Thursday, October 29, 2009

Antonio Campos on “Afterschool”

What was your filmmaking background before you made Afterschool?

ANTONIO: I've been making short films since I was about 13. I attended the New York Film Academy when I was 13, but had to lie about my age to be in the program since they didn't have a teen program. I made my first shorts there and then continued to make shorts all through high school. Eventually, I went to NYU for film where I made a short Buy It Now, which was made with a tiny crew on video for no money. That short ended up winning the First Prize in the Cinefondation at Cannes, which ultimately helped open a lot of doors and create a lot of opportunities. After that I made one more short, The Last 15, which was in Official Competition at Cannes in 2007.

Where did the idea for Afterschool come from?

ANTONIO: The seed for the idea came sometime after my last year in high school. That year started off with 9/11 and one of my best friends lost his father that day, and it ended with a close friend of mine dying in a freak accident while traveling through Europe. I really didn't know how to process or deal with these deaths-- I felt very connected and disconnected at the same time.

I had this idea of a boy witnessing the death of two girls by drug overdose. The girls were kids he had seen in the hallways but never had spoken to or been really close to until they died in front of him. Then over the years and through my Residence in the Cannes Residence program, I developed the idea into what the film became.

What was the writing process like?

ANTONIO: It was long. There was a long period of a lot of note taking and brainstorming. When the chance to apply to the Cannes Residence came up, I wrote a formal treatment. I made the top 12 and was flown out to Paris for the interview, but was ultimately rejected.

I went back and reworked the treatment and resubmitted. I was accepted the following year, and it was really while I was in Paris writing that the whole thing came together. It was there that the idea that the boy would be in a video class came to me, and once I had that, it all came together.

How did you fund the film?

ANTONIO: It was all funded privately, through people my producers, Josh Mond and Sean Durkin, had met and discussed the project with over the years. Our budget was relatively low, but it was still more money than any of us had tried to raise before. There were enough people who believed in us and the project who were willing to take a risk on it. Also, we were able to actually shoot the film on 35 anamorphic because my producers were able to get such good deals from the vendors.

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

ANTONIO: We shot 35mm on an Arri 535 with anamorphic lenses from Joe Dunton. It was a good camera for the shoot since there wasn't a lot of handheld and a lot of static shots, and the lenses for the most part were great.

With anamorphic, you're always going to have vignetting and focus issues on some lenses. We figured out what problems there were with which lenses and then were just always conscious of that as we were shooting, only using them we had to. Some of it we were able to correct in post.

How did you find your crew?

ANTONIO: Everyone on the film for the most part had gone to NYU with me and my producers. And those who didn't go to NYU were people that we had worked with on other projects. It was really comfortable, friendly, and safe environment for me as a director since I had already established a rapport and friendship with almost everyone on the set before we started. As a director, it's the greatest feeling when everyone around you seems to be as committed and excited about the film you are trying to make as you are, and I felt that way about my crew every day.

What are the advantages (and disadvantages) of being your own editor?

ANTONIO: I felt that I knew how I wanted the film to play, and I knew the film better than anyone else that it didn't seem right, especially on my first feature, to not edit myself. Also, I'm not someone who becomes married to anything. I always see myself as a slave to the film; whatever's right for the film is what I'm going to try and do.

That said, there are disadvantages.

Eventually, because you have been with the film for so long, it is hard to distance yourself enough to have any sort of emotional response to it. It all becomes a bit too intellectual, which I don't like. Also, I was handling a lot of things that an assistant editor would normally deal with, like syncing and prepping the film for the negative cut. These things just become tedious, and in terms of dealing with prepping the film for a negative cut or whatever you're going to end up on, it's difficult because it just forces to spend more time in front of the timeline. Not making changes becomes a challenge because there's always something you feel like you can play with a bit more. My negative cutter was definitely not happy with me

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

ANTONIO: There's so much you learn from just making a film, a lot of it isn't even anything you recognize consciously. I feel like anything you do behind or in front of the camera is beneficial and forces you to hone a certain tool or try and learn something knew about yourself and your process.

I like preparing as much as possible, and did so on Afterschool, but I would love to be able to do more tests with stocks and lenses beforehand. To really know the quirks of every lens and the different looks you can achieve with each stock and each process available in the developing and printing. We were able to do this to a certain extent, but just couldn't afford to do as much as my DP or I would have liked.

"Afterschool" is available On Demand. Check your local listings.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Sean Baker on "Take Out"

What was your filmmaking background before you made Take Out?

SEAN: I went to NYU and got my bachelors in Film & TV studies. Shortly after graduating, I made a film called Four Letter Words. I raised the money to make it on 35mm by luckily landing a few commercial gigs for a toy manufacturer. It is a look at college age suburban males. I know that sounds trite but my goal at the time (1995) was to tackle the subject in a different way than other films had. I felt that most films went for flat out comedy when covering this topic. I wanted to focus on the realism; drawn out conversation, the awkward moments, etc.

I lost my way in the post-production and it took four long years to find the right cut. Matt Dentler and Bryan Poyser at SXSW championed the film and it made its premiere there in 2000. Vanguard Cinema put in out on DVD shortly after. I'm quite aware of the faults of the film but I'm still glad I made it. I feel I had to get that film out of my system before exploring other subjects.

During post-production on Four Letter Words, a public-access show that I co-created, called Junktape, got picked up by IFC and renamed Greg the Bunny. Greg the Bunny has had several incarnations over the years, going to Fox and then back to IFC. We are currently embarking on a whole new incarnation (but I can't go in to detail on that in fear of jinxing it.)

I met Shih-Ching in 1999 at the New School where she was getting her Masters in Media Studies. We decided to make Take Out in the summer of 2003.

Where did the idea come from?

SEAN: Shih-Ching and I were living above a Chinese restaurant. We watched the deliverymen coming and going all day and wondered about how NYC looked through their eyes. Shih-ching began conversing with them and we soon realized that there was an important story to be told about the daily struggle of one of these individuals.

What was your process for co-writing the script?

SEAN: Shih-Ching and I wrote the script together in English. She then translated the dialogue to Mandarin. We referred to both scripts while shooting. I could follow the actors line by line so both Shih-Ching and I could judge the actor's delivery and the scene's pacing.

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

SEAN: We were barely paying rent at the time so we paid for things in piecemeal. I was doing freelance editing and Shih-Ching was a freelance graphic artist. As checks came in, we paid out. We learned that it's still possible to beg, borrow and steal.

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

SEAN: We used the Sony PD-150 which was the standard SD miniDV camera being used at that time for indie films. It was an amazing camera for light sensitivity. Besides not being HD, the drawback was that it did not have a 24p mode. So I had to de-interlace the video footage in order to give it a more filmic look.

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

SEAN: First and foremost, Take Out caused me to fall in love with shooting urban-based dramatic realism. It was the catalyst for my follow-up film Prince of Broadway.

Take Out forced us to improvise as filmmakers and accept limitations as blessings. Instead of fearing the unknown, we were excited by it and welcomed it. This led to countless 'happy accidents' that we are so grateful for.

This attitude of accepting chaos with open arms is something that I brought to Prince and will continue to take to other projects no matter how large of a production it may be.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Marc Fienberg on "Play the Game"

What was your filmmaking background before you made Play the Game?

MARC: Almost none! For some strange reason, I enrolled in business school instead of film school, and got my MBA from Northwestern. I had made a few short films beforehand, but besides that, I came to Play The Game on the first day of shooting with very little experience, but lots and lots of preparation.

I was meticulous in preparing, having storyboarded almost the whole film, and shot-listed every single shot in the whole film. It definitely paid off, and I think things went much easier on set because of all the preparation.

Where did the idea come from?

MARC: Play The Game is about a young ladies' man who teaches all his dating tricks to his lonely, widowed grandfather. It was inspired by my own grandfather, who started dating again when he was 89 year-old, and came to me for advice. Admittedly, I was a little bit uncomfortable hearing all the details of his love life at first, but I quickly learned how nice and endearing it was to see an 89 year-old man go through all the same emotions in dating as a school kid.

So I helped him out by teaching him my 5 sure-fire dating tricks that my friends and I developed, and sure enough, I learned a lot from him as well. It was two bachelors out on the town, one in his twenties, and one in his eighties.

What was your process for writing the script?

MARC: I outlined extensively before writing a single word, and when constructing the story, I construct it backwards, starting with the ending. For me, story is the most important element, and what that means is that the ending needs to be great. It's hard to write a romantic comedy that surprised people, and indeed, I think in Play The Game the audience is satisfied and happy because the characters they want to end up together in the end actually do get together in the end, but they're also very surprised by the last few minutes of the film in the way it all happens. That is why I think the film is getting all the attention it's getting. Aside from the controversial sex scene with Andy Griffith that is...

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

MARC: No, I wrote it just trying to write the best, most intriguing, most entertaining story possible, without any thought as to who was going to direct it. The goal was just to make sure that whoever read the script was taken on a fantastic, funny, and clever ride.

How much trouble was it to hang on to the script and be the director?

MARC: With regard to being the director, I went through a similar process with almost every investor that came on board. Everybody thought I had a wonderful script, but each person was eager to have me find a director with more experience. Then, as they got to know me, see my short films, and get to know me professionally, every single one of them reversed course and supported me as their first choice of director. They quickly realized in talking to me that there was nobody who was going to be more passionate, more prepared, and more in tune with the characters and story than me.

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

MARC: I could write a book on what I learned from my first film. Probably the most important thing I learned was that the old saying in Hollywood is true: 90% of good directing is good casting.

Having legends like Andy Griffith, Doris Roberts, and Liz Sheridan, not to mention fantastic younger actors like Paul Campbell and Marla Sokoloff, made it very easy to direct. The more I just stood out of their way and let them do their thing, the better performances I got.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Marc Clebanoff on "The Pink Conspiracy"

What was your filmmaking background before you made the film?

MARC: THE PINK CONSPIRACY was my second feature film that I produced. I had made another small film, an arthouse drama called UNSPOKEN, that starred Justin Allen & William Sadler. I had attended film school at USC from 1998-2002 as well but my actual hands on production experience was pretty limited. I had had pretty extensive experience as an independent filmmaking consultant and line producer though and had worked closely developing projects with some prominent people like Michael Madsen & cult filmmaker Larry Bishop. I had also worked several years of feature development at Neil Labute's company, Pretty Pictures.

Where did the idea come from to make The Pink Conspiracy?

MARC: PINK was based on a short film I made my senior year of college. The original short film, titled "Conspiracy" is on the special features of the DVD. The idea of a guy being terrorized by all of the women and ex girlfriends in his life came from a joke between myself and a former girlfriend. Every time she did something that annoyed me I would joke that she was the leader of the conspiracy and that they probably got together and had meetings to plot against me. People thought the short film was a really funny idea so my co-writer and I decided to develop it into a full feature film.

What was the process for writing the script? How did you two share duties?

MARC: Obviously the general story came from my short film, which consisted simply of the main character stumbling upon a meeting of all of his ex girlfriends who were plotting to destroy his life. My co-writer Brian Scott Miller and I started with that concept and then fleshed out a story arc that exploited a lot of the actors and locations that we already had access to. We knew when we sat down to write it what our budget was going to be so we were very conscious of writing it in a way that was condusive to the elements at our disposal.

We spent a lot of time in a bar in Sherman Oaks called Pineapple Hill brainstorming and outlining the actual script. We wrote a lot of the sequences individually then went through them together to polish them up. At the end of the day, however, most of the film we can't decipher which one of us wrote what. It was a very fun and extremely balanced collaborative effort.

How did you fund the film?

MARC: Painfully. We had an investor who was going to give us a much larger sum for a different film. Unfortunately this individual took a huge hit from Hurricane Katrina and had to take a step back. We had some seed money from another source so we took that seed money and tripled it by means of 4 other individuals, all of whom we already knew personally - mostly friends.

What are the advantages of co-directing? Any disadvantages?

MARC: The advantages of co-directing is that like writing the script, you get to bounce ideas off of each other and take the best from both. The disadvantages are that occasionally you disagree about the way something should be done.

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

MARC: The biggest physical obstacle was that we shot during an absolutely vicious heatwave in LA. That definitely did not make for an enjoyable shoot. Other than that it was all of the obstacles you encounter working on a low budget: finding locations on the cheap, sometimes stealing locations, making our days, delivering for distribution, etc.

What did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?

MARC: The biggest lesson I learned from producing THE PINK CONSPIRACY was how to structure your film in a way that's condusive to selling it. Now having produced and directed 4 of my own features, I've learned that buyers tend to only watch the first 10 minutes of a film. Therefore, make sure you have the most marketable elements in the first ten minutes. If it's an action film, make sure there's some great action. If it's comedy, make sure you kick off with something hilarious. Put your biggest names in the film early on. This also requires that you consider this during the writing process as well.

I've also learned that promotion is the key to success. You can have a great film, but if the public isn't aware it exists, it won't do business. Good Key Art is crucial as well. We had to do a photo shoot (out of pocket) because we didn't have good enough images from the set to create a decent cover. Cover art can make or break an independent film.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Phil Hawkins on "The Butterfly Tattoo"

What was your filmmaking background before you made The Butterfly Tattoo?

PHIL: I've always thought that I was one of those very lucky people who always knew what I wanted to do so I was able to get an early headstart. I made my first short film when I was 13 in high school. It wasn't very good, but with no formal education course available to me it was the start of teaching myself the filmmaking ropes. I made a lot of short films and took part in a lot of those 48-hour film challenges. I won a couple too. It was the best "film school" I could possibly have. Watching films, trying to make and write films myself. I was hooked.

When I was 17, I gained a place on the BBC's Mentor Project where every week I would work in the BBC on various different programmes. I managed to get £1000 from them to make a rather ambitious short film. It was brilliant finally having a bit of a budget to try and translate what was in my head to the screen. I made a short called The Dotted Line which got me noticed by a commercials production company.

So, I fell into commercials. I never thought - when I started out filmmaking - that I'd ever direct adverts but it was totally beneficial. I can see now why a lot of great directors come from (and still are) in advertising. It really refines your eye because every second counts in a 30 second piece of film. The money isn't bad too - it allowed me to continue to make more and more narrative short films.

It took a little while to get that first commercial though. In the few years building up to my first professional gig as a director I worked from the ground up. I was a runner, VT operator, camera assistant, 3rd AD, 2nd AD and I was 1st AD on commercials for a while too. This experience was invaluable. There's nothing better than earning a crew's respect than working up yourself. People who fall into directing straight away always seem to be missing something. After all, as director, how are you supposed to get the best from your technicians and team if you don't have a clue what they do?

My other bit of advice for anyone wanting to get into directing is to act! You don't have to be very good at it (or even enjoy it particularly) but it'll give you an invaluable insight into the way actors think. It will make you a better director. I've acted in quite a few plays in the past and I quite enjoyed it. Whether I was any good or not was another question but the experience was invaluable! Actors respect me on set more knowing I've acted and can talk to them like an actor than someone who just hides behind a monitor afraid of the very people who are going to make or break your film. It's amazing how many directors I've seen who can't direct actors!

My first feature film - The Women of Troy - came about when my former college got in touch with the idea to make a feature film adaptation of a classic Greek play by Euripides, The Trojan Women. They had a pot of money from the government for being one of the best drama colleges in the country and were asked to use it to educate other colleges.

With Euripides and The Women of Troy -- something every drama student had to study -- there wasn't much material around in order for people to get to grips with the difficult language and text. After all, if you're studying Shakespeare you can always watch one of the many films that exist to understand the story. With The Women Of Troy there was only one film from the 70's available... so we decided to make one. Shot on DV over a crazy schedule of just four days, the film went to DVD and sold like hotcakes to schools, colleges, universities across the globe. It also went onto win Best Director at the New York Independent Film and Video festival in 2006, which was amazing. I didn't even think I'd get into the festival, let alone win anything!

What was the best thing you learned from your experience being part of On the Lot?

PHIL: Ah, On the Lot. What a surreal and bizarre experience that was.

You know, before I got on the show I never thought I'd end up as one of those people on a reality television show, but when Steven Spielberg calls, you're not going to turn it down are you?

I think the best thing I learnt was more of a personal lesson. Being on the show made me realise how much I really did know about filmmaking. Yes, I'd made a low budget feature and short films, but under the very extreme time constraints in this bizarre environment I was able to hold my own - much better than most of the other contestants.

The problem was, being good was to be my downfall. I didn't argue with the other filmmakers, I respected them. I didn't show pressure or stress because I believe the director should always be cool under pressure. That didn't make great reality television so I didn't get a massive about a screen time in order for the audience to know who I was and vote for me. I was also the only filmmaker from the UK on the show and with it not airing in my country I didn't have an automatic fan base of friends and family to vote for me.

I did, however, make some great friends on the show. There were some very talented filmmakers on that show and people who will go onto make great things. It's also an experience to tell the grandkids!

How did you get involved with The Butterfly Tattoo?

PHIL: I was approached by the producers who asked to see a copy of my showreel through my website ( - another tool invaluable to the director!) but they were initially very cryptic about what the project was about.

I get a lot of requests for showreels through the website and sometimes it's difficult to figure out which ones could genuinely lead to jobs. They were being secretive about the actual project because they were still in the process of getting the author to sign the contracts and gain the rights to make the film.

After they had seen my showreel and really enjoyed it, one of the producers - Rik Visser of Dynamic Entertainment - sent me an email telling me that it was a film adaptation of a book and "have I heard of Philip Pullman"?

Instantly I thought 'WOW, I'm directing The Golden Compass!' but it turned out to be one of his earlier books The Butterfly Tattoo (also called The White Mercedes). I bought it, read it and LOVED it! It was perfect for me. It had elements of romance, drama, thriller, action all in a great Shakespearean-esq story inspired by Romeo and Juliet. It was the perfect film for me to make to show off what I could do with a bigger budget and really make a film that was very me. That's not supposed to sound selfish, every director needs to put themselves into a movie, to give it their emotional and intellectual spin - to give it a heart. I knew if I got the gig that it would be the start of my feature film career.

I think they were also looking at a few other directors, so the producers asked me to write a short treatment detailed how I thought the script should be developed and the type of film I wanted to make from the book. After all, we were starting from scratch. A script hadn't even been written yet.

Well, I became inspired and obsessed. I wrote a master document of how I thought the story should be developed, images, film references, mood boards - everything I could think of to get all my thoughts down onto paper. It ended up being about 50 pages! I think they were really wowed by it and my passion for the story and the characters and, luckily, we were all - excuse the pun - on the same page with the movie that we wanted to make. The document became what we called 'draft zero' and we used it throughout pre-production in order to hire the screenwriter - the excellent, first time script writer Stephen Potts - develop the script and other elements.

How involved were you in getting the rights from author Philip Pullman?

PHIL: Getting the rights from Philip and his publishers was actually taking place while I was just coming on board. I can't take any credit for this, it was all the producer's hard work. Rik Visser had the idea to make a film version of The Butterfly Tattoo years before I was ever involved.

The rights were gained after the producers pitched a very education-friendly way of making the film which appealed to Pullman. The film was to introduce people to the world of filmmaking and give new talent the platform to show what they could do. Lead by professional heads of departments, the majority of the crew were trainees or people wanting the chance to 'step up' within the industry and none of these people were just making tea. They had a massive amount of responsibility and a very steep learning curve but they were all brilliant. The cast too.

All of the actors in the film, especially leads Duncan Stuart and Jessica Blake, hadn't had the opportunity to play such big roles in a feature film before. Even though they were newcomers (I really don't like the term "unknowns") they really pulled off some emotionally difficult roles.

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

PHIL: The film was financed in quite an interesting way. Basically anyone with €50 could become an investor and buy a share in the film. It was all funded through the Internet. The producers thought up this clever way of funding the film and, having great business heads, came up with all the paperwork and shares systems to back it up.

Amazingly though, we got all the money in just two days of the site going live. The Financial Times ran a small front page article about the film and the funding process, which really attracted a lot of companies and individuals to invest in the film.

There's a lot more detail about the funding process on the website where any interested filmmakers can download the investment prospectus ( - click on tbt project) and find out more. I was very much busy with the creative elements of the film so didn't really get involved with the funding process.

You wore a couple of hats on the film -- director and editor. What's the benefit of doing that? The downside?

PHIL: I'm quite the perfectionist and, for good or bad, it's really difficult for me to let go!

On all of my previous short films, music videos and even a lot of my commercials I was the main editor so it seemed like a natural progression. I also cut The Women of Troy (also because we didn't have a budget for an editor!).

I really enjoy the editing process and getting my hands dirty with the rushes. I love playing around with performances, sequences and structure in the edit... it really makes the film. I also never shoot coverage when I direct. Although my eyes are open to different interpretations and ideas when I'm on set, my storyboards are very detailed. Having that editor mindset from all of my other films it means I never shoot anything I know I'm not going to use. It speeds things up on set and allows time for the shots I know I definitely will use.

The editing process for me is the final piece of that puzzle, so to speak. I'm fitting the sequences together that I've already edited together in my head when I was storyboarding.

That said, I learnt a lot from editing The Butterfly Tattoo. I had a very talented editor - Daniel Greenway - piecing together a rough cut of the film while I was shooting and he came up with some great ideas that still remain in the cut today. These are ideas I never would have thought of because I was so close to the way in which I'd shot the scene for it to be cut.

Even though I didn't shoot coverage, Daniel managed to play around with rushes in order to come up with a new interpretation. I think, however objective you are as a director/editor, your relationship with the material having planned and shot it is always going to be a close one. I think I'm good at taking off that 'director hat' and putting on the 'editing hat' to make the right decisions for the story and not for the filmmaker but seeing what Daniel did opened my eyes to working with editors and allowing new interpretation in the editing stage. It'll be a frustrating experience on my next feature but I think I'll get used to it for the benefit of the film.

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

PHIL: I know I'm a better filmmaker in many ways from making The Butterfly Tattoo. I think every director should learn something from the films that they make. I'm constantly learning. That's what I love about this job. The day I make a film and step back from it thinking I can't do any better is the day to quit.

The Butterfly Tattoo was a challenge for me but not one that I was anxious about. I was more excited about the prospect of finally having the chance to show what I could do and make my mark as a feature film director. I think what I mentioned about working with editors was something which I'm definitely going to take onboard for my next film.

I think I also proved that persistence does eventually pay off! I really pushed to make this film as cinematic as possible even on its modest budget and put every penny on screen. I think it worked and looks a lot more expensive than it was! The film went onto win x2 Best Film awards, Best Adaptation and I also won another Best Director award at the New York Independent Film and Video Festival in 2008 - the same award I won for The Women of Troy in 2006. I also spent over nine months trying to get the film to cinemas in the UK and finally, after a LOT of persistence, I went direct to exhibitors and the film will finally have the release it deserves!