Thursday, December 30, 2010

Jon Favreau on "Swingers"

After you'd written Swingers, why did you decide to try to make the film and not just sell the script?

JON FAVREAU: By keeping the script, you maintain control over every aspect of the movie.

Creativity, you're giving up final cut usually right off the bat. When you're making it yourself, it's up to you and only you what ends up in the movie and what compromises you want to make creatively. So, for some nominal fee, they're really getting a lot of leverage over you, both creatively and financially.

A lot of changes were asked of me: changing certain characters to women, making the characters more likeable, changing things that interfered of what my vision for the piece was.

In defense of those people, they're used to developing scripts, they're looking for clues in the material, they don't know what the overall vision of the piece is, so the best thing to do is to not take any of that upfront money.

Was Swingers based on your life?

JON FAVREAU: It wasn't a true story, but it was definitely based on people and places and inspired by events that I had experienced.

When you write from that, you're incorporating a lot of things that are very real and well understood by you. And the script inherits a certain sincerity and a certain subconscious vision that you might not even be aware of when you're doing your first script, if it's a personal one. It becomes much more difficult later on to do that.

But if you stick to things that you know and understand and people that you know, it allows a very true voice and you tend to come off as a better writer than really are, because you're incorporating so much of reality into your piece.

Did you write it for you and Vince Vaughn?

JON FAVREAU: I wrote things that I knew that they could do well. But at that time, Vince had not really played a character like the persona that was presented in Swingers, even though it was based very closely on him. The characters that he had played never really played into his rapid-fire delivery or his sense of humor. He was always playing it much more straight as an actor. I don't think he saw himself as a comic actor as much as a good-looking, leading man type.

So I was tapping into something I knew he could do, from knowing him so well, but I didn't really know whether or not he could deliver, because he hadn't done it before. It's good to have those touchstones.

What really got us there was that we had done so many staged readings of it, to try and raise money, that it served as almost a rehearsal period. So that by the time we got to the set, where we didn't have a lot of time and we were shooting a lot of pages a day, we had already gone through the material so much and had chemistry from our relationship in our personal life, and that certainly made things easier. There was no learning curve in the relationship by two actors that are cast opposite each other. Everybody already had a level of familiarity that helped to keep the process a little more streamlined.

When did you realize how much fun audiences would have with the phone message scene?

JON FAVREAU: Not on the set. The crew was not very entertained by it. We shot all the apartment stuff in a day and a half, so about a quarter of the movie was shot in a day and a half on paper. So that was one of those things that was crammed into a very crowded day at that location.

And there were concerns. Doug Liman (the director) was concerned that it was too many messages. But I felt pretty strongly about it, having read it in front of audiences live, at staged readings.

It wasn't until the whole movie was cut together and the significance of that moment, where it fell in the story, it was definitely a pivotal point in the film. And because you were so emotionally involved in that moment in the movie, the audience was engaged with the film. And had they not been engaged with the character, that scene would not have been as funny or as poignant. It was because of the work that had been done by everybody involved up until then that it was funny.

Now I think people enjoy it alone, because they remember the movie. But had that just been done as a sketch, it might have been a clever thing, but I don't think it would have had the impact that it does in the context of the film.

It all goes to emotion. If you're emotionally engaged, everything is going to be funnier, more satisfying, scarier, everything. It's that emotional connection that you feel with these guys. And the reason you feel that is because the story was so personal and sincere, and that's a very hard thing to maintain as you do bigger and bigger movies.

It's the one thing that you really have going for you in a small movie, that you're doing something that's so really and usually so personal that you have a level of emotional engagement that you will not get in a high-budget, high-concept movie.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Sathish Kalathil on "Jalachhayam"

Jalachayam is the first Malayalam digital movie shot exclusively on a Mobile phone.

What was your filmmaking background before making Jalachhayam?

SATHISH: Earlier, I filmed a documentary named Veena Vaadanam about the origin- growth-and the evolution of painting, with a Nokia N70 mobile phone in 2006-2007.

This documentary had been released on in 2008 at Thrissur and it had been screened in 16mm, successfully. Until now, this documentary has been screened in various film festivals and is renowned as the first mobile phone film in India, which has received the certificate of Central Board of Film Certification in 2008.

The success of Veena Vaadanam instilled in this team the confidence to make a feature film. That is Jalachhayam.

Why did you decide to produce it on a mobile phone?

SATHISH: Less production cost and a novel method of movie making.

What were the best and worst things about shooting it on a mobile phone?

SATHISH: The best thing was the ease of use of the instrument. It was an easy way for people who are interested in movies -- even a rural people -- can experience their own interests in movies. It’s also an easy way to fight against social evils -- even for a single person. The worst things are lighting control and capturing wide shots.

How did you handle editing and post-production?

SATHISH: The same way as in the film industry.

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

SATHISH: I have learned how to direct and prepare a movie whole.


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 (http://www.gandhiatthebat.com/), 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 (http://www.revampvintage.com/) 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.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tina Mabry on “Mississippi Damned”

What was your filmmaking background before making Mississippi Damned?

TINA: While I always had an interest in filmmaking, I didn’t actually gain any experience until I got into the University of Southern California’s graduate film program. In my final year at USC, I started working on my thesis film, Brooklyn’s Bridge to Jordan. At USC we make quite a few short films, but they are done on a small scale and on a “what’s currently in your pocket” type of budget. This was the first time I had to think about fundraising and gathering a semi-large crew. It was only a six day shoot, but it felt like an eternity because I was wearing more than just the writer/director hats, but also producer, editor, location manager, UPM, etc.

Once I finished the film, I put it on the festival circuit and it got into over 50 film festivals worldwide. It even made it on Showtime, LOGO, and BET, which made the rough production days worth it. While I was working on Brooklyn’s Bridge to Jordan, an opportunity came up to write a comedic feature for Jamie Babbit. I was a big fan of her work and I had a deep interest in the project. After around a year of writing the script, Itty Bitty Titty Committee, was ready and they went into production. Subsequently, the film premiered at Berlin in 2007 and won Best Feature at SXSW.

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

TINA: Mississippi Damned is based on my family and I’ve always had an interest in telling it. I really wanted to explore the destructive cycles that pass on from generation to generation and more importantly, why those cycles continue.

At times it’s difficult to write your life story because you have to step outside of yourself and take an honest look at yourself (in my case, family included) seeing both the good and the bad. The producer/editor of Mississippi Damned, Morgan Stiff, knows my family and me intimately; therefore, she was able make sure I was on track when telling the story. Morgan has a background in dramaturgy, so she’s very skilled at providing proper notes on my scripts.

I took some time off from writing Mississippi Damned when my mother passed away. It was too painful to write about my family during this time, so I stepped away for a few months. After a close friend suggested I start back writing as a way of healing, I sat back down and went to work. All in all it took anywhere from 6 to 8 months to finish the script.

How did you fund the film?

TINA: Funding any film is usually the main difficulty and we found similar hurdles. We had an investor who was willing to put a considerable amount of funds into the project, but we wanted to make the film for a larger budget. Morgan participated in Film Independent’s Producers Lab with the script and it was there that she got the advice to make the film with the money we had in hand. This was the best advice we could’ve received because we would still be out there trying to raise our initial budget.

Morgan and her producing partner, Lee Stiff, were very creative when figuring out how to make a 109-page period piece script with 34 characters on our budget. When you have creative producers who are emotionally invested in the project, you’ve caught lightning in a bottle.

Did the story change much in the editing process?

TINA: The film takes place in 1986 and then in 1998. The 1986 portion of the story is pretty much scene for scene. The editor, Morgan Stiff, had to do a bit of switching of scenes and deleting of scenes in the 1998 segment of the story.

When reading the script pages, there were certain scenes that needed to be there to progress the story, but once we shot them they were superfluous. An actor’s look, the visual setting, sound design, etc. can cover in two seconds what I wrote two pages for and that’s the beautiful thing about filmmaking.

Overall, the story didn’t drastically differ from the final cut, but Morgan’s changes and Lee’s notes took the film to a new level.

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

TINA: The smartest thing I did during production was to just be a writer/director. With superb producers and a talented crew, I was able to solely focus on doing those two jobs, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Shooting Mississippi Damned was a vastly different experience from my thesis film and it made me actually look forward to going to set everyday; I was excited about the material we were capturing.

I suppose the dumbest thing I did during production was doing 10 takes on one shot. During the entire shoot, we only had maybe a max of 5 takes on any given shot; we usually got what we needed in 2 takes because the performances were so good. However for this scene, we designed it to take place in one shot. Needless to say, the shot was not working so instead of going in for coverage I proceeded to do 10 takes of the thing until we got it right.

I run a very open set where people can feel free to come to me with ideas because making a film is a group effort, so from time to time a key crewmember might whisper something to me. But this time, not one word was said. It wasn’t until I was in the hotel room that night that it hit me. When Morgan started editing, she looked at the scene and smiled at me. She said, “You didn’t think to go in for coverage, did you?” All I could do was shake my head.

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

We shot Mississippi Damned on a tight budget and we had six-day shoots, which start to take a toll after a few weeks. The one thing I learned is that having a five-day shooting week would be the ideal production situation. I also learned about adapting to the given circumstances. Often times, you find yourself slightly behind schedule and you have to know what to cut and what to keep. Thankfully, we had a wonderful crew to working on the project who were able to throw in valuable suggestions.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Sudhish Kamath on "Good Night Good Morning"

What was your filmmaking background before making Good Night Good Morning?

SUDHISH: I made my first film, That Four Letter Word, twice before I wrote Good Night Good Morning. That Four Letter Word was the regular first film filmmakers in their early twenties choose to do semi-autobiographical coming of age film about four friends, one of them who wants to make a movie.

The first version, shot in the Digi Beta format in 2002, cost us about $24,000, but I had to shelve it with just two scenes to shoot because of assorted reasons - technical and personal - but mostly, because I did not like what I had shot.

The second time around, in 2005, I scaled the film down and shot on a MiniDV camera and a budget of $6000 and we managed to get a limited theatrical release in India in two cities - Mumbai and Chennai in 2007. But guess what, the second time didn't help either. I still didn't like it. Movies need money. When you cut corners, it reflects on the end product. People don't care that you don't have money. They want to see a good film.

So once I barely recovered cost of production through theatrical release and a stray release on video on demand, I decided to just put it up online for free downloads and streaming. Thankfully, I have a day job as a film critic for The Hindu, which is India's second largest circulated English newspaper and I've been writing for them for the last 11 years. So there was really no pressure on me to keep making films. I would work only if the idea truly motivated me.

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

SUDHISH: A friend of mine, Krishna, bought this HD camera on my advice. I had told him to get one that can shoot 24 frames and in progressive mode and he did just that. Once he bought it, he said, "Let's make a movie." And I told him, "With no money and just a camera, you can only make a film with two people talking on the phone." I said that as a joke but the more we spoke about it, it seemed like a good challenge considering that there have been conversation films like Before Sunrise and its sequel Before Sunset that have gone on to become cult films. And I've always wanted to make a film about a phone call ever since I saw Phone Booth.

And there have been quite a few films where we see the guy and the girl share an immensely romantic all night phone call... from When Harry Met Sally to Elizabethtown. Cameron Crowe has been like the single most significant cinematic influence in my life and so I decided to write a film as a tribute. And all the experience of talking to my girlfriend late into the night as we were getting to know each other helped quite a bit. In fact, I wrote the film with her. My friend Krishna and me would sit all night and work out the structure.

I wanted the phone call to capture all eight stages of romance - the Icebreaker, the Honeymoon, the Reality Check, the Break Up, the Patch Up, the Confiding, the Great Friendship and the Killing confusion before you give in and accept you are truly, madly, deeply in love. So I knew I had to take my characters through this journey of these eight stages that just made up with for the sake of structure and my girlfriend Shilpa and me would write out the lines.

A lot of my stray thoughts from my blogging days (I used to do quite a bit of that when I was single) provided the material for some interesting conversation and the more we wrote, the more we were convinced that this film needed to be scaled up a little. If it was going to be New Year's eve, we agreed it had to be mounted against the backdrop of New York City since no other place in the world captures the excitement of a New Year and a fresh start than the revelry at Times Square. We also decided to invest in quality actors - Manu Narayan and Seema Rahmani and their improvisation added quite a bit to make the conversation seem real, like it really happened.

How did you find funding for the film?

SUDHISH: I used credit cards, took a personal loan for furnishing my house, borrowed money from friends, put all my savings into it and also ended up using a part of my housing loan. Again, good thing I have a day job or I would have never got all these loans.


What were the technical challenges you faced shooting the phone conversations?

SUDHISH: We had decided earlier on that the characters needed to be talking on mobile phones to reflect our times. So it wouldn't have made sense to have both of them at home. And since I wanted them to be moving away from each other as they were getting intimate and closer over the phone, I decided that one of them had to be in transit in New York with a flight to catch and the other was driving back home to Philadelphia away from New York.

I wanted the phone call to happen in the most inconvenient of situations and for a guy, there could be no bigger nightmare than his best friends in the car eavesdropping into the conversation, especially if one of them is high and talking nonsense and if the other is the designated driver who is in no mood to listen to love talk.

Ideally, I would have liked to shoot the conversation live with a two-camera set-up. One in the girl's hotel room and one in the moving car but it seemed like a logistical nightmare for an indie production. You know the size of hotel rooms in New York... they are so small. Also imagine even trying to shoot on a highway. We would be insane to even try.

So we did the next best thing: Decided to shoot in a hotel room in India with all the props from the American hotel, including the day's newspaper - we just wanted to make sure it looked authentic - and we shot the girl's side of the phone call with the other actor giving her his lines... through a phone call, of course. So it would be his rehearsal, but for her, that was the shot being canned. We shot all her scenes in 3 days.

And then spent three days to edit the whole call and then shot in an air conditioned floor with a static car and reverse projection by feeding him her lines - the edited version - so that he now had to respond to her talking non-stop. And there would be perfect sync. It just put a lot more pressure on the actor but that's where working with an experienced theatre actor from Broadway really helps.

What type of camera did you use to shoot the film and what did you like about it .... and hate about it?

SUDHISH: We ended up using the same camera my friend bought - the Sony HVR - V1U which can shoot 1080p (progressive mode) in 24 frames. It's a very good camera to shoot with because it leaves you the option to simply print to film without any complicated processing or additional post-production. It was the ideal camera to shoot with in 2008 when we wrote the film and shot the New Year's Eve portions in New York. But two years later, there were better cameras in the market.

It took us another 18 months after the first schedule to get started again because of my loans and debts, by which time my friend also bought a Canon Mark II, 5D camera. We were tempted to shoot with it but decided not to mix formats since we were told that we would have a tough time in post production trying to make visuals from the second schedule look like a part of the film from the first schedule, both visually and technically from the editing platform point of view.

Shooting with 1080p meant our editing options were limited. We either had to use a basic Sony Vegas or Final Cut Pro that had the Apple Pro Res codec since AVID did not have a codec for 1080p back then (now it does). But if I were to shoot today, I would use the Mark II, 5D for the whole film.

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

SUDHISH: The smartest thing I did was to decide to shoot in black and white so that the reverse projection seemed integral to the theme of the film - we thought it would make the film look like a 1950s talkie set in today's world as a throwback to the old-world romance films because hey, romance hasn't changed but how we communicate has.

The dumbest thing we did was to cram the schedule with loads to shoot in a single day. We shot all of the guy's side of the phone call in nine hours! We didn't have a choice since one of the actors was leaving the country and we had wasted two days trying to figure out how to make a right hand drive car in India look like a left hand drive on camera since the rare left hand drive camera we finally procured had shitty interiors.

We considered flipping the image for the whole film (using the mirror image), make the actors wear a watch on the wrong hand etc but figured we were just going to make life difficult for us. So finally we spent about $12 and bought a steering wheel from a mechanic down the street and told the actor who was supposed to be driving to keep holding it throughout the film and pretend to drive. It worked!


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

SUDHISH: My biggest learning from this film is to invest in quality actors and work hard on the writing because it really paid off big time for us, more than I had ever imagined.

Most of the time, great actors and quality writing can distract people from the technical aspects of the film and make them forgive the production constraints. Stories are about people in a conflict. If the people come across as real when they take on the conflict, you can be assured that your storytelling is effective. People relate to people.

With all these cameras today, films have become easier to shoot but whether I have the money or not, I will always make sure I have good actors because they will ensure I have a decent film if I have a decent story to tell.