Thursday, December 17, 2009

Matthew Osterman on “Phasma Ex Machina”

What was your filmmaking background before you made Phasma Ex Machina?

MATT: I come from a very small town in the Midwest, so filmmaking seemed like such a distant and unchartered career path. It wasn’t until I moved away to college that I discovered my passion for storytelling and soon thereafter the impossible option became the inevitable one. After writing a bunch of bad scripts, I began directing a handful of bad shorts. This was my film school.

Eventually, through a somewhat circuitous path, I helped produce a documentary that had the distinction of being executive produced by Jon Stewart. That experience really gave me the confidence and credibility that I could build a feature from the ground up.

Where did the idea come from?

MATT: I’ve always been keenly interested in both science and the supernatural, so actual supernatural science didn’t seem like a big stretch to explore. I also came across a true story about Thomas Edison and how he had tried to build a real device to communicate with the dead. It was near the end of his life, so we’re not really sure if he was losing his marbles or if he was actually onto something, but his machine is now relegated to myth and history. I thought it would be fun to dust off Mr. Edison’s old idea and give it a run.

The ghost and the sci-fi aspects of the film are incredibly intriguing to me, but it was my number one priority to make sure I had complex believable characters and a story that kept you interested.

What was the writing process like?

MATT: I love writing and it was helpful that I was passionate about the story, but to do it right you really have to put a ton of time into it. Having a 9-5 and finding the energy to be creative was a constant struggle. I’m not sure how many drafts I went through, but it was a good two years of writing and re-writing right up until principal photography started. Then, of course, we kept it loose on set and would change lines or improvise. I also edited the film, which is where a ton of writing actually takes place. I learned firsthand that good editors don’t get enough credit in terms of their contributions to overall story.

How did you fund the film?

MATT: We passed the hat and also found a few brave souls to invest. My producer, Jennifer Kramer, really hit the pavement and turned over every stone. We were really smart about how we spent our money, so I’m very pleased with what were able to accomplish with our budget.

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

MATT: We used the Panasonic HPX-500. It worked great for us because it had everything we needed within our budget range. Big chips, nice lenses, cheap storage, etc. I think my DP Adam Honzl, could make any camera image look great, but he pulled out some stunning stuff with this. We also used the HVX-200 for some additional stuff, but there wasn’t a huge difference in quality for us.

How did you find your crew?

MATT: The Twin Cities has a really amazing production community so it wasn’t really hard to find talented people. The trick for us, however, was finding the right crew before they got too experienced and thus expensive. This means hiring younger folks who don’t have the demands (money, family, etc) that someone twice their age might. Everybody wants to work on cool feature films, so we were just honest with people regarding expectations and strategy.

How long did it take you to post the movie and how did it change during the editing process?

MATT: Post-production took about a year. I was editing on nights and weekends, so speed was certainly sacrificed, but I learned that taking your time and occasionally finding some aesthetic distance is totally in the best interest of the movie. I had a good rough cut after three months, but really worked with it until I couldn’t take it any further.

The difference between the first rough cut and finished cut is simultaneously huge and minor. It’s still the same movie with the same scenes and shots, but the details are all polished and much more well developed. My co-producer, Jon Thomas, came onboard after principal was finished and really was able to view the movie with a critical and unbiased eye. Finding creative people willing to give you honest an opinion is absolutely the best decision a filmmaker can make – especially when the writer/director is also the editor.

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

MATT: I learned so much it’s hard to even know where to begin. The first obvious couple that come to mind are: always treat everyone with respect and honesty, embrace collaboration/don’t do everything yourself, keep the set fun, try to hire a good lawyer right away, keep good books, stay true to your vision at all times, a high-concept idea makes your job easier, and take all the time you need to get it right.

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