Thursday, November 25, 2010

Todd Sklar on “Box Elder”

What was your filmmaking background before making Box Elder?

TODD: I grew up watching lots of movies; didn't get into film school, but made a lot of bad short films in college and started watching even more movies (about two per day for a while), and also starred in an independent feature that was made expertly as far as low budget production was concerned; all of which led to the notion that I could potentially make a feature.

That said, we re-shot 80% of the film after wrapping the first leg of production, so to be honest, the first round of shooting is what prepared me the most for making the final product.

Where did the idea come from? What was the writing process like?

TODD: Part of it was the desire to make a college comedy that was honest and more relatable than an American Pie movie. Something that felt more like Dazed and Confused or Swingers. I felt like I wasn't seeing that movie anymore, and felt like I had a good grasp on that type of story based on my own college experience.

Part of it also had to do with wanting to make a film that I knew I could do for a limited budget and with elements that were accessible to me at the time (good comedic actors, campus locations, etc). The last piece, and potentially the most important one, was wanting to make something that I knew I could get to its audience, and thus the first tour was born.

Can you describe the thinking behind the tour -- what you hoped to accomplish and then the reality of how it worked out?

TODD: The main goal was to get the film to its audience, and do so in a manner that enhanced the experience (i.e, we didn't want it to be just a movie screening; we wanted events and tailored marketing that fit the film and its target audience).

As far as how it worked out, the first tour was a complete success; it exceeded any and all expectations. The subsequent tours have been successful in different ways, but nothing close to what we pulled off on the first one.

How did you fund the film?

TODD: The first round came from an investment group, and the second round came from friends, family, mine and my producer's pocket, and lots of credit cards.

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

TODD: We shot with the Panasonic HVX and used the Brevis 35 adapter, and the best part of it was probably the P2 Workflow, and in specific, being able to watch footage immediately and edit rough cut scenes on the fly. Our editor would cut scenes overnight and we could watch 'em the next day and decide what to pick-up before that day's call time, and that was huge.

As far as the worst thing goes, there were the general hiccups that come along with using new technology, but I can't say that I can think one negative thing in specific. It was a pretty wonderful experience working with that camera setup.

Did using the Brevis 35 adapter add to your crew size or make it more difficult to "run and gun"?

TODD: Definitely not. Other than needing a really good 1st AC to handle focus pulling and what not, the Brevis was extremely lightweight, and the setup was much smaller and easier to maneuver than the Redrock or other adapters I had played with.

We had a steadicam that we used on probably 30-40% of the film and a shoulder mount unit as well and we were able to whip around pretty good.

Did the story change much in the editing process?

TODD: A ton. We cut out an entire portion of the second act and did re-shoots to fill in what is now the middle of the movie. The irony being, the storyline I had the most trouble with at the script stage ultimately was the one that got ditched in the edit room. I'm not exactly sure why I thought "shooting it" would make it any better....

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

TODD: The smartest thing was probably not listening to people 95% of the time, whether it was re; something we couldn't do, or shouldn't do or couldn't afford etc; and the dumbest thing was without a doubt the other 5% of the time that I didn't listen.

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

TODD: A big one was to work as much out in the development process as possible, because anything that doesn't get solved in the writing is only becoming a bigger problem after you shoot. And then an even bigger problem while you're editing.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Barry Poltermann on “The Life of Reilly”

What was your filmmaking background before making The Life of Reilly?

BARRY: I made an indie horror film in 1992 called Aswang, was a commercial director and edited American Movie. Here are some bio links:

Where did the idea come from to turn the show into a movie?

BARRY: In short, we were looking for something fun to do for our company Holiday Party in 2001 and a friend mentioned that Charles Nelson Reilly was doing a one-man show in town (LA). I called to book tickets, but the show had already moved on. So I set up a GOOGLE alert (probably a Yahoo alert back then) to track the show, because I thought it sounded interesting (in a campy, funny way). But as time went on and I kept getting these news alerts, all the reviews were of the "no... seriously... this show is amazing. And yes, it IS that Charles Nelson Reilly, but it's not what you expect" variety. I became kind of obsessed with seeing the show, but it never worked out.

Years later (2004) a friend of mine was attempting to get a movie off the ground that was an Evil Knevil musical. This brought to mind Charles' show, so I told him about it as a movie idea with the pitch "it will be the Stop Making Sense of comedy performances... we will do for Charles Nelson Reilly what Rick Rubin did for Johnny Cash!" and he said it was "genius" and he wanted to produce it. This was Bob Fagan (who eventually produced the film).

The next day I asked my assistant (Adrian Selkowitz) to track down CNR. He had me meeting with him for lunch within a couple of days, and then we went back to his house after lunch and watched hours and hours of raw VHS video shot over the years with Charles' doing the show. I loved it... I especially loved how unruly it was. Lots of work for an editor (which is my forte) as he never did the same show twice. It wouldn't just be filming a show, but helping to construct a narrative in editorial.... which I love to do.

What was the physical process like (number of cameras, film/video format, pre-production process)?

BARRY: We did a prep day/rehearsal shooting with two cameras, then two shows with four cameras (it was supposed to be three, but CNR got sick for the Friday performance).
We also did some pickup shots on Sunday morning (4 camera) to fill in gaps. These were mainly things that we'd seen Charles do in previous shows that he was no longer doing but we thought would help us in developing the narrative... like talking more about his Mother towards the end, and his students who died from AIDS. He didn't do these things live for us on either of the two nights, but we had seen them on tape previously and asked him to bring them back for the film.

How did you shape the story in the editing and what was that process like?

BARRY: We had outlined 'the story' and scripted it prior to the shooting. We did this by looking at ten or so hours of raw video tape of him doing the show in previous years and the pre-editing this into a video 'script' of sorts. We then transcribed this edit and it was the template for what we wanted to shoot.

Any scenes that CNR didn't do during the shoot that WERE included in this overall edit we had him re-create on Sunday. So the final version is really somewhat different than what he had performed ever before... but it included all stuff that he had performed at SOME point or another throughout the previous three years or so.

Once we had the footage shot we began a LONG process of cutting. It really took a surprisingly long time to get it to work as a story instead of just a concert/performance film. There were so many options. Yes, we had the 'script' to follow, but CNR surprised us by doing stuff we had never seen before (some of it he made up on the spot) and it was GOOD. So that threw us off. Then other things we really liked didn't work as well as it had in previous taped versions... who knows why. The whims of theater and audiences, I guess.

The other thing was that our 'script' was two hours long when cut together, so we had to trim the hell out of it to get it down to under 90 minutes. We tested the cut longer and people got very restless. Something about live theater (where it isn't boring at al to hear CNR go on for three hours or more) and a film, where audience expectations are more ADD and they really got restless after 90 minutes.

But the main obstacle was that CNR never hit marks and seldom told the same story or did the same scene in the same spot from night to night, so we had to cut together the show in such a way not to reveal that from one shot to the next he was in a completely different space. This is one of the reasons we ultimately shot hand held and did a dreamy/hand held, shallow focus kind of look. We had to mask the fact that he was stage left in the wide shot and then stage right in the close up! Quite a challenge, but I feel it really ads to the surreal/mental landscape quality of the film and hopefully sets it apart from other stage shows on film.

How did Charles react to the finished film?

BARRY: He loved it. He saw the first cut at my house one night and we drank Manhattan's and talked for hours afterwards. He truly loved it. He did wish it were longer and asked for some things to be put back, but generally he eventually agreed that it worked better for film audiences at this length. In fact, he eventually even suggested some cuts and re-arrangements. He also suggested the title slides (and even wrote some) and other ideas.

We got a fax with his notes the day after the shoot, but they were really positive. When he saw the final version we were told by Patrick that he watched it over and over, studying it and showing it to friends. He could be cantankerous at times but was really a pleasure to deal with on the edit.

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

BARRY: Throwing out our storyboards and shooting hand held was the smartest. We were really worried that this 'look' would seem out of step with the material, but in the end, given how unplanned the show is from a blocking sense, there would have been no way to cut the multiple nights together -- we had to get a little surreal. If we'd kept with our initial 'boarded' plan the film never would have cut and we would have ended up with a mess. And I really like the final look... it is unique and dreamy and messy in a way that seems to match CNR's monologue and the man himself.

The dumbest? Hmmm. Probably assuming that the theater crew would do what we wanted them to do without more political tact on my part. I think the confrontations we had stemmed from my assumption that we were paying the theater crew to stage the show so we could film it, and so they would take orders from our film DP without question.

In the end it worked great, and I loved the theater crew... especially David Mingrino. But in the beginning they were very protective of the show and CNR's legacy... to the point of really pushing back on our lighting and staging requests. This back and forth really resulted in some nice results though... in the end it was a better film for it. But the next time I shoot a stage play, I will definitely spend more time bringing the film DP and the stage manager and director into the planning prior to shoot.

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

BARRY: You learn with every film, and with this one it was really how different the film experience was from the theater experience. The music, the lighting, the pacing... all of these things are VERY different in the finished film from the original stage show. When we did test screenings, the further we went away from the theater experience and made it more focused/cinematic, the more people liked it.

And I also really like the fact that the film doesn't just seem like a series of anecdotes, but is an overall story, of a hero, forging ahead through a difficult life.

From every project I seem to learn the same thing... it is all about STORY.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Paul Cotter on “Bomber”

What was your filmmaking background before making Bomber?

PAUL: I started out with a Geography degree, worked on glaciers in Pakistan, then in my mid-twenties decided to have a career change.

I started working as a reporter/researcher for BBC radio following the indie rock scene in Manchester, England, then summoned up enough courage to try to be a filmmaker. I was rejected by all the English film schools I applied to (they said I was a social scientist and didn't have the necessary background), so I applied to American, Australian and Polish schools and ended up doing an MFA in Cinema and Photography at Southern Illinois University.

I graduated, went to Nashville, worked in a camera rental house, loaded film on country music videos, moved to Chicago, started focus pulling on indie features and finally started making short films. Bomber is my first attempt at a feature.

Where did the idea come from? What was the writing process like?

PAUL: My father was a Bomber pilot. In 2001 I spent 3 weeks in a car with him on a road trip through Europe. I wouldn’t say “stuck,” because it was actually a holiday. A holiday with my mum, dad and sister. We started in Belgium and rather recklessly ended up in Budapest. It wasn’t planned. We just ended up driving across Europe.

Two big memories stuck with me. First, how strange it was to be an adult stuck in a car with your parents for three weeks. The roles are reversed from the holidays you had as a child. You end up doing most of the driving and your parents sit in the back and ask “are we there yet?” All the while you are still their child, and what’s worse you tend to act like one. The second memory was traveling with a man who was seeing Germany for the first time in years, having bombed it 60 years before. The idea for plot came out of that.

The writing process had two stages: the first took a year where I wrote a lot of rubbish down. I had a script, but it was wandering and dull. I then took a huge step back, rewrote it as a micro-budget, imagining I had zero resources at my disposal and that's the script I shot with. This second phase took me about 12 weeks from start to finish.

How did you fund the film?

PAUL: Three separate donors, including myself. All small amounts. Filmmaker friends who just wanted me to make it. The film didn't cost very much.

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

PAUL: Sony EX1. The best thing was the size of the camera. That it was so small. There was no worst thing. It was pretty cool to work with.

You wore several hats on the production -- writer, director, producer. What's the upside and the downside to doing that?

PAUL: Well I should say that during the shoot itself I handed the producer reins over to Maureen Ryan, which was huge. I don't think I could have used those two sides of my brain at the same time.

The upside to wearing several hats is that you can change things very easily if the production needs it. It's very immediate. You lose a location first thing in the morning? No problem. Write a new scene, change a few details and your shot list is probably there in your head already. It's also good in that you are very intimate with everything going on. There is no mystery.

Downside? You can get overwhelmed. The fact that I did so much myself. It’s exhausting. But I surrounded myself with a really cool group of people and we did a great job, and created a film I am proud of. So you forget about all the challenges.

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

PAUL: Smartest? Kept the crew really small (7 people including myself and my editor). It really helped make the process an intimate affair, and that shows in the film. The film feels personal, because the way we made it was personal. I truly believe that.

Dumbest? Nothing super-dumb, but a great lesson I learned when you have a tiny crew and no lights is to shoot as much as possible in the shade. Under a tree, near a house, anything to stop you blowing out the image and getting sunburn!

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

PAUL: Small is beautiful.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Roger Nygard on "Suckers"

What was going on with you before you started Suckers?

ROGER NYGARD: At that time I had made three movies. My first film was a one-man show, one-room comedy, written by and starring Steve Odenkirk. We made that film for about $350,000. Then my second film was a $2 million dollar action picture, for a company called Overseas Film Group. Their films are primarily foreign-sales driven.

I remember seeing that movie. There was a lot of action.

ROGER NYGARD: You've got to have five action set pieces, that's the rule for those sort of movies. That's what's expected from the foreign buyers to make their foreign sales. I know we had at least five; we might have had six. But five is the minimum requirement.

The third movie was Trekkies, my first documentary, about Star Trek fans.

In doing Suckers, I was coming off of those three films, which were all very different and driving my agents crazy, because they didn't know what I was. Was I the documentary guy, am I the action guy, am I the comedy guy? So Suckers was a new thing, a sort of grisly dramatic comedy, I guess, with some action.

I had been writing that script with my co-writer, Joe Yannetty, while shooting Trekkies, because you always have to be thinking three movies ahead and have several projects percolating.

Joe had written a one-man show about his experiences selling cars. I read portions of that and he told me some of the stories, and I said, "You've got to make a movie about this. These stories are incredible." So that's where it started.

Joe and I worked together writing the script, based on his experiences, which is a process for me as a screenwriting that I have works best. I almost always work with a writing partner, and the reason is that I grew up in Minnesota, pretty average background. Went to college. Moved to California to seek my fortune in the film business. I never got a job as a CIA agent, never went into the marines, never became a fireman or a cop, didn't go on the road and get arrested or sell cars. You can't write about life experiences that you haven't personally lived, unless you research them extensively or partner up with someone who has lived those experiences.

My writing style is that I tend to write with people who have had interesting life experiences, but don't necessarily have the desire or the fortitude or the persistence to bring it to the screen.

Most screenwriters hate it when someone comes up to them and says, "My life would make a great movie," but it sounds like, depending on the person, you might sit down and talk to them.

ROGER NYGARD: That's how I operate. I think everybody has one good screenplay in them, based on their own life. And that's often the first place to start and the best place to start for a screenwriter is your own life, because that's what you know -- as long as you're willing to rip open your soul. You have to bare yourself to the world in order to write something that other people will be interested in reading and perhaps making as a movie.

It's not easy. It's hard. You've got to write things that you wouldn't even tell your shrink. Those are the screenplays that really stand out.

So when I say that everybody has one good screenplay in them, it's if they're willing to bare their soul and write about those skeletons in the closet, those experiences.

How did you come up with the idea of setting the story on four consecutive Saturdays?

ROGER NYGARD: That was because that's how the car business runs. Every Saturday there's a sales meeting. It's an inspirational meeting, a motivational meeting. It's a time for everybody to gauge where they are against everyone else, because there's always that competitive aspect. So that's how we broke it down, because the industry that we were writing about breaks itself down monthly and weekly. Every month they start over, the cycle begins again. They zero out everybody's totals and start again on Monday at the beginning of every new month. The structure suggested itself to us because the arena we were writing about was based on a monthly structure.

How nervous were you about setting the whole first act in that first sales meeting?

ROGER NYGARD: You know, we broke a lot of structural rules with Suckers. And, in hindsight, there is a lot I would do differently, having learned what I've learned since then and having seen how that experiment worked, where it worked and where it failed.

Part of the excitement of filmmaking is taking chances sometimes. Sometimes you're going to fail spectacularly. And we took a big chance structuring the first act that way. But I don't think it was the biggest chance we took.

What was the biggest chance?

ROGER NYGARD: The biggest chance in the script was doing a genre shift from the second to the third act, which many people disconcerting. Audiences are not used to -- and don't like -- when you shift from one genre to another in a movie.

Quentin Tarantino did it also in From Dusk 'Til Dawn. It starts out as kind of a crime caper/road chase, and then shifts into a monster movie, which threw a lot of people. I think that film was less successful than it might have been also, because people just don't like genre shifts. They want to know what the genre is from the beginning of the movie, what's the level of reality of the story, and then you have to stick to it.

If you don't, then you're taking a chance or doing an art film.

Did you consider other possible climaxes and endings?

ROGER NYGARD: I wish we had considered more, but as soon as we unearthed that story, it felt right to us while we were writing the script. Again, looking back, yeah, I think we could have finished the movie just as engagingly and kept it in the car sales realm, without having to go into the crime and drug-trafficking realm.

But then you would have lost the opportunity to have many of the film's character all shoot each other simultaneously in a small room.

ROGER NYGARD: Yes, and we would have lost my favorite line of the movie: "You're so beyond fucked, you couldn't catch a bus back to fucked."

You kind of fall in love with some things, but in the editing room you spend time killing your babies, that's the term for it. Sometimes you have to cut out the things you're in love with for the good of the whole.

When you did your research at the car dealership, did they know what you were up to?

ROGER NYGARD: Oh, yeah, and they were excited to talk about what they do. I rarely find people unwilling to talk, whether I'm making documentaries or researching characters for a narrative screenplay. It's harder to get them to shut up, actually, then to get them started.

I went to several dealerships with my tape recorder and talked to people and asked them to tell me stories. People love to talk about themselves.

What was the biggest lesson you took away from Suckers?

ROGER NYGARD: The biggest one we already discussed, which is not to violate the rules so dramatically, which we did with the genre shift. That was my biggest lesson.

The corollary was to keep writing, always be writing. Like ABC from Glengarry Glen Ross-- ABC, Always Be Closing. ABW -- Always Be Writing.

The script I'm working on right now is something where I hatched the idea for it about three or four years ago, but I didn't know what to do with it. And it took three or four years of gestating within my brain before it started to form into a shape. It was an idea I told to one of my writing partners and he really sparked to it, and so it moved itself to the top of the pile.

That's why you need to have a lot of ideas and a lot of projects and a lot of things going, because I think your subconscious is working on these projects at different paces. The more you've got going, the more likely one of them is going to sprout.