CHRIS: When I was in 7th grade I had the choice of either sitting silently in study hall or taking a super-8 filmmaking class. I took the class and made a film about a punk rocker with a Mohawk who’s eyeball falls out of his head, bounces down the street and eventually lands in a martini glass.
Later, I studied communications at UC Berkeley, filmmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute and directing at the American Film Institute (AFI). My first cinematic job was working for George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) in the editorial department. I actually got to suit up as a Stormtrooper.
Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like?
CHRIS: Satin began when actor/musician Hamilton von Watts approached me to develop a script about a down on his luck Vegas lounge singer. Hamilton was inspired by his friendship with west coast jazzman Teddy Edwards. I was drawn to the opportunity to tell the story of a struggling entertainer on the verge of slipping into obscurity - a cocky, smooth talking showman who had lost the joy of singing.
I was interested in exploring Satin’s world, the seedy side of Sin City most tourists to Vegas don’t see. But I also wanted to set up visual contrast by taking a hustler like Satin out of the bright lights and dropping him in the middle of the desert where plenty of “fish out of water” comedy could happen.
There’s just something about the desert that resonates with me. It could be from all those John Ford westerns or my own personal road trips through Nevada and Baja, Mexico. It could be the delight of departing from the cities many of us live in and entering a magical world where the sun sets a little slower and the drinks taste a little sweeter. What ever it was, the desert was calling.
Hamilton and I wrote the script together. Started with a strong outline and a binder full of notes, ideas and images. We’d meet in the morning for a few hours 4-5 days a week and bang out pages. I remember Hamilton pacing in character, full of energy. It was rewarding having an actor with his skills close by to improvise. We’d act out scenes and test dialogue. When the first draft was completed we took a breath and then jumped right in on another pass and then got the script in front of close advisors for feedback. With notes, we went back again, and again… until we felt we were there with it.
What are the three key requirements -- in your mind -- for making a successful movie for a small budget?
CHRIS: It depends on your definition of success. Because Satin was recently released, my mind right now is all about marketing and distribution. There’s success in reaching the audience and success in accomplishing what I set out to create. It is a goal of mine to make movies that are artistic and commercially successful - high quality movies that are both entertaining and thought provoking, for audiences around the world.
With that in mind, three key requirements are: 1) a solid script with a strong hook and universal themes that audiences can emotionally connect with; 2) casting talented and marketable actors; and 3) surrounding yourself with experienced and inspiring collaborators.
What's your advice for attracting well-respected, "name" actors to a low-budget project?
CHRIS: Unless you’re a big name director that actors are dying to work with, the script is what attracts talent. If you have a strong script the talent will come. Write characters that actors are dreaming to play - roles that test their chops, stretch their boundaries, win them awards… Write those roles and the actors will come.
You’re going to have to pay them, unless they’re in your family. But they might lower their fee for great material. The trick is getting to them, because they are busy, and some employ bouncers to deter offers that don’t pay for Bentleys. On Satin we worked with a highly-regarded casting director who agreed to help because of who we were and the material. I also had producers that were actors and they reached out to their friends.
I have this vision of a lonely actor sitting up in the Hollywood Hills looking out over the vast city. They have 4 weeks off between big studio pictures and they are growing restless. They want to come down and play. Make it easy for them to say, yes.
What kind of camera did you use and what are the pros -- and cons -- of using that system?
CHRIS: Satin was shot by D.P. Harris Charalambous on a Panavision camera, Super 35mm, 3 perf., Primo lenses.
The pros are it looks amazing - captures the fine details, rich color and handles shadows and highlights extremely well. The cost of film forces you to be well planned and very conscious about your coverage. On average, I did 3-4 takes only. Panavision Hollywood has always taken care of me - great customer service and support. Shooting 3 perf. was a way to burn a little less film and save some money.
Cons – In a low-budget situation the film costs don’t allow for much improvisation. The vibe on set is a little more serious, but that can be a good thing, makes people bring their A-game.
There are a lot of considerations that go into choosing camera package - the material, budget, mobility, desired feeling… Choose the best camera to serve the look of the story that fits within the budget. I generally rely on a strong D.P. like Charalambous, who is highly accomplished with both film and the latest digital cameras, to guide me. It is also important to think where will the life of the movie be -- Mann’s Chinese Theater - the Internet - or somewhere in between?
What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?
CHRIS: Besides getting a strong cast with recognizable faces that help sell the movie, one of the smartest things was taking a short break before heading to Vegas to shoot. We had shot for sixteen long days with only one day off and we were scheduled to drive from Los Angeles to the Mojave Desert and then to Las Vegas to finish. It was getting late, the crew was exhausted, and looking ahead not all the shooting logistics were nailed down.
But foremost, as Director, the crew’s well being is my responsibility, and I felt under the circumstances it was too dangerous to ask them to drive several hours in the dark. If someone fell asleep at the wheel it would be devastating... So I, with the backing of the other producers, decided to call it off. We regrouped fresh a couple weeks later, with a solid plan, skeleton crew, shot what we needed and it went smoothly. Can’t underestimate good moral and momentum.
The dumbest thing was not hiring a location scout. Inevitably on low budget movies everyone wears a lot of hats to save money, but finding and locking locations was harder and more time consuming than expected. In retrospect we should have hired a location scout. The money we saved was lost in valuable preproduction time.
And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you can take to other projects?
CHRIS: I had previously directed shorts and commercials that only took a few days to shoot - you power through. A feature is a marathon. You have to pace yourself and keep the whole movie in sight while focusing on the moment-to-moment work. Here’s a thought, if I could get one more setup every day, at the end of an 18 day shoot I’d have 18 more looks -- 18 more pieces of gold.