Thursday, April 30, 2009

Sean Tracey on "The Jesus Guy"

What was your filmmaking background before beginning The Jesus Guy?

SEAN TRACEY: This was my first documentary. However, I have been directing TV commercials and corporate films for over 20 years. I wrote, produced, and directed an entertainment TV program before that.

How were you introduced to the subject of your film?

SEAN TRACEY: The film kind of came to me. I had read about the subject, who goes by the name, ‘What’s Your Name?,’ in a TIME magazine article. I had been involved with a company called Maysles Films in New York, where I was directing TV commercials. Albert Maysles, who owns the company, is one of the world’s most famous documentary filmmakers. I fell in love with his style of filmmaking, called Direct Cinema, and since working with Albert, I wanted to make a film in this style.

Why did you decide that this was a story worth following?

SEAN TRACEY: I had been looking for a good subject for some years, and when I first met ‘What’s Your Name?’ I realized I had found a subject that could sustain the viewers’ attention for an entire movie. That’s what made me decide to do it.

What was your editorial process like -- that is, did you know going in what the shape of the film would be, or did you find it in the editing?

SEAN TRACEY: No actually, I was still looking for an ending when I completed the first cut. I thought, most movies have an ending. People expect an ending. For instance, maybe my subject, ‘What’s Your Name?,’ would give up his mission and take a regular job. Maybe he’d become a priest or a monk. There was even some rumor of him going to see the Pope, because he was being looked into by the Vatican. I thought that could be a big ending, you know, meeting the Pope, getting recognition for what he’s done. Any of those things would have been an ending.

But at the very first public screening for The Jesus Guy, at Washington University (a wonderful program called Docs in Progress), there was an opportunity for the filmmaker to ask questions to the audience, (as opposed to the usual/opposite). That was the premise of this screening and this organization. It’s usually done before the filmmaker finishes editing. I got that opportunity. When I asked the people that were there, “Where do you want this film to go and how do you want it to end?” they said, “We don’t! We love it the way it is!”

How have subsequent audiences responded to the film?

SEAN TRACEY: From what I’ve been gathering from our screenings at film festivals, the average person who is not particularly religious sees the film as a really interesting observation of an unusual person’s life, commitment and mission. But people who are highly religious -- curious, philosophical, or on their own spiritual journeys—get even more out of it. It gets under their skin. A number of clergy have told me it made them lose sleep and seriously consider and reassess their own commitment to their faith and God. People see it on a bunch of different levels, especially if they’ve ever tried to do anything like that themselves.

What was your favorite part of the process on The Jesus Guy?

SEAN TRACEY: Both the shooting and editing were very difficult on this film. I couldn’t have a crew. It interfered with the intimacy of the encounters of people with my subject. The fact that I never knew where/how to find my subject during the years I filmed him, that he had no home, no phone, no itinerary—all made it feel impossible to do it. My favorite part, then, was having it all done, and seeing people’s stunned reactions to the film in screenings, their open mouths, especially, of course, those that involved hundreds of people on the big screen. Makes it all totally worthwhile.

What did you learn making this film that you've taken to subsequent projects?

SEAN TRACEY: I have another documentary I’m about to jump into. I’m looking for some funding for that film. My friend, Albert Maysles, has already signed on to collaborate and contribute. He has some wonderful ideas.

What I learned is that, this time, I’m not going to go it alone. I love to collaborate. I won’t work on a film with so many restrictions on size of crew and equipment, etc. I’m also in preliminary discussions on some dramatic scripts. This would be not a documentary but a scripted film for me to direct. So, I guess I also learned that I’d like to do a film with which I have more control of the outcome.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Jedrzej Jonasz on "Low Budget"

What was your filmmaking background before beginning Low Budget?

JEDRZEJ JONASZ: I studied film at Queen's University in Canada and graduated in 2000. Since then I have been working in Toronto, New York and Los Angeles on many different productions in just as many different roles. After making a few short films I started getting into long-form projects by directing the World War 2 documentary Against The Odds: Resistance in Nazi Concentration Camps.

My comedy production background came from working at a company called Trailervision ("Trailers for movies that should exist") [ ] in Toronto and directing a humorous reality series for Toronto One.

What was the inspiration for the story?

JEDRZEJ JONASZ: The style of Low Budget was inspired by the work of Christopher Guest, with films such as This Is Spinal Tap and Waiting For Guffman. But the inspiration for the story itself came from a film I co-directed in film school called Where The Change Is, which was also a mockumentary about filmmakers, but in Where The Change Is, they were making a documentary about the 1999-2000 year change as an excuse to travel across Canada for a millennium party in Vancouver.

Why did you decide to do it in a 'mockumentary' fashion?

JEDRZEJ JONASZ: The mockumentary style seemed most appropriate for this type of story where it was important to document the process the characters when through during the film. Plus, due to our inherent low budget, it is often easier to shoot a mockumentary with a smaller crew, lack of permits and basic equipment.

What obstacles did you overcome to make the film?

JEDRZEJ JONASZ: The downside to shooting a mockumentary is that you end up with a lot more footage than in a regular narrative, so this means that your post-production is much more complex and can take a lot longer. We had a lot of great footage and spent a month just going through it and seeing how it would alter and shape our story.

Fortunately, with such ubiquitous access to editing systems, like Final Cut Pro (which is what we used), you can take a lot more time with editing and not rack up a huge bill... as long as you have financially flexible editors :)

How have audiences responded to the film?

JEDRZEJ JONASZ: Low Budget is clearly a film industry insider movie and the audiences that have enjoyed it the most are filmmakers, film students, actors, artists and film enthusiasts. It's strikes a particular chord with those audiences as they can easily relate to what drives Jason and Jaye, even if they are caricatures.

Traditionally, film industry movies do not appeal to a mass audience and if popular, develop more of a cult following. This is why we have decided to pursue this method of online self-distribution where we can much more specifically target our core audience. That said, there has been a great response to the film from 'regular' audiences when screened in large groups. For some reason, non-film individuals can watch the film by themselves and not really be that into it, and then watch it again with a crowd and love it.

What was your favorite part of the process on Low Budget?

JEDRZEJ JONASZ: The on-set production was my favorite part of the process. As the actors did a lot of improv on set, everyday was filled with constant laughter from the cast and crew. And because the script and production process was very flexible and we didn't have to answer to any studio execs, we had an enormous amount of creative freedom to experiment and take advantage of real-life situations around us.

What did you learn making this film that you'll take to subsequent projects?

JEDRZEJ JONASZ: Well, I guess the two main things I learned during Low Budget are somewhat contradictory. On one side we would have benefited from spending more time on the script in pre-production and working out some weak story issues before we went on set.

On the other side, we found that allowing the actors to improv and be spontaneous was invaluable and added elements to the story we could have never come up with ourselves. I guess a good balance of those two ideas is what I will be aiming for in my next projects.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Carol Littleton on "Body Heat"

Back when I taught screenwriting, in order to help demystify the screenwriting process, I would have students read along with the script for Body Heat while we watched the movie.

CAROL LITTLETON: Did you work from the shooting script?

Well, that's the crux of my question. I got the shooting script and in order to make it match the finished movie, I had to tear it apart and literally cut and paste it back together.

CAROL LITTLETON: Well, that's what editing is. If all we had to do is follow the script, it would be very easy. It would be like a dress pattern; you lay the pattern down on the table and you pin it against the material and you just cut along the lines. If that's what film editing is, then everybody could do it.

As editors, we're given the pattern -- which is the script -- and then we make a movie out of it. And in Body Heat, you saw exactly what we did. We changed the structure, we dropped a lot of stuff.

What was the process of finding that movie?

CAROL LITTLETON: It was like any movie. The routine for us, those of us who work on Hollywood films, is that we start cutting when they start shooting. In this particular case, Larry (Kasdan) wanted me to be involved early on. I went to rehearsals.

He felt, and I think it's one of the smartest ideas going for a director, if you can get all the people together, even just to read through the script and discuss the script before you start shooting, then everybody knows what his intent is from the beginning.

So if I'm there in the rehearsals, I know the direction of the scenes, what would be ideal for those scenes: where the emphasis is, how the humor plays out, all the different values in the scene. I can get an idea of that in rehearsal. So I sat there and took little notes for myself about choices that were being made in rehearsal and how to look for them when the footage would come in.

We start from the beginning. If it's not rehearsals, then it's day one. We're putting the film together, out of sequence -- in shooting sequence -- and we're revising as we get big blocks. We look at those big blocks another one once all the material comes in.

A week or so after they've finished shooting, we have a film that represents the script. Every scene is in. Everything they shot is there. And we sit down and look at it.

In the case of Body Heat we took it to a screening room and looked at it with no interruptions. And then we said, "Well, we have a lot of work to do."

All of the things that the script had were not in the film at that point. It wasn't suspenseful enough -- it was suspenseful, but not enough. The humor was not as funny as it should be. The characters were not as clear as they could be. It was too -- I don't want to say pornographic -- but it was not suggestive enough as a sexy movie. It needed to be more erotic and less specific, less obvious. And in too many scenes, things were revealed literally too soon for them to be erotic (from my point of view). I think things are erotic when they're suggestive and indirect. Eroticism is not just showing a naked body; it has to have a certain amount of romance as well.

We had some problems and that's where we started. We just said, "Well ... let's start." Larry saw the problems as well as I did, it wasn't a one-way street. And we sat down and literally collaborated.

The pictures I've done with Larry have been the best, from the standpoint of collaboration. I really respect him as a writer, he's a fabulous writer. He's a wonderful director. He's an extraordinary person, very humane, very kind, very gentle. We just have a very good working relationship.

We experimented a lot, because you don't know the 'how.' You know 'what' needs to be done, but the editing process really is discovering how to do it the best way. When I'm working on a film -- every film -- we will have screenings and people feel that they have to tell you what's wrong with the movie and how to fix it. I never listen to how to fix it; I only listen to what they perceive the problem to be. They aren't editors and they don't know what the footage is, they're not inside the process at all.

I could drive your car around the block and say, "You know, it's riding kind of rough and I think you just need to take the engine out and put a new one in." And all it really needs is a spark plug. So that's how I listen to people's comments at screenings; they are utterly worthless to me, unless they just say, "I didn't like that moment and I didn't get it -- it wasn't clear to me." That's helpful.

But to come to me, or to Larry, or to any director for that matter, and say "I think you ought to move this scene forward and that scene back," how would they even know how to say that? Producers today think they can do that, and I can tell you there's only one producer I've worked with who knows the process as well or better than I do, and he's phenomenal, and that's Scott Rudin. But he's an old pro and he knows to let the creative team figure it out.

How long did it take to edit Body Heat?

CAROL LITTLETON: I think we worked in editorial -- apart from the time that I worked while they were shooting, which was about three months -- I think Larry had ten weeks for his director's cut. We looked at it again, then took it up for George Lucas to see. George was the Executive Producer, although he did not take a screen credit. We took it up to Skywalker to show it to him about ten or eleven weeks after. We talked about it. We had a few little pick-ups to do, one day I think, and a couple of inserts.

And then we had another couple of months of revisions, so that would have put us at 18 weeks of post. Then, in those days, you mixed it, cut the negative, had an answer print and previewed the film at that point.

In our case, we had two previews after we mixed it and before we cut the negative. We had one in San Jose and then in Seattle. Then we finished the movie. So that would have been 22 to 24 weeks of post. It's not too little or too much. It's about what it takes to do a film.

Editing a film is not about speed. It's about thinking about it long enough and trying things. It's as though a writer takes yet another version of his script and does a huge re-write. You have to figure out new ways of solving problems.

So it's really just a re-write. That's what editing is -- the final re-write.

It was really funny, when we were doing E.T., which of course had a lot of changes and a lot of stuff that we did. I remember one day Steven (Spielberg) said, "You know, what we're doing is we're actually making the movie here in the editing room." He would always say funny, obvious things like that.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Sharat Raju on "American Made"

What was your filmmaking background before beginning American Made?

SHARAT: American Made was my Masters thesis film at the American Film Institute. So, at AFI, I had made four short films prior to that. Immediately before enrolling at AFI, I was a casting assistant for the late Mali Finn, one of the all-time greatest casting directors. I worked for her on The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions, 8 Mile, High Crimes and Gideon’s Crossing on ABC. Before moving to LA, I did some work as a freelance production assistant in Chicago, my hometown. I also wrote and directed a handful of student projects at the University of Michigan.

But American Made was really the first film I’ve taken out into to the world.

What was the inspiration for the story?

SHARAT: My inspiration was to not get kicked out of film school. No, just kidding...

So, I wrote this in the summer of 2002. At that time there was a lot of talk by the government about being careful of anything "suspicious" or "un-American." It was about 8 or 9 months since Sept. 11, 2001, and there was a lot of fear and this sort of talk going around. People like my parents, who had been in the US longer than they had been in India, felt the need to have an American flag, just to be safe – even though this is their home country for the last 30 years. So I thought, what does that mean – “Un-American”? What would that look like?

I was driving in the desert north of Los Angeles and I saw a stranded car on the side of the road and started to think – does a stranded car look suspicious? What if there was a hitchhiker, wouldn’t that be suspicious? What if the person wasn't white, or was Indian or wore a turban -- does that make them "un-American" because they don't fit within the traditional definition? What if it was a family stranded, would any one stop and help them? 

So this was sort of a starting point and I just kicked around the idea and used it as the backdrop for the story. It evolved into an exploration of it means to be American, especially then. And even that takes a back seat to what's more important -- focusing on the relationship between the father and the son, between assimilation and cultural identity, about holding onto a belief versus trying to blend in. The intersection of that is what interested me. To me, America is a place that allows for this expression of self, not a suppression of what you feel is your identity. But in the face of danger, what would you be forced to sacrifice?

What obstacles did you overcome to make the film?

SHARAT: The usual filmmaking obstacles – money and trying to prove you know what your are doing. AFI gives some money, but we wanted to shoot on film and we needed to be in the Mojave Desert for a week to make this happen. So we had to raise money, which we did, fortunately, from friends and family. 

AFI runs itself less like a school and more like a studio. So we had to prove to AFI we had to go so far away to shoot, and get a special exemption to do so because they don’t allow it as a matter of policy. We had to go to each department and prove to them that we knew what we were doing and had a rationale for going so far outside of LA, where we’d be in trouble if something went wrong on set. 

To prove we knew what we were doing, my cinematographer, producer, and I went out to the location and shot the entire script with stand ins (including me) on a video camera, edited it together, and showed professors and administrators that the only way to make the script believable was to shoot at this spot. They were convinced, thank God, and let us do it the way we needed to do it. Then we actually had to make the film. Which, actually, was the least difficult part, in retrospect. The cast was great, the crew was great – it all came together.

How have audiences responded to the film?

SHARAT: I think the most telling response to this question is the fact that I’m now answering this question nearly six years after we released it. 

It has continued to endure and continues to entertain, even as I work on other projects and evolve (hopefully) as a filmmaker. More than 2 million people have seen it around the world, it still airs on PBS’s “Independent Lens,” and it won 17 awards at festivals and the like. It’s being used by teachers in junior high and high schools, graduate film students study it, and even a police department in Texas is using it for cultural training and community outreach. 

It boggles my mind. A professional studio film that does this is really quite remarkable. The fact that this was a Masters thesis film really defies logic. Honestly, it doesn’t really compute in my head – it just seems like they’re talking about a different film. I’m not trying to be false modest, but it really does not seem like they are talking about the film I slaved over for all that time six years ago, just happy to have it in the can and properly exposed. But the acclaim and the reception are an honor and humbling, and I’m just happy that it’s able to do what it has. I simply wanted to tell a memorable story. I’m glad it’s moved many people this way.

What was your favorite part of the process on American Made?

SHARAT: After our last day of filming, I became quite sad. I wanted to keep working. I felt like I was just getting warmed up. And that’s a testament to my incredible production team – my producer Marcus Cano and cinematographer Matthew Blute. It was a professional set – I only had to worry about where to put the camera and how to get a performance from my actors. It was invigorating. Frequently on a poorly run production or a low-budget operation, you have to worry about other things, like getting kicked out of a location or will we have lunch today or not. But, because of my crew and the incredible cast, it was more joyous an experience making a film and spending a week in the desert than you can imagine.

What did you learn making this film that you've taken to subsequent projects?

SHARAT: Good question. It certainly has set my expectations high, both creatively and practically. But I really learned, even more so, the value of having a great cast. With a great cast, you can get away with a lot. The story, of course, is the most important. But really you’re watching a movie for the actors, to watch their lives play out on screen. I knew that as a casting assistant, but I really learned it in a tangible way as a director.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Neal Israel on "Tunnelvision"

Where did the idea for Tunnelvision come from?

NEAL ISRAEL: The idea for Tunnelvision came from my job.

I was the head of on air advertising at a television network in LA. This was when there were only three networks, of course. I had to come up with ways to make people watch TV.

I watched hours and hours of shows. At one point I wondered what network TV would be like in the future. How would they get people to keep watching?

So I came up with a network in the future where they would stop at nothing to get an audience. I pretty much predicted Fox, cable and every other edgy type show that we have today.

What barriers did you have to overcome to get the movie made?

NEAL ISRAEL: No one would give me money to make a film like this. So I mortgaged some property I had and some of my friends and employees helped. Also we were able to use some of the editing rooms at the network at night.

When it was all done, no one would buy it. We finally got a company that distributed pornos to take it on. The film open at Filmex (a forerunner to the LA film festival) and got a huge response.

By this time I had been fired from the network when they found out I was making a movie satirizing them on their time.