Thursday, November 24, 2011

Coleman Hough on "Bubble"

What screenplays had you written before Bubble?

COLEMAN HOUGH: Before I started Bubble, I had written a movie for HBO about the life of Katherine Graham. And I was developing a TV series with some producers in Los Angeles. The thing for HBO, I was hired to do it, I did it and it was completed, but it's never been produced. It's still in development. Apparently, one of the re-writers is Joan Didion. That's kind of cool. If you're going to be re-written by anyone, Joan Didion's the one.

And then I went to Los Angeles last Fall and was developing this TV series. And I ran into Steven, and he wanted to know what I was doing. I told him and we started talking about working together again. He said that Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner had commissioned him to do six films in this new format, day and date release. And he said, "Why don't you write the first one?"

I was thrilled. And then he said, "I don't want to use actors, I want to use just people in the town. And I want there to be no scripted dialogue; I want it to be all improvised." So then I thought, well, what am I going to write?

What was his concept for the movie?

COLEMAN HOUGH: He had an idea, he wanted to do a tale of jealousy that took place in a factory, a love triangle. So I said, "Well, what kind of factory?" And he said, "I'm thinking about an animal testing facility." And then we started talking about the political implications of that, and we decided we didn't want that overlay of political implications.

We started brainstorming about other factories, and I was researching industries in the Midwest, because I knew he wanted to film in the Midwest because it was during the re-election, and Ohio specifically was such a hot swing state. I found two doll factories in Ohio and Indiana, the only two remaining doll factories in the country.

I started making some calls. I didn't tell them what I was doing, I just said I was interested in making dolls and I wanted to know if they did tours of their plant. So I went with a location manager and it was this fun research trip for two weeks, with a week in each town. It was really great, it was like working as a site-specific playwright. I fell in love with the Ohio town, because it was right on the Ohio river.

From the people I met in the town and the feeling I got from the town, and just by observing the life that I had landed in the middle of, I fashioned this story. And then I presented it to Steven and he liked it; we made some adjustments and that gave us our shooting outline.

And you were on the set throughout the shoot?

COLEMAN HOUGH: The fun thing, the great discovery, was that he wanted me on the set every day, because he wanted to be constantly incorporating the stories of the actors into the story.

So I found my job to be the best job of all, because I was not only putting the non-professional actors at ease -- Steven called me The Human Green Room -- because they would hang out with me. I would listen to their stories and we'd share stories and we'd talk about things we'd done and I'd ask them a million questions. Their stories were so great and so rich. So, whenever I would see Steven, on a break or whatever, I'd say, "Okay, I've got a good one. You've got to get Debbie to talk about …" whatever story they had told me that day.

For example, the scene where Rose is taking a bath in the house she's cleaning is a story from my life. I've always wanted to put that scene in a movie because I used to take baths at parties. When I was in my 30s I went through this weird phase where I would just disappear and take a bath at a party, because my idol, Zelda Fitzgerald, used to do that.

I've always wanted to put that in a movie, and I thought, what if she takes a bath in the house where she cleans. And so, that day Misty, the actress, was very apprehensive about wearing the nude suit and being in the bathtub. So I told her that story from my life, and it put her at ease. She just thought that was so funny and it just made it more delicious for her to do it.

How did you create the characters once you had the story roughed in? And did it change once you cast the non-actors?

COLEMAN: I had a clear idea of the characters before we cast the actors. We cast the actors based on the characters I'd imagined. When Steven and I were reviewing the audition tapes, the criteria was, are these the people that I imagined? So we didn't have to make any adjustments to the story, because they were the characters.

So, Debbie just jumped out, she was Martha, and Misty was Rose. They couldn't have been more perfect. We found them, they found us. The whole Bubble experience was like the magic synchronicity of everything. The town opened up to us, everything that was meant to be happened. It was wild.

How difficult was it for you to not write the dialogue and let the actors make it up on-camera?

COLEMAN: It was very hard for me at first, because that's what I write. I'm a playwright and dialogue is what I love to write. I felt a shift -- Steven always talks about a writing head and a making head, which is developing a film and then actually making it. And it's true. So I got to experience that in terms of listening to their cadences and pointing out to Steven the things that really spoke of their characters. Like Misty would say, "Oh, yeah," that was one thing she said that was so that character.

We filmed in the bait and tackle shop for a long time. I would listen on the monitor through all the shooting, and I was thrilled when that woman said, "The darker the water, the darker the bait." And I said, "Steven, you have to start there. It's such a great line."

So it was kind of like writing it as I heard it. It was such an honor, because it was like not making it up in my head, but listening to it and catching it. Which is what you do when you immerse yourself in a world or a culture, you start to hear certain phrases or certain intonations. That was a hard adjustment, not hard but challenging.

I always thought dialogue was so important to me in writing scripts, and I couldn't imagine what that would be like to relinquish the control of that. But it was thrilling. On the first day of shooting, we did the lunchroom scene, where's there's an awkward silence and then Rose says, "Do any of you all smoke?"

I got chills when I was watching that, because of the silence. That's what I love to write; in fact, in a lot of my plays the stage direction says, "There's an uncomfortable silence between them." And the fact that they just trusted that silence, and the sub-text in that line "Do any of you all smoke?" I just couldn't have written anything better than that! Just by putting them in that situation, it was amazing to see the organic response.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Alex Fegan on "Man Made Men"

What was your filmmaking background before making Man Made Men?

ALEX: Nothing really formal. Although I did a six week summer course on filmmaking in 1999. I also made lots of animated films before that. These were short stop-motion films I shot on my bedroom floor mainly using lego toys as cast.

One such film, perhaps cheekily called Save Us Adolf, can be found on YouTube. It looks at the circumstances where an evil dictator could possibly save the world. It was shot in 1996 when I was 17 on a High 8 camera.

Of course, it was almost a half an hour long, which is was way too long for an animated black comedy but I think it ultimately got me hooked on filmmaking.

Unfortunately though, after making that, I didn't make another film until Man Made Men -- not even one short film with actors. In fact, I went off and qualified as a lawyer in Ireland and worked in an Irish law firm for over four years. Then, one day, having had the idea for Man Made Men in my head for a while, I decided that I would make it while I was still working full time. Thus, most of the initial scenes in Man Made Men were shot at weekends only.

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

ALEX: My biology teacher in the Irish equivalent in High School inadvertently inspired me to make the film. He was giving a particularly boring class on mitosis when I decided to read one of those blue boxes in the biology book; the ones that give a biography of some famous biologist from the distant past. This one concerned a scientist called Stanley Miller who conducted an experiment in 1953 in Chicago to try and make life from lifeless materials. In a way, he was a sort of real-life Frankenstein character. I recall immediately going into a daydream and this is where the idea for the film was formed. I wanted to tell the story of a man who becomes a God over his own man-made world.

The writing process ended up being quite straightforward. There was probably two reasons for this; the first was that I had the idea in my head for a while before I started writing so I think I knew exactly where I was going with the story. Secondly, I had no one watching over me and had no great expectations so I just got on with it. All in all, the first draft took about two weeks. Then I started revising it, which probably took me another couple of months. Once that was done, myself and a friend who said she'd help, Helen Sheridan, immediately started casting for up speaking 40 parts in the film and looking for a 50 piece choir to work on the soundtrack.

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

ALEX: There was really neither a financial plan nor a budget. And the last thing on our minds was recouping our costs since in essence there were no costs. Frankly we just leapt into making the film. We had no experience, no money, no schedule and no financial plan and both Helen and I were both working full time in completely different professions. Everyone involved gave up their precious time for the cause. Our only commitment was that we would finish what we started, so all we could ask in return was that everyone gave the same commitment.

When we started, all we had was one hand-held camera, which I already owned due my interest in animation, and a direction mic, which I bought. So I said to Helen, you do the sound and I'll do the camera and we'll record the sound directly into the camera. Thus, for the first 80% of the production, all we had was a crew of two people doing absolutely everything. It was really only in the last three days of filming that we got a small crew to help us (who turned out to be great) and that was mainly because Helen was having a baby at the time.

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

ALEX: We shot the film on a Sony VX 2000. It's a small, very light camera that is very handy for filming a film like ours because when your filming in airports, busy streets and coffee shops people assume you are shooting a family video rather than a sci-fi thriller. It also has a sort of gritty, documentary look when projected on a cinema screen that I think sort of worked for Man Made Men.

Having said that, I wouldn't use it again. As it's standard definition footage, you are very limited in post in terms of fixing up shots and color correcting.

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

ALEX: The smartest thing was just doing it. The dumbest thing was probably the exact same thing. In hindsight though, with what I now know, I would do lots of things differently and prepare way more.

However, at the time, I didn't have the luxury of that experience so I have absolutely no regrets. The film is what it is. In the end, we spent a total of €4k ($5,300) on it and it owes us absolutely nothing. The fact that it's getting out there, it's being received well and people are enjoying it is more than we could asked for. I think and hope that everyone that got involved in it is very proud of it.

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

ALEX: The most significant thing we learned was that nothing is impossible; no matter how big the challenge, no matter how daunting the task. There is a way to make things happen. Also, we learned that creativity and a problem solving attitude, rather than money necessarily, will find the solution to all problems.

On a personal level, I learned a lot about directing actors mainly from making mistakes. I think there is no book in the world that can teach how to direct better than actually directing. I feel the learning curve has been steepest since the film was complete, i.e. watching the footage afterwards and finally watching an audience reacting to the footage. It is then that you suddenly realize how you could make stuff a lot better, and this, I hope, is what I will take to the next project.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Kenton Bartlett on “Missing Pieces”

What was your filmmaking background before making Missing Pieces?

KENTON: Very little. During college, I rented a small consumer camera from the university and experimented with Final Cut Pro. Then after making one project, the creative drive to do better kicked in, and projects continued until about 13 short films had been made. The final short film took one year to complete. The title of it is Student Short Film, and that project was the main stepping-stone towards realizing feature film production is not much different than making a student film.

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

KENTON: The idea for the script came first out of parameters (marketable story, use outdoor locations for natural light, involve several story lines so scenes could be deleted without ruining the story, and a few other parameters to fight looking like an ‘indie’ movie).

After thinking of a basic story that involved kidnapping and cinematic locations, the rest of the writing process involved filtering personal experience into the narrative and plugging plot holes. The writing process started in March 2008, and really didn’t finish until the end of second unit photography in December 2010.

What sort of camera did you use and what did you love about it and hate about it?

KENTON: We filmed on the Red One (which we purchased). It was really a saving grace for us because the footage looks like a ‘real movie’ without the high cost of 35mm film. Without having anything to compare it to, it would be hard to evaluate pros and cons of the camera. However, it worked very well throughout production, and if we did not have a camera at our disposal for a year and a half, we never would have been able to make the movie.

On a related note, how did you and your DP create the look of the movie?

KENTON: During pre-production, we tried to experience a learning curve with the Red One’s settings. We shot two short films with our Red during pre-production and used trial and error to figure out the best way to use the camera. The camera and lens settings we used were very specific and seemingly arbitrary, but after we honed in on those settings, everything we shot looked great. We used consumer Nikon lenses and attached panty hose cloth to the front of the lens to give more of an organic look and to fight the digital crispness of the image.

People often overlook composition when discussing cinematography, and our DP, Jonathan Arturo has a great eye for wonderful compositions. He also has great handheld instincts and skills for infusing light into a scene.

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

KENTON: Raising the money started by being as proactive as possible through making a website, a business plan, creating promotional videos, flyering parking lots, delivering flyers door to door, spamming the internet, creating as many social network sites as possible, etc. All this effort generated about $5,000 through friends. However, by being so proactive, everyone started noticing our passion, and a close family member offered to co-sign on a loan.

At the moment, we are out of money. We are quite close to debt as the loan money is spent (and personal life savings), and it’s been 3.5 years without a paycheck. We have been trying to recoup the costs through selling Missing Pieces to a distributor. With such a competitive market for distribution, we are proactively seeking publicity and film reviews so that maybe a kindhearted executive will notice our film. As this interview is part of that campaign, we would like to thank you for all your help with this project.

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

KENTON: There were close to 100 cuts of the movie. Many family and friends watched the movie to give feedback during post-production, and it changed quite drastically throughout. With such a cumbersome story line and limited experience during production, many of the scenes we filmed had no place in the finished movie. The movie is not chronological, so figuring out the most coherent structure was quite challenging. We had to re-shoot a couple scenes and add a few sequences here and there in order for the story to fully make sense.

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

KENTON: The smartest thing I did during production was think that we could actually make a legitimate movie for $80,000 by enlisting enthusiastic volunteers and fighting ‘indie’ movie conventions.

The dumbest thing I did during production was take on the responsibility of making a legitimate movie for $80,000. It’s too daunting and heartbreaking to ever want to do again. The hopeful outlook for the future is that maybe next time production will be easier if we somehow find a budget.

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

KENTON: With my personality, every project seems like a failure at the end of it. The only way to fight that failure is to jump into creating something new and attempt to overcome the shortcomings of the last project.

Missing Pieces was plagued with problems, but every problem is an opportunity to learn a valuable lesson. From that perspective, there have been boundless learning opportunities. Going forward into our second feature film project, we intend to learn from all of those mistakes and hardships.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Kasi Lemmons on "Eve's Bayou"

What was going on in your life and your career before you came to write Eve's Bayou?

KASI LEMMONS: I had been an actor for a long time. I'd done a couple of plays with really good companies, Naked Angels and Steppenwolf, and then I went to film school. When I got out of film school I had a short film that was festivaling around, called Fall From Grace. And then I did Silence of the Lambs and moved to Los Angeles.

I'd written with other people, but Eve's Bayou was the first thing I wrote by myself. At that point in my life I was starting to think about the future. I'd been to film school, so it wasn't a completely foreign concept that I would start to marry all of these elements, the things that I'd been doing for years.

What I really wanted to do was to write the perfect role for myself. To write the perfect part. If you could write a perfect part for yourself, what would it be? So I wrote the character of Mozelle for me to play when I got a little bit older.

Also it was very much an experiment in a certain type of language and a certain type of writing style. It was very ambitious. I knew what I wanted to do, but it was more of an experiment. And then when I was finished with it, I showed it to Vondie Curtis-Hall, who was my boyfriend at the time, and he said, "You've got to show this to somebody else." He was the person who said, "You can't put it in a drawer. You have to show it to somebody."

Where did the idea for the story come from?

KASI LEMMONS: I remember the first time I told any story from Eve's Bayou was at an audition. The casting director didn't want to see a scene from the show. He wanted us to talk. So I started spinning Eve's Bayou stories. I talked about my aunt who had gotten married five times and all of her husbands had died. That was true. The more fantastical parts of the story are true.

I wrote it down as a short story and I wrote some other short stories. One was about two little kids, a brother and sister, who go and look in their grandmother's room and it talks about all of her medicines and the way in which her room was very evocative. And then another was about Eve and Jean Paul Batiste and how a bayou came to be named after this slave who saved her master's life with voodoo and witch-doctoring. So I had all these stories, but they weren't really connected. There was some connection in my mind, but I hadn't found it yet.

Then I invented the character of Louis Batiste for the stories to revolve around. Way before I wrote anything down I could tell you the entire story of Eve's Bayou, the entire thing complete with flashes of lightning. I could tell you the whole movie. I had it all in my head.

Where you thinking about budget at all while you wrote?

KASI LEMMONS: I wrote it as a literary experiment. So I wasn't thinking about anything other than wanting to get this story down on paper. As a matter of fact, when I first started writing it I thought it might be a book. And then I ended up writing it as a screenplay and I had the idea of the role of Mozelle, but I wasn't really sure if it was going to turn into a book or a screenplay or what was going to happen with it. I just let it come out.

I wasn't thinking about budget and I wasn't thinking about directing it at all. We took it to directors. So I really wasn't thinking about budget until I decided to direct it.

What was it that made you decide to direct it?

KASI LEMMONS: I took a bunch of meetings that were a little bit frightening to me and I started to realize that I'd written a very delicate piece of material that could be misinterpreted very easily. In fact, it was just as easy to misinterpret it as it was to interpret it the way I intended. I took some scary meetings where I thought, "Oh God, I'd rather keep it in the drawer than let people interpret it this way."

My producer kept saying, "What's a sexy idea of a director? Who's sexy?" And I was thinking, "Who's sexy? Who's sexy?" Literally I woke up on my birthday and it was an epiphany. I was like, "You know what? I'm going to direct it."

After that moment I never vacillated. I went to the producer and said, "I went to film school. My short film did really well and I've decided I'm going to direct this." He almost fell off his chair. But he was very supportive. The first thing he said when he recovered from shock was that he wanted to produce a short film for me to see what I could do. Something with a 35mm camera, real crew, the whole thing. And that's what he did. My agent put up half the money and he put up the other half. It was really amazing.

Once you decided to direct it, did you ever consider also acting in it?

KASI LEMMONS: No. I find directing to be a very, very voyeuristic art form. Almost a perversion. You're really watching other people's intimate moments and trying to get those moments out of them. But I don't think there was ever a question of me wanting to be in it once I decided to direct it.

Was it much of a struggle for you to get the tone you felt in the script up onto the screen?

KASI LEMMONS: Not really, once the actors nailed the language. The language to me, and I really haven't felt this way with other things that I've written, but that language in Eve's Bayou was like Shakespeare. That's because it started out as a language experiment, so I made them say it word for word. And the words were really important to me. So they had to say it as it was written.

Once they nailed the language, the language really helped them fall into the tone.

How tough was it for the actors to get that and make those speeches work? I'm thinking in particular of Mozelle's "Life is filled with good-byes, Eve" speech.

KASI LEMMONS: That's my favorite speech. Debbi Morgan's such a wonderful actress. She came in and her audition was wonderful. Wonderful. She really got it. And once she got the words exactly, like, "Well, you musta been thinking something right before you was thinking that, what led you to that particular thought?" Once you could nail the words and you're not improvising on the words, you're saying those exact words, the words help with the character. But she was so wonderful, she was wonderful from the beginning and she understood Mozelle. There was a part of her that was Mozelle.

Did you learn anything writing Eve's Bayou that you're still using today?

KASI LEMMONS: You know, there's an innocence when you write your first script. You don't know what the rules are. It's almost something that's really hard to reclaim. So that's what I'm always trying to get back to, the innocence, to try and be that pure. I don't know that I can ever do it again, but to try and remember to be that unleashed in a way.