Friday, May 13, 2011

Roland Tec on “All the Rage”

What was your filmmaking background before making All the Rage?

ROLAND: Before I made All the Rage I had made one short film called Hooking Up, which was a 13-min. riff on the language of the one-night stand. I was lucky in that I completed that short in 1995, which was a very good year for small indie gay film. Suddenly I was being invited to film festivals all over the world. By screening Hooking Up here and there, I came into contact with many of the people who would encourage me to make a feature film, some of whom actually put their money where their mouth was and invested. Cash. Something I still feel grateful for. It's always a huge risk putting money into a film of any kind. Putting money into one directed by a newbie, even more so.

Before making Hooking Up I'd gotten the film bug when I was invited by filmmaker Marian Chang to score her short operatic film, An Ego Floats in the Secretarial Pool, which was a wonderful experience for me. Marian was incredibly generous and I learned a lot from her on set.

The other major source of learning support for me when I was just starting out were two organizations that sadly no longer exist: BFVF (Boston Film & Video Foundation) and AIVF (The Association of Independent Video & Film in NYC). I took many workshops for very little money, got to volunteer on other folks' films and learned that way.

Those types of organizations served a vital purpose: providing training and artistic community for fledgling filmmakers who didn't have the money or the inclination to commit to film school. I went to graduate school for music composition and I never considered going to film school. By the time I started making films, I was a bit tired of formal graduate programs. I needed to be more independent.

I understand that you adapted the script from a play you had written. What was the adaptation process like and how did the story change from stage to screen?

ROLAND: I worked very, very hard to translate what had been a one-man two-act play into a fully-realized screenplay so I was especially gratified when Kevin Thomas acknowledged as much in his Los Angeles Times review, by remarking that one would never in a million years have guessed the film had been adapted from a play.

Beyond the obvious expected adjustments one might make in terms of "opening it up" to actually let us see the cast of characters that we had only heard about in the play, there was a major key difference between the two and that was in the ending. Part of the dynamic of the play is a relationship between the main character, Christopher Bedford, and the audience, in whom he confides his deepest darkest secrets... something he cannot seem to do with the actual people who populate his world.

This element couldn't really exist in the same way on film. And in the play, the end of the play has a lot to do with that relationship. With Christopher acknowledging some of his own flaws and yearning for growth and in a way (subtle, I hope) acknowledging the role the audience has played in getting him there. None of that would have worked on film. So I had to start from scratch and ask myself some tough questions about what the audience might want from this story as a satisfying ending.

It's funny to put it in those terms now because, of course, the ending I came up with was most controversial. In fact, without giving it away, I got a lot of flack from the gay community about the rage that appears (seemingly out of left field) in the final 6 minutes of screen time. But, honestly, I think if you go back and view the film carefully, the seeds of that anger are inside our main character from the very beginning. They just need the perfect catalyst to bring them out.

One more note on the end: I had more than one distributor pass on the film specifically because of the ending. It’s a brutal way to end an otherwise fun and sexy little film and most distributors were afraid of that. Keep in mind, this was 1998, when we were at the height of the Queer Indie Film Movement, when distributors had just discovered how hungry gay and lesbian audiences were for queer storytelling. Few suspected that the community was ready to embrace some darker stuff. Of course, that was not (as it rarely is) in fact true. Many dark films did succeed with the gay audiences, including All the Rage.

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

ROLAND: Why three? Hmm. Okay, let me see. Well, I think actually the first one that comes to mind is key to making any successful movie, regardless of budget. And that is: having a core producing team of smart people that you trust with your life. This is so crucial. Making a film is like running a marathon or climbing a mountain. There's a lot of stress. There are always bumps in the road. When you know that the 2 or 3 core producers have your back, it's a lot easier to focus on what needs to be done and to effectively problem-solve.

That's why I feel so lucky to have worked with wonderful producers like: Kelly Lawman, Catherine Burns, Darren Chilton, Chris Arruda... the list goes on and on. I think also, when I worked on Ed Zwick's film, Defiance, I was fortunate to learn a lot about producing just by watching Pieter Jan Brugge. The most impressive thing I observed was that the moment there was even a hint of something going wrong, Pieter Jan was right on top of the problem. Making sure it didn't get bigger. That's key.

Other things I think made the production of All the Rage possible was goodwill from the local community. We got so much stuff donated simply because the gay community and the local South End neighborhood businesses (where we largely shot) were proud that we were making a feature film about them. So, I guess that would be the second element I'd say is essential: connection to your community. It's just too hard to make a feature on a limited budget without strong community support. It makes such a huge difference.

The third thing I'd say is you need producers who are shameless about stretching the budget as far as it will go. By that I mean, people who enjoy the challenge of being told they only have $100 to pay for something that ordinarily would cost $1,000. People who love figuring out how to get stuff discounted and/or donated are essential.

Okay, I know you said three things but I have to add one more because it's probably the most important of all and I can't believe I didn't mention it first. You have to have a good script. Too many indie filmmakers I meet have not taken the time necessary to make sure the script is really working. Now what do I mean by that? Basically it comes down to a few basic things, but just because they're basic doesn't mean they're easy to achieve, by any means.

You have to have believable characters, characters written in a way that feels honest and doesn't feel "manufactured." And you need some coherent shape to the thing. A story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In essence, a journey. Obviously this can take myriad forms, but without those things, the whole project is doomed from the start and there's just too many dollars, days and lives at stake to not do the necessary homework refining the script. The script is the blueprint. If it's shoddy. The whole structure will collapse.

You and your team made a really professional-looking movie for a small budget -- how did you achieve that level of "gloss" for so little?

ROLAND: We had a wonderfully talented and resourceful team of designers. That's how. It really is as simple as that.

Our Production Designer, Louis Ashman, someone I'd known for years to be a brilliant interior decorator, but new to filmmaking, did a marvelous job of making every location look like a million bucks on a dime. And of course our Director of Photography, Gretchen Widmer did the same. I mean, she worked very well with our Gaffer, Evans Brown, to give the film a high-gloss look.

Actually there were three distinct looks they were going for depending on the scene. And they were sharply contrasting in terms of color palette, lighting style, camera movement, lens and angle, etc. etc. Our Costume Designer, Sarah Pfeiffer did the same. She went to designers and got unbelievable clothes on loan to the production in exchange for screen credit. So the boys looked stunning in their Hugo Boss suits and Merle Perkins was never seen on screen in the same outfit twice.

One final note on shooting on a shoestring. One area where you need to spend money up front and you cannot afford to cut corners: Sound. We hired the best Sound Mixer working in Boston at that time, a guy by the name of John Garrett. And he delivered 99% pristine sound. This made our Post-Production experience far easier. If you haven't captured good sound, i.e. where you can hear every line of dialogue clearly in order to tell your story in the editing room, you're in for a lot of headaches and a lot of unnecessary spending in Post.

Did the movie change much during the editing process, and if so, how?

ROLAND: Absolutely! And I believe every film does. Every film must. Because filmmaking... I mean the actual construction of it, really does take place in the editing room. Jon Altschuler, my editor, and I worked for weeks juggling scenes here and there. Cutting this, trimming that. Putting that back in.

There are a few cuts we made in the final weeks that I still regret, but I'm told by other filmmakers that I'm not alone in that. It's just so hard when you're so close to something to have a clear sense of what might be dull or tedious to someone watching the picture for the first time. That's why I am a strong believer in screening rough cuts for friends and colleagues early and often in your process, if you can. That can be a huge help.

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

ROLAND: The smartest thing I did was surround myself with people who knew a lot more about their various areas of expertise than I did.

Dumbest thing I did? Probably, allow the casting process to be rushed. There were a couple of choices that were made in haste and looking back I think if I had it to do again, I should have insisted on a few more weeks of casting in New York to get the perfect cast. But, again, this is not as simple as I make it sound. When you have investors committing large sums and schedules and locations are being hammered out, the possibility of delaying the start of Principal Photography has huge implications... most of which inevitably will end up costing the production extra money. And we certainly didn't have much of that.

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

ROLAND: The biggest lesson I learned on All the Rage was that of all the things a director does on set, the most important thing he or she should never forget, is to carve out a calm and quiet space in which the actors can do their work. In other words, everyone on a film set is rushing because time is money, right? Lighting team is rushing to put up the lights. Sound, to wire for sound. Art Director to dress the set. Etc. etc. A film shoot is really a race to the finish line. You've got a real tight schedule and you need to complete as many pages each day as possible so as not to go over budget.

However, the moment the actors walk onto the set and are ready to start shooting, the director must slow everyone down and insist that the entire crew take a deep breath and make a space. Without that, actors cannot breathe and cannot be creative in bringing their characters to life authentically.

This is something I learned DURING the shooting of All the Rage. So if you really pay close attention to the performances, and you have a bit of experience in this sort of thing, you can almost sort out which scenes were shot early in our schedule and which were shot later. Now that I've learned that, though, I'll never forget it. And it's something I'm most rigid about on set when I direct. I will not start shooting a scene until every actor is comfortable that he or she has had the needed time and space to get focused and centered.

The other big lesson I learned is that although we are directors and we do have to steer the ship, there is a certain degree to which a film will find itself in the process of its being made. In other words, the film you end up with cannot and should not be exactly the film you imagined on Day One.

Understanding that and paying attention to the little signs is essential to allowing the film to find its organic truth. This is something that seems to get easier the older I get. I'm less afraid of not knowing exactly how everything is going to sort itself out.

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