Thursday, December 29, 2011

Joe Lueben and Jesse James Russell on “Bits”

What was your filmmaking background before making Bits?

JOE LUEBEN: Before Bits, I had written and directed dozens of short films--some good, some unwatchable--while studying English literature at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. While at Augsburg, I was lucky enough to meet and work with the other filmmakers and actors who would become the core group of Bits. After graduating, all of us were eager to take our filmmaking abilities to the next step by making a feature film.

JESSE JAMES RUSSELL: Bits was the most ambitious project and first feature length film that I had worked on at the time. Up until that point, I was still in school and most of my work consisted of shorts: experimental, narrative, and installation pieces. Most of the Bits crew was already assembling in Minneapolis (all Augsburg College friends) while I was going to school in Vermont. The summer before my senior year, Trevor Tweeten (Director of Photography), told me he liked my shorts and that they wanted me on board. So I took a year off of school to work on my first collaborative feature.

Where did the idea come from?

JOE LUEBEN: Bits, to me, began with an image. I found an old, broken iPod in my friend Phil Mershon's (the lead actor's) house. I was obsessed with having a scene in which the iPod was laid out on a worktable and dissected as if it were a corpse. From there, I had no idea where the film would go, but the image always stuck with me. Of all the ideas thrown around in the beginning, the iPod corpse is the only scene that made it into the film.

Other ideas came and went so quickly that it is hard to remember the origins. I do remember that, originally, Bits was titled, as a joke, The Angle, and was going to be a film about a tech-obsessed inventor who winds up in the woods of Northern Minnesota and, through the love of a country girl, learns to experience the wonder of the natural world. Jesse and I came up with this idea about a week before shooting, pitched it to the group, and we all decided to go with it.

All that changed at 3 AM, the morning of Day One of shooting.

I remember I went outside to have a cigarette because I couldn't sleep. I was surprised to find Jesse outside having a smoke, also unable to sleep. We talked about our idea and both confessed that we thought our idea was boring. We were about to make a film that neither of us would ever want to watch. So, with only hours to go before shooting, we decided to change the entire film. We would do that--the setting and changing of ideas--hundreds of times before shooting was completed.

How did you use improvisation during the writing and the production of the movie?

JESSE JAMES RUSSELL: When I say that we were collaborative I mean that we had a back and forth conversation with our actors about story, not just within our "story team." Phil was not only the star of the film, but its producer, and someone who was heavily involved in the story process. This went for other actors, too, who we would often look to for story details, and characterization. (You may notice that many characters play themselves in the film.) So there were times when we would select friends of ours to be in the film based on their actual personalities, and I suppose, their ability to "improv" as themselves.

To be honest with you, we were using improv to fill in blanks sometimes, and other times we would try to let it determine certain things about the story or characters. A lot of times, since we didn't have a proper script, we had to improv, and as "the writer," I'm not going to lie, I got lost in this process sometimes. As "the writer" it was really hard to be the person in charge of "steering" the story when in fact I definitely was not the only one steering. At the same time, this film would be nothing without improvisation.

So many of the best moments of the film were not planned or written down beforehand; I almost think that anything good about the film was probably a happy accident.

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

JOE LUEBEN: One of the most fun things about Bits is how it was shot. For the bulk of the film we used an HVX-200 with a lens adaptor and a Nikon 35mm lens set (used for still photography). In addition to that, we shot numerous scenes using mixed media: Mini-DV, iSight, cellphone, 16mm, VHS, etc. Because we shot with so many different formats and styles, Bits has a truly unique look--a mix of high and low production value.

I love the result, the texture of the film. All of the scenes shot with the HVX-200 look really buttery and clean, like a real movie. When they are mashed up with scenes shot on a cellphone, for instance, they only look better.

The biggest pain about shooting with the HVX-200 and Nikon lenses was that, on wider shots, the edges of the frame tended to blur slightly. Thankfully, Trevor was able to overcome any optical obstacle and give each and every scene stunning imagery. Bits may lack in other areas, but it doesn't lack in strong visuals.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?

JESSE JAMES RUSSELL: This film wouldn't have been remotely possible without Phil Mershon and Trevor Tweeten who had already raised money and acquired equipment for their production company, Omni Kino (we used a different company specifically for the production). So I didn't raise a single dollar for this film and I couldn't have been happier with that, naturally.

Our plan for recouping costs would have been roughly as follows: Potential money earned via distribution deals would first pay back the film's expense and then it would be divided equally between collaborators. This hasn't happened. It was never really a plan, just a distant hope.

We didn't expect to make any money, and we didn't, so nobody was disappointed or devastated financially.

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

JOE LUEBEN: The smartest thing we did during production was corralling a group of people crazy enough to want to make a feature film. We had a window of 40 days where all six core members of the production were gathered in Minneapolis. Even though we didn't have a script, we had the people. And, at the time, that was most important.

Everyone on board had an energy and a hunger to see a feature film through to completion and we used that energy to get Bits started.

The dumbest thing we did? Not writing a script. Because of the time crunch, it wouldn't have been feasible to wait around for a script to get written and polished in those 40 days.
With that said, it would have been great to at least have a working outline for what we were shooting. Time and time again, we found ourselves backed into creative corners, trying to write or shoot around ideas that we eventually abandoned. This became only more frustrating as the days/weeks/months went by.

In a perfect world, all story issues would have been worked out weeks before the camera started rolling. But, as any filmmaker knows, what you want and what you get are always at odds. On one hand, a scripted Bits may have been a more coherent film. On the other hand, a scripted Bits may never have been shot.

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

JESSE JAMES RUSSELL: When you submit to film festivals, do a lot of research and don't submit to only extremely competitive festivals. I think this was part of the reason Bits didn't go very far in the festival circuit.

For most stories, you want to work out the kinks before you go into production, but there's also something to be said for collaboration, and working together on what is usually a lonely, personal process (writing). Make art that you care about deeply and that means something to you personally. Keep going back to whatever is that you connect with most. Discover what you really want to communicate to a potential public, work with people who want to say the same kinds of things, and never turn down a project that could satisfy your goals or needs as a filmmaker because it might be a long time before you get another chance.

There are a million ways to communicate an idea via film (and you can fuss over technique all you want), but try to be in touch with the simplest incarnation your most powerful idea, your message, your vision, whatever you want to call it. Know what it is, know how to talk about it and you'll be a lot more likely to shoot it.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Jeff Mizushima on "Etienne!"

What was your filmmaking background before making Etienne!?

JEFF: I interned at a story development and production company in Los Angeles for two years. I was maybe a year out of high school and was very clueless. I treated my internship like a real job. Getting coffee for the producers was just as important as anything else. The other interns were all college graduates and jaded by the entry level. One of them had graduated from Harvard and I joked with him that I just got out of high school and we both had the same position. He punched me in the stomach.

I was also a production assistant on two features and I found myself learning-by-embarrassment. That’s what I call it when you learn by making so many newbie mistakes that everyone laughs at you and you feel shame and guilt and depression. Actually, that’s quite horrible, but by the time I went to film school, I felt I already had the experience that put me slightly ahead. In my last year as a film student, I wrote the script for Etienne! – two weeks after I graduated, I was in production on the film.

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

JEFF: I worked at an after school program while in film school. I brought a dwarf hamster in as a mascot and the kids loved it. The idea for the film came out of that. I wanted to make a kid’s movie.

I wrote the first draft of the script in less than a month. It was pretty fast because I wrote within my resources, writing only what I could afford to shoot. I find it easier to write when you set a lot of limitations from the beginning. It gives me boundaries and focus.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?

JEFF: A good chunk came from me. I used all my savings, sold my car, used college graduation money. My producer is from Switzerland and was also a graduate film student at UCLA at the time, so he found Swiss investors and we were able to take advantage of some student discounts. We also had two generous producers gets us through post.

We are trying to recoup costs by looking into alternative international outlets. Earlier in 2011, my Swiss producer took our finished movie and as a new way to market the film, we had a famous children storyteller narrate in Swiss-German. It’s basically the same film, except the volume is lowered and the Swiss-German narration is telling a story that fits the culture and age demographic of that audience. This version was released theatrically in Switzerland and is on DVD shelves at their equivalent to Best Buy.

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

JEFF: I shot Etienne! on Super 16mm on a newer Fuji film stock that was supposed to have a vintage 1970s texture. I used an Aaton LTR, an Arri SR II, and SR III. The look of Super 16mm fit the style of the movie, which was why I chose it, but I will never shoot on film again unless my next movie has a huge budget (so probably never).

I had no experience and no money and that’s a bad combination to shoot film. It took too much time, cost too much money, and didn’t make my movie any better. That’s like, an epic fail on the indie film triangle: Time, Money, Quality – choose two. I got none.

How are you using film festivals as part of your distribution plan?

JEFF: My movie came out a few years ago, so using festivals as part of a DIY distribution plan was something I didn’t think about. Traditionally, a sales agent shows your film to distribution companies and then you sit back and watch them bid on your film and take the best offer. Unfortunately, Etienne! came out as the economy crashed, so umm. . .yeah, that didn’t happen for me.

What was the process of getting the movie onto Netflix and how is that working out so far?

JEFF: I signed a digital distribution deal with a company who put my film on Netflix and some other digital outlets. I don’t know if I’ll be breaking my contract terms by telling you this, but … I hate Netflix. If you don’t care about making money and just want your film available to a wide audience, then Netflix is great. But if you want to recoup your investment, then look into other options because once Netflix has your film available for streaming, you are done.

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

JEFF: I don’t think I did anything smart, but I know exactly what the dumbest thing I did was: I did not budget for a production monitor. I trusted my cinematographer, who was also the camera operator, to make sure everything was good. We had a budget for weeklies, not dailies. So after the first week of shooting, half the shots were out focus and/or not composed well. That wasn’t entirely my DPs fault. There needs to be more than one eyeball on every shot. It’s just common sense.

I thought I was saving time and money by not having a monitor, but this ended up costing us so much more. I then took over as camera operator and eventually became my own cinematographer midway through production. This turned into the second dumbest thing I did: an inexperienced director should not also be his own inexperienced DP.

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

JEFF: Working on a low budget film is stressful and bad for your health. It’s essential to be in good mental and physical shape before going into a production. I had never cared about that before, but now, I get as much sleep as I can. I create a diet and fitness routine as though conditioning for a triathlon. I’m surprised how much of a difference that has made with my focus and energy level. Your body is like a car and the production is a long road trip, if you don’t tune up before you go and maintain it along the way, you’re guaranteed to break down at some point.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ravi Godse on “Help Me, Help You”

What was your filmmaking background before making Help Me, Help You?

RAVI: I went to film school for two years and directed some student movies. After that I directed two feature length movies. Dr.Ravi & Mr.Hyde a comedy on mid-life crisis and a murder mystery called I Am a Schizophrenic and So Am I.

I know how hard it is to find a home for independent movies but we were fortunate to get a DVD deal. So before I directed Hollywood actors under a SAG contract, I had a solid real life experience of having been there and done that. And my first movie was no slouch. It did well in DVD market and gained a ton of good reviews.

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

RAVI: Life imitates arts. So the idea always comes from there. I can't call it autobiographical but I love to give advice and I really love to help people. I have noticed others who are well meaning but you wish that they just left you well alone. So I built a story on this kind but goofy doctor who gets everything wrong and lands his friends in trouble.

I am so glad you asked about the writing process. We shot this movie in 10 days so I had to set the script in stone. I wrote it in one sitting, gazing over the sea of Cortez in Mexico. Twelve hours and the first draft was done. Then I took it through rigorous process of defining the story, stream-lining it, polishing the dialogue, arching the characters etc.

Then I held script readings with focus groups to see what makes people laugh, what is it that they don't get. Then I got a few script consultants. Spent a lot of time listening to them, rejected all of their suggestions and moved on. I told the actors that they can take some liberties with the script if they were in a one-on-one scene with me but for the group scenes I requested them to stick to the script to the last comma.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?

RAVI: I will duck this question. But can't resist the temptation to get on the soap-box. Once you have a track record, once you are little known, you can find people to help you. I admire everyone who wants to make a movie. But when I take a look at their target talent or their expected budget, I wonder why are they throwing a hail-Mary on the first play in the first quarter. I believe, no matter how humble the budget, how unknown the cast, if you do a full-length movie, and do it well enough to be seen, then you can look back and point to that shiny disc as something tangible and real. You keep at it and you get somewhere.

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

RAVI: We used Panasonic HDX 900, true Hi Def uncompressed. I loved the fact that we were able to throw prime lenses on it to give it a film look and I hated the fact that it was too cumbersome to do a 2-camera shoot on the climax.

You wore a lot of hats on this project -- director, writer, actor. What's the upside and the downside of working that way?

RAVI: When I answered the previous question, I was just answering the question to show off the nut and bolts knowledge. The real answer was I trusted my Director Of Photography and my lighting director with my life. I left the technical issues in their capable hands and then got the heck out of there. What made wearing these hats easier was, I had a competent producer, terrific lawyer and beyond comparison production team who had ownership interest the movie.

The upside of wearing the hats, is, like, Truman used to say, the buck stops here. So the decisions were clear and lightening fast. And I had to live with them, good or bad. Steve Guttenberg missed his flight coming in due to some scheduling problem. Within seconds, I had the script supervisor looking at doing the group scenes without Steve and I asked the producer to buy seats on as many flights to Pittsburgh on that day, whether the ticket was refundable or not. So we bought four first-class tickets on 3 different airlines in a minute. It would have taken some time to clear this decision with a committee.

The downside is at times it is just too much. We were location scouting at Hartwoond Manor is Pittsburgh and figuring out the scene to be shot there. I got a call and I was talking for a while. The crew asked me as to what I was doing and I told them that I was giving directions to the Locations Manager who was lost!

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

RAVI: The smartest thing I did was to spend months on pre-production to think through pretty much everything.

The dumbest thing I did was not to build some slack into the system. When we shot the opening scene, it was just not happening the way I wanted it. We had that day and that time to get the shot in the can and no back up. That is the only thing, I can think of. I am sure, my friends will find others and point it out to me.

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

RAVI: I learned that I have to figure out a way to foresee unforeseeable issues. It was a team effort and a happy team gave me happy efforts. For the next project, I will be adding a few more members to the team, strip some responsibilities away from me, some away from the producer, trust the team and go with the flow.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Barry Canty on “L.A. Proper”

What was your filmmaking background before making L.A. Proper?

BARRY: I did not go to film school, and although it obviously isn’t necessary, I feel it is a shortcoming of mine and limits me as a filmmaker. I chose to go to Wake Forest University for the basketball scholarship they offered, and when my interest in filmmaking was sparked during my junior year, I was disappointed to find out that not only was there no film school, there weren’t even any filmmaking classes. However, I minored in theatre and began writing one act plays my senior year.

A few years out of college, while working as a model in New York and Miami, I wrote my first screenplay, a drama called Brevard. The script was about a group of kids who run away from a small town in the North Carolina mountains and make a suicide pact to never return, and is an homage to one of my favorite films, Badlands.

Brevard was optioned by indie producer Richard Harding, who went on make the 2010 movie The First Grader, starring Naomie Harris. A funny tidbit: A pre-DUI/cocaine/shoplifting Lindsey Lohan was attached to play the lead. Unfortunately, Brevard was never made.

After that, I created and co-starred in the web series Net Profits. Net Profits is about a group of hard-partying college kids in L.A. who sell drugs online and get mixed up with organized crime.

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

BARRY: I am a huge fan of Woody Allen, Kevin Smith and Ed Burns, and self-referential art has always appealed to me. The idea for L.A. Proper was born out of the contrast between the way Los Angeles is depicted in films and on television, with the reality of the city I was experiencing on a daily basis.

There is a notion that many who have never lived in Los Angeles have about the city, and it is that L.A. is mostly populated by people trying to make it in the entertainment industry...and gangbangers. That ain’t exactly an accurate assessment, and when I first moved here I found a lot of humor in the clumsy interactions I witnessed between people from various ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, and, unlike in the movie Crash - which I find to be one of the more unintentionally funny movies ever made about Los Angeles - I wanted to examine this through humor.

The lives of the eclectic group of friends I had assembled provided points of view that were not generally taken into consideration by filmmakers who set their movies in L.A., so I decided to tell a story that works as a sort of tour of a more accurate depiction of Los Angeles...with jokes about sex, race, immigration and unemployment.

One of my favorite movies about L.A. is Swingers, so I decided to steal ideas from the development process used on that project. I heard about the live readings Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn did around Hollywood to draw the attention of potential investors, so I held auditions and set up a staged reading of the script at a performance space in Santa Monica.

Many of the actors in the film were part of that reading and it gave me confidence that the material didn’t suck completely and that my characters were at least relatable.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?

BARRY: I quickly came to the realization that there was no way I would ever be able to raise enough money to make the movie as it was written in its original form. Luckily, the story isn’t plot driven and the humor is mostly in the dialogue, so I came up with the idea of placing the characters primarily in places that could serve as multiple movie locations that I knew I could get for free or at minimal cost (we actually ended up only paying for two locations).

I used my apartment, the homes of friends and exterior locations throughout Los Angeles and Orange County that we could steal. We did have permits for some scenes, but it was surprisingly easy to shoot guerilla-style when needed. The budget for L.A. Proper was a combination of my own cash, credit cards and money from friends and family.

In terms of recouping the budget, in May 2010, the movie was purchased by a small east coast distributor. I had never heard of the company prior to being contacted by them, but they offered an advance and guarantee equal to 60% of the budget. Unfortunately, after only receiving the advance, due to a breach of contract caused by their failure to release the movie as scheduled in May 2011, I am now in the process of suing the company.

After considering how lucky I was to get ANY money from my ultra low budget movie with a no name cast, I decided to make L.A. Proper available for free on Youtube and Facebook in August of this year. Unfortunately, due to Youtube’s file size restrictions on my account, I’m not able to present it in full HD, but if something’s funny, it should work no matter the resolution.

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

BARRY: L.A. Proper was shot with the Canon HVX200. I can’t really say I hated anything about it. Our cinematographer, Valentina Caniglia, has a lot of experience shooting documentaries in HD and she was able to adapt to all of the shooting situations we were in.

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

BARRY: My smartest act as a director on L.A. Proper actually took place during post production. Once I came to grips with the fact that my limitations and lack of experience as a filmmaker prevented me from executing some of my more ambitious goals, I embraced how the editing process could conceal some of my failures.

The original cut was bracketed by two overly long sequences that didn’t work and are no longer part of the movie. I decided to take the approach of first removing anything that I felt was weak - scenes, moments, bits of dialogue - no matter how strong my emotional attachment to it was.

I then worked on figuring out a way to tell a coherent story - even though it’s very different from my original script - with the pieces that were left over. I mercilessly trimmed almost 30 minutes, and I think I now have a comedy that makes you laugh while you’re watching, but subtly suggests that I have more on my mind than just jokes...and then ends before you get sick of it. In my opinion, that is what a humorist should always attempt to do.

The dumbest thing was to failing to recognize how superfluous some scenes were. Due to the brief shooting schedule (12 days) and my duties as director and co-star, I was unable to watch dailies, and I actually didn’t start seeing footage until halfway through the shoot.

In the final cut of the movie, many of the most difficult to film scenes are nowhere to be found. This is time that I wish I had used for the most important sequences to create more options for my editor to play with. We have many scenes in the movie, with multiple actors, where we only shot one take!

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

BARRY: Writing: Less is more, more or less.

Directing: I come from a sports background, and while some aspects of the communication style used in that arena can be applied to filmmaking, plenty others cannot. Athletes are taught to adjust to their coach, but when you’re a nobody director, co-starring in a low budget movie that you wrote, the smartest and most efficient thing to do is quickly figure out how each cast member ticks, what communication style they prefer, and do whatever you have to do to get the performance you want out of them.

Marketing: I can’t overemphasize the importance of marketing your film and yourself. L.A. Proper won the Heineken Red Star Filmmaker Award and I was profiled in Variety and on IFC.com, but due to the fact this all happened after my first time having a movie at a film festival, I wasn’t ready, nor did I know, how to capitalize on the exposure. I now appreciate the value of marketing a project during pre-production, production and post production, and I plan to do that for the web series I’ll be creating based on L.A. Proper (see, I just did it!).


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Dan O'Bannon on "Dark Star"


How did the script come about?

DAN O'BANNON: John (Carpenter) and I were talking and he said he was going to do this graduate film project. I was very taken with it, and I started pitching ideas back at him. First thing you know, I was helping him make that film. At first he just wanted me to act in it, and I did that. But I was very excited about working on all aspects of the thing.

By the time we got through, the thing was about 50 minutes long. And when we took it to the USC Cinema department and started talking to them about taking it to festivals, we were told it was too long -- that it should have been 20 minutes long, and then they would have taken it around to festivals. But because it was 50 minutes long, they couldn't do anything with it. John and I were pretty upset about that, because it meant nobody would see it.

What did you do then?

DAN O'BANNON: A friend of ours said he would put $10,000 of his own money into it if we could expand it into a feature, and then we could try to get it distributed. It was a tough decision, because it was pretty tight at 50 minutes. Expanding it meant we were going to have to shoot a lot of scenes that were filler, and that would lessen the tightness of the story and make it into an episodic film.

Since they weren't going to take it around to the festivals, we were pretty much stuck. We only had one option--go ahead and shoot some extra scenes. It was kind of disappointing, because that meant we had to go from the most-impressive student film ever made to one of the cheapest features. It wasn't a question of choosing between two venues; there was only one venue offered.

We added a lot of stuff with me in it, because I was the most reliably available as an actor. And we added a lot of slapstick stuff, like the whole subplot about me chasing the alien balloon around, up and down shafts and things. All of that was done to pad.

How did the elevator scene come about?

DAN O'BANNON: We were talking about that old Harold Lloyd film, where he's climbing over a building and how funny and scary it is. We had this idea that we could do this funny thing with this creature going up and down in the elevator shaft. And then we had to figure out how to shoot it.

The first thing we thought was that we'd go find an elevator shaft somewhere, but that didn't get very far before we realized--never mind practical or impractical--it was dangerous. So we finally came up with, let's just do it on its side. What the hell. At least we can do it that way, and maybe if it's funny and exciting people won't care.

I ended up having an appendectomy right after I shot that scene. I just had that board down to my butt, and I had to keep my legs up, waving around in the air. Sometimes I think that I forced some food or something into my appendix from all that stress. I was 26 years old, and you really don't think what that sort of thing is going to do to you. You just have a good idea and you start to do it. And then you find out how hard it is. Today I wouldn't be able to do it all, even if I were willing to try, which I wouldn't be.

What's the biggest lesson you took away from Dark Star?

DAN O'BANNON: I learned all the wrong lessons on
Dark Star. When I finally directed a movie for real, I thought I was supposed to do everything. And I ended up making everybody mad. I was over-prepared for directing and I was mis-directed by having gone to film school, and thought that the director was supposed to be an auteur and do everything himself. When I actually tried doing that in a real movie, I found that I couldn't get anything I wanted, because they would sabotage me.

It basically took me two pictures to learn an entirely different orientation toward directing.

What I learned was very simple: A director doesn't make a movie. Everybody else makes the movie. That means the director doesn’t have to know how to do anything. All the director has to do is be there and stand there and make creative decisions if he feels like it. I had to swivel around 180 degrees and stop worrying about exactly how I wanted to get everything on the screen and start worrying about how to trick 300 people into doing it for me.




Thursday, November 24, 2011

Coleman Hough on "Bubble"


What screenplays had you written before Bubble?

COLEMAN HOUGH: Before I started Bubble, I had written a movie for HBO about the life of Katherine Graham. And I was developing a TV series with some producers in Los Angeles. The thing for HBO, I was hired to do it, I did it and it was completed, but it's never been produced. It's still in development. Apparently, one of the re-writers is Joan Didion. That's kind of cool. If you're going to be re-written by anyone, Joan Didion's the one.

And then I went to Los Angeles last Fall and was developing this TV series. And I ran into Steven, and he wanted to know what I was doing. I told him and we started talking about working together again. He said that Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner had commissioned him to do six films in this new format, day and date release. And he said, "Why don't you write the first one?"

I was thrilled. And then he said, "I don't want to use actors, I want to use just people in the town. And I want there to be no scripted dialogue; I want it to be all improvised." So then I thought, well, what am I going to write?

What was his concept for the movie?

COLEMAN HOUGH: He had an idea, he wanted to do a tale of jealousy that took place in a factory, a love triangle. So I said, "Well, what kind of factory?" And he said, "I'm thinking about an animal testing facility." And then we started talking about the political implications of that, and we decided we didn't want that overlay of political implications.

We started brainstorming about other factories, and I was researching industries in the Midwest, because I knew he wanted to film in the Midwest because it was during the re-election, and Ohio specifically was such a hot swing state. I found two doll factories in Ohio and Indiana, the only two remaining doll factories in the country.

I started making some calls. I didn't tell them what I was doing, I just said I was interested in making dolls and I wanted to know if they did tours of their plant. So I went with a location manager and it was this fun research trip for two weeks, with a week in each town. It was really great, it was like working as a site-specific playwright. I fell in love with the Ohio town, because it was right on the Ohio river.

From the people I met in the town and the feeling I got from the town, and just by observing the life that I had landed in the middle of, I fashioned this story. And then I presented it to Steven and he liked it; we made some adjustments and that gave us our shooting outline.

And you were on the set throughout the shoot?

COLEMAN HOUGH: The fun thing, the great discovery, was that he wanted me on the set every day, because he wanted to be constantly incorporating the stories of the actors into the story.

So I found my job to be the best job of all, because I was not only putting the non-professional actors at ease -- Steven called me The Human Green Room -- because they would hang out with me. I would listen to their stories and we'd share stories and we'd talk about things we'd done and I'd ask them a million questions. Their stories were so great and so rich. So, whenever I would see Steven, on a break or whatever, I'd say, "Okay, I've got a good one. You've got to get Debbie to talk about …" whatever story they had told me that day.

For example, the scene where Rose is taking a bath in the house she's cleaning is a story from my life. I've always wanted to put that scene in a movie because I used to take baths at parties. When I was in my 30s I went through this weird phase where I would just disappear and take a bath at a party, because my idol, Zelda Fitzgerald, used to do that.

I've always wanted to put that in a movie, and I thought, what if she takes a bath in the house where she cleans. And so, that day Misty, the actress, was very apprehensive about wearing the nude suit and being in the bathtub. So I told her that story from my life, and it put her at ease. She just thought that was so funny and it just made it more delicious for her to do it.

How did you create the characters once you had the story roughed in? And did it change once you cast the non-actors?

COLEMAN: I had a clear idea of the characters before we cast the actors. We cast the actors based on the characters I'd imagined. When Steven and I were reviewing the audition tapes, the criteria was, are these the people that I imagined? So we didn't have to make any adjustments to the story, because they were the characters.

So, Debbie just jumped out, she was Martha, and Misty was Rose. They couldn't have been more perfect. We found them, they found us. The whole Bubble experience was like the magic synchronicity of everything. The town opened up to us, everything that was meant to be happened. It was wild.

How difficult was it for you to not write the dialogue and let the actors make it up on-camera?

COLEMAN: It was very hard for me at first, because that's what I write. I'm a playwright and dialogue is what I love to write. I felt a shift -- Steven always talks about a writing head and a making head, which is developing a film and then actually making it. And it's true. So I got to experience that in terms of listening to their cadences and pointing out to Steven the things that really spoke of their characters. Like Misty would say, "Oh, yeah," that was one thing she said that was so that character.

We filmed in the bait and tackle shop for a long time. I would listen on the monitor through all the shooting, and I was thrilled when that woman said, "The darker the water, the darker the bait." And I said, "Steven, you have to start there. It's such a great line."

So it was kind of like writing it as I heard it. It was such an honor, because it was like not making it up in my head, but listening to it and catching it. Which is what you do when you immerse yourself in a world or a culture, you start to hear certain phrases or certain intonations. That was a hard adjustment, not hard but challenging.

I always thought dialogue was so important to me in writing scripts, and I couldn't imagine what that would be like to relinquish the control of that. But it was thrilling. On the first day of shooting, we did the lunchroom scene, where's there's an awkward silence and then Rose says, "Do any of you all smoke?"

I got chills when I was watching that, because of the silence. That's what I love to write; in fact, in a lot of my plays the stage direction says, "There's an uncomfortable silence between them." And the fact that they just trusted that silence, and the sub-text in that line "Do any of you all smoke?" I just couldn't have written anything better than that! Just by putting them in that situation, it was amazing to see the organic response.



Thursday, November 17, 2011

Alex Fegan on "Man Made Men"

What was your filmmaking background before making Man Made Men?

ALEX: Nothing really formal. Although I did a six week summer course on filmmaking in 1999. I also made lots of animated films before that. These were short stop-motion films I shot on my bedroom floor mainly using lego toys as cast.

One such film, perhaps cheekily called Save Us Adolf, can be found on YouTube. It looks at the circumstances where an evil dictator could possibly save the world. It was shot in 1996 when I was 17 on a High 8 camera.

Of course, it was almost a half an hour long, which is was way too long for an animated black comedy but I think it ultimately got me hooked on filmmaking.



Unfortunately though, after making that, I didn't make another film until Man Made Men -- not even one short film with actors. In fact, I went off and qualified as a lawyer in Ireland and worked in an Irish law firm for over four years. Then, one day, having had the idea for Man Made Men in my head for a while, I decided that I would make it while I was still working full time. Thus, most of the initial scenes in Man Made Men were shot at weekends only.

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

ALEX: My biology teacher in the Irish equivalent in High School inadvertently inspired me to make the film. He was giving a particularly boring class on mitosis when I decided to read one of those blue boxes in the biology book; the ones that give a biography of some famous biologist from the distant past. This one concerned a scientist called Stanley Miller who conducted an experiment in 1953 in Chicago to try and make life from lifeless materials. In a way, he was a sort of real-life Frankenstein character. I recall immediately going into a daydream and this is where the idea for the film was formed. I wanted to tell the story of a man who becomes a God over his own man-made world.

The writing process ended up being quite straightforward. There was probably two reasons for this; the first was that I had the idea in my head for a while before I started writing so I think I knew exactly where I was going with the story. Secondly, I had no one watching over me and had no great expectations so I just got on with it. All in all, the first draft took about two weeks. Then I started revising it, which probably took me another couple of months. Once that was done, myself and a friend who said she'd help, Helen Sheridan, immediately started casting for up speaking 40 parts in the film and looking for a 50 piece choir to work on the soundtrack.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?

ALEX: There was really neither a financial plan nor a budget. And the last thing on our minds was recouping our costs since in essence there were no costs. Frankly we just leapt into making the film. We had no experience, no money, no schedule and no financial plan and both Helen and I were both working full time in completely different professions. Everyone involved gave up their precious time for the cause. Our only commitment was that we would finish what we started, so all we could ask in return was that everyone gave the same commitment.

When we started, all we had was one hand-held camera, which I already owned due my interest in animation, and a direction mic, which I bought. So I said to Helen, you do the sound and I'll do the camera and we'll record the sound directly into the camera. Thus, for the first 80% of the production, all we had was a crew of two people doing absolutely everything. It was really only in the last three days of filming that we got a small crew to help us (who turned out to be great) and that was mainly because Helen was having a baby at the time.

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

ALEX: We shot the film on a Sony VX 2000. It's a small, very light camera that is very handy for filming a film like ours because when your filming in airports, busy streets and coffee shops people assume you are shooting a family video rather than a sci-fi thriller. It also has a sort of gritty, documentary look when projected on a cinema screen that I think sort of worked for Man Made Men.

Having said that, I wouldn't use it again. As it's standard definition footage, you are very limited in post in terms of fixing up shots and color correcting.

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

ALEX: The smartest thing was just doing it. The dumbest thing was probably the exact same thing. In hindsight though, with what I now know, I would do lots of things differently and prepare way more.

However, at the time, I didn't have the luxury of that experience so I have absolutely no regrets. The film is what it is. In the end, we spent a total of €4k ($5,300) on it and it owes us absolutely nothing. The fact that it's getting out there, it's being received well and people are enjoying it is more than we could asked for. I think and hope that everyone that got involved in it is very proud of it.

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

ALEX: The most significant thing we learned was that nothing is impossible; no matter how big the challenge, no matter how daunting the task. There is a way to make things happen. Also, we learned that creativity and a problem solving attitude, rather than money necessarily, will find the solution to all problems.

On a personal level, I learned a lot about directing actors mainly from making mistakes. I think there is no book in the world that can teach how to direct better than actually directing. I feel the learning curve has been steepest since the film was complete, i.e. watching the footage afterwards and finally watching an audience reacting to the footage. It is then that you suddenly realize how you could make stuff a lot better, and this, I hope, is what I will take to the next project.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Kenton Bartlett on “Missing Pieces”

What was your filmmaking background before making Missing Pieces?

KENTON: Very little. During college, I rented a small consumer camera from the university and experimented with Final Cut Pro. Then after making one project, the creative drive to do better kicked in, and projects continued until about 13 short films had been made. The final short film took one year to complete. The title of it is Student Short Film, and that project was the main stepping-stone towards realizing feature film production is not much different than making a student film.

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

KENTON: The idea for the script came first out of parameters (marketable story, use outdoor locations for natural light, involve several story lines so scenes could be deleted without ruining the story, and a few other parameters to fight looking like an ‘indie’ movie).

After thinking of a basic story that involved kidnapping and cinematic locations, the rest of the writing process involved filtering personal experience into the narrative and plugging plot holes. The writing process started in March 2008, and really didn’t finish until the end of second unit photography in December 2010.

What sort of camera did you use and what did you love about it and hate about it?

KENTON: We filmed on the Red One (which we purchased). It was really a saving grace for us because the footage looks like a ‘real movie’ without the high cost of 35mm film. Without having anything to compare it to, it would be hard to evaluate pros and cons of the camera. However, it worked very well throughout production, and if we did not have a camera at our disposal for a year and a half, we never would have been able to make the movie.

On a related note, how did you and your DP create the look of the movie?

KENTON: During pre-production, we tried to experience a learning curve with the Red One’s settings. We shot two short films with our Red during pre-production and used trial and error to figure out the best way to use the camera. The camera and lens settings we used were very specific and seemingly arbitrary, but after we honed in on those settings, everything we shot looked great. We used consumer Nikon lenses and attached panty hose cloth to the front of the lens to give more of an organic look and to fight the digital crispness of the image.

People often overlook composition when discussing cinematography, and our DP, Jonathan Arturo has a great eye for wonderful compositions. He also has great handheld instincts and skills for infusing light into a scene.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for finding distribution and recouping your costs?

KENTON: Raising the money started by being as proactive as possible through making a website, a business plan, creating promotional videos, flyering parking lots, delivering flyers door to door, spamming the internet, creating as many social network sites as possible, etc. All this effort generated about $5,000 through friends. However, by being so proactive, everyone started noticing our passion, and a close family member offered to co-sign on a loan.

At the moment, we are out of money. We are quite close to debt as the loan money is spent (and personal life savings), and it’s been 3.5 years without a paycheck. We have been trying to recoup the costs through selling Missing Pieces to a distributor. With such a competitive market for distribution, we are proactively seeking publicity and film reviews so that maybe a kindhearted executive will notice our film. As this interview is part of that campaign, we would like to thank you for all your help with this project.

Did the movie change much during the editing process, and if so, how?

KENTON: There were close to 100 cuts of the movie. Many family and friends watched the movie to give feedback during post-production, and it changed quite drastically throughout. With such a cumbersome story line and limited experience during production, many of the scenes we filmed had no place in the finished movie. The movie is not chronological, so figuring out the most coherent structure was quite challenging. We had to re-shoot a couple scenes and add a few sequences here and there in order for the story to fully make sense.

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

KENTON: The smartest thing I did during production was think that we could actually make a legitimate movie for $80,000 by enlisting enthusiastic volunteers and fighting ‘indie’ movie conventions.

The dumbest thing I did during production was take on the responsibility of making a legitimate movie for $80,000. It’s too daunting and heartbreaking to ever want to do again. The hopeful outlook for the future is that maybe next time production will be easier if we somehow find a budget.

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

KENTON: With my personality, every project seems like a failure at the end of it. The only way to fight that failure is to jump into creating something new and attempt to overcome the shortcomings of the last project.

Missing Pieces was plagued with problems, but every problem is an opportunity to learn a valuable lesson. From that perspective, there have been boundless learning opportunities. Going forward into our second feature film project, we intend to learn from all of those mistakes and hardships.


Thursday, November 3, 2011

Kasi Lemmons on "Eve's Bayou"


What was going on in your life and your career before you came to write Eve's Bayou?

KASI LEMMONS: I had been an actor for a long time. I'd done a couple of plays with really good companies, Naked Angels and Steppenwolf, and then I went to film school. When I got out of film school I had a short film that was festivaling around, called Fall From Grace. And then I did Silence of the Lambs and moved to Los Angeles.

I'd written with other people, but Eve's Bayou was the first thing I wrote by myself. At that point in my life I was starting to think about the future. I'd been to film school, so it wasn't a completely foreign concept that I would start to marry all of these elements, the things that I'd been doing for years.

What I really wanted to do was to write the perfect role for myself. To write the perfect part. If you could write a perfect part for yourself, what would it be? So I wrote the character of Mozelle for me to play when I got a little bit older.

Also it was very much an experiment in a certain type of language and a certain type of writing style. It was very ambitious. I knew what I wanted to do, but it was more of an experiment. And then when I was finished with it, I showed it to Vondie Curtis-Hall, who was my boyfriend at the time, and he said, "You've got to show this to somebody else." He was the person who said, "You can't put it in a drawer. You have to show it to somebody."

Where did the idea for the story come from?

KASI LEMMONS: I remember the first time I told any story from Eve's Bayou was at an audition. The casting director didn't want to see a scene from the show. He wanted us to talk. So I started spinning Eve's Bayou stories. I talked about my aunt who had gotten married five times and all of her husbands had died. That was true. The more fantastical parts of the story are true.

I wrote it down as a short story and I wrote some other short stories. One was about two little kids, a brother and sister, who go and look in their grandmother's room and it talks about all of her medicines and the way in which her room was very evocative. And then another was about Eve and Jean Paul Batiste and how a bayou came to be named after this slave who saved her master's life with voodoo and witch-doctoring. So I had all these stories, but they weren't really connected. There was some connection in my mind, but I hadn't found it yet.

Then I invented the character of Louis Batiste for the stories to revolve around. Way before I wrote anything down I could tell you the entire story of Eve's Bayou, the entire thing complete with flashes of lightning. I could tell you the whole movie. I had it all in my head.

Where you thinking about budget at all while you wrote?

KASI LEMMONS: I wrote it as a literary experiment. So I wasn't thinking about anything other than wanting to get this story down on paper. As a matter of fact, when I first started writing it I thought it might be a book. And then I ended up writing it as a screenplay and I had the idea of the role of Mozelle, but I wasn't really sure if it was going to turn into a book or a screenplay or what was going to happen with it. I just let it come out.

I wasn't thinking about budget and I wasn't thinking about directing it at all. We took it to directors. So I really wasn't thinking about budget until I decided to direct it.

What was it that made you decide to direct it?

KASI LEMMONS: I took a bunch of meetings that were a little bit frightening to me and I started to realize that I'd written a very delicate piece of material that could be misinterpreted very easily. In fact, it was just as easy to misinterpret it as it was to interpret it the way I intended. I took some scary meetings where I thought, "Oh God, I'd rather keep it in the drawer than let people interpret it this way."

My producer kept saying, "What's a sexy idea of a director? Who's sexy?" And I was thinking, "Who's sexy? Who's sexy?" Literally I woke up on my birthday and it was an epiphany. I was like, "You know what? I'm going to direct it."

After that moment I never vacillated. I went to the producer and said, "I went to film school. My short film did really well and I've decided I'm going to direct this." He almost fell off his chair. But he was very supportive. The first thing he said when he recovered from shock was that he wanted to produce a short film for me to see what I could do. Something with a 35mm camera, real crew, the whole thing. And that's what he did. My agent put up half the money and he put up the other half. It was really amazing.

Once you decided to direct it, did you ever consider also acting in it?

KASI LEMMONS: No. I find directing to be a very, very voyeuristic art form. Almost a perversion. You're really watching other people's intimate moments and trying to get those moments out of them. But I don't think there was ever a question of me wanting to be in it once I decided to direct it.

Was it much of a struggle for you to get the tone you felt in the script up onto the screen?

KASI LEMMONS: Not really, once the actors nailed the language. The language to me, and I really haven't felt this way with other things that I've written, but that language in Eve's Bayou was like Shakespeare. That's because it started out as a language experiment, so I made them say it word for word. And the words were really important to me. So they had to say it as it was written.

Once they nailed the language, the language really helped them fall into the tone.

How tough was it for the actors to get that and make those speeches work? I'm thinking in particular of Mozelle's "Life is filled with good-byes, Eve" speech.

KASI LEMMONS: That's my favorite speech. Debbi Morgan's such a wonderful actress. She came in and her audition was wonderful. Wonderful. She really got it. And once she got the words exactly, like, "Well, you musta been thinking something right before you was thinking that, what led you to that particular thought?" Once you could nail the words and you're not improvising on the words, you're saying those exact words, the words help with the character. But she was so wonderful, she was wonderful from the beginning and she understood Mozelle. There was a part of her that was Mozelle.

Did you learn anything writing Eve's Bayou that you're still using today?

KASI LEMMONS: You know, there's an innocence when you write your first script. You don't know what the rules are. It's almost something that's really hard to reclaim. So that's what I'm always trying to get back to, the innocence, to try and be that pure. I don't know that I can ever do it again, but to try and remember to be that unleashed in a way.


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Travis Mills on “The Big Something”

What was your filmmaking background before making The Big Something?

TRAVIS: I went to film school at ASU and made a few shorts but things didn't really take out till I started Running Wild Films with Gus Edwards in 2010. We threw out tradition and rejected the culture around us. Filmmakers like Godard, Herzog, and Cassavetes were our models, in terms of their passion and their urge to make films without the restrictions of Hollywood structures and techniques. We made shorts fast and cheap, exploring genres and styles.

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

TRAVIS: The idea came from my days working in a record store in Tempe, Arizona. The employees and the customers were bizarre people who left lasting impressions and they had to be fictionalized somehow. With the help of a sketch comedy writer Ryan Gaumont, these characters made their way into a mystery plot.

The writing process went slower than I hoped. I think the best way to write screenplays is very fast, the way I've read the old Studio pros worked back in the 30s and 40s. We worked out the problems and finished but I learned not to over-think a first draft.

Can you talk about how you made the movie for $2,000 -- where did you cut corners and what did you spend the $2,000 on?

TRAVIS: I have to say that everyone I talked to thought I was crazy to make a feature for $2,000. But it had been done before and I knew there were clever ways to get around spending money. I found locations with co-operative owners, restaurants to give us food for free, and actors/crew hungry and passionate enough to work for the experience. You can't go into one of these projects asking how much it's going to cost; you have to think, "how am I going to get it for nothing?" You never know what you'll get as long as you have the guts to ask.

I spent most of the budget we had on our record store location (a beautiful place of the past essential to the movie) and picking up some extra equipment. If I hadn't produced the movie myself, if I'd had some help, we could have done it for cheaper.

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

TRAVIS: We used a Canon T3i. We'd worked with that one once before and others like it a few times. I'm not very technical; I suspend that side of production to my DP and crew so I can focus on story and performance. To be honest, how it looks is the least of my concerns and I think that modern film is dominated by great-looking images and poor stories.

However, I enjoy the size of the camera and how easy it is to use. On the bad side, I think the DSLRs can easily seduce you into focus and depth of field issues that will trap your movie in a visual box.

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

TRAVIS: The smartest: to trust my instincts and not over-analyze my decisions. Often times, we were faced with the possibility of doing something ridiculous in a scene (mostly concerning performance). Some of us might have felt scared because this style of acting was unordinary or outlandish. But my gut said, "go with it." It was instinct filmmaking, not an intellectual process, and that's how I like it.

The dumbest: I scheduled the fourteen days of production pretty well. One of my mistakes came as quite a surprise. I purposely made the last four days of production light and easy on cast and crew. This move produced the opposite effect than I hoped. Instead of appreciation for time to rest, it was greeted with laziness. The set turned lethargic and I struggled to bring the energy back up. I learned not to make things easy; people don't respect easy.

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

TRAVIS: We're just now starting work on our next feature, The Detective's Lover. Like I said before, I've learned to trust my instincts completely, however outlandish the ideas may be. Only this way can we learn to make original movies.

Beyond that, I feel that I don't know my characters well enough and that maybe I haven't pushed my actors to also know them as well as they should. I'm going challenge myself and them to the limit.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Joe Infantolino on “Helena From The Wedding”

What prompted you to make the switch from producing to directing?

JOE: I didn't really make a conscious switch. I just started writing and directing. I will say that part of the motivation was that producing is a lot about finding money and I'm more interested in films and story and execution. That said, I like helping other writers and directors make films and am always open to projects that need producing.

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

JOE: The seed of the idea came from the location which is a cabin in the mountains of upstate New York that has been in my family for a long time and which is not used for months at a time. I decided to make a film there and then needed a story. My only rule was that it needed to take place only at and around the cabin.

As I got into it, it turned into a working out of what was on my mind at the time. Having recently gotten married, I was thinking a lot about what it meant to be married. Approaching forty I was thinking about what it meant to no longer be "young." And so on. At some point I got an image in my head of the last shot in the film: a man and a woman standing and facing each other and just looking at each other. Then I worked backward to come up with a story to get to that image.

It was not the typical "what if..." process but more of an investigation, a "who are these people and how did they come to be standing in front of each other just looking at each other and what are they thinking about?" process. Once the main action started to center around two newlyweds, I thought it would be interesting to set the story over the course of a New Year's weekend celebration.

The writing process started with me walking around for a few months thinking and then took about a year from sitting down to write to the actual shooting. I started with the last scene and then went to the first scene and wrote it forward. The first draft took a few months and then I re-wrote it up until shooting but it didn't change fundamentally. The re-writing was a process of making a lot of small changes which cumulatively made a big difference.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?

JOE: I was never going to raise a budget. I was just going to pay for it as I went along. Initially I set out to create a film with three characters and the crew was going to be me, a DP and a sound guy and we were all going to live in the cabin. As I got into the writing, more and more characters started showing up to the party and it became clear that I would need a bit more crew to deal with them and we were all not going to be able to live in the cabin.

When I budgeted the first draft of the script, the rough cost came out to be about $100,000, an amount I didn't have lying around. And then an interesting thing happened. I found out I was going to be a father. Not only did this news reverberate somewhat in subsequent drafts of the script, it forced me to sell my apartment, and I potentially had my budget. A few friends wound up putting in five or ten thousand dollars which, given the budget, was significant.

As far as recouping costs go, I sold the film to a small distributor called Film Movement. The initial advance covered 20-30% of the budget, but the deal was only for North America and it contained a small theatrical release, which was important for me. We'll see if there are any overages. I have a company called Forward Entertainment brokering foreign rights and we'll see how that goes. So far I think we've sold television in Spain and Portugal for 10-15% of the budget. I think if it recoups it will be through additional foreign television sales.

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

JOE: We used the Sony EX-3. I loved that it was very small so we could shoot the entire film, except for the last shot, handheld. I also loved that it was able to capture a great looking image in natural and practical light. Those two things sped things up enough to be able to shoot the film in 12 days and also allowed me to keep the focus on working with the actors. I like digital because I like to shoot long takes, usually at least the entire scene, and also I like to shoot a lot both before and after the actual scene on the page.

How did you cast your ensemble and what advice would you offer to someone trying to cast a movie with multiple characters all around the same age?

JOE: I worked with two great casting directors, Suzanne Smith Crowley and Jessica Kelly at Christie Street Casting. We held many rounds of auditions. They sent the entire script out to prospective cast so everybody came in knowing the whole as well as their piece of it. Through this process I found everyone but Alice and Alex, the main newlywed couple at the center of the film.

One of the producers, Alexa Fogel, is a casting director and had done OZ and suggested Lee Tergesen for the husband, who I have known for a long time but for whatever reason didn't think of him for the role. We met once and it was obvious he was Alex. He didn't even read. About the same time, Suzanne and Jessica met Melanie Lynskey, who was in town for a day from LA auditioning on another project. They put Melanie on tape in the morning and met her in the afternoon and cast her as Alice I think on the spot.

I would advise anyone casting any film to do a lot of auditions. If you can afford a great casting director, hire one. Not just for handling logistics and to give you credibility within the actor community, but for their opinions. Also, auditions are a great way to learn about your characters and story.

Did the movie change much during the editing process, and if so, how?

JOE: The structure of the film and the story didn't change. It is as it was on the page, except we cut one or two scenes that felt redundant. Some things about the characters changed and some things about their attitudes towards one another changed. We didn't do very many takes, maybe 2 or 3 on average but I usually went out of my way to adjust the actors wildly from take to take and in addition to coverage, that gave me some interesting options to mix and match and create some moments and shape the characters in ways that I didn't completely envision at the script stage.

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

JOE: The smartest was to conceive a film that could be done well for the budget I had and also to hire great actors and crew and then to trust those actors and crew. The dumbest was to write a climactic scene that would be lit only with exploding fireworks, and then schedule it for the final night of shooting and not check and make sure we had enough fireworks to do more than one take.

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

JOE: Prepare and don't panic.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Tara Miele on "The Lake Effect"

What was your filmmaking background before making The Lake Effect?

TARA: I had directed a couple of short films that did the festival circuit, Miss Gentilbelle, based on a short story by Charles Beaumont, and Smackers a minute and a half long parable about the downfall of Junior High royalty. I started writing features in the hopes of convincing someone to let me direct one -- I sold Cougars to Gold Circle, Tits to Silverwood Films, and Cover Your Assets to Lionsgate before meeting up with Jennifer Westin and writing The Lake Effect.

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

TARA: The idea came in the middle of the night several years back - I was desperate to get pregnant and my husband wasn't ready - and I thought there was something interesting about a guy who wasn't ready to have kids but maybe already had one... and maybe his daughter was about to have one herself...

I wanted to write it then but my reps said it was too small so I put it on the shelf. I didn't really think about it again until two years later - I was 4 1/2 months pregnant and I got an email from a friend who knew a producer who was looking for a script/director to shoot a micro budget movie in Michigan.

I pitched the idea to Jennifer Westin and she really responded to it... so I lied and told her I had a treatment on it! I told her I could adjust it to be set in a lake house in Michigan and send it to her in the morning... I went home that night and wrote a 7-page treatment.

The whole writing process was lightning fast because I was pregnant and had to fly back to LA before I hit 37 weeks... so we planned everything around my due date. I wrote the first draft in about 5 days, got notes and a week later did the second draft in about five more days... It wasn't ideal but I was still writing through pre-production, while I scouted Michigan. That turned out to be a blessing - I really had an opportunity to develop the project for where we were shooting - South Haven and Michigan and the lake house just naturally became characters in the film.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?

TARA: Jennifer structured the film like an arts project. We were sponsored by the Kalamazoo Arts Council and received donations from dozens of generous donors. Because of that, we have very little to recoup. It's the only way that making a movie this small was financially feasible.

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

TARA: We shot on the Sony EX-1. I loved that it was small and fast and easy to go guerilla with. I hated that we didn't have the look of lenses but at the end of the day, my cinematographer (also my husband Brett Juskalian) made the film look stunning. I swear, we could shoot on a Fischer Price camera and make things pretty. Also, it was frustrating when we got into editing (on a Mac) and there were some problems between Sony and Mac...

How did you and Brett, your DP achieve the look of the movie?

TARA: Because the DP is my husband, we have a good short hand and we had plenty of time to find the look, which was dictated partly by our surroundings and partly from the limitations of our shoot schedule.

We shot handheld because we needed to move quickly and because I wanted there to be a looseness and naturalness to the movie. We also wanted to make sure that the camera's movement reflected the intensity of the scenes, so every scene had a number -- "camera shaky 1-5" -- so we could easily be on the same page about what the movement should be like. Because we barely had lights to use, we played with natural light as much as possible - as the character's get closer, the movie literally gets warmer - a good example is the great sunset light during the birth scene at the end.

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

TARA: The smartest thing I did during production was re-write and re-shoot the end of the movie. After we shot the original ending, I watched dailies and I knew it wasn't working. Our shoot schedule was so tight, I had to sacrifice time on other scenes. Our longest day after that was 8 7/8 pages... but now I love the end of the movie.

The dumbest thing I did was shoot endless hours of footage around the house the day after we wrapped. I had first time director disease. Everyone had gone home and I couldn't stop shooting. I was dragging Brett around, making him shoot close-ups of fruit bowls. To be fair, SOME of that stuff made it in... like 1%.

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

TARA: I learned that you don't have to abuse your crew to get your movie made. I learned that next time, I want more than 15 shoot days.