Thursday, March 31, 2011

Chris Brown on "Fanny, Annie & Danny"

What was your filmmaking background before making Fanny, Annie and Danny?

CHRIS: I started making movies at 9 or 10, pretty much as soon as my parents would let me take the old Super 8 camera out on my own. Filmmaking is really the only thing I've ever wanted to do. Throughout grade school into high school, I made dozens of typical kiddie Super 8 and camcorder flicks, 6th rate knockoffs of Hollywood stuff, bad horror spoofs, sci-fi epics, that kind of thing.

Although we didn't have anything like a film program in my high school (Amador High, Pleasanton, CA. Go Dons!) I had a few exceptionally cool teachers who let me turn in movies instead of essays in several of my classes. Man, I miss Super 8. There was something so magical about it. The darkened room, the chattering sound of the projector. Even the smell of the movie screen. Those old home movie screens, you know? They had this certain smell. Final Cut Pro just doesn't have that same smell.

Anyway, after high school, I enrolled in the film production program at SF State and have been doing it ever since - and by whatever means necessary. After school I worked as a DP for a few years, then gradually shifted to editing, which is my current day gig. I cut commercials, docs, dramatic stuff, corporate stuff by day so that I can satisfy my filmmaking habit by night. Fanny, Annie and Danny is my third feature.

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

CHRIS: The idea for Fanny, Annie and Danny unfolded around the idea of this developmentally disabled adult, Fanny. Daily life can be hard for all of us, even for those of us who have some resources. For those of us without resources, whether financial, emotional, intellectual or physical, the challenges of living from day to day are just exponentially more difficult.

I've met and known so many people in my life with certain kinds of slightly offbeat, highly original personalities, some have developmental disabilities, some not. And I've always wondered how they make it through the day, how they navigate through life, you know? This culture doesn't make it easy for people with disabilities. This film was largely my attempt to find out what it's like to be Fanny, to live in her world. But I didn't want to depict this person in the usual Hollywood way, where she would be portrayed as either wonderfully heroic or hideously pathetic. I hate that crap. I just wanted to show her as a person like any other.

What are the three key requirements -- in your mind -- for making a successful movie for a ridiculously small budget?

CHRIS: 1) Great Actors - Hire the best actors you possibly can find. Don't skimp on the time or effort it takes to cast your movie. Although I wrote the film for three of my friends, I held auditions for weeks and weeks until I was able to find the perfect, most amazing cast to fill out all the other roles. Let's face it, when you're watching a movie, the shot can go a little blurry for a second, the color can be off, the sound momentarily imperfect, but if the performance is riveting and true, the audience will be with you 100 percent. The opposite isn't true. If you cast one weak actor in the film, feature one bad performance, one false note, you can lose your audience fatally and permanently.

2) A Great Script - It's by now become a cliché that the three most important components of a successful film are "Script, script, and script." And in this case, the cliché is true. If your map is bad, you won't reach your destination. If your blueprint is faulty, you won't make a functional machine. All the fancy camerawork in the world won't compensate for a crummy script. Take the time and do the work to get it right. My favorite draft is usually Draft #47.

3) Infinite Flexibility and Openness - Once you have that great script and those great actors, be open and flexible at every possible juncture to new, better, more truthful, more dramatic, more personal, less formulaic possibilities at every moment. Being flexible is the secret weapon that indie productions have over major studio movies. Having written Fanny, Annie and Danny myself, I was freely able to change, refine and improve the script every day we shot. If a line was clunky or false or just plain stupid, we could change it on the spot. If we thought of a better way of doing something, we did it.

This kind of spontaneity is a luxury not often afforded blockbuster productions. If a major film crew out on location suddenly wants to move the camera across the street to take advantage of an unexpected change in the light, the traffic has to stop, the lighting and grip trucks need to be relocated, video village needs to be dismantled, moved and rebuilt, and on and on. If I want to move the camera across the street, I nod to my tiny crew, grab the camera and go.

What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to make this movie ... and how did you overcome it?

CHRIS: Honestly, I think that just overcoming my own fear and inertia was my biggest obstacle. It had been four years since I'd made my last film. I'd written a few scripts since then, recorded a CD (I'm also a musician), and I was dying to make this film, but I didn't know exactly how or when to go about doing it. The key for me was simply to set a start date and immediately get other people involved. Once that train began to move down the track, there was nothing stopping it. The machine took over and everything fell miraculously into place when it had to.

People always say of parenting that "It's never the perfect time to have a child," that the trick is in not waiting for that perfect moment, but to just do it. Although I'm not a parent, I can say that this adage is absolutely true about filmmaking. Don't wait years and years for the stars to wonderfully align, for the perfect budget, the perfect camera or whatever. Write something simple, true and from your gut, then go out and shoot it. Technology has taken away all of our excuses. Filmmaking is now simple again. Go do it!

What kind of camera did you use and what are the pros -- and cons -- of using that system?

CHRIS: We used the HVX200. Geez, I've shot miles and miles of footage with this camera, and I love many things about it. The pros are that it's light, easy to use, and produces good, robust images that can be highly manipulated in post. The cons for me include 1) Its ergonomics, which make it awkward to handhold without using some kind of stabilizing system, 2) The lens, which is fixed and therefore limited, and 3) The P2 system, which can be a bit cumbersome. We were fortunate enough to have three large P2 cards, so we didn't have to download any data during the day, but the ultimate download/injest time at day's end was sometimes maddening.

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

CHRIS: The smartest thing I did was to ask my friend, Jessica Heidt, to help me with the casting. Currently the Artistic Director of San Francisco's Climate Theater, Jessica was also the Associate Director at the Magic Theater for several years. Jess knows all the best actors in Northern California and she introduced me to some AMAZING people - people I can't wait to work with again.

The dumbest thing I did was to underestimate the challenges of working with my wife! My wife, Jill Pixley, and I met over a decade ago when I cast her in my first feature, Daughters. Since then, we've worked together in many other capacities, but never again as director and actor. I've wanted to work with Jill ever since, so I wrote this part for her. The thing is, I write in a bit of a vacuum. I don't discuss what I'm writing with anyone, even Jill, so one day when I handed her the script and said "Read this. You're playing Fanny," she sort of freaked out. I mean, it's not an easy part, to say the least, and I'd never even hinted that I was writing something for her, so she was taken completely by surprise.

Anyway, while she was sort of terrified by the prospect of playing Fanny, I was insulted that she wasn't just giddily happy to play the part! Jill even suggested a bunch of other actresses for the role, tried to get out of it any way that she could, but I sort of persisted. I mean, I wrote it for her; I wasn't about to audition anyone else for this thing. So she sort of agreed to do it.

Then once we got on the set, we had to figure out a way to work together again, not as husband and wife, but as director and actor. It was tricky. I don't know that we ever did figure it out, to be honest. In the end, Fanny isn't an entirely comfortable person, so that basic discomfort that Jill felt in playing the role became a fundamental part of the character. And this is the character you see onscreen. People have been hailing her performance all over the country. In fact, some people have confessed that they thought the character was real. Jill's just amazing in the role. She won BEST ACTRESS a few months ago at the San Antonio Film Festival.

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

CHRIS: 1) Have a single AD and a single sound recordist onboard for the entire length of the shoot. Because of our limited budget, some of our crew had to augment their time on our shoot with higher paying gigs (which I totally understood and supported). But ultimately, the production aesthetic and process works much more smoothly when people can take full ownership of their role and oversee a project from beginning to end.

2) When in doubt, do it! Don't wait to make that movie. Set a date and make it happen!

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