LA, New York, Toronto and London. We also had it at the IFFM. The distributors all said the same thing, "We really like this movie but we can't distribute it because it has no famous stars in it." I told them it was an independent film and they said that was fine, but if you make an "independent" film you still need a big star in it.

Anyway, I ended up owing a ton of money to the IRS... Since all of these people had said they were going to help me find a distributor, I took all of the money I should have paid in taxes and used that to fund the film. When it didn't get picked up ... I still owed the money. It took my lawyer and I seven years of dealing with the IRS to finally get everything straightened out. Ultimately I had to sell my home of twenty years and just about everything I owned. It was hell!

I gambled and I lost. I understand that. I listened to certain people that I shouldn't have trusted. Ultimately it was my fault. I made the decisions and I paid the price. I don't want others to go through what I did.

There is no guarantee you will get a distributor, (if you want one), and most people end up paying off their movies working jobs that they hate at 30% interest.

Don’t use credit cards or go way in to debt; if you do you’ll be one of those people.

What's the smartest thing a filmmaker can do before starting their feature? What's the dumbest?

KELLEY: Spend time in pre-production! Too many filmmakers think if you’re not shooting you’re not making a movie. I spend 3 – 4 months easily in pre-production. I try to work everything out long before I start shooting. I rehearse for weeks, just like I’m doing a play. I want all of the actors to know their parts and their characters long before we start shooting.

I only write for locations I know I can get, and I don’t write scenes I know I can’t shoot, (like car chases).

I continue to write throughout this period as well. On Birddog I started pre-production with draft 11 of my script and still made changes throughout the process. On all of my films I don’t even think about shooting until I have done a ton of drafts. I have people I trust read my scripts and get lots of feedback. Your odds of making a good film increase if you have really worked the script over and over. If you have done the work to have a good script the odds get better that you’ll make a good movie. You can still make a bad movie from a good script though, this isn’t a science.

I think you just really need to take your time in pre-pro, don’t rush it. Since I never have any money, the better organized I am, the more efficiently I work and the smoother my shoots go.

As far as the dumbest, I think that is to hurry up everything so you can start shooting long before you’re ready. And using your credit cards. Using friends who aren’t actors in your films. Your friends aren’t good actors no matter what you think. Get good actors. I think there are lots of dumb things you can do if you don’t take your time.

What's the best advice you ever got about filmmaking?

KELLEY: You need to be a shameless self-promoter and self distribute your work. We always hear those bullshit lines; I make my films by any means necessary! Well why aren't you getting your films out by any means necessary? Why are you sitting on your ass waiting to see if you got in to some film festival? Why aren't you burning DVDs and selling them at screenings? Why aren't you promoting your movie on the Internet?

You gotta get the word out, and you have to do it yourself. It has to do with getting your films seen. If no one sees your movies, how are you going to build an audience? I tour, I teach and I have developed a fan base. One person at a time! Has it been easy? No. It's not supposed to be. At then end of the day all you have is your work and if no one knows about it or you, whose fault is that?

Finally, which current filmmakers (independent or otherwise) inspire you?

KELLEY: I will watch anything that John Sayles does. Same with Jim Jarmusch although I thought that Broken Flowers sucked! I like Danny Boyd’s work, Brian Johnson, Beth Harrington, John deGraff, lots of people that most people have never heard of. Janet McIntyre is a filmmaker to watch, she makes docs.

I watch lots of different types of films so I am inspired by films more than I am by filmmakers. I still try and watch lots of docs and foreign films to get a different point of view of the world.

I actually think I am more inspired by writers and musicians than I am by filmmakers. I am inspired by people who don’t give a shit what others think, they push forward and make the things that they want to make. I like things that are passionate in some way or another.

I don’t have a television, so I read more than most people and I love to visit museums. That is the way I have always been…

Did I answer the question?