Thursday, December 16, 2010

Stephanie Argy and Alec Boehm on "The Red Machine"

What was your filmmaking background before making The Red Machine?

ALEC and STEPH: We both started out by working for others -- Alec in camera, and Steph in post-production and then as a journalist writing about the art and craft of filmmaking. At the same time, we were writing and directing our own short films, as well as commercials, videos, documentaries and short experimental projects.

The big turning point for us was when we made an 11-minute mock newsreel called Gandhi at the Bat (, which ended up playing and winning awards all over the world -- including an award for Filmmaking Excellence at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Like The Red Machine, it's set in the 1930s, and it showed us the incredible range of what's possible, even at a very low budget. After that, we knew it was time to make our first feature.

Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like?

ALEC and STEPH: In a used bookstore in New Orleans, we had found a book about the U.S. efforts to break Japanese codes during World War II, and in this book there was one tiny little mention -- just a half a sentence -- about how the U.S. Navy intelligence division had used a professional safecracker to help them steal a copy of Japan's naval code in 1920. We love capers and heist movies and had always wanted to make one, and this seemed like the basis for a great caper: U.S. Navy spies? And a thief? Could there be anything better? But we didn't do anything with the story for a while, just let it simmer. Then when we directed Gandhi at the Bat, we met the actors Lee Perkins and Donal Thoms-Cappello, and we realized, "Ah...that's our spy and our thief," and the story caught fire for us.

The script came together relatively easily and was shaped a lot during long bicycle rides. We live near the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles, and almost every day, we ride up and over Griffith Park, near the Observatory and the Hollywood sign -- very slowly and with considerable pain. But it gives us a lot of time to talk about stories.

It helped to know that we were writing for Lee and Donal, because it let us shape their characters to them. The story and the world coalesced around their characters.

Even though the alleged event that sparked our curiosity happened in 1920, we decided to set the story 15 years later, in 1935, because at that point, the state-of-the-art technology was code machines, which were used to encipher secret messages -- and a code machine seemed like a great thing for our heroes to steal.

How did you fund the film?

ALEC and STEPH: By working on other people's projects, we had saved up a certain amount of money. Friends and relatives were encouraging us to buy a house with that, but we decided to use it to make a movie instead. In retrospect, we're very glad we did.

What sort of camera did you use for production and what were the best and worst things about it?

ALEC and STEPH: We used the Panasonic HVX200. Before we shot, we did a lot of camera tests, and we decided that the HVX200 was the best camera for the story we wanted to tell and the way we wanted to tell it. Its basic look was very close to the aesthetic that we wanted for the movie, and shooting digitally meant that we could afford to do more takes, and therefore give the actors more chances to try things -- which was important to us, because we wanted to do whatever we could to help them give the best possible performances.

We also did quite a few effects shots in the movie, and it was really nice that we could just drop the camera's files right into Adobe After Effects and get going with that part of the work. In a few cases, there were takes that we wanted to use for performance, but that had technical problems -- for example, a boom shadow, or a fly buzzing through the frame -- and we were able to fix those technical problems so that we could use exactly the performance takes we wanted.

The worst thing about the HVX200 was that the image is really 'thin' and doesn't give you much to work with during color correction. A friend of ours who's done a lot of color correction said that grading HVX200 footage is like working with wet tissue paper, so we did bump up against that a little -- especially because we challenged the camera with a lot of very low-light scenes, including some that were lit only with a single candle. (At a candle store in Culver City, we did find "triple-wick candles," which were much brighter than regular candles, but it was still a lot to ask from the camera.)

What were the biggest challenges of doing a period film for little money?

ALEC and STEPH: No matter what film you're making, it always feels as though you have too little money. (We read how even on a movie as big as 'Titanic,' they could only afford to build one side of the boat...)

But we did come across a lot of little tricks that helped:

• The most important -- have a wickedly brilliant production designer. Ours was Mel Horan, and he created an amazing array of props and set dressing. There's an ongoing motif of documents all through the movie -- government forms, newspapers, sheets of code, maps, menus, charts, everything is paper-based -- and Mel designed all those, then found ways to print them up big and cheap. (Note for low-budget filmmakers: you can make really huge black-and-white copies for very little money, and those cover a lot of wall space and keep the walls from being bare and skimpy-looking.)

• Find very resourceful costume designers. We had two -- Annemarie von Firley of Revamp Vintage ( custom-tailored all the women's costumes for our actresses using patterns from the 1930s, while Kathy Pillsbury found all the men's costumes and uniforms and did a lot of work to customize those.

• Look for the telling detail. Mel was great about finding one or two key props for each setting that would guide the eye and signal the audience that they're in a different era. It helps a lot if your key props are very familiar and widely used now, but looked different back in the movie's era -- a phone, for example, or a typewriter, as opposed to a computer.

• Write to your limitations. Knowing that it would be easiest to control indoor sets, we wrote the movie to take place mostly in day interiors.

• It really helps to be able to do effects work, so that when you do go outdoors, you can create digital matte paintings and set extensions. (We mostly made our own -- though we did have one gorgeous shot, the exterior of the Office of Naval Intelligence, that was done for us by a renowned matte painter named Mark Sullivan.)

• Find a location that has a lot of set dressing and props. Our main location was a 92-acre former home for juvenile delinquents, now owned by the state of California and used exclusively for movie shoots. All over the facility, we'd find great old period furniture, which Mel and the art department would drag from building to building, so we didn't have to rent any of that.

Honestly, though, it didn't seem that much harder to make a period movie than a contemporary one -- no matter what movie you're making, you have to think about and control everything that's in the frame, so with a period movie, you just have to be a little bit more careful about what you choose to show.

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

ALEC and STEPH: The smartest thing we did was casting really good actors. Eleven of them, including Lee and Donal, we had worked with before; others came to us through our producer Ken Cortland and our casting director Sam Christensen (who cast the TV show M*A*S*H for many years). The actors' skill and commitment really helped the world seem plausible -- they live in that world so convincingly that it makes it much easier for the audience to enter into it, too.

And the dumbest thing...maybe it was not realizing how much of our lives would be consumed by the movie. You keep thinking you've reached some kind of finish line -- the end of pre-production, the end of shooting, the end of post, the first film festival -- but then you realize that there's way more ahead of you. But the great part of that is that you do keep learning all through; honestly, we learned about 100 times as much in post as we did in production, then learned about 100 times as much traveling with the movie as we did in post.

You do get impatient to move along to the next project, and it's tempting to succumb to that and walk away from movies that may still have enormous life left in them. But there are rewards to helping a movie go as far as possible, and while the journey has been longer and much more difficult that we ever imagined, it's also much more wonderful, and the movie keeps surprising us with new adventures.

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

ALEC and STEPH: Oh, boy, where do you start?

• It seems as though almost any problems we encountered were fundamentally problems with communication, so it's important to make it very clear to people what you expect from them, what they're doing that fits into your vision for the movie, and what doesn't -- and to bring up problems right away, because they never fix themselves.

• It's very easy to get buried in small details, so you have to remind yourself to pick up your head and look around to see the whole world.

• Put aside a lot of money for promotion, film festivals and marketing -- we continue to be stunned at how much we've been traveling with the movie. And our actors have been phenomenally supportive -- they joined us at so many festivals and really made those screenings special for the audiences -- but we would have liked to have been able to pay for all their travels, too.

• The movie is everything, but it isn't the only thing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow. I'm so sorry I missed the screening, but after overshooting the offramp by 50 miles I was too embarrassed to go back...