Thursday, August 19, 2010

Jen White on “Between Floors”

What was your filmmaking background before making Between Floors?

JEN: I became really interested in photography at the age of twelve when my Girl Scout troop was working on a merit badge. My mom gave me a camera and I started running around shooting as much as I could.

In high school I took a formal photography class where we were given a lot of freedom, and at some point I started shooting photo series to cover action and tell a story, which got me to thinking maybe film was the way I wanted to go.

Not long after that I sneaked into the theatre to see JFK and it was a done deal. I knew I wanted to be a director, but I didn't even know what a director really did.

Eventually I landed at Columbia College, Chicago to study directing, and I took some cinematography classes just to learn lighting and get my hands on the cameras--next thing I knew I was shooting a feature on the weekends and my classmates were asking me to shoot their films for them.

Now I work out of Los Angeles, Chicago, and Austin as a cinematographer and photographer, and get to work on my own projects. I do get some directing gigs--mostly music videos with a couple of commercials thrown in, and I'm looking forward to doing more.

I like the balance between doing my own projects and shooting for other people--it gives me an opportunity to get out of my head and see things from someone else's perspective.

Where did you get the idea and what was the writing process like?

JEN: The idea came out of a conversation I had with a friend in high school who was this quirky, sweet guy----- he was telling me about getting on elevators and staring at people and making weird noises just to see how they would react. I couldn't stop thinking about it and at some point decided it would be my first film. So in my screenwriting class at Columbia I wrote the first version of it. It was a short with four elevators that I intended to shoot as an independent project before I graduated and then use to get financing to expand it into a feature.

We had problems getting locations so it had to be re-written right before the shoot to all take place in the same elevator. I was proud of the film, but it never felt like I got to make the film I really wanted to, so after I left Chicago I started a new script for a feature version. I got about 40 pages into it, and had the beginning and ending of each of the seven scenes, plus a bit of the in-between, before I had to take a break from it.

I kept going back to it whenever I had time, but it just never felt on the page the way it felt in my head. At some point I had the realization that letting the actors improvise would give the film the realism that I was after so I stopped trying to write it--essentially the script became the blueprint for the film, and rehearsals became conversations about character and relationships and story structure, with the specifics left to the actors to create.

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

JEN: The biggest thing for me with this project was letting go and trusting myself, the actors, and the process. I am a control freak, which I think just comes with the territory on some level when you are an artist, but I am well aware of it and I do my best to keep it in check. Everything about this film challenges that tendency, so I had to deal with myself on a new level throughout the entire process of making it.

I had to trust that I had made the right casting decisions, the right choices on what elements and information to include or exclude, that the scenes would cut together, and that I had given the actors what they needed to do their best. We shot the film with hour-long takes, so once I rolled the camera we were locked in. Every scene had something about it (or several somethings) that I doubted right up until the camera rolled, but trusting that I had made the right choice in pre-production turned out to be very good for the film, and created some amazing moments that wouldn't have been there if I had gone against my instincts.

I could give you a laundry list of things I screwed up over the process of making the film, but the one that stands out is rushing the edit. I actually tried to edit the film in a matter of weeks to make a festival deadline. I wouldn't go so far as to say it was a mistake, because it did show me that I need to approach the film in a completely different way, but the pressure I put on myself to make that deadline added a lot of extra stress to the shoot.

The edit ended up taking over a year, which I never expected. The advice I used to get in regards to festival submissions was to start sending out a rough cut as soon as you have it, but now the word is to wait until the film is done. Which makes sense given how many more films are being made now--it's much harder to get your work seen so you want to make sure it's in it's best form when you put it out there.

What camera system did you use to shoot it and what did you like and hate about it?

JEN: I went with the Sony V1U, which was hands down the best option at the time we went into production. I wanted a progressive frame, high resolution image in the smallest body possible so we would have room to move inside the tiny elevators. But even with the camera being so small, I still had to use a wide angle lens adapter, and it was a problem for one of the scenes that I shot handheld--the edge distortion was pretty visible and we had to make some adjustments to minimize it.

I'm generally not a fan of fixed-lens cameras because I like to minimize depth-of-field and shoot on the long end of the lens, but this film needed to be in your face and claustrophobic, which required the camera be stuck in the elevators with the characters.

You wore a lot of hats on the production -- writer, director, DP, editor and producer. What are the benefits to working that way ... and what's the downside?

JEN: I have worked this way before on smaller projects, like commercials or music videos, and it's usually for budget reasons, sometimes creative. I started with a producing partner early on, but I always knew that most of the production and post would fall on me.

I'd say the budget was the biggest factor on this film--my producing partner had to leave the film for a paid gig out of town, locations were difficult to get, and because everyone was working for free and had to also earn a living at the same time (including me), the schedule was constantly changing. I had so many offers to help with the project, but there were a lot of things that had to be handled by me just for the simple reason that I was paying for everything and because things changed so frequently it was faster for me to handle the necessary meetings and phone calls than try to delegate. Whatever I couldn't handle myself or was having trouble with I'd call in favors and ask friends to help get the word out.

Shooting in actual elevators, we quite literally didn't have room for a crew--everything was contained inside the elevator except for a cable running out the doors to my monitor. We would approach each scene individually and adjust accordingly. Some scenes it was just me and the actors; on one I had a friend who was only available for a few hours come in and help with the rigging before we started shooting; and for the crowd scene with 14 actors I had an assistant director and a production assistant the whole day.

There was no way around doing the edit myself. Because I shot the hour-long improvisations, most of my decisions had to be made in the edit and I probably would have driven an editor crazy micro-managing everything. The closest way to describe it is trying to put together a puzzle and you have no idea what it looks like. I had no way to communicate to an editor what was going on in my head--there was no script or coverage, so the entire edit revolved around content and creating connections between the stories.

When you are making all the decisions, it allows for an incredible efficiency, but I don't think this approach is even remotely functional on a film that's not as contained as this one. We shot in five days, but those days were spread out over about six weeks and I was able to approach each scene individually. Because each one was self-contained, production felt more like shooting five short films than a feature. It was exhausting, and I felt myself constantly wondering what I'd forgotten to take care of, having to trust myself and work through the doubt--when Jim and Paul came on board after production it was such a relief to have their input and support. I really enjoy collaborating, and though I got to do that on a completely new level with the actors, I felt a lack of it in other areas because I was handling so much of it myself.

I don't have any intentions of trying to do another film this way--at least not another feature, but I do think for this one it was necessary. And each project is different, so I try approach each project with a fresh perspective--my next film is vastly different from Between Floors--bigger budget, lots of Chicago locations, lots of actors, and I didn't write the script, so it will be handled in a completely different way. I will have to grow and push myself in ways that I don't even know yet.

How did the film change while shooting ... and while editing?

JEN: During production, things were constantly shifting. I have yet to work on a shoot where everything goes according to plan, and I don't expect it to ever happen. But the approach I took with this film I think allowed for even more adjustments to be made on the fly.

The gorilla suit in one of the scenes was something that had never crossed my mind, but came up in the rehearsal as a possibility and we went with it. I changed my mind at the last minute about how I was going to shoot the family scene. Everything had to be flexible depending on the situation with the location--the scene in the hospital had to be adjusted on site because the elevator doors wouldn't stay closed. I had to sit in the elevator holding the door close button and Jim had to shoot around me--there's probably a few dozen things like that.

It's kind of odd, but everything changed and nothing changed--the details were adjusted but the scenes are still what I intended them to be. That probably comes from focusing on the big picture stuff like tone and relationship and letting the rest of it work itself out.

In the edit, the biggest change was cutting two scenes from the film--there were originally seven. I was having a really hard time getting the length where I wanted it, and certain scenes felt incomplete--the balance was off. When I got to a place where I felt I had done what I needed to do and was ready for some input, I showed it to a small group of people I trust and Paul was able to see that two of the scenes weren't working inside the whole. I hated cutting them out but he was right, and luckily he was patient enough to help me see it for myself. They will most likely be on the DVD.

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

JEN: The biggest difference is just from the shift in perspective from shorts to features--there are a lot more pieces of the puzzle, from both a business and creative standpoint. Getting through the marathon instead of the sprint, so to speak--maintaining your vision and intention for the story and keeping yourself healthy while working insane hours for an extended amount of time.

It's such a huge time commitment, especially compared to a short form project, that you have to be clear that you are willing to invest years of your life to see it through, not weeks or months. Taking a feature from development, to the festival circuit, to distribution is a monumental task, and even though I thought I knew what I was getting myself into, there have been quite a few surprises along the way--some of them have been really difficult to see the other side of.

I think allowing yourself some room to screw up is critical--not like intending to fail, but giving yourself the grace to accept that you probably won't handle it all perfectly, ask for help when you need it and keep going even when you make a mistake.

And the flip side of that is being open to the good surprises--there are just as many of those--and just trust yourself to know what to do.

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