Thursday, April 21, 2011

Ignatius Fischer on “Lisl and the Lorlok”

What was your filmmaking background before making Lisl and the Lorlok?

IGNATIUS: In 1995, I started working in the special effects industry, fabricating miniatures for movies like The Fifth Element, Dante's Peak, Titanic, HBO's From The Earth To The Moon, etc.

I was always a writer at heart, writing short stories, attempting a novel, etc. Once in the film industry, I began toying with screenplay format. I wrote and helped produce the indy sci-fi/horror feature The Men Who Fell in 2004. It was shot in Tucson utilizing miniatures, greenscreen and digital effects. It sold overseas and served as the best film school ever (I have no formal training in film production).

I got my first digital camera in 2004 as well and began taking pictures, which I liked, a LOT. So eventually it became a no-brainer that I'd want to write and direct my own film, which is what Lisl is, my directorial debut.

What was the inspiration for the script ... and what was the writing process like?

IGNATIUS: My grandmother-in-law passed away one year (Alzheimer's) and left her walled-in family estate empty. This location is twenty minutes from my house and we (my wife and daughter) used to sort of check up on the place, we'd use the pool in the summer, etc. I realized it was the perfect location to support a film, from both a logistical and creative point-of-view; the main house interior is completely wallpapered, which provided a ton of production design right up front. It has a unique layout, is two-story and has a guest house (which eventually housed cast and crew as well as served as an additional set piece). So with minimal decoration, the place could look great on-camera.

I have always read a lot, and I love suspense stories and fantasies and science fiction, etc. I used to read comic books (Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors in the graphic novel realm, at that time specifically Sandman was a huge title). I had written a hefty short story, almost a "novella", called Queen Of Heads (pub 1998 online in The Harrow) in which I explored this sort of twisted Alice-In-Wonderland nightmare space; one classic element was the monster that came out from under the bed and dragged people down to nightmare land. It was this particular scene - the monster under the bed - that intrigued me as far as making a small independent movie.

I knew it (the film) would have to be set almost entirely at this estate location and that the budget would be almost non-existent, so it had to be a "contained" story ... but the stories I'd like to tell on-screen are huge, always! Most of all, I wanted a unique story that hadn't necessarily been done to death before. So I went to my in-laws and asked if I could shoot a film on their property there in Hemet, CA.

I had recently met (on the set of his own short film) Brian Dillon, a local filmmaker that was primarily a writer. He was also assistant directing for other filmmakers I knew and he was extremely organized and driven. We worked on a couple of short films together and got to know each other a bit and when I'd read a couple of his screenplays, I asked him if he'd join me in writing a no-budget fantasy feature. I brought him to the estate and we walked around and began discussing what kind of a story I wanted to do and what kind of a story would fit in that location.

The classic "fairy tale" and the "monster under the bed" became the two themes powering the script ideas. We went through lots of ideas and eventually settled on a little girl stuck in a large house with a creature. We eventually went on to further stylize it as a fairy tale and created an allegory (addiction as seen through the eyes of a child).

Our writing process was interesting to develop because neither of us had collaborated as writers before (Brian is credited solely as screenwriter and we share story credit). So we drafted a treatment by hammering out rough points together and then Brian went off and wrote the first draft. I took that draft and wrote a new treatment that incorporated some of that first draft and a collage of ideas that came back from some of our previous notes.

Brian then wrote a second draft that was much closer to the final version, and from that point, we would literally email pages back and forth writing new stuff and re-writing each other until we had the script boiled down to what we felt was a tight, unique, not-seen-before story (which certainly has moments inspired by all kinds of literature and other films of course).

You wore a lot of hats on this project -- writer, producer, director, editor, etc. -- what's the upside and the downside to doing that?

IGNATIUS: There are three upsides to wearing all those hats:
1) You learn what it takes to do each different job on-set, so that in the future you can have conversations with the heads of all major departments in a real-world fashion.
2) Your aesthetic is guaranteed to get on-screen (for better or worse).
3) You are absolutely responsible for the life of the film (again, for better or worse).

The largest downside to wearing all the hats is the fractionation of your time and attention - none of the "hat" roles are actually performed at 100% potential when you have to do them simultaneously. I have a strong desire to be able to direct my next feature without having to line produce at the same time.

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

IGNATIUS: We shot on the Panasonic HPX500, shooting in DVCPROHD 720/24p. My camera operator had just purchased that camera, otherwise, we'd have been shooting on an HVX200 or something similar.

The 500 is a very nice camera; I was not (and still may not be) skilled enough to actually get out of the camera all it could do. We had very limited lighting resources and time, which continuously worked against us in creating our images. Currently I shoot with a Canon 7D and have some experience with the Red, both of which I really like and plan to shoot my next feature with - the only thing I didn't like about the 500 compared to the cams I was used to using (prosumer models like the DVX100) was the physical size of the thing. It's a broadcast form-factor camera, and I like to put cameras where human eyes don't comfortably fit, and that could be a tiny bit frustrating when you don't have fly-away walls to accommodate such particular camera angles.

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

IGNATIUS: The largest obstacle was having hired a professional creature effects fabricator - whom I'd worked with on other professional productions - paying him to create a 1:1 scale puppet of the Lorlok (the titular creature) and then 10 days prior to our shoot date, having him vanish. He stopped returning phone calls and literally disappeared. So we were out the sum we'd paid (which was almost 20% of our budget) and we had no monster.

My plan, coming from a practical miniatures and fx background, was to shoot the creature in-camera with actors in real time because I specifically wanted to have the film "in-the-can" when we were done. At this point, I had already asked Brian if he'd co-produce with me, and now we had to make a pretty scary decision - do we scrap the shoot, all of our prep work, everything, to go find another creature fabricator and find the money to pay him, or do we smash ahead and shoot the movie with the hopes that we could somehow create a CG creature in post. We did the latter, of course, and it took a year to find an animator with chops that could afford to do the creature for points and experience.

A friend of mine, Sohail Wasif, designed and sculpted the Lorlok in a 3D software that I eventually discovered could be ported to Blender, an open-source (free) downloadable 3D animation package. So 18 months after filming, I was resolved to sit down and animate the creature myself in Blender. I went to the official Blender site and posted one question on there, something like "Hey, I need to animate a creature for my feature, I have the 3D model but no idea how to use Blender, could someone help me out with some pointers?" Immediately Roger Wickes responded, asking for the script and could he see other materials, etc. I sent him the script and he came back with, essentially, "I like this story! I'll do it for you." Holy cow, that was a pinnacle moment for sure! Turns out Roger does the tutorials on how to use Blender!

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

IGNATIUS: The smartest thing we did during production was give ourselves ample pre-production time - and use it, which we did. Brian and I dressed the location, walked through all the scenes with lighting tests, etc. for weeks before shooting. That is by far the most important part of any production - no prep, no flick.

I suppose the dumbest thing I did was pay that fx guy his budget entirely up front. Other than that, I think we were very responsible in making the film. I hit every one of our shooting days, we never went over budget or production time and I'm very proud of that.

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

IGNATIUS: I learned pretty much everything - it was an "all-hats" film school for sure. I will take the experience of making this film forever with me into larger budget productions.

I think the biggest, most important thing to realize is an actual philosophy, one that I tried to ingrain in my cast and crew: you have to be water, you have to flow around all obstacles. Because making a film is nothing more than solving a sequential stack of problems.

We just won Best Feature and Best Actor (Ivan Borntrager, Harrison) at the Idyllwild Independent Festival of Cinema! This was our first fest, and these awards are really incredible to have.

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