JEFF: I interned at a story development and production company in Los Angeles for two years. I was maybe a year out of high school and was very clueless. I treated my internship like a real job. Getting coffee for the producers was just as important as anything else. The other interns were all college graduates and jaded by the entry level. One of them had graduated from Harvard and I joked with him that I just got out of high school and we both had the same position. He punched me in the stomach.
I was also a production assistant on two features and I found myself learning-by-embarrassment. That’s what I call it when you learn by making so many newbie mistakes that everyone laughs at you and you feel shame and guilt and depression. Actually, that’s quite horrible, but by the time I went to film school, I felt I already had the experience that put me slightly ahead. In my last year as a film student, I wrote the script for Etienne! – two weeks after I graduated, I was in production on the film.
Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like?
JEFF: I worked at an after school program while in film school. I brought a dwarf hamster in as a mascot and the kids loved it. The idea for the film came out of that. I wanted to make a kid’s movie.
I wrote the first draft of the script in less than a month. It was pretty fast because I wrote within my resources, writing only what I could afford to shoot. I find it easier to write when you set a lot of limitations from the beginning. It gives me boundaries and focus.
Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?
JEFF: A good chunk came from me. I used all my savings, sold my car, used college graduation money. My producer is from Switzerland and was also a graduate film student at UCLA at the time, so he found Swiss investors and we were able to take advantage of some student discounts. We also had two generous producers gets us through post.
We are trying to recoup costs by looking into alternative international outlets. Earlier in 2011, my Swiss producer took our finished movie and as a new way to market the film, we had a famous children storyteller narrate in Swiss-German. It’s basically the same film, except the volume is lowered and the Swiss-German narration is telling a story that fits the culture and age demographic of that audience. This version was released theatrically in Switzerland and is on DVD shelves at their equivalent to Best Buy.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?
JEFF: I shot Etienne! on Super 16mm on a newer Fuji film stock that was supposed to have a vintage 1970s texture. I used an Aaton LTR, an Arri SR II, and SR III. The look of Super 16mm fit the style of the movie, which was why I chose it, but I will never shoot on film again unless my next movie has a huge budget (so probably never).
I had no experience and no money and that’s a bad combination to shoot film. It took too much time, cost too much money, and didn’t make my movie any better. That’s like, an epic fail on the indie film triangle: Time, Money, Quality – choose two. I got none.
How are you using film festivals as part of your distribution plan?
JEFF: My movie came out a few years ago, so using festivals as part of a DIY distribution plan was something I didn’t think about. Traditionally, a sales agent shows your film to distribution companies and then you sit back and watch them bid on your film and take the best offer. Unfortunately, Etienne! came out as the economy crashed, so umm. . .yeah, that didn’t happen for me.
What was the process of getting the movie onto Netflix and how is that working out so far?
JEFF: I signed a digital distribution deal with a company who put my film on Netflix and some other digital outlets. I don’t know if I’ll be breaking my contract terms by telling you this, but … I hate Netflix. If you don’t care about making money and just want your film available to a wide audience, then Netflix is great. But if you want to recoup your investment, then look into other options because once Netflix has your film available for streaming, you are done.
What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?
JEFF: I don’t think I did anything smart, but I know exactly what the dumbest thing I did was: I did not budget for a production monitor. I trusted my cinematographer, who was also the camera operator, to make sure everything was good. We had a budget for weeklies, not dailies. So after the first week of shooting, half the shots were out focus and/or not composed well. That wasn’t entirely my DPs fault. There needs to be more than one eyeball on every shot. It’s just common sense.
I thought I was saving time and money by not having a monitor, but this ended up costing us so much more. I then took over as camera operator and eventually became my own cinematographer midway through production. This turned into the second dumbest thing I did: an inexperienced director should not also be his own inexperienced DP.
And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?
JEFF: Working on a low budget film is stressful and bad for your health. It’s essential to be in good mental and physical shape before going into a production. I had never cared about that before, but now, I get as much sleep as I can. I create a diet and fitness routine as though conditioning for a triathlon. I’m surprised how much of a difference that has made with my focus and energy level. Your body is like a car and the production is a long road trip, if you don’t tune up before you go and maintain it along the way, you’re guaranteed to break down at some point.