What was your filmmaking background before making Driver's Ed Mutiny?
BRAD: I've been making short films ever since high school, and I graduated with honors from the University of Iowa film program. I got started professionally as a Production Assistant in TV shows and movies, such as Batman Begins. I then began working on higher-up positions like script supervisor or assistant director for independent features.
For the past four years I have worked as a professional editor and animator for corporate videos. That allowed me to save up enough money, contacts, and experience to make Driver's Ed Mutiny, my first feature. I was also very fortunate to have key production positions filled with the experienced team of Collateral Damage Productions, which helped guide me through the process and make sure every dollar we spent was up on the screen.
Where did you get the idea and what was the writing process like?
BRAD: I wrote a five-minute musical skit that was performed on stage when I was in college. It was about three kids who take over their driver's ed car and then promptly crash the vehicle. I always liked the concept and wondered what would happen if the kids kept on going (and if there wasn't all that fruity singing!).
So I took the concept more seriously and thought about what would motivate real characters to take on such a risky adventure. My writing style is to start with a good plot structure first and then fill in the rest, so over the ten drafts I wrote over the course of about five months there weren't too many huge changes. It was mostly smoothing out dialogue and refining things, particularly once the actors were onboard and we went through read-throughs and rehearsals. Scenes that work well on paper might not come off so well when put on their feet, so we adapted as we went along.
What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?
BRAD: The smartest thing we did was having extensive rehearsals of every scene before we shot a single frame. With just myself, the actors, and the car, we were able to smooth out the "stage directions" over the course of three full days’ work. That's about 36 hours that we didn't have to spend on location with a full production crew standing around waiting us to get through the creative aspects of staging. Of course things can and should be modified once you get to location, but it gave us a great head start.
The single dumbest thing I did was to not specifically ask an actress if she was in the Screen Actors Guild or not. The climax of the film featured a one-day-only shoot with an actress on an expensive location in Los Angeles. We were not a union film (it was simply too expensive) and we therefore could not use a SAG actress. It wasn't until the night before where she asked about her SAG payments that I realized we couldn't use her. This was after months of preparation with her, and the posting for the part spelled out that the part was unpaid and that our film was non-union. We basically had eight hours to recast this important part. By sheer luck, the police officer who was overseeing our location that day knew of an actress who worked perfectly for the part. But it was a very close call. Now I make sure to expressly ask any actor or actress I want to work with- "Are you SAG?" Actors can get excited for the right role and sometimes might miss the fact that they might not contractually fit within your film.
What camera system did you use to shoot it and what did you like and hate about it?
BRAD: We used the Panasonic HVX200 P2 camera system shooting in 720p24. There are of course nicer HD cameras out there but none that were within our price range, particularly in case our camera was damaged in some fashion, a high probability given the tough shooting conditions we had. The HVX turned out to be a tough as nails platform thankfully. Even under harsh elements such as rain, sun, and being bolted to the side of a car at highway speeds, it never faltered. So it was a great workhorse camera.
What was nerve-racking was shooting on digital cards and not tape. There were a few close calls where data was almost deleted forever. If you're shooting without tapes make sure you have a foolproof system of double backing-up your footage. Remember, drives go bad much more often than tapes, so be certain you're covered.
One thing I'd like to add is how important camera movement is to audiences. If there's one thing that subconsciously cues an audience into thinking that your movie is big and expensive, it's using sweeping camera movements, be it on a dolly or with a crane. They're complicated to pull off, but if you sprinkle them through your film, it will give the whole movie a very slick and professional feel. The equipment and time is worth the investment.
How did the film change while shooting ... and while editing?
BRAD: The film was carefully thought out and storyboarded before we shot, so there weren't too many radical changes. Being a road-trip movie, I wanted to be open to stop and grab shots of anything that looked good or useful, so there are a lot of "stolen" shots in the film that I really like that obviously weren't planned.
The editing process was pretty typical in that we started with a much longer cut and gradually pared it down, trimming or deleting scenes and doing away with a few tiny subplots that, when viewing the entire picture, no longer seemed important. No one ever complains that a movie is too short, but overstaying your welcome with a needlessly long runtime can be the kiss of death.
And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you can take to other projects?
BRAD: There were so many lessons learned on this film that it's hard to think of just a few. It's for this reason that I recommend anyone who seriously wants to make movies to skip graduate school and spend the money on going out and making one, as there are so many lessons that can't be learned in the classroom and could only be learned on set or in the studio.
I suppose the biggest single lesson I learned from this film is that if you want people to sit through an entire feature, you have to have characters people will care about. Obviously no movie is going to be perfect, but if you're engaged with the characters and hope that they succeed in their quest, the audience will forgive a lot of flaws.
Luckily audiences seem to be connecting with our characters and their adventure. Through every screening I've been to of the film they laugh, gasp, and even cry in all the right places. I don't think any of that would happen if they didn't feel like they knew the characters and were along for the ride with them on their journey.
Seeing and hearing an audience react positively to something you've put years of work into is simply the most rewarding experience a director can have.