Thursday, March 18, 2010

Aron Campisano on “The Master Plan”

What was your filmmaking background before you made the film?

ARON: I went to NYU film school with guys who are now a lot more famous than me. I was a Film/TV and Cinema Studies double major, and I actually enjoyed Cinema Studies more than production. But I love both, of course.

After NYU, I became involved in multimedia and Internet video, eventually working as a producer with Disney Interactive and CNET. I then founded Filmspeed, a pre-YouTube online video distributor, which I ran for about 5 years. We were way ahead of our time and eventually went poof like many other online video companies in that era.

Where did the idea come from to make The Master Plan?

ARON: After I lost everything working 80-hour weeks at Filmspeed, making a feature film by myself seemed like a vacation. (It wasn’t a vacation.)

I wrote the first version of The Master Plan in college. It was a teen drama set in Santa Clarita, CA, a northern suburb of Los Angeles, a very orderly master planned community that always fascinated me. I spent a month there at CalArts the summer after I graduated high school.

When I was revising my original script, I stumbled across the stories of Rachel Joy Scott and Cassie Bernall, two of the kids killed at Columbine. They had become iconic, mythical figures in the evangelical Christian teen community. Their surreal, cultish teen culture was everywhere in Colorado it seemed, and I also discovered it in my backyard in L.A.

What was the process for writing the script?

ARON: It started that summer at CalArts when I would take long walks alone at night in the new neighborhoods, listening to my old Smiths CDs.

I’ve been told I’m always taking pictures, whether I have a camera in my hands or not, and I found myself incorporating these suburban images into the story that was swimming around in my head. I liked the idea of making the suburban city itself the bad guy, in a world where nothing particularly bad happened at all.

I eventually combined elements of my first script with evangelical teen themes. The suburbs, then, became the secular world, the ultimate Christian antagonist. I was raised a liberal Catholic, but I like to say I’m a practicing Atheist, so this also involved a lot of research. Evangelical teen books, music, “educational” materials, videos, etc.

I wish I found this process enlightening, but it was, in fact, very disturbing. It’s absolutely terrible what evangelical teens go through to try to survive the “real” American world and also please their wild-eyed religious parents. On the other hand, it’s not surprising that evangelicals thrive in this environment. Both are authoritarian cultures with smiling faces. Each desperate dreams.

How did you fund the film?

ARON: After Filmspeed I was totally broke, so my Dad let me borrow his credit card to shoot it. Assuming my time and others is worth nothing, I made The Master Plan for a stupefyingly small amount of money in film terms. Of course, to Dad, a Gynecologist, it was like putting a small car on a credit card, and he thought I was out of my mind.

I realize this sounds easy, but I can assure you it wasn’t. If you knew my Dad, you’d understand.

What camera did you use and what did you like or dislike about it?

ARON: The movie looks nice, and everyone assumes I shot HD, but I didn’t. HDV cameras were too expensive and unruly at the time, and the workflow was also quite pricey.

So, I used a Panasonic DVX-100e. It’s a standard-def camera and the “e” is the European PAL version of the DVX. The DVX-100e shoots 25p and is higher-res than the 24p DVX-100. It also has a 4:2:0 color space, which is noticeably better than 4:1:1 24p.

Bottom line, I color-corrected and Magic Bulleted the whole movie at 25p, and it looks much better than standard-def 24p. My point is, if you can only get your hands on a standard-def video camera, you can still make a nice little movie.

Of course, the DVX is small and light, and I took it everywhere. The “crew” was often just myself and Nicole Mosbacher, and we could be incredibly mobile, efficient and totally stealthy. I hoped to make a very small movie look big, and I think we accomplished that.

What I didn’t like about the camera is that I dropped it and snapped off the lens assembly. I had it “fixed” by some dude at a camera store because I didn’t have the time to ship it to Panasonic, and I shot the rest of the movie with a broken camera!

If I shot The Master Plan today, I’d probably use a Canon 7D DSLR (and not drop it).

What are the advantages to wearing multiple hats (director, writer, editor, etc.) on the film?

ARON: There’s one enormous advantage. If you have the skills to pull it off, you can make exactly the film you want to make, like an author writing a novel. Everyone refers to the cinematic “democratization” that digital technologies enable today, but what’s much more important is that they also enable film totalitarianism.

Film is a “collaborative art” if you’re just a director, or if you’re just a writer, or if you’re just an editor. Are movies really better when they’re made by a committee? Look around. The collaboration machine keeps telling the same stories, and worse, they make films that tell us what we already know. Independent film needs dictators.

What was the smartest decision you made during production? The dumbest?

ARON: I’m almost always over-prepared. I spend a lot of time location scouting and pre-visualizing scenes, especially run-and-gun permit-less exteriors, so I know exactly where to put the camera, how to frame the shot, and what time of day to shoot before I have actors present. At the same time I shoot a lot of B-roll so I can cut to the skyline if needed (and believe me, it’s needed). I shot more than 20 hours of B-roll “stuff” to cover all the locations in the movie.

It’s important to set goals in post-production, but I think the dumbest thing I did was to set unnecessary deadlines for finishing this or that scene, and eventually the completion of the movie. Editing, color correcting, visual effects, sound mixing… it’s brutal, terribly time consuming work. I always seemed to miss deadlines by a mile, then disappoint myself and others. I told Sarah Mahoney I thought it would take me six months to finish The Master Plan, and it took four years!

Eventually, I threw the film fest calendar out the window. When you watch your film for the thousandth time, and you know you really can’t make it better, it’s done. Then start thinking about submitting it. You need a completed film that you’re proud of first.

Final thought here: don’t submit a rough cut unless your last name is Eisner. Or, unless there’s a movie star in your film. Finish it first!

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

ARON: I learned to trust my creative instincts, and realized the most important trait a film director can possess is self-belief. I grew more confident as I wrote the film, and as I made it I started to trust my intuition even when I didn’t necessarily understand certain ideas or images that I found meaningful.

I can be very literal-minded so this felt like a risky way to proceed, but the process of making The Master Plan revealed to me, if you will, what those abstractions and images meant. I was on the right track all along, and the film changed me.

As I like to say, The Master Plan had its own mind. In a strange way, it made itself.

The Master Plan (Entire Film) from Aron Campisano on Vimeo.

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