Thursday, May 19, 2011

Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson on "Small, Beautifully Moving Parts”

What was your filmmaking background before making Small, Beautifully Moving Parts?

We’ve both been filmmakers for a while now – about ten years. We’ve each made a number of short films that have played the festival circuit from Telluride to SXSW to Cannes to Newport.

A few years ago, we starting making a web series together – SPARKS – which has subsequently been licensed by The Sundance Channel.

In addition, we both work as screenwriters and film professors … and before that? We studied at NYU’s M.F.A. in Film program – that’s where we became friends.

Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like -- how did you share the writing responsibilities?

A few years ago, we began a conversation about technology – and in particular the ways in which people have become attached to and have begun to treat small machines – their computers, phones, printers – with the same emotions reserved for human relationships, love, hatred, disgust.

We began to make our series, SPARKS, that explored both what was funny and poignant about the technological landscape, and created a protagonist who loved machines so much that she goes into business counseling clients on how to better relate to them. After we’d completed six episodes of the series, we wanted to go further with these ideas and characters, and spin something more complex emotionally. So we gave Sarah Sparks, the protagonist, a pregnancy – an unexpected pregnancy – within a happy relationship, but we also filled her with ambivalence about becoming a parent as her own mother had left her at a young age.

So she decides to hit the road and visit her family, looking for answers about parenthood; looking for her mom, who is now living off the grid. As far as writing responsibilities, we basically split the duties tag-team, wherein one person works on one section and then gives it to the other for comments and improvement, and vice versa.

How did you share directing duties and what's the plus side -- and the minus side -- to working that way?

We basically shared the directing in a way that was so free flowing we can barely analyze it. On the most basic level, we would trade off, one person being more or less on shot construction while the other worked with the actors. Sometimes we’d switch after a day, sometimes after a few hours. We would both be watching everything and check in constantly on all decisions.

The plus side is having two brains on every challenge.

The minus? That the crew and cast have to form two relationships instead of one. Sometimes that’s just more work.

What camera package did you use for production and what did you like -- and not like -- about it?

We used the Canon 7D – we’re part of the DSLR revolution. We had a great set of lenses and a great DP. We love the soft look, the way in which this camera makes everything look beautiful. We also loved that we did not draw much attention with this rig, which was very helpful for us as we have a documentary interview element in our film.

We didn’t like that it wasn’t exactly made for filmmaking – so for instance it constantly auto-power-saves after extended use, and did not have the greatest of monitoring options.

What's the secret to doing a "road picture" on a small budget?

Stay small! We fit everything into one van -- we were a “movie-in-a-van.” That vehicle also served as our picture car. We had all crew and equipment expertly packed inside, then in each city, we would add crew and actors to the equation. When we were done shooting in a given location, we’d hop back in the van, downsized to our original small family.

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

The smartest thing we did in production was surround ourselves with incredibly talented people. The dumbest thing was to leave a bottle of champagne in the bottom of the van in 110 degree heat. And … we didn’t take enough time off.

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

Well, we haven’t made any additional projects yet … but we imagine the following:

- Coverage is key – we were able to really shape character arcs due to having great coverage and a range of performances from the cast. This included getting a LOT of “b-roll” out the window … if you happen to be making a road movie.

- Location, location, location – our landscapes became a character. Write for location. It’s the key to enhancing drama.

- Keep everything light on set and at your film’s premiere. Focus on fun. Otherwise the entire enterprise is just too stressful.

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