Thursday, April 29, 2010

John Scoular on "Lunatics, Lovers and Poets"

What was your filmmaking background before you made Lunatics, Lovers and Poets?
JOHN: I started as an actor. I did plays in High School. In College I was a scholarship quarterback on the football team, which was always interesting running across campus after football practice to rehearsal. Two words meaning the same thing. Weird. I secretly liked rehearsal more.
After college I moved to New York and studied at HB studios with late Bill Hickey. Booked some commercials etc... but it was moving to L.A. where I really got involved at the Beverly Hills Playhouse. I joined a theater group and we put a lot of original work. I always wanted to write and direct, but I didn't think I was allowed to do something like that. It was reserved for the elite and all knowing. But then I took a chance and wrote scene in acting class and put it up. My acting partner and I didn't tell anyone I wrote it to get an unbiased opinion. They liked it. So it's their fault I'm a writer/director.
From there I wrote and acted in a short film I did with my actor cousin, Neal Matarazzo. I asked my friend Hugh Ross to direct it. Hugh is the voice in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward... Hugh is an editor now. Anyway we got into The Hamptons International Film Festival and did well. We were the only nobodys there and it was quite awesome. Our film played against Ben Affleck, Griffin Dunne Illeana Douglas etc...
From there I wrote and acted in a Western, The Last Outlaws, and I had Lewis Smith (Southern Comfort, Heavenly Kid) direct it. I thought I was on my way in this business when I got sick. Nobody could diagnose me, lyme disease, lupus, wackadoo syndrome... they said I had an overactive immune system blah blah blah. Within 6 months I had to crawl to the bathroom in the morning and could barely walk. Some kind of arthritis attacked my body, my hands my ankles my knees. Anyway, poor me, the next few years were spent on crutches and I had to leave California and move in with my Mom in Florida because I couldn't work.
Finally after about 30 doctors, I got a doctor to agree to replace my knee and put staples in my ankles and gave me some drugs to kill my immune system. Duh, that doesn't make much sense so I stopped taking them. Good news is I had plenty of time to write after icing my hands. It took a couple of years for the operations and recovery, but I never got back to normal. I'm just grateful I walk now! A friend of mine gave me a job answering phones at his production house so I could move back to L.A. From there I started to P.A. for people who knew me so when my legs swelled up they would let me go sit down on set next to the Director. Very grateful to them.
It was obvious I wasn't going to be Brad Pitt at this point, so I studied every job on the set and watched the Directors like a hawk. I was fortunate to work for some great commercial & music video Directors: Frances Lawrence, Nigel Dick, & Martin Granger. The job allowed me to stay in the business and write. I put plays up and started Directing as well as sending out screenplays. I was trying to rally support to do my first feature, but it bothered me that I didn't know the 35mm camera. I watched Frances pick up the camera on set time after time and I thought if I wanted to do this thing right, I should know the camera. So I took out a loan and went to The Los Angeles Film School. Actually my wife took out the loan. I graduated with honors in Directing & Cinematography and shot my thesis film on 35mm.
At that point I had a really good script and got a couple of producers. They set up a co-production with Canada and we were going to shoot in Fiji (It's an Island picture). I had meetings with a couple of really good actors who agreed to do it. Rodrigo Santoro (The 300) and Leanor Varella (Tailor of Panama) The Producer spent a year and a half setting it up and then it all fell apart. Basically an investor backed out. I was pissed and angry and felt like a failure, and told my wife Madeline that I had to do something. I had to do something... now. She was supporting us as an actress and Production Mgr. and agreed that we would do it ourselves. So I took out a play that I wrote, called Raining in Chelsea which was put up in L.A. twice but it never really worked the way I hoped it would as a play, and rewrote it for the screen in two weeks and I liked the direction that it took. Madeline called in every favor she could and became Exec. Prod. We didn't let anything stop us. Not money, not nothing. We just pushed forward because no matter what, we couldn't fail.
Where did you get the idea for the film?
JOHN: Aside from the fact that it is a semi autobiographical, and I've aired some laundry which is frightening in and of itself. Funny enough I hate people who write "tell all books." The original idea for the film came from a statue of a coal miner that my mom brought back from Scotland. (My parents are from Scotland) At the Beverly Hills Playhouse we had to do this thing called a picture exercise -- you find a painting like a Gauguin or Caravaggio, and reproduce that on stage.
Well I took the Coal Miner Statue, wrote a 5 minute monologue about a Scottish Coal Miner and went to Western Costume and got some authentic miner garb from the 40's. I basically played my Grandfather whom I had never met. He died of Black Lung in Scotland when my Mother was young. From there it morphed into a one act, then 3 acts, back to two acts and finally Lunatics, Lovers & Poets.
During the writing of the play however I was estranged from my father. He had a tough life, he was homeless in the port of authority in New York for a while. I don't say that to denigrate him, or cast dispersions, because contrarily I loved him and in the end he died in my hands, which had a profound affect on me and the theme of what I write about. There was surrealism in the hospital room before he died. There was pain, and magic and love. He was in a coma and a couple of times about 3 am he would roll over and talk to me. What do you do with that? I can still smell the room, I can see the shadows on the wall, and the sounds. What do you do with that? Write I guess...
How did you script the film and how did that script change during the shooting?
JOHN: Like I said earlier it came from a play I wrote, but it was an amalgamation of experiences and kept morphing. When the play first went up, in my twenties. I thought it was good. But it was like an "oh, woe is me" piece. And had I done the film then, I think the character of the "Dad" would have been one dimensional. Whereas now the "Dad" is complicated, lovable, human, despite his flaws. And I credit Cotter with a lot of that.
Writing Lunatics... was very personal, but the challenge in that was to make my story the audience's story and hopefully hit a universal nerve, it wasn’t like sitting down and saying "okay I want to write a comedy, or horror film." Or right now I've been hired to write this action/comedy which is not my story, I just write based on the production company's story, send it in get notes, and apply those notes. It’s fun and I work at it just as hard, but it's not painful to get the words out. I don't recommend doing your first feature the way I did it. My advice would be write a horror/comedy...
The script changed prior and during shooting somewhat for the better. Here is where I appreciate film school and don't like those who poo poo it. I was learning how to tell a story with images, I'm still learning, and my script was dialogue heavy, there I said it! How could I say the same thing without words? And I love words. So prior to shooting I would "x" out some paragraphs or rewrite the night before the days shooting.
On set the script would change slightly. DP Pete Young, whom I graduated with, helped a lot. He's an artist, period. Now I love actors, disciplined actors, but I don't like improv for the sake of improv. Improv done incorrectly makes a lazy actor. I want to hear what I wrote first. I'm big enough to know what works and what doesn't. If the actors are truly stuck, I want them to struggle their way out of the scene. Because that's real. That's a verb. An actor can play a verb. An actor can struggle. And in that true frustration they may go off book genuinely and create some magic.
That being said, I get ideas on set, and if that discipline and trust has been set up between me and the actors, we can play. A lot of Cotter in the alley was like that, he'd get an idea or I would, such as the "shaving scene" he came up with which I love. It bothered him that he was clean-shaven in one of the scenes, because he had to shoot a TV show the day before. So he asked if he could do a scene "about the homeless alcoholic" Dad" shaving in the alley because he still had his pride. Genius. I love that. Also Jeremy & Leif have about 3 improved scenes, which I decided to shoot on set. One take each. I threw the situation out there and they ran with it. All of those scenes are in the film. So yes the script did change and evolve, and probably would continue to, but you have to say "cut" at some point.
What technology did you employ to shoot the film and what did you like about it?
JOHN: We shot on Super 16-mm for a few reasons. I'm a film snob first of all, and you get about 11 minutes on a 400 Ft load as opposed to 3 1/2 minutes on 35. So I would double processing and telecine costs if I went 35 mm. Most importantly it's a gritty story. And the super 16 is perfect for that. Also we shot fast and had more room to play with exposure in post. The latitude is more vast if we were over or under exposed. We had multiple locations in the Angeles National Forest and High Desert, so Pete was not tethered and had freedom to move when I needed him to move.
We also used the "Red" camera. There is a lot of rain in the film and there ain't much of it in L.A. in August or Sept. So after principal photography was over I waited for the rain for a few months. When it finally did rain, I called Pete and told him to grab the "red" camera and go out and shoot our rain inserts. I think he went out 3 different times without me. I have asked people to point out the "red" shots in the film and they can't. Of course after they read this they will.
I really like the "red", and the reason aside from style and money that we didn't use it was to do it correctly I would have needed a tech/media manager. And at the time the guys I knew weren't up to speed about the nuances, of the camera, which has since changed. Also Otto Nemetz gave my wife the film camera's for next to nothing as a favor. God bless Otto Nemetz.
We cut on AVID. Another editor we graduated with, Kyler Boudreaux, had an AVID and so we cut the movie on that. What I didn't like about it is it's a rich man's machine. Not Indie friendly. And so I became a slave to AVID. Meaning, as you go through the post process and move through different post houses, sound, exporting cuts, titles, color correction etc... You can't open an AVID for less than $500 an hour. I even went deep into the valley to a boutique place in a strip mall to fix one tiny thing and it was $500. It took 15 minutes. Now I'm sure it greatly outperforms the other applications out there but in my case, it hindered me.
You wore a lot of hats on the project -- writer, director, producer. What are the advantages and disadvantages to that approach?
JOHN: You can't blame anyone else! The advantages as a writer/director are no one knows the story better. There is no committee when something doesn't work, I can change on the spot or hang on to it. The disadvantages are there is no committee and have to stand tall in your convictions if you want the cast and crew to follow. Because in the end actors put themselves out there on the edge and don't want to fall. They don't want to look silly. They need to know if they lean over you are going to hang on to them and pull back if need be. I can only hope I achieved that.
The Producer thing is new, I've avoided it up to this point but it was the only way the film would get made. Producing keeps me honest. Even when I don't want to be. I have a lot of arguments with myself. It keeps the film from becoming a Fellini knock off. And forces me to think about achieving the same artistry in a more streamline economical way. Also to think about the audience. No one likes playing to empty houses.
It also keeps me aware of the big picture and details I may not want to be bothered with. My wife Madeline helps tremendously with that. She gets stuff done. I used to work for her as a P.A. and didn't like it. She's still the boss but at least I get to talk back now. Sort of... But when she's the actor, and I've directed her about 5 times now, I make her work harder than everyone else. Payback is a ...
What was the smartest thing you did during pre-production or production? The dumbest?
JOHN: Let's see if I can toot my own horn. Necessity is the father of creativity. So that's a good thing. First off I hired Cotter Smith to play the "Dad." That's a genius move I must say. Also I knew Leif Gantvoort (lead actor) from theater. I directed one of his plays, I think the guy does about a play a month. Anyway I gave him the material, (which he loved of course): however, I told him if he wanted the role, he'd have to get in shape and lose 30 pounds. I saw him 3 months later and he had lost 50! And was cut up like a boxer. Amazing transformation. So that was smart.
Another thing is I knew if I just started shooting I would finish, but I didn't have all the money. So I went into my script and scheduled all the M.O.S scenes or shots first. I ended up with the first 10 days without sound, just the crew and Leif. Then I brought in Jeremy Robinson, who by the way likes to tell people that he "gained 50 lb. for the role..." and shot all their scenes together, and so on...
I think lastly I did not settle for mediocrity despite it being an Independent Film. I created an environment where the actors could up their game and I believe they shined. It is an extremely emotional film, sometimes a bit too close to the bone for some, but there is no denying that the cast acted their asses off.
The dumbest thing I did was leave a roll regular 16-mm film laying around in my garage which the 1st AC picked up by mistake and loaded. We didn't have dailies so it was a couple of weeks later that I found out. Oops. Although we were able to zoom in during telecine, and save the shots.
And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you can take to other projects?
JOHN: That it can be done. That I can make a feature film. Which may seem trivial, but it's a huge win for Madeline and I. I'm not waiting on the phone to ring, or permission from some agent or studio head to green-light or validate me or my work. I get to let the viewers decide for better or worse.
We've played 8 festivals and won 3 awards for Lunatics, Lovers & Poets. And that is in stone. Grown men have hugged me after screenings, teary eyed. Still others give the obligatory "...interesting" which is how it should be. I love a blockbuster thriller just as much as the next guy, but I learned there is a niche for me and others like me.
I think the life lessons on this film are that people do care about this subject matter. Everyone loses everyone and it's in the grieving and how we handle that, that makes us human. Of course the Elephants do the same thing but they don't go to movies.
I learned that I can definitely work smarter on the next one. And I think I can attain more for less. In production value, and cinematic story telling. I've already re-written my next script to be more cinematic based on my experiences with Lunatics... And also I learned that the audience doesn't really care, about what kind of adversity you had to go through to get the story on film. They just want to sit down and watch a good movie.
Ultimately no matter how long or hard you work on something, it comes down to "that sucked" or "I cried my eyes out" And I can only hope it's the latter.

Lunatics, Lovers & Poets from Scoular Image on Vimeo.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Faith Granger on “Deuce of Spades”

Why did you decide -- with no filmmaking background -- to make Deuce of Spades?

FAITH: They say life works in mysterious ways... I have found that to be very true over the last three years!

All my life I pursued music as my passion and dream and felt it was my calling. Four years ago, I finally felt the need to step back and take a long deserved break from constant rehearsals, recording sessions and live shows, which consumed every free moment I had. I longed to have a weekend where I could just relax and enjoy the simple things in life... Such as cruising on a sunny afternoon at the wheel of a 1932 Ford roadster, for example ;).

I had always loved hot rods so finally buying one seemed a good way to celebrate life, in deed. I fell deeply in love with the deuce and that love led me to whip up a small documentary about the 32 Ford roadsters, shot from the hip on a $200 consumer camera. I made the documentary for my car display at the Grand National Roadster Show, the world largest yearly roadster show. It was the 75th anniversary of the 1932 Ford that year so I decided to sign up for the show and all participants were asked to make a nice car display for the occasion.

My display included a TV screen that played my Last of the Hiboy Girls home made documentary. The result? For four days, the crowd kept packing up in front of my car display, to watch the one-hour piece. When I saw just how engaged the audience was and how much they loved watching what I had filmed, I was hooked. I had so much fun doing the documentary that a crazy idea popped inside my head while at the show: And it went something like this: "Wouldn't it be crazy to next do a FULL FEATURE homemade film? One person does it all... That would be such a great challenge!!!"

Did I mention? I love challenges. As crazy as that thought sounded, it stuck, and two weeks later I found myself diving head first at the deep end of the pool (without knowing how to swim), and started writing the screenplay.

Where did the idea come from?

FAITH: Ironically, while many writers get stuck trying to find a good film plot, I had one right up my sleeve. I knew, from minute ONE, that the main star of the film would be my roadster, and knew what the plot was going to be. It was very easy, since the idea came from an (almost) true experience from my not-so-distant past.

Let us flashback to 2004. I had just bought a 1937 Hudson Terraplane Business Coupe. My friend was cleaning the car up, getting it ready for full off frame restoration, alone in the garage. Suddenly he pops inside the house with an old letter in his hand: "Faith! Look what I found when I tore the trunk of the Hudson apart". An old letter. A love letter written on a war ship, from a soldier who was going to WWII, to his sweetheart back home... It was very touching.

For the next few days, I found myself thinking about the letter, the man, his loved one, their story... Wondering how it had ended... Wondering how it was connected to the car... On the fourth day, my friend finally spills the beans: "You know that letter I found in the trunk? I was just pulling your leg. The letter is real, (my dad wrote it back in the days), but I obviously didn’t find it in the car." So it was just a prank. Needless to say I was deeply disappointed. But I never forgot the special feeling I had for three days, the feeling of having found a hidden treasure, uncovered a secret. It was that feeling that would become the core of my film plot.

What was the writing process like?

FAITH: It was very easy. I wrote the script quickly. I had so many ideas and they kept coming... No problem there! What was hard was keeping the film within reasonable length.

Writing the script was like living an alternate life, in a different world. It swallowed me whole. I was consumed. Every moment of the day all I could think about was Johnny's story... The letter... I LOVED writing the script. A lot of ideas would come while driving back and forth to my day job every day. Some scenes were entirely written while listening to a specific song that I wanted to use for the scene. I could SEE the film in my head... See the shots, hear the dialogues...

As soon as I got to work I'd type my ideas down. Same when I got home... It took about 3 months to write the initial script. A lot of historical research went into it, because 60% of the film is period, and also because of the hot rod technical aspect of the film. My historical consultant, who is curator for the National Hot Rod Foundation, helped me insure that the film stay 100% accurate and true to both the era and the cars. I even consulted with several old timers to make sure the flashback dialogues were period correct. Especially the 50’s slang.

The finished first draft was too long and had I shot it as is, the film would have been about 4 hours long!!! So I rewrote it, three times, over the course of the next 2 years, to end up with the 150-minute version, which was later edited down to a 120 minute final version.

Why did you want to handle all the elements yourself? Did that work, or did you end up adding crew members to the team?

FAITH: Making this film was breaking every known rules of filmmaking... And getting away with it!

Having never been to film school, my mind was a blank canvas. I didn't know what the rules were, so I made my own. I was very free of any and all preconceived ideas, all molds, all trends. I love freedom of expression. I knew that if I wanted to retain that freedom I needed to remain captain of my own vessel. So I didn't go looking for investors.

When some came knocking at my door (cause the buzz about my project was already getting all over the internet), offering me a half million to become partners in my film, I politely turned then down and walked. I didn’t want to take the easy shortcut. I was going to take the less traveled road, and cut my own way through the jungle if I had to. I knew their money would come with a price tag. And that if I took it, my film would no longer be my film, it would never be the same. And I wanted my film to be 100% my vision, 100% my work, 100% mine, whether good or bad, successful or a flop, it would be MY FILM.

Having no investors to call the shots also meant having no budget and that meant having to do everything myself for the most part. But I am a firm believer that if you want to have it done right, do it yourself! I knew volunteers, although well meaning, would probably end up flaking out and that free help was hard to come by, so from the start I expected that if I wanted this film to get done, I would have to carry it on my own shoulders, for three entire years, all the way to the finish line, no matter how hard it got or how heavy it would become.

Did it work?

FAITH: You bet! But I wouldn’t recommend this path to everyone. It truly is not for the faint of heart. You have to really be cut out for it. But it worked wonderfully well for me and if I was to make another film, I would not change much to my current recipe (if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it ;) ). I will continue to self finance my films, work with a skeleton crew, be behind the camera and wear multiple hats. I will however delegate a few little hats here and there, such as hair and makeup, loading and unloading heavy gear (that really gets old quick), maybe some of the preliminary scouting, and some of the tedious, but not so creative, work such as calling actors and crew to remind them of shoots, auditions etc…

I did wear all the hats, but I also had some help from friends and volunteers. Help was sporadic, so no stable crew. Each shoot I would have one or two helpers land a hand. Mostly they helped move gear, plug lights, hold booms and Hollywood flags, etc… Some of my actors helped too, and so did the car owners.

About half way into production, one volunteer, Jerry Mull, stepped forward cause all the other volunteers had either flaked or no longer were able to help due to work / school schedule changes. Jerry was very loyal and stayed with me, as my production assistant, boom person, grip and whatever else was needed, until the end. He helped make three sets (which we built in my garage), a few props, helped line up additional classic cars and even a few locations. He was very helpful. He also drove the rig so I could drive the rod to the shoots. It would have been a lot harder on me had he not been there. Even if you wear all the hats, you still need HELP.

I was very blessed in that my story inspired many pros to also contribute, each in their own way: A few examples: OMEGA CINEMA donated several thousand dollars worth of free prop rentals to help me finish my flashbacks cause I completely ran out of money. CINEMA PRODUCTION SERVICES loaned some basic lighting gear for the entire duration of the production (three years) which were badly needed to pull off the shoots. DAS WERK in Germany, donated a $20,000 CGI shot for my crash scene while Frank Glencairn, Nick Lozz, Darren d’Agostino, also donated CGI shots and title treatment, Luis Sinibaldi donated free steadicam work for three scenes, Blue Nelson lent a hand with some camera work for 8 scenes and general advice, giving me feedback when needed. Top Hollywood pro re-recording mixer Patrick Cycconne and his team are now donating a full sound mixing job at pro facility, to help me take the film to the next level. My struggling on my own to make DEUCE OF SPADES inspired these pros to say: Hey, what she’s doing is really something, so let’s lend her a little help.

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

FAITH: I bought the Panasonic HVX200 with the Letus Extreme (and later, the Ultimate) 35mm adapter with Nikon prime lenses. It provided a wonderful film look. I work with long lenses a lot, for that super shallow Depth of Field, and working with long lenses can be quite challenging, especially when you pull your own focus. I oftentimes had to pull focus entirely by feel, because my more elaborate camera moves involved a lot more than just two focus points.

I love the HVX, it was a great camera to work with, love the P2 card system, how sturdy the camera is: I really put it through the ringer and it never broke down on me. On the down side, it tends to be noisy in low light. And I film in low light A LOT. That was my only complaint, the fact that it is not so good with low light. Using a 35 mm adapter does not help either. Unless there was a good amount of light on our night sets, the camera could see absolutely NOTHING. This is true of most video cameras of course. Without a budget it is hard to have the gear to light a night set aggressively. So it was very challenging shooting those tricky night scenes, and I had quite a few in my film, including one of the climax scenes. A huge challenge indeed. It’s easy, as a writer, to image in your head a phenomenal night race and crash… Not so easy, as a producer, director and DP, to pull it off.

What was the biggest lesson you took away from shooting the movie?

FAITH: Make your own path. Stay true to your vision. Believe in yourself. Don’t believe what they say. NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE. Trust in God. Oh yeah and don't you ever, EVER, forget to turn on that adapter again!!! (sigh - how quickly we learn our lessons when we suffer). And next script, no night race and crash LOL. Next script I write, I’ll write it KNOWING what it takes to technically pull off each scene and understanding my limitations, and writing around them this time… Save myself a lot of grief!!

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

FAITH: To me I see only but advantages. There are three ways to shape a performance. A- the directing B- the actor’s acting itself C- the editing choices. Let me light your candle here and say that I think the editor has the most impact!

A bad editor can make a good actor look average, and a good editor can make a mediocre actor look quite good! It's not so much in the cuts, but in selecting which clips make the cut. What moments will be immortalized. This implies sorting through an actor's performance, as shaped by the director while filming and making the final decision as to which performance is the best. Now call me crazy but it seems to me this should be the director's job, and when the director IS the editor, then that is exactly what happens. You get what you were aiming for. And you know what you were aiming for, since you are the director!

I love editing and I was told I have a great knack for it. I would never ever delegate that role to someone else. One of the dangers though is to get so close to your project that you lose sight of it. That's when you bring in a couple fresh pair of eyes and show them the edits and get their feedbacks. I had a couple friends who are film pros do that for me. Just to be sure.

You have to be open to hearing the feedback and learn to differentiate between the ones you should implement and the ones you should toss right out the window. It is tricky. I have learned to trust my instincts, they are rarely (if ever) wrong. Women are known for having great intuition. I try to put mine to good use!

Also, each editor has his/her own feel. The feel of the film, the pace of the film is the heart beat of a film. I would not want anyone else to set that pulse, but me, the filmmaker.

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

FAITH: Everything. I knew nothing when I started the film. Had never done it before, never been to film school. As I said, I dived at the deepest end of the pool and didn’t know how to swim. Yes, I thought I was going to drown more than once, and I drank my share of water, but I became a swimmer in the end.

I have not only come out of this three year adventure a full fledge filmmaker, but came out of it with a finished film that I fully own, all 100% of it, free and clear. A film that people can’t wait to see, it seems. It has not been completed yet and people are already buying it. I set up an online store on my website and I am getting pre-orders from everywhere… US, UK, France, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Switzerland, Belgium, Portugal, Tzchek, Australia, New Zealand, Canada… And that's a good place to be.

With major press coverage (I just received an unbelievable 12 page spread in American Muscle Car Magazine – France) in over 15 countries and already 4 magazine covers... Looks like Deuce Of Spades may very well become a cult film.

What more could a first time filmmaker possibly want?

A few links of interest:

The official DEUCE OF SPADES website:

The filmmaker’s blog, documenting each shoot:
Follow the film on Twitter:

See clips from the film:

DEUCE OF SPADES - Revamped Film teaser!!!! from Faith Granger on Vimeo.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Elias Plagianos on “The Crimson Mask”

What was your filmmaking background before making The Crimson Mask?

ELIAS: In high school, I was one of those weird kids who had a public access TV show. It was called Fried Cheese. It was basically just a Monty Python rip-off, shot using my Dad's Sony Handycam.

The great thing about it though was that I had the responsibility to write, shoot, edit, and actually be in these sketches. It gave me all the freedom in the world to try different ways to tell a story visually. It set the tone for my career as I've continued to write, shoot, and edit all my projects, from a documentary on the Iceland indie music scene to an award-winning short film about gangsters fighting Native American zombies.

Where did the idea for The Crimson Mask come from?

ELIAS: After college, around 2002, I was living in Manhattan and was fascinated with this credit card culture that was occurring. It was as if everybody was living in the moment. Everywhere I went, people were spending insane amounts of money and always using plastic to pay for it. I wanted to tell a story about these characters who built a fantasy life and were faced with the idea of losing it all. What would they do to get it back? I never thought years later, we, as a nation, would be facing this very issue.

What was the writing process like?

ELIAS: Torture. I was hyper aware that if not successful, this could be my only feature film. So in addition to trying to write a compelling and exciting story, I needed to figure out how to include as many unique genres and characters as I could. This way, if I never got to make a second feature, I at least got a chance to play in all these different worlds filled with eccentric characters. There are not a lot of movies out there that tackle social themes and also have sword fights, gangsters, and secret societies mixed in.

Then of course there were the constant re-writes. There must be 200 versions of this film, with budgets that range from 20 million dollars to 2 million. In the end, we took the 2 million dollar version and had to do shoot it for under $200,000.

How did you fund the film?

ELIAS: I was so frustrated with the process of working with investors and production companies that I just took whatever money I had in the bank and could raise from friends, family, and yes... credit cards, and decided to shoot the film over 3 very long weeks. It was a matter of being as resourceful as I could with what I had, and I think our film stands up against a lot films that cost 10 times more.

What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?

ELIAS: I will go on record and say this was probably one of the "dumbest" productions in the history of film. We did everything the wrong way.

Up to that point, I had shot my films as a one man operation with no crew. I didn't understand how a film set worked. So that caused a little chaos. I never used a shot list, I added and lost frustrated crew members daily, and I changed locations at the last minute. The list goes on and on.

I will say, I strongly believe that a film set that is too organized is anything but creative. Those on set who joined me and embraced the chaos, were able to do some of their best work and have won awards and accolades.

I think a key to success is inspiring those around you to do their best and in turn they inspire you to do your best.

What kind of camera did you shoot with and what did you like and not like about it?

ELIAS: We shot on the Panasonic HDX-900 and HVX-200 with 35mm lens adapters. I love the DVC-Pro HD workflow and the fact that everything is archived on tape. A major drawback is that the cameras are bulky and require a lot of light when you use those lens adapters.

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

ELIAS: The most important lesson was that there is indeed a middle ground between my previous one man show productions and the creatively empty / over-regimented production styles. You just need the right group of people at your side.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Gregg Holtgrewe on “Dawning”

What was your filmmaking background before making Dawning?

GREGG: I’ve basically been making films since I was 14 or 15. I made a horror movie with my friends the summer before 9th grade and it continued from there. I really have to credit my family, especially my mom and brother Tim, as they had a huge influence on me when it came to films. I was able to be exposed to a lot of great films at an early age.

I went to school at Moorhead State University where I mostly trained in film history and theory under the late Ted Larson, a fantastic film professor. I actually failed ‘Beginning Filmmaking’ the first time I took it and Ted was nice enough to let me take ‘Advanced Filmmaking’ the next year and I received an ‘A’ so that helped me a lot...the trust, the patience and the passion were very important to me at that time.

I won ‘Best Director’ for a short I did in college and I just kept making movies however I could...whether it was for free or for $800, I always figured out a way to keep working and getting as much of the bad stuff out as possible. If there’s one great thing about Robert Rodriguez’s book, Rebel without a Crew, and there are many, it would have to be his advice on making as many movies as possible so you learn from your mistakes while honing your craft.

Where did the idea come from?

GREGG: The idea for a film called Dawning originally came from my brother and sister and I in 2003. We brainstormed some story elements, but mostly discussed what worked and didn’t work for us when it came to horror films. After that we attempted to make the film numerous times but it never seemed to gel and there were probably too many “cooks in the kitchen.”

In 2007 I went off on my own and partnered with Producer/Actor Danny Salmen. When we finally went into production on Dawning in 2007, the script had changed dramatically from 2003, leaving very little in place other than a family, a cabin and a crazy person ... but up until 2007 the story was more about an actual creature you never saw and I didn’t like that...I didn’t even want the antagonist to be that “real.”

Real antagonists can ruin movies for me more often than Jeepers Creepers, I loved the first half-hour or forty-five minutes, but when the winged-thing showed up it threw me off. I think part of it is that after so many films and so much media saturation, I just felt like nothing is scarier than what we can come up with in our own minds...the way our mind plays tricks on us is incredible and it’s the ultimate loss of control and trust even.

I didn’t want to have the characters figure out they should put a stake in the vampire or shoot the zombie in the head or even wait until day, I wanted it to be almost unreal yet the man is seemingly truthful so it throws this family (and the audience) into a place of “what is real? what can I believe? is someone who his seemingly threatening me actually helping?” Like the divorce of the family, this unseen “evil” or “darkness” or “presence” is something they can’t really talk about because there is too much emotion and too many things unanswered.

What was the writing process like?

GREGG: Long, difficult and very, very challenging. Luckily I had a great writer named Matthew Wilkins come in and bring in a fresh pair of eyes. He added a lot to the film and helped me see the film in a new way. I think that kind of collaboration is key, especially for a writer/director.

The film had changed so much since the original idea in 2003 and with so many drafts and so many thoughts it was hard to put it all together. In the end I trusted that I could direct a good film no matter what the “final” material turned out to be, but the script needed work all the way up to the shoot and all during the shoot. Plus, we went back and did additional shoots in 2008 and 2009, so the script was kind of an evolving beast with a life of it’s own. The film and the script grew very organically together.

How did you fund the film?

GREGG: The film was ultimately funded by my producing partner, Danny Salmen, and contacts through his family and friends...mostly business-people, but he was a key component in getting this film done, as were the other producers, Brendan Reynolds and Michael D. Howe.

I was lucky enough to be able to raise enough money multiple times after scrapping the 2006 version and doing additional shoots for the 2007 version in 2008 and 2009. It’s been a long process and the producers have been very supportive of my vision.

What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?

GREGG: The smartest thing I did during production was use the resources available and not lose sight of what I was trying to accomplish...for example, the rain at the end of the film was not in the script...I had to make a decision in order to make the rain work, and that’s what you have to do, especially when you’re working on such a low budget.

I also think going back and adding new scenes was very smart as well...not enough filmmakers do this, they settle for what they’ve shot but I wanted to get everything as right as possible, but this also had to do with the dumbest thing, which was not knowing enough about screenplays and how to read’s a lot more difficult for people than they think, especially me...but I’m getting better.

If the script had been tighter in the beginning, we probably wouldn’t have had to do so many additional shoots...but it worked out in the end. You could probably add rushing into production on top of the script...sometimes young filmmakers set arbitrary dates for themselves and they shoot when they’re not ready.

What kind of camera did you shoot with and what did you like and not like about it?

GREGG: We used the HVX 200 by Panasonic, shooting HD 720p 24pn. We did not use any lensing. I love the image capturing on the HVX and the size is great, especially for shooting in tight spaces. The only real issue I had with the camera was its ability to handle the color palette of the film, which was very muddy and red and brown and yellow. I wanted the film to look like the banks of the Red River, where I grew up, and I think it’s close...but there is some digital break-up here and there but nothing too major.

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

GREGG: There are so many aspects to the film which changed me profoundly. I guess I would have to say that patience and learning how to stay motivated on a project over a long process is very difficult and this film helped me grow in that direction.

I also learned a lot about story-telling and how to look at scripts and get a better feel of how they’re moving and the way information is being revealed.

I’ve always felt comfortable with photography and framing but learning how to truly block a scene and get the actors to move comfortably within the frame has been difficult and this film enabled me to look at that and understand how the script and motivation clearly affect what the actor does and how or where they’re going to move within a scene.

If I get the chance to make another film I really believe all of these things will help my ability to write and direct by strengthening my communication with actors, producers, crew, etc...

Lastly, I learned my own process as a filmmaker, and that to me will be the most important thing to take from the film. I trust myself more than ever now and this film gave that to me.