Thursday, January 20, 2011

Lee Fanning on "A Genesis Found"

What was your filmmaking background before making A Genesis Found?

LEE: A Genesis Found was my first professional endeavor as a filmmaker (professional in terms of our approach and ultimate goals-- not that any of us got paid upfront). I'd been involved with making films, seriously, since I was 17-- I worked as a PA on a graduate thesis short film that was shooting in rural Alabama (where I'm from, and where the filmmaker was from, though he and most the crew were in from LA and Nashville). That led me to some PA, Grip, Gaffer work on some music videos, commercials, reality TV, shorts, and features in Birmingham throughout high school.

Of course, I'd been making my own films since I was 14 or so, but not really "seriously" until late high school, and certainly not anything good until I studied Telecommunication and Film at the University of Alabama (Class of '07, Roll Tide). In college I kinda stopped doing hired gigs (though I did help occasionally on some DIY features and docs) and focused more on work with a filmmaking club we started on campus, producing shorts and taking advantage of the typically underused TCF equipment room. There my mentor, Aaron Greer, who came from a very low-budget, DIY background, was very supportive of all the outside of class work we were doing-- that was kinda his ethos, and the ethos of the dept, that you gotta do it yourself because no one is going to hold your hand, give you a break, or do it for you.

I also met my producer partner, Benjamin Stark, there, as well as most of the major behind-the-scenes collaborators on Genesis-- we all kinda learned together through this prolific, ceaseless out-of-class work we were doing together which set us up well for our feature aspirations soon after graduation.

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

LEE: My senior year at UA, when I started writing what ultimately became Genesis, initially we wanted to take advantage of the school's equipment room one last time and make another 30 to 40 minute featurette-length short that dealt with a treasure hunt at a Civilian Conservation Corps camp in the 1930's. Aaron, again our collective mentor and film professor, was pretty adamant we, instead, since we'd already done some shorts that length, move on to start work on something we could actually use outside of school-- he kinda showed us that, for the first time, we were ready to move into features, which was our ultimate goal to begin with.

So since we knew there'd be no way we could afford a feature set entirely in the 1930s, we decided to use a story similar to the featurette idea as a flashback, and have the core of the story take place in modern day. My father, and in turn myself, has always had a novel interest in ancient astronaut theory, so that eventually found its way into the script, to tie to the Moundville setting (Moundville was a major prehistoric civilization of the Mississippian Culture in Central Alabama, and some mysteries about its birth and culture still exist).

The process was exciting, and relatively short, though totally consuming. I wrote only one full draft, but wrote about 80 to 90 pages in two to three previous drafts. And then, of course, once I got a draft I liked, I revised it countless times. This wasn't the first feature-length script I'd written-- the Christmas before, I wrote an 80-page script where I got out most of my rookie growing pains; so going in I had a pretty realistic idea of what I was doing and what the process would be like for writing Genesis.

One thing I found out very quickly was how valuable and important research is. Going in, I did do a fair share of research before writing, but mostly on the more fun, novel aspects of the script (ie the "alien" and genre angles); so, subsequently, the first drafts were pretty inconsistent, gimmicky and awful. But, as I started doing more and more research on real anthropology, archaeology, and the Moundville site (including reading history books, science essays, dissertations, doing some interviews with professors, and checking out some actual archaeological digs), the script started to form a much more convincing, much more grounded foundation, and everything else then started falling into place.

I wrote the script, full-time, from about June 2007 to November 2007, when I'd say I probably had enough of a final draft put together where we started actually hiring crew and getting pre-pro started. I kept polishing the script though, of course, and didn't have a shooting draft til the week before we started production, in April 2008. Things changed throughout production, too, obviously, as the shoot dictated; but April was the last time I sat down and consciously revised the whole thing.

Obviously there's things I'd certainly do different now, but I can honestly say that I put all I had into it-- the script is a very genuine indication of who I was as a storyteller at that time, and what I was capable of then, for better or worse. I guess that's the most you can really ask out of your first one.

How did you fund the film?

LEE: We did call in some favors, haha, but mostly we got funding from two primary sources. Ben and I hired ourselves out to do some commercial work (at the time we both were also working in advertising in Huntsville, AL, for a day job) and raised 10 grand for the equipment-- which we used to buy the camera, tripod, and a basic light kit. We then got 17 grand from a private investor who we were very lucky and very blessed to have involved. He knew it wasn't really a great tangible investment, but had and continues to have faith in our futures, and in our work down the road.

Now, I'm paying for mostly everything out of pocket, on the tour and with our distribution efforts. Occasionally I'll get some help from family, but I try to avoid that-- plus, at this stage in the game, we really don't need that much money to get by, day to day, and since our tour is designed to be pretty streamlined and grassroots, the cost is pretty negligible-- plus I'm not constantly on the road (only about one to two days a week), so the cost is pretty manageable.

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

LEE: We used the Panasonic AG-HVX 200, and shot in 720p HD Video onto P2 cards. Frankly, I have no real complaints about the camera, though I'm probably not the guy to ask. Though I have no regrets regarding the look of the film, we weren't able to use any lenses or a lens adapter for this film (though we have been able to on our second feature, The Nocturnal Third, which launches in April 2011) mainly because of budgetary restrictions and weight restrictions (we used a Steadicam Merlin extensively, and the naked HVX was at its max weight limit).

The deep focus visual style of the film works, though-- there's a lot of long takes, and the film deals, thematically, with widening perceptions and perspective, so that marries well to the naked HVX's focal look. Plus, we did typically use the zoom to fake a longer lens whenever we could. But I guess, in an ideal world, we would have had a bit more to work with as far as depth of field is concerned.

Shooting directly to P2 is always a little dangerous, and we did lose a shot due to a workflow malfunction, but overall I loved working with direct to hard drive media.

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

LEE: We probably did more dumb, potentially dangerous things than I'd like to mention, but generally these things didn't wind up being a negative for us. I guess the flat out dumbest thing we did was, after finding out one of our actors was potentially an inactive SAG member, not worrying about it, shooting with him anyway, and not dealing with SAG until after wrapping the shoot-- all that could have ended very badly, but since we had no real experience with unions before, we were kinda under the impression it wasn't that big of a deal.

Luckily, we worked something out with the local office since the film was so small, but not without getting an earful of how this wasn't the correct way to operate, haha. But, I guess you get to use the "I'm young and didn't know I did anything wrong" card once, so we certainly did.

I think we did our fare share of intelligent and resourceful things as well-- I mean, I don't care how bad a movie is, somebody has to be doing something relatively intelligent somewhere to get it made. But, if I had to single out one thing I'm most proud of, it's probably our casting approach.

Obviously, there's not that thriving of an acting pool in Alabama-- and even the bigger cities close to us, like Nashville and Atlanta, that see a decent amount of film work, aren't spilling over with talent who can or are willing to work for a deferred salary. But, we ran a pretty aggressive (for our means) four city casting campaign, and saw a lot of folks.

Plus, we decided to keep the script pretty young-- our thought being that, on average, you're going to find more young actors locally who are budding professionals that have yet moved off and who are also willing to work for free than older actors, and that if we could have the leads strong, they could carry the weaker roles. We were blessed, though, and found just the right amount of strong older actors-- most of which used to do it professionally and either decided to leave the profession or moved to teaching-- and, as we had hoped, we found a lot of young talent, some of whom exceeded our expectations from even when we cast them.

But, casting can make or break a film, and I think, for our means, and for my abilities as a director at that time, we assembled the perfect cast.

Why did you decide to self-distribute the film? What would you tell other filmmakers about that process -- the pitfalls and the benefits?

LEE: Honestly, distribution was the one part of the film we didn't really have solidified (or at least a reasonable working game plan setup for) before we started the shoot.

We had always heard that you have to have distribution figured out going in as solidly as everything else, and I agree that you should, and we did have a "backup" DIY release plan in the back of our minds (which was the route we ultimately wound up taking)-- but, at the time, we definitely erred on the side of "well, we've gotta get it made before we can worry with that."

I'm not sure this is a regret, though I admit it's a mistake-- but since we were figuring out every other aspect of making the film in, largely, trial-by-fire fashion, and because of how things were setup with the cast, crew and investor giving us flexibility in that regard, we allowed distribution concerns to kinda drift to the back-burner for most of production and early-post.

We also wanted to give ourselves a little time to try the festival market out, a little, and see if we made films that might work within that infrastructure. So, we spent most of 2009 (after the film was, essentially finished, in April) playing and trying to play festivals (in addition to some Science Fiction Conventions, which were ultimately a more lucrative market for us and led to the tour construct we're using now).

Overall, I'd say we had a pretty bad festival experience. We didn't play any big fests, and aside from some good local/regional fests (most small even for their region), we didn't play to any big, or hell, even modestly big, audiences. We even got rejected, twice, from the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival, the biggest fest in Alabama, one of the biggest in the South, our "home" festival where we had previously won numerous awards for shorts, and where we actually knew, on a personal level, the lead programmer (she was a Teacher's Assistant Grad Student for some of our classes back in UA). I figure if crooked politics can't get you in in Alabama, nothing can.

Why don’t you think the film did well at festivals?

LEE: I think there are lots of reasons the film didn't do well in the traditional festival model. For one thing, the market is so saturated now, there's just not enough room out there for the every quality, DIY feature produced, so, fests and fest programmers have to rely, more, on programming short features that are easy sells. There's nothing wrong with this-- we were just asking for trouble, on the festival circuit, with a two-hour long adventure/drama with hard-sell sci-fi elements that would probably net a PG rating, yet too adult to sell as a kiddie film.

I'm sure the fact that we had no names and, though I'm proud of our production values, the fact that we weren't working with the highest-end stuff didn't help, and all those factors combined (a traditional approach contrasting with non-traditional actors and production values) turned programmers off. The film also has its flaws.

So, towards the end of 2009, we realized that we really needed to retool our approach to getting the film out there. Some of this was the fact that we were having such a hard time with fests-- but, and perhaps more so, we also were just unhappy with the festival setup and the festival culture, even at the fests we were able to get into. Ultimately, even if you get in, you still have to compete with other films for an audience; and everything is about the fest, that's the event-- not your film. So, if you don't have the headliner, or the festival darlin', if you have the "filler" feature, haha, they're not doing you much good.

And they cost so much to enter, and you're only going to get in about a third, at best, of the fests you try. And you have so little control. So we decided we didn't like the culture, all together, and wanted to find something a bit less old-fashioned and a bit more empowering to the filmmaker. It's not 1994 anymore, you know?

So what was the new plan?

LEE: We decided to go ahead and produce a DVD of the film, available by Manufacture on Demand, get the film on Video on Demand, and take the film to numerous colleges and universities across the Southeast in a support tour, which was a viable option because of the film's regional and academic ties.

In addition, we decided to create some media tie-ins to help promote the film, and encourage it as more a brand and a franchise, so we put together a book, A Genesis Found: The Film Companion, which featured my script, a novelization by mystery writer Wilson Toney, an interview, and some anecdotal essays. We also produced some video tie-ins, including a mocumentary that lays out the film's backstory (without giving anything away), and are still doing a monthly comic strip that follows different story arcs featuring one of the film's main characters.

Since we were shifting gears pretty dramatically, it regrettably took us a little while to get all this ready, and it was at this point that I started lamenting the "wasted" time in 2009 (though we had also shot our second feature that year, during the Genesis fest experiment) and had to kinda battle myself a little to keep a reasonable pace to get the DVD and subsequent support tour ready for the Fall 2010 semester.

From about January 2010 to June 2010, we put together the DVD, Book, an improved website, the comic strip, and laid out the groundwork for the tour. I visited my first school in July, a test run at a small college just outside of Birmingham, and then started full swing on the first semester of the tour in September - November. We're currently on a hiatus for the holidays, but will resume in late January and finish up in April 2011 (just in time for our second feature's release).

What’s your advice for filmmakers who want to follow a similar self-distribution path?

LEE: Ultimately, the best piece of information I can pass on to other filmmakers, I think, is that self-distribution is hard, and for more reasons than just because you don't have a lot of money.

For one thing, you have to do as much, if not more, research in developing your game plan for distribution than you do for scripting, producing and editing the film. Also, unless you got some ins, it's hard to get people to care-- it's hard to get people to buy your DIY indie movie-- hell, it's hard to get people to see it when you offer it for free on their home campus.

I can't tell you how many of my friends, who haven't seen it yet, even blew off screenings, haha. So you gotta have a thick skin, and you've got to constantly be thinking about what you can do better-- you can't relax, because if you just sit there, the film is just sitting there.

I've probably focused more, so far, on promoting the screenings of the tour than promoting the DVD release (since the tour and its subsequent press coverage is designed as a vehicle for supporting the DVD), so I guess I can speak more to that. It can get discouraging quick-- since we have very little money for the tour, the only advertising I can pay for is for some ink and postage to print off fliers to mail to each venue we're visiting.

Other than that, I have to rely entirely on PSAs on local radio, community event calendars, libraries, direct e-mails to professors, student organizations and art councils, and write-ups in local and school papers. So, it can be pretty tough-- I've had a few screenings in big cities where I've literally spent 5 to 6 days just promoting the screening via online sources, then show up two weeks later and only five to eight people show up.

But, you just gotta move on to the next school, no matter how much the previous feels like a wasted opportunity, and try to keep it from happening again.

I've also learned that the peripheral benefits of the tour are much more rewarding, in the long run, than the direct ones, and I think make the tour worth it. Directly, all I'm really getting is a chance to visit a bunch of great Southern cities I've never had an excuse to visit before, and I get to see the film with another audience, and maybe learn something about how the film is being perceived in the Q&A that follows (oh, and another story for my blog chronicle of the development of tour at

But, indirectly, even if only five to eight people show up at a venue, I still get to say I went to that school (which helps book other schools), I generally get some kind of coverage in the local press, I get to remind our followers about our tour on Facebook and Twitter by citing another screening locale, etc. I've probably gotten more press interest simply because we are doing a tour than because of the film itself.

So, in a nutshell, be smart in your approach and try to find a unique spin that works for your project, then commit to that despite all deterrents and keep busy, and eventually, things will start to happen. Things are only, just now, finally starting for us.

Ultimately we hope the tour will be, first and foremost, a test drive and a learning experience for this type of DIY model for us in the future, and secondly, lead this film to a better, bigger DVD deal, and open some doors for our second feature, and our yet-produced features of the future.

We're really set on promoting regional identity in filmmaking; our goal is to tell Southern stories, and to present a new perspective of the South, its stories and its mythologies, to the region and to regions beyond, and as of right now, this DIY model seems like the best outlet for us to achieve this approach. As the world gets smaller, I think new perspectives on regional identities, and reassertions of those identities, will become more and more essential.

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

LEE: You learn so much-- really, I think, before you make your first feature, at any level, you don't really know anything about making a major film.

I don't care how complicated your shorts are, or what TV work you've done, features are a whole other beast-- they require, exponentially, so much more planning and thought and problem solving than shorts its really hard to compare the two processes, overall. I suppose you still shoot the same way, but the emotional commitment to a feature versus a short is staggering.

I wrote the script in the summer of 2007, and there hasn't been a day since where I haven't done at least one thing related to producing or promoting the film. And, you know, once the excitement of the shoot wears off, or like now, once the excitement of the film being released wears off, your still left with it, and, in our system, it's now all on me-- I've got to keep the tour going and tend to it while the rest of the cast/crew have moved on to other projects, as they should have, and need to. Even Ben, our producer, has his hands full now editing our next film, The Nocturnal Third.

It never felt this way with shorts, where when the honeymoon is over your work on the film is, typically, over. It's high school dating versus marriage, really.

So, I guess, I've learned, truly learned, the difference between being a student/wannabe filmmaker, and being a real but struggling one.

More tangibly, one specific thing I've learned is I don't want to be the sound editor again. Not that it's not rewarding, in its own way, and I'm glad I've got it under my belt-- but after three or so sound cuts, foley and adr recording, and the final mix, I can no longer, really, look at the film as a director, and it's very hard for me to imagine myself as an audience member and see if the film is working.

Not that you can ever be completely objective about your own film, but I think, if I can spare it, that's a job I'd like to not have to do for a film I've directed again. Ideally I'd just do the initial, full rough cut (ie selecting all the shots to use and dictating the basic pace with hard sound edits) and then just oversee the rest of the fine-tuning processes.

1 comment: