Thursday, March 31, 2011

Chris Brown on "Fanny, Annie & Danny"

What was your filmmaking background before making Fanny, Annie and Danny?

CHRIS: I started making movies at 9 or 10, pretty much as soon as my parents would let me take the old Super 8 camera out on my own. Filmmaking is really the only thing I've ever wanted to do. Throughout grade school into high school, I made dozens of typical kiddie Super 8 and camcorder flicks, 6th rate knockoffs of Hollywood stuff, bad horror spoofs, sci-fi epics, that kind of thing.

Although we didn't have anything like a film program in my high school (Amador High, Pleasanton, CA. Go Dons!) I had a few exceptionally cool teachers who let me turn in movies instead of essays in several of my classes. Man, I miss Super 8. There was something so magical about it. The darkened room, the chattering sound of the projector. Even the smell of the movie screen. Those old home movie screens, you know? They had this certain smell. Final Cut Pro just doesn't have that same smell.

Anyway, after high school, I enrolled in the film production program at SF State and have been doing it ever since - and by whatever means necessary. After school I worked as a DP for a few years, then gradually shifted to editing, which is my current day gig. I cut commercials, docs, dramatic stuff, corporate stuff by day so that I can satisfy my filmmaking habit by night. Fanny, Annie and Danny is my third feature.

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

CHRIS: The idea for Fanny, Annie and Danny unfolded around the idea of this developmentally disabled adult, Fanny. Daily life can be hard for all of us, even for those of us who have some resources. For those of us without resources, whether financial, emotional, intellectual or physical, the challenges of living from day to day are just exponentially more difficult.

I've met and known so many people in my life with certain kinds of slightly offbeat, highly original personalities, some have developmental disabilities, some not. And I've always wondered how they make it through the day, how they navigate through life, you know? This culture doesn't make it easy for people with disabilities. This film was largely my attempt to find out what it's like to be Fanny, to live in her world. But I didn't want to depict this person in the usual Hollywood way, where she would be portrayed as either wonderfully heroic or hideously pathetic. I hate that crap. I just wanted to show her as a person like any other.

What are the three key requirements -- in your mind -- for making a successful movie for a ridiculously small budget?

CHRIS: 1) Great Actors - Hire the best actors you possibly can find. Don't skimp on the time or effort it takes to cast your movie. Although I wrote the film for three of my friends, I held auditions for weeks and weeks until I was able to find the perfect, most amazing cast to fill out all the other roles. Let's face it, when you're watching a movie, the shot can go a little blurry for a second, the color can be off, the sound momentarily imperfect, but if the performance is riveting and true, the audience will be with you 100 percent. The opposite isn't true. If you cast one weak actor in the film, feature one bad performance, one false note, you can lose your audience fatally and permanently.

2) A Great Script - It's by now become a cliché that the three most important components of a successful film are "Script, script, and script." And in this case, the cliché is true. If your map is bad, you won't reach your destination. If your blueprint is faulty, you won't make a functional machine. All the fancy camerawork in the world won't compensate for a crummy script. Take the time and do the work to get it right. My favorite draft is usually Draft #47.

3) Infinite Flexibility and Openness - Once you have that great script and those great actors, be open and flexible at every possible juncture to new, better, more truthful, more dramatic, more personal, less formulaic possibilities at every moment. Being flexible is the secret weapon that indie productions have over major studio movies. Having written Fanny, Annie and Danny myself, I was freely able to change, refine and improve the script every day we shot. If a line was clunky or false or just plain stupid, we could change it on the spot. If we thought of a better way of doing something, we did it.

This kind of spontaneity is a luxury not often afforded blockbuster productions. If a major film crew out on location suddenly wants to move the camera across the street to take advantage of an unexpected change in the light, the traffic has to stop, the lighting and grip trucks need to be relocated, video village needs to be dismantled, moved and rebuilt, and on and on. If I want to move the camera across the street, I nod to my tiny crew, grab the camera and go.

What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to make this movie ... and how did you overcome it?

CHRIS: Honestly, I think that just overcoming my own fear and inertia was my biggest obstacle. It had been four years since I'd made my last film. I'd written a few scripts since then, recorded a CD (I'm also a musician), and I was dying to make this film, but I didn't know exactly how or when to go about doing it. The key for me was simply to set a start date and immediately get other people involved. Once that train began to move down the track, there was nothing stopping it. The machine took over and everything fell miraculously into place when it had to.

People always say of parenting that "It's never the perfect time to have a child," that the trick is in not waiting for that perfect moment, but to just do it. Although I'm not a parent, I can say that this adage is absolutely true about filmmaking. Don't wait years and years for the stars to wonderfully align, for the perfect budget, the perfect camera or whatever. Write something simple, true and from your gut, then go out and shoot it. Technology has taken away all of our excuses. Filmmaking is now simple again. Go do it!

What kind of camera did you use and what are the pros -- and cons -- of using that system?

CHRIS: We used the HVX200. Geez, I've shot miles and miles of footage with this camera, and I love many things about it. The pros are that it's light, easy to use, and produces good, robust images that can be highly manipulated in post. The cons for me include 1) Its ergonomics, which make it awkward to handhold without using some kind of stabilizing system, 2) The lens, which is fixed and therefore limited, and 3) The P2 system, which can be a bit cumbersome. We were fortunate enough to have three large P2 cards, so we didn't have to download any data during the day, but the ultimate download/injest time at day's end was sometimes maddening.

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

CHRIS: The smartest thing I did was to ask my friend, Jessica Heidt, to help me with the casting. Currently the Artistic Director of San Francisco's Climate Theater, Jessica was also the Associate Director at the Magic Theater for several years. Jess knows all the best actors in Northern California and she introduced me to some AMAZING people - people I can't wait to work with again.

The dumbest thing I did was to underestimate the challenges of working with my wife! My wife, Jill Pixley, and I met over a decade ago when I cast her in my first feature, Daughters. Since then, we've worked together in many other capacities, but never again as director and actor. I've wanted to work with Jill ever since, so I wrote this part for her. The thing is, I write in a bit of a vacuum. I don't discuss what I'm writing with anyone, even Jill, so one day when I handed her the script and said "Read this. You're playing Fanny," she sort of freaked out. I mean, it's not an easy part, to say the least, and I'd never even hinted that I was writing something for her, so she was taken completely by surprise.

Anyway, while she was sort of terrified by the prospect of playing Fanny, I was insulted that she wasn't just giddily happy to play the part! Jill even suggested a bunch of other actresses for the role, tried to get out of it any way that she could, but I sort of persisted. I mean, I wrote it for her; I wasn't about to audition anyone else for this thing. So she sort of agreed to do it.

Then once we got on the set, we had to figure out a way to work together again, not as husband and wife, but as director and actor. It was tricky. I don't know that we ever did figure it out, to be honest. In the end, Fanny isn't an entirely comfortable person, so that basic discomfort that Jill felt in playing the role became a fundamental part of the character. And this is the character you see onscreen. People have been hailing her performance all over the country. In fact, some people have confessed that they thought the character was real. Jill's just amazing in the role. She won BEST ACTRESS a few months ago at the San Antonio Film Festival.

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

CHRIS: 1) Have a single AD and a single sound recordist onboard for the entire length of the shoot. Because of our limited budget, some of our crew had to augment their time on our shoot with higher paying gigs (which I totally understood and supported). But ultimately, the production aesthetic and process works much more smoothly when people can take full ownership of their role and oversee a project from beginning to end.

2) When in doubt, do it! Don't wait to make that movie. Set a date and make it happen!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Co-Founders Kathleen Wilson & Rick Pagano on The Rikaroo Film Collective

What is the Rikaroo Film Collective?

Rikaroo is a way to connect people who are making independent films with the audiences who want to see them. And yes, we’re doing it for love, not money, though eventually we plan to make some, for ourselves and the independent filmmakers who join us. It’s the creation of industry professionals, operated by industry professionals. Most important, it’s curated. By industry professionals.

Why did you decide to start Rikaroo?

Two quick anecdotes:

1. Four weeks ago, we went to a packaging meeting at a top Hollywood talent agency. As the topic came around to the realities of today’s packaging/financing process, the agent, a well respected, veteran, said to us, “Most of us didn’t go into the business just to work on four-quadrant studio blockbusters.” This from a man whose agency is popularly depicted as the real-life spawn of the Evil Empire.

2. A friend from high school (not working in show business) recently asked us, “Why do you guys in Hollywood always make the same old thing?” We answered, “We do make other kinds of films. You just don’t get to see them very often.” We explained to him that the mandate of studios and large production companies is not art, but commerce. That independent films, as a rule, don’t make the kinds of profits that justify corporate operating costs, marketing costs, or release costs.

These are just two people, one an industry professional, the other a “civilian.” But we’ve mentioned these stories because we believe that their voices represent a swath of those who make movies, and those who watch them. There are people who went into this business to, as producer Joel Silver once said, “to buy art, not to make it.” But there are many more (including our agent acquaintance) who know that most of us in the movie industry want the opportunity to work on high-quality, smart films.

Our big studio movies are suffering from the “four-quadrant disease”—Spiderman 4, Iron Man 3, Xmen 6, crops of buddy movies and formula comedies. Don’t get us wrong: We’ve enjoyed working on some of them, as well as even watching them occasionally. But a steady diet of studio fare isn’t good for our brains. And we suspect it’s not doing wonders for the brains of our children, over the long haul.

The gorgeous secret of the film industry is that, with little fanfare, many of us continue to work on smaller, independent films, often at a fraction of our usual salaries. Not just actors and directors; cinematographers, costume designers, art directors; grips, gaffers, caterers. Sometimes, for nothing more than back-end profits that usually never materialize.

Some people think we do it because we’re nuts. Most of us, however, know that we’re doing it for love. We do it because we want to keep making interesting, intelligent, challenging films. And because we believe there’s an audience out there that wants to watch them.

What are your backgrounds?

Rick Pagano is President/CEO of Pagano/Manwiller Casting with over thirty years of experience casting theater, motion pictures and television. He has worked with directors such as Oliver Stone, James Cameron and Jerry Bruckheimer, cast over 70 studio and independent feature films, including Drugstore Cowboy, Hotel Rwanda and Gas Food Lodging, along with television projects, including 24, Chicago Hope, and Picket Fences and literally hundreds of theater productions across the United States.. He consulted for the Sundance Institute from 1994 through 2001, and also writes and directs plays. Richard has a B.A. from Middlebury College, MA from Columbia University and has completed coursework for a PhD from Columbia University.

Kathleen Wilson is a digital media consultant and member of the Adjunct Faculty in the ITP Program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts with over twenty years of experience in digital media. Previously, she was the co-founder, VP, Creative Director of Viacom Interactive, Executive Producer at Paramount’s Media Kitchen in Palo Alto, Design Director at MoMA for the Museum Ed Consortium, Multimedia Director at Bank Street’s Center for Children and Technology and co-designer, SimTown for Maxis/EA. Kathleen has a B.A. from Middlebury College, an MBA from TRIUM (LSE-London, HEC-Paris and NYU-Stern) and a PhD Human Development and Psychology from Harvard. She is the author of Rumer & Qix, a futuristic eco-fantasy for young adults.

Who's on your Board of Advisors?

Our board of advisors epitomizes the intersection of the entertainment, academic and technology sectors that are carving the future of filmmaking: award-winning producers, directors, writers, cinematographers, editors; film school faculty; and digital leaders.

They include twice-Oscar nominated director Sergei Bodrov (East/West, The Mongol); Executive Producer Larry Estes (Sex, Lies And Videotape, The Waterdance, Smoke Signals); director Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes, Red Corner, Up Close And Personal); DP John Bailey (The Big Chill, Silverado, Groundhog Day); editor Arthur Coburn (Spiderman, The Mask, The Cooler); Executive Producers A. Kitman Ho (JFK, Born On The 4th Of July, Platoon, Hotel Rwanda); Bonnie Curtis (AI, Saving Private Ryan); Stratton Leopold (Mission Impossible 2, Sum Of All Fears, The General’s Daughter); John Morrissey (American History X); John Tintori (Chair, NYU Grad Film); Clay Shirky (Social Networking expert); Ed Evans (Prod Manager, ATYPON digital content delivery), Marc Weiss (Exec Producer, P.O.V. and independent documentary distributor); directors/writesr/producers Randall Miller and Jody Savin (Bottle Shock, Nobel Son, Marilynn Hotchkiss); actress Rose Mc Gowan (Monkey Bone, Grindhouse, co-host of TMC’S The Essentials).

What do you see as the largest obstacles to your mission?

We need to show filmmakers that their power comes only from working with other professionals, in a mission-oriented endeavor, to help sustain a truly industry-curated site that doesn’t own the rights to the films, that allow filmmakers to retain autonomy over the fate of their creations. Rikaroo connects filmmakers and their audiences with one another by aggregating "the best films you've never seen" in an industry-curated site.

We’re living in the confluence of technological, creative and economic forces that are severely limiting the upside of independent film production, especially at the delivery end (distribution), where many of the smaller distribution houses have closed over the past five years.

Even as we emerge from the Great Recession, the marketing of large-budget studio fare, video games, TV and other streamed on-line content will inevitably drive eyeballs to the destinations that are supported with the most marketing dollars. Which will of course load the dice against independent films, which by their nature have limited marketing resources.

Of course, filmmakers (and their investors) want their films to make money. The casts and crews who have worked on these films at fractions of their usual rates (or sometimes even for free) will be eager to see their deferred payments (usually a percentage of profits). So naturally, these filmmakers and producers will tend to sign on with “distributors” who will own the content in exchange for dubious guarantees of exhibition in small, remote movie theaters or at on-line sites that have limited viewership. In hindsight, most filmmakers wish they’d chosen other strategies in their pursuit of at least a break-even position, let alone a profitable one.

So Mission Number One is: get good films seen. Connect them with audiences looking for interesting independent films. Which means making Rikaroo a destination-site for audiences, and for the filmmakers as well.

How can filmmakers get involved with Rikaroo?

We’re in the early stages of our endeavor. But we need your help, right now. We want to find the 50 best feature films that have never been seen by audiences, other than a few possible festival screenings. That feature film that you’re so proud of, the one that is still sitting on your shelf. That’s the film we want to see. And maybe we’ll want to put it on Rikaroo.com when it’s up and running, within the next few months.

If you already have a site for your film, great. Keep operating it. Our goal isn’t to take away potential income from what you can do yourselves. Our goal is: to aggregate eyeballs. To bring an industry-curated independent film viewing site to the digital world. Our only rule is: we want films that don’t have theatrical or video distribution. We want to give exposure to filmmakers, not corporations.

The filmmaker keeps the rights to his film; we don’t want to own them. There’s not enough money to cover the sweat equity that’s been put into your films. But we can help you get seen, and as our site grows, we’ll split the profits from the viewings of your film online.

Our mission, simply put, is this: to bring an industry-curated independent film viewing site to the digital world.

How can filmmakers get in touch with you?

You can get in touch with us at rikaroo@rocketmail.com. Then, after we’ve had a chance to view your film, let’s meet, or talk on the phone.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

James Kerwin on "Yesterday Was a Lie"

What was your filmmaking background before making Yesterday Was a Lie?

JAMES: I got my degree in Film from T.C.U., but I actually hadn't directed film in a while. I had done a student feature, a short, and some things like that.

I'd primarily focused on directing theatre for several years before Yesterday Was a Lie. But I missed film; and, as a director, I missed the palette that you have when you're working in a medium that "records" the art, as opposed to the ephemerality of theatre. In theatre, you're at the mercy of your actors once the curtain goes up. So it's a powerful medium for the actor, definitely.

But film was my first love, so I was glad to be able to get back into it and direct my first commercial feature, which is Yesterday Was a Lie.

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

JAMES: The idea really came from an image... a shot that suddenly came to me one day. It was of Bacall playing Bogart's role; a female noir detective, lonely, wandering the streets. That grew into the concept of using noir tropes -- as well as metaphysical, science-fiction motifs -- as metaphors for the way our minds and hearts experience reality, time, memory, love, and loss.

The writing process was isolated but also collaborative, if you'll excuse the oxymoron. Film is strange that way. I think it is an auteur's medium, certainly, but also one in which you have to strike a balance, because you're ultimately collaborating with a crew, actors, producers, etc.

So I worked on an early draft of the script for about a year, I'd say; and during that time, I bounced a lot of ideas off the film's co-producers, and especially Andrew Deutsch, one of the co-executive producers and occasional writing partner of mine. I didn't do a treatment for this particular script -- for whatever reason, that tends not to work well for me. But I didn't rush into the script at all. A lot of long walks were involved. I think I let my subconscious take over for a while, and just let the words flow.

The script was revised many times before production. MANY times. After Kipleigh was cast as Hoyle, that affected some of the dialog as well... working with her, I altered lines or beats within scenes.

Ultimately, I wanted the film's dialog and performances to have a rather blunted affectation... to suggest a world that is not quite real; familiar but somehow a little "off." Once we got on set, it was pretty much locked. There was only one line of dialog changed during production, I believe, at the request of an actor.

And in post, a couple lines were cut. In fact, after screening an early cut on the festival circuit, I was able to monitor audience reaction and see what was playing well, and where there were lulls in the pace. So I made some further, relatively minor changes to dialog before the commercial theatrical release.

What are the three key requirements -- in your mind -- for making a successful movie for a small budget?

JAMES: Time, efficient planning, and commitment.

If you have a small budget, you don't want that to show in the "look" of the film. We didn't let that happen. We wanted the mise-en-scene, the music, the sound to be of high production value, and I think we achieved that. But you have to have a lot of time in advance to prepare for such things.

We spent years developing this project, several months of full-on pre-production, and over a year of post. That made up for the fact that we only had four weeks to shoot a film that was extremely visually ambitious and involved over 50 different story locations.

I storyboarded every shot in the film, so we didn't waste time on set figuring out details. I knew them all going in. We shot little or no coverage, because we just didn't have time. That's the same thing Shane Carruth did with Primer. And when you do that, you better have the entire film already finished in your mind, so you know precisely what you have to shoot, and what you don't.

I also spent a lot of time with the actors in the months leading up to production, fleshing out their characters and adjusting the script accordingly.

How did you achieve your film noir/black and white look?

JAMES: Our DP, Jason Cochard, is incredibly talented. We shot with a Panavised Sony CineAlta camera, and desaturated the color in post. I worked with our designers to ensure that the colors of objects were such that Jason could manipulate the individual color channels digitally in post-production, prior to removing the color completely. That allowed us to adjust the gamma, brightness, and contrast of individual objects or faces within each shot. So basically, we used tones on-set that would look good in black-and-white, but looked awful in color! Some of the color production stills are rather funny to look at.

We also did subtle things, to mimic the way that lenses and film stocks from the 30s and 40s picked up light. Vignetteing... soft halos around the whites... things like this.

What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to make this movie ... and how did you overcome it?

JAMES: The biggest obstacle in making the film was the budget, and we overcame that with planning and perseverance.

The biggest obstacle in releasing and marketing the film is probably the fact that it's designed for a niche audience. That was a conscious choice on my part. This is not a film for everyone; although the critical response has been 80% positive, we've found that audiences either love it or hate it. Which is exactly what I'd anticipated.

So when you have a film that you know is going to play well to specific demographics, it's a challenge for the distributor to market it. One way we're doing that is by creating a spin-off web series, focusing on some of the smaller characters in the story, which premiered in January. And we're still looking for an overseas distributor -- as of now, the film's only been released in North America.

Despite the challenging material, I wanted to make this film as my first movie, because I knew I'd probably never have the chance to do it again. And if you don't come out of the starting gate with something new and different -- if you start off by making yet another 90s-style twenty- or thirty-somethings indie character drama -- you'll get lost in the pool.

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

JAMES: The smartest thing was, again, careful preparation. Creative use of space. When you have a film with over 50 locations in the script, and you have 26 days to shoot, you have to be extremely clever with your design and shot composition, because there's no way you'll actually be able to go to 50 different places.

The noir style worked in our favor, actually, because film noir was sort of the original "indie" film. When John Alton immigrated to the U.S., he had a difficult time getting funding for his movies. So he shot them in a style in which sets drop off into darkness; where camera angles and stripes of light set the mood, rather than huge locations.

I can't think of anything particularly "dumb" that we did, although there's something that caused us a major headache. It was planned, and done with the full knowledge of the difficulty it would later entail, because I felt it was a critical creative choice. Specifically, I'm talking about the fact that Chase Masterson's character sings actual, licensed jazz songs in the film.

It's an understatement to say that music licensing is very, very difficult. But I didn't want to have these gorgeous shots and actresses, and then have the music be "fake," sound-alike music. If the film didn't have the genuine articles, it would be lacking. So we licensed classic songs like "Where Do You Start," and I think that makes a huge difference.

Fortunately, we've gotten a fair amount of press in the jazz community, and now a soundtrack deal with La-La Land Records. So that's the plus side to using pre-existing songs. The downside is that it costs a lot of money and time, and is a logistical nightmare.

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

JAMES: Never to do another film on this budget!

Seriously, though... making a film for this little money is so exhausting -- it takes so much out of you -- I couldn't imagine doing it again. But I did learn to maximize my resources, be efficient, and plan plan plan.

If you continue to do those things, then even with a slightly higher budget than we had on Yesterday Was a Lie, you can create material that looks a lot more expensive than it really is.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Eric Mendelsohn on “3 Backyards”

When we spoke about the writing of Judy Berlin, you said that the script came about from collecting ideas and characters that come together during an eclipse. Was there a similar collection process for 3 Backyards and how did the script grow and change as you prepared it for production?

ERIC: When I was writing 3 Backyards, I was always thinking of glittering light, prisms and sun flares. I encourage myself not to fully understand why I am obsessed with things like that, and trust that my subconscious knows better. I was also thinking about hidden areas- behind tool sheds, beneath rotting leaves, in the dark corners of rooms. Don't ask me why. The finished film is replete with these spaces.

The characters came concurrently. They are all very internal people. Hidden types. John, the male lead played by Elias Koteas, is shut down, cold, inexpressive. Edie Falco plays Peggy, an outwardly sunny yet somewhat cloaked suburban housewife. And then there is Christina, the 7-year-old girl in the film. Though too young to be actively involved in a masquerade in any adult sense, by the end of the day she has taken the leap into worldliness that is the beginning of that journey.

You mentioned during the Judy Berlin interview that writing about people in the suburbs -- with cars and homes and all that -- made it hard to produce the film on a small budget. And yet, here you are doing it again with 3 Backyards. What did you learn from Judy Berlin that made it easier to shoot in the suburbs on a small budget?

ERIC: Everything- literally every thing- in the film is borrowed.

At one point in the film we see Edie Falco sitting at an easel in her backyard painting. The backyard and the house are loaned by total strangers to the film, the easel was mine, the painting Edie is painting was done by a local artist, the paints were donated by Grumbacher and the potted plants that surround the yard were lent for the day by a Northport florist.

I want my next film to be about a poor person who renounces, maybe for religious reasons, owning objects of any kind.

What are the advantages -- and disadvantages -- of creating a story that all takes place on one day?

ERIC: Everything about shooting a feature that supposedly takes place in one day sucks. The fact that a group of 40 grownups (crew members) spends the good part of every day praying for good weather like something out of Dances With Wolves is horrible. Footage doesn't match, hair and clothing is a misery to match. Then again- one outfit per person is a godsend!

One piece of advice that you said in our last interview -- to shoot fewer takes of the same shot, but instead to do more camera set-ups -- is advice that I often lead with when talking to film students. (That and the idea of putting your keys in the refrigerator when you unplug it while shooting, to ensure that you remember to plug it back in before leaving the location, are two of the best film tips I know.) What advice do you give your film students before they launch into shooting their first feature?

ERIC: Know the story. In the end, audiences don't care about the bleach bypass process, they don't care about the crane shots, they don't care about the funny anecdotes about how you sold your liver to get money to make the film. That is all bullshit. They crave characters and story and surprise and satisfaction.

What was the smartest thing you did while making 3 Backyards? The dumbest?

ERIC: The smartest thing I did on 3 backyards was offering the parts to the finest actors working today- Edie Falco, Elias Koteas, Embeth Davidtz, Danai Gurira, Randi Kaplan, etc. I knew what I had in the script was a study of human beings in odd, queer little situations. There is no such thing as a good movie with lousy acting.

The dumbest thing I did on the film...hmmm...I don't yet have the distance to comment on that. And maybe it's not a mode of thinking I want to entertain right now. I think the film got done because I was aware and awake and conscious during production. It would feel weird to call some good, honest part of the process "dumb" right now. I dressed poorly. I am a slob.

Finally, what did you learn making this film that will help you make the next one?

ERIC: What I learned making this film not only changed the experience for me- it changed my entire outlook on creativity. The ability to make artwork is a real privilege (as opposed to let's say, digging ditches or working outside in the cold on a telephone line). I was so inspired by all my students (I teach at the Columbia University Graduate Film Program) working for free or for peanuts and all the homeowners donating so much. Who would whine in the face of all that?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Eric Bogosian on "subUrbia"


What point were you at in your career before you started the play version of subUrbia?

ERIC BOGOSIAN: Talk Radio (the play and the film) as well as the solo show Sex, Drugs Rock & Roll had garnered much greater interest in my work. Most importantly, excellent young actors were attracted to my script.

Do you begin with story, character or theme?

ERIC BOGOSIAN: I begin with character and theme. The theme dances around in my head, almost like an editing device as I put my characters in motion with a story. But before anything, I think of the people who will populate my stage.

In the case of subUrbia, I began with five student actors in workshop playing the characters. I had them simply hanging out and discussing a variety of topics. There was no plot to speak of in the first set of pages.

How did you create the characters?

ERIC BOGOSIAN: The characters are there within me. They are the archetypes I "need" to conceptualize my inner world. In the case of subUrbia the cast of characters derived almost directly from the cast of characters who, in my mind, represent my friends from my high school days.

In some cases, the characters are transpositions of myself. There are parts of myself in Jeff, Pony, Sooze and Nazeer.

How important is having a theme before you start to write?

ERIC BOGOSIAN: I always begin with a theme. It usually morphs as I'm writing but in the long run, the theme must have importance for me in the present, as I'm writing. I need the theme to do my writing, but I don't mind if the audience doesn't see the theme or misunderstands what the theme is.

In the case of subUrbia I don't think many people "got" the theme as I originally conceived it. (And what is that? you might ask. My answer is: Too complicated to explain, that's why I write plays. If I wrote themes, I would be a scholar and write thesisses.)

When it came time to adapt it into a screenplay, were you writing to a specific, pre-determined budget?

ERIC BOGOSIAN: I'm sure there was a set budget, but I didn't know what it was. Rick Linklater acted as producer with his company. All I knew was that we would hew closely to the play and that I could "open" up to other locales if I so wished. And I did.

In making the adaptation, were there any moments that you hated to lose?

ERIC BOGOSIAN: No. I look at movies very differently than stage. If a moment is a moment that works on film, I keep it. But film demands that the story continue to unfold. That being the case, I snipped away at some of the longer more static speeches in the play and I don't regret it.

How did you work with Linklater?

ERIC BOGOSIAN: Rick gave me my head, so to speak. He wanted the screenplay to be as close to what I wanted as it could be. We created a script that we liked, that met the needs for length. I did all the cutting of the original.

We ironed out some thematic/action aspects in the last moments, especially when Tim is telling off Jeff in the parking lot, throwing food at the store. It had taken the entire run of the play and another production of the play for me to understand what was really happening there.

Beyond that, we reached a conundrum at the very end, tried different endings, actually shot them and finally decided to stick with what we had.

What did you learn from working on that script that you still use today?

ERIC BOGOSIAN: It's good to have a sense of how the director is going to shoot the film, what sort of style. In this case, Rick used a lot of two-shots and it was constructive to know that in terms of scene rhythm.

Do you think there's really such a thing as an "independent" movie?

ERIC BOGOSIAN: I don't know what "independent" means to other people. Having written and acted for film and television studios, I do feel that the corporate presence overloads the writing task at hand with "too many cooks."

My two features (subUrbia and Talk Radio, directed by Oliver Stone) and one TV series (High Incident with Steven Spielberg) were all "independent" of the studio in that the directors acted as producers. As such they were "independent" and as such, they gave me my independence.

Given our track record, I'm for more independence, especially for seasoned directors like Stone and Linklater. Once a director has established himself or herself, I think a studio should let him do his thing.

When that happens, and it does, (Gus Van Sant, Robert Altman, Tim Burton), the result is "independent" cinema.