What prompted you to make the switch from producing to directing?
JOE: I didn't really make a conscious switch. I just started writing and directing. I will say that part of the motivation was that producing is a lot about finding money and I'm more interested in films and story and execution. That said, I like helping other writers and directors make films and am always open to projects that need producing.
Where did the idea for Helena from the Wedding come from and what was the writing process like?
JOE: The seed of the idea came from the location which is a cabin in the mountains of upstate New York that has been in my family for a long time and which is not used for months at a time. I decided to make a film there and then needed a story. My only rule was that it needed to take place only at and around the cabin.
As I got into it, it turned into a working out of what was on my mind at the time. Having recently gotten married, I was thinking a lot about what it meant to be married. Approaching forty I was thinking about what it meant to no longer be "young." And so on. At some point I got an image in my head of the last shot in the film: a man and a woman standing and facing each other and just looking at each other. Then I worked backward to come up with a story to get to that image.
It was not the typical "what if..." process but more of an investigation, a "who are these people and how did they come to be standing in front of each other just looking at each other and what are they thinking about?" process. Once the main action started to center around two newlyweds, I thought it would be interesting to set the story over the course of a New Year's weekend celebration.
The writing process started with me walking around for a few months thinking and then took about a year from sitting down to write to the actual shooting. I started with the last scene and then went to the first scene and wrote it forward. The first draft took a few months and then I re-wrote it up until shooting but it didn't change fundamentally. The re-writing was a process of making a lot of small changes which cumulatively made a big difference.
Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?
JOE: I was never going to raise a budget. I was just going to pay for it as I went along. Initially I set out to create a film with three characters and the crew was going to be me, a DP and a sound guy and we were all going to live in the cabin. As I got into the writing, more and more characters started showing up to the party and it became clear that I would need a bit more crew to deal with them and we were all not going to be able to live in the cabin.
When I budgeted the first draft of the script, the rough cost came out to be about $100,000, an amount I didn't have lying around. And then an interesting thing happened. I found out I was going to be a father. Not only did this news reverberate somewhat in subsequent drafts of the script, it forced me to sell my apartment, and I potentially had my budget. A few friends wound up putting in five or ten thousand dollars which, given the budget, was significant.
As far as recouping costs go, I sold the film to a small distributor called Film Movement. The initial advance covered 20-30% of the budget, but the deal was only for North America and it contained a small theatrical release, which was important for me. We'll see if there are any overages. I have a company called Forward Entertainment brokering foreign rights and we'll see how that goes. So far I think we've sold television in Spain and Portugal for 10-15% of the budget. I think if it recoups it will be through additional foreign television sales.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?
JOE: We used the Sony EX-3. I loved that it was very small so we could shoot the entire film, except for the last shot, handheld. I also loved that it was able to capture a great looking image in natural and practical light. Those two things sped things up enough to be able to shoot the film in 12 days and also allowed me to keep the focus on working with the actors. I like digital because I like to shoot long takes, usually at least the entire scene, and also I like to shoot a lot both before and after the actual scene on the page.
How did you cast your ensemble and what advice would you offer to someone trying to cast a movie with multiple characters all around the same age?
JOE: I worked with two great casting directors, Suzanne Smith Crowley and Jessica Kelly at Christie Street Casting. We held many rounds of auditions. They sent the entire script out to prospective cast so everybody came in knowing the whole as well as their piece of it. Through this process I found everyone but Alice and Alex, the main newlywed couple at the center of the film.
One of the producers, Alexa Fogel, is a casting director and had done OZ and suggested Lee Tergesen for the husband, who I have known for a long time but for whatever reason didn't think of him for the role. We met once and it was obvious he was Alex. He didn't even read. About the same time, Suzanne and Jessica met Melanie Lynskey, who was in town for a day from LA auditioning on another project. They put Melanie on tape in the morning and met her in the afternoon and cast her as Alice I think on the spot.
I would advise anyone casting any film to do a lot of auditions. If you can afford a great casting director, hire one. Not just for handling logistics and to give you credibility within the actor community, but for their opinions. Also, auditions are a great way to learn about your characters and story.
Did the movie change much during the editing process, and if so, how?
JOE: The structure of the film and the story didn't change. It is as it was on the page, except we cut one or two scenes that felt redundant. Some things about the characters changed and some things about their attitudes towards one another changed. We didn't do very many takes, maybe 2 or 3 on average but I usually went out of my way to adjust the actors wildly from take to take and in addition to coverage, that gave me some interesting options to mix and match and create some moments and shape the characters in ways that I didn't completely envision at the script stage.
What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?
JOE: The smartest was to conceive a film that could be done well for the budget I had and also to hire great actors and crew and then to trust those actors and crew. The dumbest was to write a climactic scene that would be lit only with exploding fireworks, and then schedule it for the final night of shooting and not check and make sure we had enough fireworks to do more than one take.
And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?
JOE: Prepare and don't panic.