Thursday, December 29, 2011

Joe Lueben and Jesse James Russell on “Bits”

What was your filmmaking background before making Bits?

JOE LUEBEN: Before Bits, I had written and directed dozens of short films--some good, some unwatchable--while studying English literature at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. While at Augsburg, I was lucky enough to meet and work with the other filmmakers and actors who would become the core group of Bits. After graduating, all of us were eager to take our filmmaking abilities to the next step by making a feature film.

JESSE JAMES RUSSELL: Bits was the most ambitious project and first feature length film that I had worked on at the time. Up until that point, I was still in school and most of my work consisted of shorts: experimental, narrative, and installation pieces. Most of the Bits crew was already assembling in Minneapolis (all Augsburg College friends) while I was going to school in Vermont. The summer before my senior year, Trevor Tweeten (Director of Photography), told me he liked my shorts and that they wanted me on board. So I took a year off of school to work on my first collaborative feature.

Where did the idea come from?

JOE LUEBEN: Bits, to me, began with an image. I found an old, broken iPod in my friend Phil Mershon's (the lead actor's) house. I was obsessed with having a scene in which the iPod was laid out on a worktable and dissected as if it were a corpse. From there, I had no idea where the film would go, but the image always stuck with me. Of all the ideas thrown around in the beginning, the iPod corpse is the only scene that made it into the film.

Other ideas came and went so quickly that it is hard to remember the origins. I do remember that, originally, Bits was titled, as a joke, The Angle, and was going to be a film about a tech-obsessed inventor who winds up in the woods of Northern Minnesota and, through the love of a country girl, learns to experience the wonder of the natural world. Jesse and I came up with this idea about a week before shooting, pitched it to the group, and we all decided to go with it.

All that changed at 3 AM, the morning of Day One of shooting.

I remember I went outside to have a cigarette because I couldn't sleep. I was surprised to find Jesse outside having a smoke, also unable to sleep. We talked about our idea and both confessed that we thought our idea was boring. We were about to make a film that neither of us would ever want to watch. So, with only hours to go before shooting, we decided to change the entire film. We would do that--the setting and changing of ideas--hundreds of times before shooting was completed.

How did you use improvisation during the writing and the production of the movie?

JESSE JAMES RUSSELL: When I say that we were collaborative I mean that we had a back and forth conversation with our actors about story, not just within our "story team." Phil was not only the star of the film, but its producer, and someone who was heavily involved in the story process. This went for other actors, too, who we would often look to for story details, and characterization. (You may notice that many characters play themselves in the film.) So there were times when we would select friends of ours to be in the film based on their actual personalities, and I suppose, their ability to "improv" as themselves.

To be honest with you, we were using improv to fill in blanks sometimes, and other times we would try to let it determine certain things about the story or characters. A lot of times, since we didn't have a proper script, we had to improv, and as "the writer," I'm not going to lie, I got lost in this process sometimes. As "the writer" it was really hard to be the person in charge of "steering" the story when in fact I definitely was not the only one steering. At the same time, this film would be nothing without improvisation.

So many of the best moments of the film were not planned or written down beforehand; I almost think that anything good about the film was probably a happy accident.

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

JOE LUEBEN: One of the most fun things about Bits is how it was shot. For the bulk of the film we used an HVX-200 with a lens adaptor and a Nikon 35mm lens set (used for still photography). In addition to that, we shot numerous scenes using mixed media: Mini-DV, iSight, cellphone, 16mm, VHS, etc. Because we shot with so many different formats and styles, Bits has a truly unique look--a mix of high and low production value.

I love the result, the texture of the film. All of the scenes shot with the HVX-200 look really buttery and clean, like a real movie. When they are mashed up with scenes shot on a cellphone, for instance, they only look better.

The biggest pain about shooting with the HVX-200 and Nikon lenses was that, on wider shots, the edges of the frame tended to blur slightly. Thankfully, Trevor was able to overcome any optical obstacle and give each and every scene stunning imagery. Bits may lack in other areas, but it doesn't lack in strong visuals.

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

JESSE JAMES RUSSELL: This film wouldn't have been remotely possible without Phil Mershon and Trevor Tweeten who had already raised money and acquired equipment for their production company, Omni Kino (we used a different company specifically for the production). So I didn't raise a single dollar for this film and I couldn't have been happier with that, naturally.

Our plan for recouping costs would have been roughly as follows: Potential money earned via distribution deals would first pay back the film's expense and then it would be divided equally between collaborators. This hasn't happened. It was never really a plan, just a distant hope.

We didn't expect to make any money, and we didn't, so nobody was disappointed or devastated financially.

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

JOE LUEBEN: The smartest thing we did during production was corralling a group of people crazy enough to want to make a feature film. We had a window of 40 days where all six core members of the production were gathered in Minneapolis. Even though we didn't have a script, we had the people. And, at the time, that was most important.

Everyone on board had an energy and a hunger to see a feature film through to completion and we used that energy to get Bits started.

The dumbest thing we did? Not writing a script. Because of the time crunch, it wouldn't have been feasible to wait around for a script to get written and polished in those 40 days.
With that said, it would have been great to at least have a working outline for what we were shooting. Time and time again, we found ourselves backed into creative corners, trying to write or shoot around ideas that we eventually abandoned. This became only more frustrating as the days/weeks/months went by.

In a perfect world, all story issues would have been worked out weeks before the camera started rolling. But, as any filmmaker knows, what you want and what you get are always at odds. On one hand, a scripted Bits may have been a more coherent film. On the other hand, a scripted Bits may never have been shot.

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

JESSE JAMES RUSSELL: When you submit to film festivals, do a lot of research and don't submit to only extremely competitive festivals. I think this was part of the reason Bits didn't go very far in the festival circuit.

For most stories, you want to work out the kinks before you go into production, but there's also something to be said for collaboration, and working together on what is usually a lonely, personal process (writing). Make art that you care about deeply and that means something to you personally. Keep going back to whatever is that you connect with most. Discover what you really want to communicate to a potential public, work with people who want to say the same kinds of things, and never turn down a project that could satisfy your goals or needs as a filmmaker because it might be a long time before you get another chance.

There are a million ways to communicate an idea via film (and you can fuss over technique all you want), but try to be in touch with the simplest incarnation your most powerful idea, your message, your vision, whatever you want to call it. Know what it is, know how to talk about it and you'll be a lot more likely to shoot it.

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