Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sarab Neelam on "Ocean of Pearls"

What was your filmmaking background before making Ocean of Pearls?

SARAB: I had a dream to make movies since I was 7 years old. I used to play around with a super 8mm camera in high school in Toronto. Then I had a chance to work as a production assistant in a big budget Indian film being shot in Toronto while I was a med student.

After moving to the USA, I started taking 1- to 2-week courses on different aspects of filmmaking in Hollywood, Toronto and Maine. I studied with talented and passionate artists working in this field. Meanwhile I did a short and documentary before embarking on making a feature.

None of this was easy but it was a lot of fun pursuing a dream. I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Where did the idea come from?

SARAB: Jim Burnstein (one of my mentors and screenwriting professors at University of Michigan) always said "Do what you know." I had told him I knew being a Sikh (my religion) and the confusion about identity that existed in me growing up and the medical profession and how it seemed like a business in America. So Ocean of Pearls became the story of a young Canadian Sikh transplant surgeon who battles the injustices of the American Health System and ultimately his own identity.

It was also a unique story as there had never been a Sikh character as a lead in a Hollywood film with a turban wearing Sikh director. We were breaking new ground.

What was the writing process like?

SARAB: I wrote an initial draft of the script, but Jim Burnstein didn't feel it could be shot in its initial form and script is the most important part of making a film. So he brought his former student V. Prasad , a talented writer now in LA to write the screenplay. We worked on this for 3 years. We took ideas from Jim and Jeff Dowd and a writer’s lab in Film Independent. Finally the script was ready to be shot.

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

SARAB: They are right when they say in books that the most important element is writing and the next is casting. However so many other things determine whether the movie will be good or great from music to editing to makeup and even casting for single lines.

What was the smarted decision you made during production? The worst decision?

SARAB: We were not budgeted to have the proper sound person but I had read that sound is very very important so I paid Jamie some money from my own side and that made a world of difference in post-production. ADR is possible but you lose the in the moment voices of actors and these cannot be properly duplicated. I was very thankful that I picked the right sound guy.

Unfortunately, some of the production people had not done a film to our preparation and level and the work showed. I would hire people in the future who are very experienced at what their job qualification is. Even though these were nice people, what I have to remember is that as a director you can only make 10 films in your life and each film should count for something, so hire the best you can afford.

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

SARAB: I think I can write a book on how to make a film:
Tell a story that is either unique or if not tell in a unique way.
Bring a music supervisor and editor early in the process.
Hire the best and most experienced people that you can afford. You may not get a second shot if your product doesn't look good. To distributors it's not 10 years of work, it is simply ”toothpaste" and can they sell this toothpaste compared to others.
Having a test audience in the rough cut stage helps to tell you the flaws. They will be brutally "honest" and if they say the film is good it means it is bad. Only very good and excellent means anything.
Prepare a real budget of the film. It will definitely go up but at least keep it within 10-20 percent. Also put in 100,000 dollars if you want to have a theatrical distribution in 5 cities if you don't get a distributor.
Enjoy the process, you are a filmmaker living your dream and creating art. You will touch a lot of people with your film and message. I have been humbled by the comments I receive and how it has affected their lives.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Danny Draven on “The Filmmaker’s Book of the Dead”

What's your filmmaking background?

DANNY DRAVEN: I’ve always had a passion for horror and sci-fi. When I moved to Los Angeles, I wanted to work for Roger Corman to “get my foot in the door” like so many of my film school influences like Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, James Cameron, Joe Dante, and Martin Scorsese did.

I had to start somewhere, so that led me to Full Moon Pictures, a company that was making a lot of movies at the time (and still are today). It was there I met indie producer/director J.R. Bookwalter (The Dead Next Door), and he helped get me started and gave me my first directing gig.

During this time, I also met Charles Band, David DeCoteau and Stuart Gordon, all of whom were great mentors for me.

I eventually started producing “made-to-order” films for Charles Band of Full Moon Pictures (fullmoondirect.com), for shoe-string budgets and all were shot on digital (this was before affordable 24p cameras). After several movies, I became very tired of making films in this “cookie cutter” environment, so I decided to lock myself away for a few years. I decided to only make movies I wrote. After a few years, I made Ghost Month. It was done my way, and completely independent.

What made you decide to write this book, The Filmmaker’s Book of the Dead: How to make Your Own heart-Racing Horror Movie?

DANNY DRAVEN: The best way to learn to make movies is to be on a set and make as many mistakes as you can so you learn not to repeat them again, and I’ve made plenty. I wrote this book to share my experiences and pitfalls with others so they can avoid them. This is the book I wish someone would have given me 10 years ago.

What's the secret to making a successful genre film?

DANNY DRAVEN: It all starts with a great story, told well. There really isn't a secret. However, having a great cast (a star helps!), a strong hook, short title, fantastic artwork and trailer, and a high-quality finished product certainly will get you a long way. It's also important to understand the genre you are working in and what is generally expected in such a film.

What's the most common mistake filmmakers make when working on a horror film?

DANNY DRAVEN: I think the most common mistake is shooting a script that isn't ready or too ambitious for the shoestring budget. It's always best to keep it simple, but remember horror fans want a horror move, so try your best to give them what they want.

What's the best advice about filmmaking that you've ever received?

DANNY DRAVEN: Never invest any more in a film than you can afford to lose.

As a filmmaker, what's the smartest decision you've ever made? The dumbest?

DANNY DRAVEN: The smartest would have to be getting myself on a set early in my career. I'm a film school grad, but the things you learn on set will stay with you forever. There is no other place to learn! Get off the armchair and get your butt on the set.

The dumbest has to be financing a movie on credit cards. It's tempting for a lot of aspiring indie guys, but DON'T DO IT!

What's next for Danny Draven?

DANNY DRAVEN: Another movie and another book.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Jeanie Clark on "Smalltimore "

What was your filmmaking background before you made Smalltimore?

JEANIE: Nil. This was my first project. I wrote, directed, and produced it. I did all of the casting and location scouting. I also edited it and compiled the soundtrack - 37 original songs by 11 Baltimore artists. I relied heavily on my Director of Photography, Michelle Farrell, in regards to the cinematography. She did a fantastic job. I knew what I wanted for certain shots, but I gave her a lot of creative leeway. We have a great steadicam shot near the end that I call our Goodfellas, shot. It was my idea and it was really tough, and at the time she said it was the hardest shot she ever pulled off. We're both pretty proud of that one. I drive her crazy but she likes it because I challenge her to do new things. We make a great team.

Where did you get the idea for the film?

JEANIE: I have always been a writer but had never had the stamina to write anything I couldn't finish in one sitting. Five years ago I was interested in two different men, and one morning I woke up with an entire story from start to finish in my head, loosely based on these quasi-relationships, along with a lot of other things that were going on in my life at the time. I wrote as fast as I could before I forgot it, and had the first draft written within a month. I never really thought I'd do anything with it. I knew it needed a lot of work but I couldn't put my finger on what was wrong. A year later, my friend Thom, who didn't know of the script's existence, unwittingly said something to me that sparked an idea of how to fix the script.

Unfortunately, two weeks later Thom was killed in a car accident (http://www.thomhickling.com/). What he never knew was that I based a character on him. Thom was a very special, unique person and I could not imagine anyone else playing his part. I was too sad to work on the script because he was in it. It remained untouched for another 7 months.

Then in July of 2006 I met the actor Bill Pullman when he was staying for three weeks at the bed & breakfast I operate in Baltimore. Bill reminded me so much of Thom, he is one of the nicest people you'd ever want to meet, and now picturing Bill as Thom I could write again without being so sad, even though I knew it was doubtful that Bill would actually play Thom if I ever got it off the ground. I did ask him to, which he very sweetly and politely declined. We have stayed in touch and he has been very supportive of me throughout the process. He has his own copy of Smalltimore.

Honestly, though, what made me get off my butt and actually get the thing made was that I was tired of seeing bad movies, especially romantic comedies that rely solely on star power to sell them. They are insulting to the intelligence of women and create completely unrealistic expectations. Also, I HATE knowing five minutes into the movie exactly what is going to happen for the rest of the film. Most of them, if you see the commercial, you've seen the movie. Makes me nuts. Runaway Bride was the final straw.

And I wanted to show off MY Baltimore. So many people who have never been here only know of it through shows like, The Wire and Homicide. That is not the Baltimore I see every day. My friends are artists, poets, musicians, writers, sculptors, painters, filmmakers, and, of course, bartenders. We all have day jobs, but we don't talk about them much. That's what pays the rent, not what defines us.

What technology did you employ to shoot the film and what did you like about it?

JEANIE: We shot on an HVX-200A, and I really think it shoots beautifully. We shot on the P2 cards, and those things are a dream when it comes to editing, way easier than shooting on mini-DV tapes. With the cards, every time you turn the camera off it cuts the clip as its own file. Saves you countless hours in editing. The downside was that we couldn't just let the camera roll and roll because the cards have limited space, so we didn't capture a lot of the funny stuff that happens between takes. But now that I know better what I am doing, in the same situation I would have the cards offloaded during the lunch break so we wouldn't be such slaves to the time limitations.

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

JEANIE: The smartest thing I did was having a table read of the script with the entire cast, and really working through it and allowing the actors some input. Not only did this collaboration help make the script stronger and funnier, it also established a respect between the actors and myself. Actors are so often forced to recite terrible, unnatural dialogue and they have no control over it whatsoever. They really appreciated that I listened to them. Every one of them has at least one line in the film that is something they came up with themselves. When you can't pay talented people what they are worth financially, it is important to find a way to make them feel appreciated and allow them some ownership of the character and the project.

The other smartest thing I did was hiring Michelle as my DP. And the other smartest thing was planning all of the locations within a five-mile radius.

The dumbest thing I did was not having an Assistant Director. At the time, I didn't really know what that position was, the title is very misleading. I thought that meant that that person helped to direct the actors, and I didn't want anyone directing other than myself. But what an AD really does is keep the pace moving, makes sure everyone is where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there, locks down the set, puts out fires, anything that needs to be done. I was doing all of this myself for the most part, plus the bulk of the production work, plus directing. At the end of a 15-hour day I'd go home and spend hours making up the call sheets for the next day, and even going grocery shopping for the craft services. It was too much. It is hard to believe in retrospect that I even managed to pull it off. I didn't get much sleep for two weeks. I have been AD for other people on several projects since then. It is a position that I really enjoy, and I will never do a feature without one again.

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

JEANIE: Good lord, I can't possibly answer that question concisely. I still learn something new every day. That's the best thing about filmmaking. The learning never ends, and it is never the same day twice.

I guess what I have learned that is useful across the board, is that I have lost most of my stage fright. Public speaking used to terrify me, but now it is sort of a rush. I have kept a blog since the moment I jumped into this mess two years ago, at the earliest stages of pre-production, when I didn't even know what the term "B-roll," meant. The first year the blog (still available online) was www.charmcitythemovie.blogspot.com. The working title of the movie was Charm City, because I didn't want anyone to scoop the title Smalltimore from me. Not even the cast knew that Charm City was never intended as the movie's title.

When I screened the rough cut to cast & crew in December 2008 I revealed the real title and started the current blog, www.smalltim orethemovie.blogspot.com. On these blogs you can read through the process with me blow-by-blow. I've garnered a small but loyal coast-to-coast following. It is a peek behind the curtain into the world of indie filmmaking. In some ways it is not nearly as glamorous as most people think it is. In other ways, ya know what, it is. It is really a lot of fun, a LOT of work, it is exciting and unpredictable and insane and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Dylan Kidd on "Roger Dodger"


How many scripts had you written before Roger Dodger?

DYLAN KIDD: I had written two other feature scripts, and then that had been sort of abandoned. So I guess, two and a half. This was after NYU; at school I mainly concentrated on cinematography, and then directly after I sort of forgot the reason I went to film school was to be a director. It wasn't until the mid-nineties that I woke up and remembered.

One screenplay was based on my experiences in real estate. It was nice to get it out of my system, I think I was aware when it was done that really wasn't good enough to show anybody. The other one was a horror movie, an attempt to do something in a genre. It was fine, but wasn't anything that I was that excited about. Roger Dodger was the first time that when I finished a script, I was like, "Okay, I want to make this movie."

What was it about the script that made you feel that this was the one?

DYLAN KIDD: Probably the quality of the writing, but also the fact that this was the first time that I felt like I had a character that an actor would want to play. For me, a big thing about writing something that could be done for no money, was trying to write a role that was so good that we could attract a name actor to work for what turned out to be peanuts. That was a big part of my strategy: write something that somebody would walk through broken glass to play the role. Most of your expense in a movie is the above-the-line costs. It's difficult but it's possible to make a movie for a low-budget, but what's really hard is getting someone that anyone's ever heard of into that movie.

Where did the idea for the story come from?

DYLAN KIDD: The real estate script I had written was big in scope, and so apart from the fact that I didn't think it was that strong, even if someone did fall in love with it, it was still a big movie. So the idea of Roger Dodger was giving myself the assignment of writing something that could be done for no money. That lent itself to a series of conversations and monologues.

It started with the idea of a guy who feels like he can tell everyone else what they're thinking. It was based on a friend of mine, who in college had this strange ability to go up strangers and take their psychology apart in minute detail. It struck me as disturbing but also very compelling.

I started with Roger. It ended up being a buddy movie, but his nephew didn't come in until later drafts. You go through a certain amount of time thinking, "Well, maybe this guy is compelling enough, maybe people will sit and watch a train wreck for an hour and a half." And then there was a point where I realized there has to be some foil, a character who we want to protect has to enter the movie, there has to be a reason for people to hang on and keep watching.

Do you follow a three-act structure in your scripts?

DYLAN KIDD: I guess so, but without really thinking about it. I read the Syd Field book when I was at NYU, but I think, for me, things work internally. I can't even remember thinking about the act breaks when I wrote Roger Dodger. I just had the sense that we were at this stage of the story and this is what should happen.

If you go to 5,000 movies in your life, then without even knowing it that structure is going to be in there when you're writing. I don't think it's a front brain thing; it just ends up being in there.

For me, it's really important that the first draft be the spill draft. I feel like the last thing you want to do in a first draft is be thinking about what page is the act break. I'm the exact opposite of someone who knows the ending before they begin. For me, the first draft is the spill it draft. And after that you can look at it and think, "Well, I have a 70-page first act, that probably can't work."

But your first time through is when your unconscious is really trying to tell you what the movie wants to be. Maybe what the movies wants to be is that the first act is the entire movie, and that's the lesson, as opposed to, "Oh, I need to shorten the act." Maybe it's, "Oh, I need to lose the second and third act."

For me it's important to follow your bliss in that first draft, even if it ends up at 180 pages or you hate everything but ten percent of it. At least you've got that ten percent, which is ten more than a lot of people have.

Were you writing to a particular budget?

DYLAN KIDD: No, but having a background in production was definitely a help. It was understanding that if you could tell the movie in one night there would be only one wardrobe change. It was less specific -- I want to do a movie with less than six main characters and have it take place in one 48 hour span. It was more of a general thing -- I want to make a movie that I shoot on digital video with credit cards if I absolutely had to. That was as far as I got. Then once the script was done, I realized that this character was compelling enough that it was worth taking a shot and trying to get a name actor attached and do it on film.

There are basic rules that are pretty commonsensical, like don't have a car chase, don't make it a period piece, keep your locations to a minimum. And also, a big thing for us was that we knew we were going to shoot with two cameras, and that allows you to really burn through scenes more quickly. Basically, the who second act of the movie is four people sitting at a banquette, having this extended conversation. We were able to shoot that entire thing in a day and a half, because we were rolling two cameras.

There's a scene where Roger takes the kid out into the street, it's the first time where he's instructing the kid. It's a long, extended scene, and even when it was written it was intended to be shot in one take. That was a 12-page scene that we shot in half in a day. If you have two sequences like that, that's 20% of your movie that's shot in three days.

Did knowing that you were writing for a small budget cramp your creativity in any way?

DYLAN KIDD: Not really. This is one of those movies that felt like it wanted to be tighter. There were earlier drafts that took place over a longer span of time, and it just felt like it wanted to be as tight as possible. So there's nothing in the movie that I feel we would have had if we'd had more money, except for the luxury of being able to shoot it more. But if somebody had said, "We love it, here's 2 million dollars," I wouldn't have written in some dream sequence of Roger when he was young. It just felt like it is what it is, that we were just dropped into the middle of this guy's meltdown, and we just hang on just to make sure that the kid's going to get out of there okay.

What did you learn writing Roger Dodger that you still use today on higher-budget projects?

DYLAN KIDD: The main thing that I learned from that script was that it was the first time ever when I was writing something that I thought, "This is good, this is working." My other scripts had been okay, competent, but the hair on the back of your neck didn't stand up. For me, the most important thing is now trying to make sure that I get as close as I can to that feeling. I never want to settle for, "Oh, this is okay." You want people to read it and get genuinely excited about it and want to shoot.

You can get to a place where you are genuinely pumped with what you're doing, and as hard as it is, you can't give up on a script until you've gotten to that place.