Thursday, August 26, 2010

Bryan Poyser on “Lovers of Hate”

What was your filmmaking background before making Lovers of Hate?

BRYAN: I went to film school at the University of Texas in the mid-90’s, where we were all very much under the influence of DIY heroes like Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez. I even remember Linklater coming into class once to show us all some of his favorite short films.

While still at film school I co-founded a film festival called Cinematexas with one of my teachers, Rachel Tsangari (who is an exec producer on Lovers of Hate). I did that for about 4 years, then worked at SXSW and now work at the Austin Film Society. So, I’ve always kind of been involved in supporting other filmmakers at the same time I’m trying to make my own.

My first feature, Dear Pillow, I made on a very tiny budget in 2004. It was about a kid who finds out that his neighbor writes for a porn magazine and then wants to “learn the ropes” from him. It has some pretty graphic dialogue in it -- I wanted to make something bold but honest and fortunately, it did really well on the festival circuit, playing about 30 festivals after it got selected to play at Slamdance. Then, it got me a Spirit Award nomination, for the “Someone to Watch” award.

Based on that, I was able to set up a project with this company called Burnt Orange Productions, which partnered with the University of Texas to produce features with students & alumni working on the films. Jake Vaughan, who produced, shot and edited Dear Pillow, directed this new project called The Cassidy Kids, while I co-wrote and produced it. It was a major step up for us, going from a crew of 5 to a crew of 50.

Unfortunately, it didn’t do as well as the last one, only playing a couple festivals but it did end up on IFC, where people have been finding it. I made a couple shorts before embarking on Lovers of Hate, one of which I still have to finish editing.

What was the writing process like?

BRYAN: The writing process was really kicked off by the main location for the film, this giant mansion in Park City, Utah. As part of my job at the Austin Film Society, we throw parties at Sundance every year for filmmakers we’ve supported. One of our board members lets us host these parties at her house in Park City and so that’s how I came to know it. I loved the idea of setting a movie in that place, using its unique architecture to do something small-scale but full of tension and humor. It took me about 4 months to write the first draft, and about 5 months later, we were shooting it.

How did you fund the film?

BRYAN: In November of 2008, we were told we could have the house for 2 weeks right after Sundance, so we basically had 2 months to fundraise, cast, crew up and take care of all the logistical challenges of importing our little production about 1,400 miles away.

I just started telling people we were gonna do it and they amazingly, offered to help us out with money, sometimes without me even asking. The first person to throw their hat in the ring was my friend Rachel, with whom I co-founded Cinematexas. She lives in Greece and had been making good money producing TV ads and large-scale installations like the Opening Ceremonies to the 2004 Olympics. Jay & Mark Duplass (I went to film school) with Jay, also helped me out. It was amazing how generous people were. And, the great thing is that now that we’ve sold the film to IFC, they’re all gonna get their money back, too!

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

BRYAN: We used the Panasonic DVX200, shooting at 720p, so we had to do an upres when we got the film into Sundance. It was the camera owned by the cinematographer, David Lowery, which he had used on his own film St. Nick about a year prior. We had like 5 lights total, so it was a real challenge to light the film up in Park City, where the sun starts going down around 4pm in the middle of the winter. But, we did have a great time up there, living like a big extended family, cooking and eating together in that beautiful kitchen. It was hard work, even though we were in a beautiful 4-story mansion. The first few days my calves were totally sore and cramped from running up those stairs about 50 times a day.

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

BRYAN: I think the smartest thing was that we didn’t bite off more than we could chew. I purposefully wrote and with the producer Megan Gilbride, we purposefully scheduled a movie that we could do in our time allotted. We had 11 production days in Park City and 8 in Austin. I had 6 more days of production on Dear Pillow, which we got in the can for $4,000!

But, I knew that I wanted to avoid over-reaching with this film – not try to do something so ambitious and logistically challenging that I would lose track of or not have time to concentrate on what was really important – the acting and the writing.

A lot of filmmakers that I see are trying way too hard to do something out of their price range with their first film. Don’t make an action movie with $500 and a video camera, or it’s gonna look silly.

The dumbest – without a doubt, not taking more production stills. It’s even something I counsel other filmmakers about – don’t forget to take stills!

What are the advantages (and disadvantages) of being the writer on a film you've directed?

BRYAN: The advantages are definitely that you can rewrite on the set or in your head before you shoot something. We tried as much as we could to shoot in sequence so we could take advantage of happy accidents or ideas we had. If you’ve written it, you know the story inside and out and will know if you can follow those happy accidents to new places.

The disadvantage, of course, is that you have no-one else to blame if the script isn’t working. And of course you won’t know if the script works until you are watching full cuts of the film in post-production.

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

BRYAN: The main thing I learned was to trust my instincts – there were certain moments where I let circumstances push me in a different direction from where I felt the movie should go, or where I let exhaustion or inconvenience convince me that something was “good enough.”

In the editing stage, you finally find out if something is “good enough,” and there were certain things I had to cut out or cut around because I didn’t follow my gut feeling at first.

Sometimes being a director forces you to be a bit of a tyrant or a bit of a jerk and you can’t be afraid of that. Everyone is there to help you get your vision on screen and you’ve gotta take that responsibility seriously.

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.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

John Johnson on “Plan 9”

How did you get started in filmmaking? What drew you to it?

JOHN: V and Laser Tag. When I was 8 years old, I shot my first film entitled ZAP, which was a copy of V using laser tag guns. Then I took a couple years off. Then at 13, I made a movie almost every weekend, and at 16 made my first feature.

How many films did you make before you made Plan 9?

JOHN: I have made over 100 films on the smaller budget level. Many of which are available on DVD at the moment. You can check them out here on!

Where did you get the idea to remake Ed Wood's classic film?

JOHN: I was actually on set of Skeleton Key 3: The Organ Trail when a PA asked me (since I was ragging on remakes in general) what I would want to remake... And here I am.

How tough was it to get the rights?

JOHN: Not tough at all. The film is now public domain.

What steps did you take to ensure that Plan 9 was in public domain?

JOHN: Lawyer. No real tricks. Just hired a man for the job.

What sorts of changes, if any, did you make to the script?

JOHN: Can't say too much, but it is definitely for older audiences. I have tried to make an in your face horror film, as I would see Ed doing if he was still rolling film today.

How did you fund the film?

JOHN: We are still in that process. So all I can say for now is grape power and unicorn tears. The only thing we have shot so far is the Teaser Trailer, which we shot on Super 35mm. It was my first, and I loved it. Hard to go back after that. The film should be shot on the same medium.

Why did you choose to start by producing a trailer first? What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing it that way?

JOHN: The Teaser Trailer was shot for a couple reasons. 1- Being used a show pony for investors on proving we can do it. 2- To show the fans of the original our true intent on what we wanted to do with the remake.

What did you learn from making the film that you can take to other projects?

JOHN: This is a very new and awesome process. I am learning something new of each and every step of the process. Mainly I have surrounded myself with extremely talented people and hope to win with their victory!

Finally, which filmmakers have inspired you?

JOHN: Anthony Hickox. Sam Raimi. Larry Bishop. Joss Whedon. These are my heroes.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Bob Odenkirk and Michael Blieden on "Melvin Goes To Dinner"

What first attracted you to this project?

BOB ODENKIRK: I saw the play a couple times -- I think five, all told and I felt that if all I do is shoot this play in some form, then that would be worthy of the effort. It was so well played, so well written, and the cast was so perfect, that I felt I had to fall back on. It was just worth shooting. And I thought I had an idea of how to shoot it and keep it lively, which was multiple, handheld cameras.

I had some ideas on what I thought would help make it feel and work like a feature film. It's a very good performance piece for the stage, and one of the reasons it's so good is, it's very much alive every night that you do it. One night it could be a little more comic, another night it could be more dramatic. It all depends on the tone of performance and it depends on the audience and it depends on their interaction. That's what a great play does: it lives on stage every night, and it lives a little differently.

When you're making a movie, you're committing to one performance. Unlike a play, where your eyes can move around and the energy can shift in this interplay between audience and performance, you're committing. You're saying to everybody, 'Look at this person and look at this performance and this is the right performance.'

How many cameras did you end up using?

BOB ODENKIRK: We used five cameras, so everybody is on camera at all times. And we tried to layer it so that you can follow everyone's performance throughout the movie, even though we commit to singles angles at any one time. When a person's talking and telling a story, we cut from them to watch the people listening, because the way that anyone of those persons stories is affecting the other people is the depth of the piece.

When one person tells a story about infidelity, clearly there is an issue there with some of the other people, and you can read that I think subconsciously. And, if you watch the movie a second time, you can read it consciously. You can see people getting uncomfortable at certain topics, and now you know why.

Although the cast is relatively unknown, you did add some cameos by better known performers. What was your thinking behind that?

BOB ODENKIRK: I knew that we weren't going to use any names in the leads. And I thought just having a few name people would help the movie, and I do think it did help.

Now, some of the people, like Jack Black and Melora Walters, wouldn't let us put their name or their image on the poster, which is fine and understandable, and in fact I would want. The last thing I would want would be for it to be released as
'The Jack Black Movie.' People would hate me, Jack, and the asshole who made the poster.

I do think the cameos help. It helps people to consider the movie legitimate. The thing I'm most happy about is that those people were right for their parts, they were funny and good in their parts, and they don't overshadow the movie.

You like Jack Black, and you like Maura Tierney, and you like Melora Walters, they're all good in their roles. David Cross is great. But none of them overshadows what the movie's about, none of them dislocates the core of the movie.

When the movie's over, you don't go, 'Wow, that was about Jack Black's scene.' Instead, you totally go, 'That was about this couple who are lying and this friend who's in a bad relationship and this girl's story about ghosts,' and about the ninth thing you mention is that Jack Black's in it. And that's perfect. Perfect.

How did you get hooked up with Bob Odenkirk?

MICHAEL BLIEDEN: Bob had seen the play and said he was interested in making a movie out of it. So I said, 'Why don't I take a crack at the script, and if you like that, then we'll move forward.'
And he said, 'That's sounds good. Let me give you a couple of general notes.' And his notes were, number one, why don't you try to focus the story on one character, and why don't you make it Melvin's character, since Melvin's kid of a device to get the other characters' stories out. He's the audience. So why don't you make it from Melvin's perspective. We need to see one character go through something during the night.

I worked on the script for a couple months and sent him a draft.

What was it like to write a screenplay for your play?

MICHAEL BLIEDEN: When I sat down to write the screenplay, we'd been performing the play for so long and the characters were so vivid to me, it felt like I was writing the sequel, because I got to write more words for these same characters in this same world.

I write in a completely nonlinear way. I believe in 'write what you're excited about first.' Always work on what you're excited about first.

I started writing scenes that I felt exemplified each character. I wrote a little intro scene for each character -- except I never really wrote one for Sarah, so there isn't one in the movie.

I wrote the story in a linear way -- the first scene was 6:00 a.m., Alex getting on a plane to fly to LA, and Melvin waking up in his office, and each character chronologically. And then they get to the restaurant and then it was -- aside from the internal flashbacks -- it was basically the play. It was like two movies: a single-camera, thirty location film, and then a multi-camera restaurant movie.

Then, for about a full month, I almost exclusively worked in the scene navigator mode (in Final Draft), where I just cut and pasted scenes and I did a paper edit of the film. The script, when it was finally a shooting script, is pretty much the way the movie was edited.

After writing and performing a five-person play, how did you feel about the cameos in the film?

MICHAEL BLIEDEN: Maura Tierney accepted the part just based on the script. The first day -- she is so warm and you have so much affection for her instantly. Everyone just loved her. Some people can say 'Hi' to you and you like them instantly, and she has that quality.

After shooting with her for one day, I went home and thought, I'm in this great position. I can do whatever I want. I get to act with her. So I wrote three extra pages of dialogue, because she was so much fun.

So I went back in the next day when she was in make-up and said, (whisper) 'I wrote more stuff for us to do!' The whole walking scene on the roof of the ramp, about my mom and her nose job, I wrote the night before because I wanted to do more with her.

What about Jack Black?

MICHAEL BLIEDEN: Bob said he was going to ask Jack Black to do it, and I said, 'Let me re-write the scene then!' So I did a special version. The original scene was about a page, but for Jack Black it was about five pages. That was directly written for him.

How do you feel about the finished movie?

MICHAEL BLIEDEN: The movie has given me the sense that I could retire, I could work in a bank from now on, and I'd be like, 'I made a movie once, an honest to god movie,' and I have such a feeling of accomplishment about that, there's a part of me that really let go and said 'You knows what, you've done something you never thought you would do.' There's times when I'm actually able to relax a little bit, and that makes it worth it.