Thursday, September 29, 2011

Brett Eichenberger on "Light of Mine"

What was your filmmaking background before making Light of Mine?

BRETT: I had directed a few short films and documentaries going back about 15 years. One of my short films, The Leeward Tide, played in over 35 national and international film festivals. I also do corporate video, music videos and commercials to pay the bills -- which is a great way to hone the filmmaking skills.

What was your involvement in the writing process -- did the script come to you finished or did you work with the writer?

BRETT: Light of Mine was initially my concept. A few years ago while daydreaming I had wondered if it were conceivable to be a blind photographer - even though it's an oxymoron.

I did a bit of research and sure enough, there are a bunch of blind photographers, all of which have different degrees of blindness. Some of them have lost vision progressively (and were photographers before) while others were born blind and picked up a camera later in life.

I brought this idea of a photographer, who's at the beginning of his career and losing his sight, to my wife Jill, who has written several great screenplays. Jill took the idea and turned it into a 25-page outline. I massaged it here and there and chose to shoot the outline because I wanted to work in a more intimate improvisational way.

I also felt that a script could be intimidating to my lesser-experienced actors. It was a different way to work, but it was liberating because we were able to be a bit more honest with the material which really serves the subject matter and film well.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?

BRETT: We did a few different things to raise the budget, including Kickstarter, a fundraiser and we were finally approached by an investor who really wanted to be a part of our project.

Our plan for recouping the costs involves going the festival route to earn some praise and buzz for the film. Light of Mine isn't the most marketable film, but we feel there is an audience out there that is really thirsty for a film like this.

We'd like to work with a Producer's Rep and a Foreign Sales Agent to get it out there, but we don't have anyone we're working with at the moment.

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

BRETT: We shot on DSLRs and an old 16mm Arriflex for a dream sequence. With our shooting schedule and budget I decided I wanted two competent DP's on board to run two cameras simultaneously. It's a very visual-heavy film, therefore I wanted guys who didn't need a tremendous amount of direction from me while we were in the thick of it.

The camera models we used were: Canon 7D, 5D Mark 2, T2i, and a GoPro HD. This was a film that couldn't have been made on really any other cameras. We were afforded a "stealth mode" while we shot in Yellowstone without a permit. The DSLRs also gave us the ability to set this guy in a "photographic" world by varying lenses and depths of field. I don't think any video camera could've conveyed the visual feeling that the DSLRs did - which gives the film depth, warmth and intimacy.

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

BRETT: I don't think it changed too much. I was also the editor on the film, which is good and bad of course. Being an editor for almost 20 years I had a great idea as to how I wanted to cut it while we were shooting.

There were some surprises as I went through the footage though. Mostly because I couldn't monitor the feeds of both cameras while in Yellowstone etc. I was able to take those surprises and punch up the emotion in places I didn't think I could.

I also approached the edit from the heart as well. I'm much more of a logical heady editor, so it was a bit of a transition to move into this different style if you will. Most importantly, I wanted the film to feel organic. We shot the film in an organic way, much the same way I've read Terrence Malick works (which there's not much information on out there). Malick's films have this honest beauty and natural organic flow to them. I wanted Light of Mine to have that same type feel.

What is your distribution plan and how did you develop it?

BRETT: Our distribution plan is still forthcoming. With the market changing as fast as it is, we're researching a few different options. Its a big screen film with lots of nature, vistas and travel shots, I would love to make sure it gets at least a bit of a theatrical run.

We've discussed four-walling (self theatrical run) and other options. Again, we're just not sure that it will be picked up by a major because it lacks big stars and high-end production value - but it's got a good story etc. so we never say never.

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

BRETT: The smartest thing I did during production was trust my instincts. They're there for you to trust. If you want to connect to your audience in an emotional way, then go with your first thought. Don't over think something, that's the equivalent of sending your idea back for rewrites, which can ruin something pure and raw.

The dumbest thing I did was not trusting my instincts. Overall I felt very prepared going into this film after working towards it for many years.

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

BRETT: The most important lesson I learned was that you can never stop believing in your project. There was a time I really felt like I should archive the footage and move on.

We had some early edits go out to a few people and the feedback wasn't where I was hoping it would be. I felt that our "grand experiment" went wrong, so chalk it up as experience. Jill, the writer, reminded me of something that I'll take with me on every film from now on, she said: "People need this film". That really hit me.

Her comment didn't resonate to me from a personal perspective, but more from a global perspective. There really is an audience that needs this film, because they need to feel that no matter how bad life can be, there is a light, and there are people who love you who will help you to see that light. This is our goal henceforth, to show people the Light of Mine.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Frazer Bradshaw on "Everything Strange and New"

Where did the idea for the script from and what was the writing process like? As primarily a cinematographer, do you think you approached the writing differently than a non-cinematographer might have?

FRAZER: I'm going to answer these first two question together: Because I'm a cinematographer, by trade, and because I spent three years in a fine arts high school and five years at the San Francisco Art Institute, I'm very steeped in the visual. That being the case, I don't so much write, as much as visualize.

The film came to me in visual cinematic moments; not so much as pieces that helped flesh out a treatment, but just as pieces that I had to figure out what to do with. It was like a puzzle that I didn't have the box cover for, in a way. It was really a bunch of cinematic moments that just felt right and I figured out how to fit them together.

I wrote without a treatment and didn't see the climax coming until I was almost to the end, and the other pivotal moment came, very much as I wrote it; I was almost as surprised as it I typed it out as the audience is when they see it on the screen.

How did you juggle your two on-set roles -- director and DP?

FRAZER: First, I'll say that I had to be my own DP. For me, the story and the visual storytelling are so intertwined that to not shoot it would have meant a major compromise (or driving my DP completely insane because I was making 90% of the decisions for him/her).

There's definitely a notion that one shouldn't be one's own DP, and it's definitely true of people who aren't DPs and don't have that skill set. And I imagine that it would be true on a large scale project with lots of levels of middle management. But for me, on this particular film, it was obvious and really quite easy.

I had a crew of about 11, so I had personal contact with everyone on set, and there was a distinct family feel because of that. I hired my best people from productions I shoot, so I had a team of highly skilled technicians, but also people who were genuinely good people and who had my and the film's best interest at heart.

That being the case, it was a well-oiled machine. Everyone had my back. And I never argued with the DP about anything :-) I very much knew what I wanted, going in, and we pretty much shot what we went in for and got out.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?

FRAZER: I had $40K in the bank and I decided to make the film for $40K if it came to that. Luckily, it didn't (that would have been very tough and probably would have shown up on the screen), and in the 11th hour, a producer friend introduced me to Steve Bannatyne at Lucky Hat Entertainment. Steve came on for the money I needed to get though production, comfortably, plus the money to get me though post. It was still an exceedingly small budget, but it was designed to be, from the start, and we were able to work comfortably within the low budget confines, since it was a lot more than $40K

As for getting my money back, well…it's going to take 10 years, and maybe we'll never see all of it. People often come to me, now, and say: you made a successful indie film, it played Sundance, won prizes, got a Spirit nomination and more, what direction can you give me to make my film successful. My reply is something like this: If you want to be successful, DO NOT MAKE A MOVIE!

If you have something to say, and saying it is so important that ending up on your death bed without having made this movie will mean having failed, then you HAVE to make your movie. But if you want to be successful and be famous and get rich and laid by hottie chicks, then please go back to your day job at the financial services company.

If you're making a truly indie film, you have to make it with as much sincerity and honesty as you can. You've got to be vulnerable and pull no punches. If you make a film that is truly honest, then you have a good shot at real success (the kind that is deeply gratifying), but don't bother with the fake success, because the odds are 1000:1, at best (and that's no exaggeration).

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

FRAZER: I shot it in Super 16 with my Aaton. I'd been shooting on my Aaton for close to ten years at that point (fall of 2007), and I knew it well and loved it dearly. At the time, there was no digital camera that I would have considered. The RED and the Silicon Imaging cameras were both barely out and very dysfunctional technologies, not to mention still very expensive to rent. If I were shooting it again, today, I'd be shooting it on my RED, but in that moment, film was the only viable option.

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

FRAZER: During post, we moved some scenes around, but the heart of the project didn't change. Things shifted to help develop characters or pace things better, but the meaning is still intact and not much ended up on the cutting room floor. I didn't feel my way though it, I knew what I wanted going in, so that meant that I more or less had what I'd set out to get, once I was in post.

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

FRAZER: The smartest is easy, and also my very best advice: Hire the best people you can find. And I don't mean just the best at their craft, I mean the best people; people who's heart is in helping you make a great film.

I have to say that I didn't do anything very dumb. The privilege of working as a DP on indie projects for 12 years before making my own film was that I got to watch a lot of people make a lot of dumb decisions and also to make a lot of smart decisions. I went into production knowing what the consequences would be of most of the decisions I was making, so there were no disasters.

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

FRAZER: I learned how important character development is and how critical it is for the characters to be authentic, recognizable and likable. In my work, at least, everything hinges on the depth of the character development, and I'd underestimated how critical that would be. Luckily, I had the material to get the characters to where they needed to be, but in the first editorial pass, it was missing and I was afraid I might have sunk my own ship. On the new project, I'm writing, I've been very cognizant of my characters’ development and particularly of their introductions (because movies are like life in that the first impression really matters).

The other thing I learned is that I have to trust myself. Feedback is indispensable, and no one can really make a good film without a bunch of good feedback, but there are certain decisions and approaches that people tried to talk me out of, but I knew, in my gut, were right for the film, and I kept those elements against the better judgment of others. Some of those choices were quite unorthodox, and were risky, but making them and standing by them has a lot to do with why the film has had the reception it has (mostly good, sometimes really bad).

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sheri Candler on "Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul"

Authors of the book are Orly Ravid and Jeffrey Winter from The Film Collaborative, Jon Reiss (author of Think Outside the Box Office /film directing adjunct professor at CalArts and acclaimed filmmaker), and Sheri Candler (film marketer/social networking expert).

What's the biggest misconception that filmmakers have about distribution?

SHERI: That there is some kind of magic distributor fairy waiting to give them a fat check and make their dreams come true. I hear many, many times filmmakers say ‘we’re artists, making films is supposed to be fun’ and I am sure thinking about the business of art isn’t fun to them. But it is imperative. As my filmmaker friend Greg Bayne says, "You may not be interested in the business but you probably like to eat."

It is your responsibility to your investors, your crew, yourself to take charge of this and have a solid plan from the outset that isn’t solely dependent on a distributor coming along and making your film whole, which is to say paying a minimum guarantee that recoups your production budget with interest. VERY few of those deals exist now, no matter what producer’s agents and distributors like to say.

Ask many questions of anyone currently working in film today and if you can get them to admit it, there aren’t big upfront deals going on, there aren’t a lot of presales going on and the likelihood of most independent films recouping is slim. Don’t base your estimations on box office returns either. Until there is a number revealed that shows how much was spent to get those returns, you don’t have a clear picture of profit. A film that has a $10 million box office may have spent $15 or $20 million to get that.

Setting aside the goal of recoupment though, it is more than possible to start building a career off of the attention you can get from a release. That’s where having a prestige festival premiere comes in. Say what you like about the films that play Sundance or how difficult it is to get in, that festival has the cache to change the life of your film and your career simply because of the amount of press coverage it receives and that is why it is so coveted and competitive.

Having the Sundance brand on your film can be very lucrative to your career IF you play it right. One of our case study films in the book, Bass Ackwards, premiered at Sundance 2010 and then launched directly after the festival instead of waiting to see if they would get picked up and released 8 months later per usual. They received a lot of publicity off of that and I hope we will see more films doing something similar this year because there were films last year that received distribution deals and little has happened since then. There were also films at Sundance last year that didn’t get distribution deals and nothing ever happened and that is a shame.

There should now be no reason to NOT have distribution, even worldwide. There are so many tools and so many websites available to filmmakers to get their films out that not having some kind of distribution is just silly. It is building attention and audience that is the problem, not distribution.

What's the most common mistake that independent filmmakers make when they consider distribution options for their film?

SHERI: Not planning for it from the start. There are decisions that need to be made very early in the process, such as who is going to love this film (I mean exact characteristics, not general demographics), how will you reach them to tell them about it, what distribution outlets will be used (is this really a theatrical title or more VOD/digital streaming?), how the audience of this particular film enjoys watching films (because this isn’t all about your screening preference, it is about their habits), whether to start building an audience from preproduction or wait, hoping to be picked up by a distributor where significant money will need to be spent to get attention? It is well and good to think the latter will happen, but if it doesn’t, it is very late to realize that all the work you planned for that company to do will be on you now when you can least afford it from a time or money perspective.

Building an audience relationship early will never hurt your chances, but it directly impacts how the film will sell. If there is a provable audience and you have done all you can to build up a relationship with a sizable group that can be immediately monetized on release, what distributor in their right mind would turn that down? It only gives you leverage in making deals. Part of that leverage is choosing the right partner who can take your film to the next level, not beg around for someone to take it on for little to no money. You also should carve out the right to sell directly because that money all goes to you, why split percentages with someone who didn’t come into the picture until the end? And keep those direct relationships with your audience going so you don’t have to start all over again on your next film.

When looking at self-distribution, what are some of the hidden obstacles a filmmaker might encounter?

SHERI: One obstacle is budgeting money to do it. Depending on how best to distribute your film, you must factor in the costs of marketing and utilizing distribution avenues. If you’re going to use the festival circuit as your theatrical, budget in the submissions fees, DVD/print copies, postage, travel for all that will attend etc.

If you are doing your own tour, you may need to four wall in some cities and that has significant costs in the thousands, sometimes tens of thousands if it is many cities.

If it is digital, factor in how much aggregator costs like Distribber or Tunecore will charge to access iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon VOD and soon Vudu.

If you plan to distribute from your own site using Dynamo Player or Distrify, you may need a little bit of technical advice for your website to integrate that in a seamless way which could cost something.

No matter what, you will need someone to drive traffic to those sites be it iTunes or your own website so there’s a salary or at least a consulting charge to advise you on how to do it best. If your website will be a prime sales location, you’ll want some SEO advice to make sure you are optimizing search engine rankings and pulling in customers. You’ll have printing costs for business cards, posters, postcards, you may need an attorney to look over contracts especially if you want to sign with a 3rd party distributor for some sales.

Despite those costs, I think all artists should be looking at some form of direct distribution. While I realize that distributing your film yourself has the connotation in the industry of lack of quality or professionalism, releasing directly to your fans is far more rewarding in the long term for the artist. I think a lot of the talk about the DIY movement in indie filmmaking has been dismissive mostly by distributors and sales agents whose roles are being diminished which is a scary prospect for them and by filmmakers who really shirk this responsibility and fear it, so it is easier to say that is only done by hacks. I think within 5 years most of these people will have moved on or changed their focus because distribution really isn’t difficult to obtain, but there will always be a role for marketing and attention getting.

The hidden obstacle is a mindset change to tell you the truth. I know that the myth surrounding the industry is if you make an extraordinary film, people will just know and money will fall out of the sky and your mansion in Beverly Hills is just there waiting for you. The truth is this is damn tough work and you will be doing waaay more than just writing a great script and bringing it to life on screen and there really isn’t much money in it, not for a long time if ever. If you can swallow that reality and say “well, I know the truth and I still need to do it” more power to you, your chances of success just went up.

How has the Internet altered the distribution world?

SHERI: It drove the prices for content down that’s for sure. When Netflix is selling unlimited movie viewing for $15 a month, basically the price of one DVD or movie ticket, things have changed. When your film can be distributed worldwide for no cost and with no one’s permission, things have changed. I think it altered it in good ways and bad ways.

Good because it enables totally unknown artists to reach people on a global scale without having to do deals, cut in outside entities for percentages, spend tons of money to reach audiences globally. Bad because now everyone can do it, which raises the noise level, the confusion level. The competition means you have to be that much louder to reach the large scale or much more surgical in your approach and be ok with reaching a small, but highly valuable niche.

Also, there is such overwhelming choice when it comes to finding content, audiences have become fractured and it is harder to reach them and harder for them to know where the “good stuff” is anymore. When there were very few choices, people just lived with what those few outlets offered. That’s bad for someone looking for the unusual, but good for someone who just wants to be spoon-fed and not have to make many decisions. I think the majority of people fall into the latter.

Up will rise the curator, another gatekeeper really, to sort the “good stuff” from the crap and those curators will have great power. It just will be very specialized, not broad interest I think. All of these online movie sites that have cropped up and basically take any film, they will not grow in power. It will be the highly specialized sites like FearNet, Cooking Network, even Troma (which is my favorite example) that will win. They are very specialized in their programming, bringing viewers the best in their niche and really creating a community and identity around their brand, those will be the big winners. There is a huge lesson here for distributors if they will pay attention. There’s more money in the niche than in the mass.

Also the overdependence on selling copies has become a losing proposition. Exact copies of your film are available for free online. Not degraded VHS, shaky camera copies, EXACT digital copies. If selling copies is your only form of revenue, you are really stuck. New business models, new revenue streams must be found by indie filmmakers or they really won’t survive.

Suing your audience into compliance isn’t going to work either. Making your work effortlessly available, for an affordable price, in a way that is convenient to your audience, that’s how you combat piracy. Also building in other revenue streams such as experiences, merchandise, sponsorships, crowd donation, those are all forms of revenue that filmmakers can use.

What were some of the smartest ideas for distribution that you came across while putting the book together?

SHERI: I especially loved distribution that took place in partnership with organizations. This is done particularly well with documentaries where a cause or special interest is involved. If the organization can see a great reason to partner, like their mission goals will be met or there is a financial incentive, then this form of distribution can work REALLY well.

Two film cases in the book characterize this kind of partnership, Ride the Divide and For the Bible Tells Me So. Narrative films will have a more difficult time with this kind of partnership unless their film has some niche interest involved.

As far as the narratives, I was really pleased to hear from many festival award films that had kept the production budgets very low were able to nearly recoup their production costs through festival screening fees. This only works if the film has been an official selection or better won an award at the prestige fests like Sundance, Cannes, Berlin.

The smaller fests want these films to play and they will pay screening fees to get them so leverage all you can from those selections and wins. Programmers will contact you to request a viewing and if they like it and want to program it, then you ask for a fee. Much of the revenue from Undertow (Contracorriente) came from festival screening fees and that was a narrative film.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the fact that we are self publishing and distributing this book too. In fact, we felt it would be hypocritical to write a book about self distribution and then work with a publisher who would take our rights and about 90% of the revenue and then only IF we could get a publisher interested since most of us are new authors and this isn’t a mass consumer oriented book.

Typically, new authors are only offered maybe a $5,000 advance which we would have had to split between 4 people. So we had to find a way to fund our book so that we could take time to write it and develop it as the digital book format we wanted. We accomplished that through selling sponsorships. Not only has the development and the printing been paid for by the generosity of our sponsors, particularly Prescreen, Area23a Movie Events and Dynamo Player, but we are already in the black before one copy has been sold. How many authors can claim that? It also enables us to make one digital copy (a free pdf text only version) free always so there is no excuse for any filmmaker not to read this book.

* * *

Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul Presented by Prescreen and Area23a Movie Events will be available starting September 13, 2011 on major ebook platforms such as Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble Nook and Apple iBooks. Printed copies will also be available directly from the website and soon on Amazon and in retail bookstores. A text only pdf will be indefinitely available for free. To follow all the happenings with the book, “like” it on Facebook and follow the Twitter hashtag #syfnotsys

You can reach Sheri Candler on her website, on her Facebook page, on Twitter @shericandler and on Google+, add her to your circles.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Andrew Haigh on "Weekend"

What was your filmmaking background before making Weekend?

ANDREW: I had worked as an assistant editor for what felt like a very long time. I'd been working on all kinds of films, from Gladiator to Mister Lonely, but felt I was getting trapped in a certain job when I always wanted to make my own films.

In the end I just decided enough was enough and I had to go out and make my own stuff.

I had done some shorts that had been on the festival circuit, but I decided to make a very small micro-budget feature to get things moving. It was called Greek Pete.

Filmed over a year it was docu-drama about London male escorts and it was released theatrically in the UK and on DVD in the US. This helped me raise a little bit of money for Weekend.

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

ANDREW: The idea came from a lot of things but primarily I just wanted to try and tell a realistic story about two guys falling for each other, have it be about aspects of the gay experience but also have be about so much more than that. The writing process was quite drawn out and the main challenge was to make it feel as naturalistic as possible, almost as if it were improvised, but at the same time enable the themes to come through.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?

ANDREW: We were funded by a mixture of public money in the UK, tax breaks and other bits and bobs. The budget was small but even when you're trying to raise a small amount of money it is tough - especially when you are not doing something particularly mainstream.

The plan for recoupment mainly comes from distribution companies buying the film although those amounts are never as much as you hope unless you are incredibly lucky. Money also can come in from festival play and the fees can quickly add up to a substantial amount. We are also hoping for a TV sale or two, probably in Europe.

Hopefully all of this will pay back the budget and then you just hope the film is a big success!

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

ANDREW: We shot on the Canon 5d but with cinema lenses and a massive rig which ended up making it about as big as a RED camera. I love the image quality you can get from something relatively cheap and small, but it does have its problems. It's not made as a video camera so it can be frustrating to use in terms of attaching monitors etc and the workflow is bit of a nightmare.

I don't think my DP would really want to use it again, although I think she did an amazing job. You also have to careful with focusing and not get too caught up in the shallow depth of field the camera can achieve, otherwise it will look like a music video rather than a film. It's also not fantastic in bright light but luckily when we shot there was a lot of cloud.

What are the advantages -- and possible disadvantages -- to being the editor on a film that you also wrote and directed?

ANDREW: I always knew I wanted to edit the film and for me it is simply an extension of directing. I think maybe it's partly because I'm a control freak, but also because I'm from an editing background it makes sense to do it myself.

For me personally when I edit I discover what works simply by trying different things without really knowing where it is heading. I think I would drive an editor completely crazy. Of course you do loose objectivity and that is the biggest problem but I always figure you loose that anyway whether your are editing yourself or sitting in the same room as an editor.

Editing is a strange part of the process when you are all alone with your film trying to make it work, discovering what you've done right and what you done wrong. I both love and hate that feeling in equal measures.

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

ANDREW: The smartest thing was hiring Tom and Chris, the two actors, because if they hadn't been great and the chemistry between them believable then the film would have been complete garbage. I think also keeping the crew tiny and shooting in order was also incredibly helpful in making the film feel real and authentic.

The dumbest? Not sure. I got drunk one night and my hangovers make me very irritable which is never a good thing when you're trying to make a film.

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

ANDREW: I think I've learnt a way of working that I really enjoy and a way of making a set work that I think creates the right tone for the type of films I want to make. Of course I've made mistakes as well, which I hope to not do again, although more than likely, I will.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

James Repici on "Subprime"

What was your filmmaking background before making Subprime?

JAMES: When I was in high school, I would make promotional videos for the school’s various fundraisers. So if they needed to get kids to come out to a carwash or whatever they were pushing, they would have me shoot a video with my friends to encourage student involvement, and it would play after the morning school news. Those same friends and I would make movies after school for fun.

At the time we were big into an MTV show called The State, so we would make sketch comedy stuff like that. Editing consisted of two VCRs and a boombox. It was all very poorly done and most of it is now funny for all the wrong reasons. At this point I still didn’t realize that filmmaking was an actual option in life. I always knew it was what I wanted to do, but I didn’t realize that it could be a career. “What’s a Director?” I really had no idea – the guidance my family provided was very limited and one-dimensional.

In college, I went to Business School but I took every film class that Florida State made available to me. Unfortunately for non-film students, those classes are limited to Film History and Theory type classes, so there was no hands-on training. In hindsight I think this was actually a good thing though because these classes built a foundation of understanding the art of filmmaking. It kept me from putting the carriage in front of the horses, so to speak. I’m big into subconscious communication with the viewer and film theory now, and I think these classes were the impetus for that.

Looking back, I’m kind of glad I didn’t go to film school. I think I’m a better filmmaker for it. Here’s a Terry Gilliam quote I love “There's so many film schools, so many media courses which I actually am opposed to. Because I think it's more important to be educated, to read, to learn things, because if you're gonna be in the media and if you'll have to say things, you have to know things. If you only know about cameras and 'the media', what're you gonna be talking about except cameras and the media? So it's better learning about philosophy and art and architecture [and] literature, these are the things to be concentrating on it seems to me.”

Too true Terry… Too true.

After I graduated college I moved to Los Angeles and befriended a bunch of filmmakers and writers. In LA I really focused on learning the craft of screenwriting. I did this for 3 or 4 years – and unsuccessfully I might add. I think after my 3rd feature, I started to figure it out and felt good about what I was writing and how I was doing it. In 2007 I was a finalist in the Page International Screenwriting Competition for my feature Cigar City, and everything has sort of taken off from there.

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

JAMES: I was working as a banker in 2005 in LA making $35,000 a year while brokers younger and less educated than me were coming in cashing checks for 15 and 20 grand every month. Imagine that - an 18 year old, cashing a 20 thousand dollar check. I just couldn’t get over how much money these kids were making - this was the seed for Subprime.

I didn’t consciously say to myself “Oh I’m going to write a story about these entitled little bastards” but it definitely clicked – I knew there was a story there. About two years later – 2007 I think – I was living in Orlando and working at a brokerage with about 30 loan officers. In June of that year the Page recognized Cigar City, so with that I started work on Subprime.

I enlisted the help of Darius Amendolia, a coworker of mine that had similar tastes in film and music – he also provided a more knowledgeable and tenured perspective on the mortgage industry. After our daily 9 AM meeting, Darius and I would work on the script in my office until noon. Over lunch we’d discuss the story and character development and then around 1 we’d finally get some paying work done.

Writing about crooked brokers while working in an office with crooked brokers, I must say was awesome. Every character in Subprime is based off of someone from that office. Actual lines were used in the movie, from real lines we heard in the office – sometimes verbatim. If there was ever a disagreement between Darius and I over what the Nick character might say if put in a particular situation, we would just walk over to the office of the guy he was based on, and ask him.

The regional manager comes in and says, “Forget about your piece, you need to take your unfair share” – we used it. Broker X is overheard saying “Yes, I’m the quality control manager…” No he’s not – but we can use it. Every day was filled with moments like this – a bunch of snake oil salesman providing us with great free material. This went on for about 6 months until Darius got fired for low production (go figure, we were writing the whole time!). After that we would meet at my house once a week to push the script forward.

After we had our first draft, I worked on the rewrites alone. I think comedy is the only exception where it’s better to have multiple writers but certainly for drama you’re better off with one voice – taking on the rewrites alone made the whole thing much more balanced. It took about one year to have a readable version but I was rewriting all the way to and through the shoot. The scene where Ian is selling during the 9/11 tragedy was written 30 minutes before the shoot. Writing is sort of like filmmaking – you never really feel like you’re finished.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?

JAMES: Initially I had a 10 grand commitment from a friend/ex-coworker I had met in the mortgage industry. His investment was rooted solely in my showing as a finalist in the Page. When the final results from the writing competition came in; I don’t think he even cared what I was writing about, he seemed pretty confident that whatever I put together would be good.

For writer/directors, writing competitions are a great resource to build a resume. The Page for example has different categories you can enter to increase your chances of being recognized. You still have to be good at what you do – you still have to write something great – but instead of competing against 6,000 other writers, you’re competing against 2,000 dramatic feature writers. If you can say you’re better than 2,000 other writers and they publish your name, you’re going to impress somebody. It was enough to get an investment from my coworker, so with his commitment I knew we could at the very least get the film made, albeit on an EXTEMELY low budget level.

After the first draft was written I set a shooting date for about 6 months in the future with a two way plan.

1: Continue to hustle my ass off to raise more money. In the event I could raise a substantial budget, I’d put the project on hold to elevate the scope of the production.

2: If I strike out in finding another investor, c’est la vie, I’m making it anyway with the 10 grand.

From there I approached all my mortgage professional connections but struck out completely. The market was really starting to collapse, so they were all experiencing a drastic decrease in income. Had I asked them just a year prior – I probably could have raised 100 grand pretty quickly. Unfortunately, that just wasn’t the case anymore though.

This was really my only angle. There was no or IndieGoGo at this point, and if there was, I didn’t know about it. I was tempted to hit up my family but I think they ultimately would have said no, and their lack of belief may have jilted my confidence. For that reason I decided to run with the 10 grand, and just do the best with what I had – that’s all you can do. Do the best with what you have.

The low budget in the long run has turned out to be a saving grace for me. When you don’t have a lot of money to recoup, you’re enabled to turn a profit quickly. I figured even on a grass roots promotion level, recouping 10 is doable. You can print 1,000 DVDs, with case, plastic wrap and all for about 1,000 dollars. So at 12 bucks a pop you’re already in the black.

We set up a website ( and added a link for interested buyers. My team blasted everyone they knew on Facebook/Myspace/Twitter, and all through the post production and festival run we directed our traffic there – we’re still doing this actually (Go visit the site and add your name).

Just from the site we have close to 1,000 buyers already. For the fests, I would blast email/fax every real estate agency, mortgage brokerage, bank, lender, appraiser’s office and title company that shared a zip code with the location of the showing.

I contacted the city’s chamber of commerce and got leads on different businesses/clubs that would be interested in my subject matter. Posted on mortgage related blogs, craigslist, etc. I reached out to any periodical I could find that were located in the city of showing. I’d walk the city’s financial district the day of the show and pass out flyers about my film. I’d talk to anybody that would listen really.

I wish I could say we had a legitimate marketing campaign but when there’s no money, it’s just not an option. Again, you do the best you can with what you have and you make it work. As far as actual distribution goes, right now I’m sending DVDs to different production companies that have distributed films that I feel are on Subprime’s level. With the limited budget, there’s no point in sending a screener to Paramount, but Lions Gate just might consider the merit in my film.

I send the screener to as many companies as I can find – I talk about it incessantly – And above all, I’m polite and take the time to speak and listen to every person that expresses interest. Leaving good impressions on people has served me well.

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

JAMES: We used an HVX AG 200, with a 35mm Letus Film Adaptor. It’s a pretty easy camera to use and a lot of cinematographers are comfortable with it. It was the best camera I was going to be able to afford, I had a lead on one, and my cinematographer had used it before – so that was that.

I think the fact that the camera is so commonly owned was a life saver for us – definitely what I loved about it most. We were shooting a scene at Mons Venus in Tampa Florida; I had arranged a crane, a grip truck and about 20 extras for the scene. I had cashed in a bunch of favors and put in a lot of leg work to make the shoot happen for next to nothing, but there was no room for error. We had about 4 hours to get what we needed and no second chances. The crane was in place, everybody’s ready to go, I yell action, and… the camera doesn’t work. We had somehow damaged the imaging chip in transport and the whole project was nearly derailed.

Fortunately one of our grips owned the exact same camera so we just borrowed his for the day. Obviously my film adaptor fit and we continued our shoot having only lost 1 hour of time, for him to go pick it up. If the HVX wasn’t such a popular camera, I’m not quite sure what I would have done here. The whole movie would have looked primo except for that one Mons scene shot on my camera phone… Haha , we would have had a camera phone strapped to a crane – how awesome would that have been.

I guess what I hate the most about the camera is simply that it’s not film. You can emulate film all you want, the film adapter certainly helps, but if you’re not shooting on film, it won’t look like film. There are individual shots and moments in Subprime that will fool you, but on a whole it’s clear we didn’t shoot on film.

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

JAMES: As far as duration goes – yea it changed pretty drastically. The first cut was about 2 hours long which held true to the screenplay of 124 pages. However; given the subject matter of the movie, I don’t think 2 hours is the best idea. Holding someone’s attention for a feature film is no easy task, so once we got all the pieces put together I started chopping anything that was expendable to the story. We got it down to a tight 78 minutes and it moves very fluently now.

Not just Subprime, but Micro/No Budget Film in general is best between 75 and 85 minutes. The shorter run time will save you money on the actual shoot, and your low budget doesn’t provide the kind of production value that will sustain a viewer for 2+ hours anyway. I’m not saying you need a car chase or explosion to keep somebody watching for 2 hours but even camera movement is difficult to execute when you don’t have money. A well written great story is essential and in your control so it’s imperative that you provide this.

But duration is also in your control; if you keep your feature short, the viewer will give you a lot more latitude on what you can’t provide. A shorter film is also beneficial to festival directors that are choosing what they will program. If a festival is trying to fill a 4 hour block of films with 2 features and 2 shorts – a shorter feature is more likely to fit into their schedule.

This probably sounds like a silly reason to keep a runtime down, but why do anything that could inhibit success? For a Micro/No Budget film – the festivals are nearly all you have, so cater to them. I lost a few story lines in cutting my story down but I think ultimately the shorter version is a better film.

What was the smartest thing you did during production?

JAMES: The smartest thing I did was preparation. Like most everything if you prepare efficiently; when it’s go time you’re going to be alright. There are still disasters (like with the camera), people are going to quit on you, locations will try to reschedule at the ninth hour, the crew won’t show up, an actor will no-show because they booked a paying gig, basically if it can go wrong it probably will, but… I hate to keep going back to this… you do the best with what you have, and preparation is something you have – so if you prepare your ass off, you’re going to make it.

The dumbest?

JAMES: Don’t be ridiculous John, I never do dumb things.

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

JAMES: Wow, where do I even begin here? Everything… I’m currently trying to find investors for a project I’ve written entitled Dutch Book, and my entire approach is based on what I’ve learned from Subprime. Here’s a breakdown of some of the more notable stuff:

Writing: Less is more. Don’t try to dictate the situation to your actor or your viewer. Some of the best scenes don’t have a word of dialogue. Sometimes you need to let the actor make the scene play – you can’t always do it on the page. Also, unless you have serious money, as I said before, I don’t see any purpose in a screenplay beyond 90 pages. Keep it short.

Casting: If you’re not 100% on somebody, don’t pull the trigger. Wait it out, have another casting session if need be, but wait until you have the perfect actor for each role. Use real actors for everything, no matter how minor the role. Find and cast people that are active in the industry. Avoid the whole family and friends routine.

Subprime has about 20 speaking parts and 20 non-speaking – if I use 40 real actors here, I’m going to have 40 industry involved people talking about my movie to everyone they know. This is free marketing. I love Dar’s Brother, and Grandma Repici cooks some amazing lasagna, but even if I'm desperate, I can't use them - they’re not going to be a bit of help when it comes to getting Subprime into the right person’s hands. I also noticed 2 distinct differences in the type of actor that audition for something on this level; some of them are aspiring actors because they want to be famous, and some of them are aspiring actors because they love to act. Avoid the prior at all costs and cast the latter with confidence.

Investors – Subprime was my first film and I had everyone involved telling me I needed to wait until I raised more money. “There’s no way you can make this with $10,000.” – I can’t tell you how many people told me this. Several people quit on me (some multiple times) because of my insistence to keep moving forward with such little money. I’m glad I was stubborn enough to not listen to them. If it’s your first film – just do it. Don’t wait for somebody to come along and say “Oh you’re a genius, I love your screenplay, here’s some money!”, because it’s not going to happen. If you’ve never made anything, why would anyone give you money? Put together whatever you can and just make it happen on your own.

Pre-Production – Plan like a maniac, and if it’s possible, rehearse when you have your cast. Rehearsing is huge.

Production – In William Goldman’s, Adventures in the Screen Trade, George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) says of directing, something to the effect of “if the story is well executed and the film is properly cast, you’re job is nearly done”. His comment is so accurate. Take your time on the story and wait until you’ve perfected it. Then take your time finding the right cast, and watch it all come to life before your eyes during production.

Post – Editing is kind of like writing in the sense that, if it’s expendable just cut it. I don’t want to say this is true universally, but with Micro/No budget film you want to trim all the fat. As a writer it’s easy to fall in love with a certain scene or a certain piece of dialogue, but you have to detach yourself from that kind of thinking. On the page you might have something phenomenal but then on screen it might not play for any number of reasons.

And lastly, in general, I learned to never squander an opportunity. If you find you’re not getting enough opportunities, start creating them on your own. I email at least one person a day about my projects. I don’t even know the people I’m emailing – I scour the internet, find someone that I think could help, and I send them the most cordial email about what I’m working on and why they should involve themselves.

If you email 1,000 people blindly, 9,500 will ignore you, 400 will tell you to stop emailing them, 99 will tell you to go fuc! yourself, but 1 will give you an ear. And that one person is the opportunity that could get your project made. One of your readers could potentially help me. Hey! Yes You! … Reader! Do you want to invest in an amazing well written project? Do you want to invest in the most thorough, intelligent, and likable human being you’ve read about in the past ten minutes? Then you should contact me at and invest in Dutch Book…. You see, that was an opportunity, and I just took full advantage.