Thursday, August 25, 2011

Adam Reid on "Hello Lonesome"

What was your filmmaking background before making Hello Lonesome?

ADAM: I didn't go to film school. Or any school really. I was always a terrible student and find the very best way to learn is by doing and then seeking out those who simply know more than me and are willing to share their experiences.

I moved to New York many moons ago for a six-week freelance gig working for the promo department at Comedy Central. This was a big jump for me, as I was living in Los Angeles at the time and didn't even know anyone in New York. That six-week gig turned into several years, and I was given the magical opportunity to write, produce and direct promos for a living. This opened up my eyes to the possibilities, a playground to learn in, and for the first time I felt my dreams were within reach.

I left Comedy Central but continued to work behind the camera as a writer and director, making my first film, a short (available on iTunes) called While the Widow is Away. I'm so proud of this little film. It starred Lynn Cohen and Kamel Boutros, two actors who I wrote juicy roles for in Hello Lonesome and were kind enough to work with me again.

Making the short was a big baptism by fire introduction to filmmaking. The twenty minute short film was basically rejected from over 40 festivals. Then we were accepted to CineQuest and that felt like a huge victory at the time.

Shortly after that, we started winning awards at festivals all over. A road that eventually saw us short-listed for an academy award (but ultimately falling short of the nomination. With ten films selected and only five nominations. Our odds were 50/50!) I was crushed that we didn't get the nod, but the entire experience told me that this was much more than a pipe dream, I could call myself a filmmaker and expand my ambitions to feature length projects.

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

ADAM: My very favorite films are often these character driven stories of an intertwining nature. Stories cut from the cloth of life, featuring the beautiful but messy nature of things and a hopeful vibe. I think of my favorite films from directors like Robert Altman, Alejandro Inarritu or the duo from American Splendor, Shari Springer Bergman and Robert Pulcini. There is a humanity and warmth there behind all the drama, and I wanted to find that line. Early in the development I wanted to try and weave three stories together like a braid. It was a big experiment for me.

From my background in promos and commercials, I have a lot of experience working with voice over artists and that's where I had the idea for the character of Bill Soap. Most of the successful voice over guys work from their idyllic homes where they have sound studios which are tucked away in a closet or basement. I think for a lot of people that kind of life is alluring but it's a double edged sword, if you don't have your shit together and healthy relationships, I can't imagine a more lonely profession.

At the same time, I had just lost my sister to advanced breast cancer and was working through that loss by writing my sister’s story. Less the cancer part and much more the romance that came as a byproduct of that discovery. My sister met a guy online, just like in Hello Lonesome, shortly before she found out she was sick and he stayed with her. Writing Hello Lonesome was in large part a way for me to work through what happened to her. As depressing as it sounds, there's a lot of joy in that story. She was in a bit of denial about the whole thing but at least she wasn't alone.

For the third story, I wanted more than anything to take full advantage of Lynn Cohen again and her huge talent. I wrote this role of a rudderless widow just for her. Lynn is just so saucy and full of life that I wanted to create an unconventional love story for her. This story changed the most as we made the film, I was very lucky to have James Urbaniak (who played Crumb in American Splendor) in the role opposite her. That part was written for a much older actor, but Lynn and James made these parts their own completely. The best I could do was get out of their way and let them chew up the scenery (in a good way.)

I write quickly. It takes me forever to outline and work out the story, just ages, maybe a year or more just thinking about the story and breaking it all down. But when it comes to writing action and dialogue, that happens very fast. About three weeks or so writing the screenplay itself. Then Hello Lonesome went through several distinct drafts and title changes. Then there's so much improv on set that the last rewrite comes in the edit as we piece it together.

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

ADAM: Hello Lonesome was a VERY small movie. Self financed for less than $50,000 and shot in fifteen days with a principle crew that consisted of myself and four other brave souls. With the stakes low, I wasn't as afraid to wear multiple hats. This was a big learning process for me and I got the most out of the experience this way. Writing, producing, directing, shooting, art directing and pretty much working as my own production assistant. Our gaffer was also the DIT tech and camera assistant. Our Make-Up stylist doubled as a script supervisor. Everyone did many jobs, we had a small footprint but it was fun and doable this way. The focus would be on character and story over visuals. Working on this small scale was quite liberating compared to what I'm used to on commercial shoots where we can spend five times our entire film budget in one day.

With such a low investment, I'm hopeful we can make our money back with just the limited theatrical, video on demand (now through November) and future DVD sales. It was very important to me that this first film not need to be profitable in order to be considered a success. It's enough that it exists. A good metaphor would be comparing the budget to Vegas spending money. I only spent what I could afford to lose. I knew I was paying for the experience and joy of the thing. If we walk away with anything in the end, that would be a big bonus. But it's not expected and that makes the ride that much more fun and less stressful.

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

ADAM: In just the few years since I shot Hello Lonesome, all the technology has changed. In the summer of 2008 when we shot, I chose the Panasonic HVX for it's built in Leica zoom lens and tapeless HD recording. Now, with the HD SLR revolution in full effect, the HVX seems primitive and outdated. This is the greatest time to be a low budget filmmaker from a creative standpoint. We could have easily shot with the same budget today, but with the glorious lenses I love and a much richer look overall. Expect my next film to be gorgeous! There's no excuse anymore!

You wore a lot of hats on this project -- director, writer, producer, DP. What's the upside and the downside of working that way?

ADAM: For this film, on this small scale, it was perfect. I can't say that this is a great way to work on all projects but as a learning experience and an intimate creative process was exactly what I needed to do. That said, it's likely never to be repeated, at least not exactly the same way.

I work with some truly uber-talented folks who I can't wait to rope into my next film. And I doubt I'll ever take on the sole responsibility of being the only camera operator. To that end, I doubt I'll ever shoot with only one camera again.

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

ADAM: One smart thing that I plan to do as much as possible from here on out is having the real world stand in for itself. In the case of Hello Lonesome, we didn't even have a production designer or art director. I chose real world locations (which were all donated) as the backdrop in all three stories. This left very little for our tiny production team to fill in, little props here and there, but we never needed to build anything, or make a place look like something it wasn't. We could show up with the actors and get right to work by just placing them in the environment. It helped to cast the locations like I cast actors. When I cast, I look for actors who are as close to the role as humanly possible so we can get to the real work of mining their soul.

I have one scene in the movie that features great dialogue that moves the story forward and utterly horrible picture. I made the mistake of mounting a camera on the hood (for production value) not really understanding at the time that the glare from the front windshield and shake from the moving vehicle would make the resulting footage unusable. I've since learned a ton about car shooting (by shooting car commercials no less) and have a handful of low budget solutions to get beautiful images from actors in car scenes with very simple set-ups. To this day, I wish I reshot that scene but Lynn and James are great and it gets good laughs despite the lousy picture so I decided to live with it. I literally cover my eyes when I get to this scene.

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

ADAM: It's an insanely tough business. But with the right attitude, anything is possible. Refine your dreams, evolve, and make shit happen every day.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Jamie Greenberg on “Stags”

What was your filmmaking background before making Stags?

JAMIE: Stags is my first feature film. Before getting into film, I had a 12-year career as a television writer and performer. I co-created Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego on PBS, as well as acting in over 50 episodes. I was nominated for 2 Emmy Awards for this show.

I also wrote for numerous other childrens' TV shows, and-- flipping over to the dark side -- also worked extensively at MTV, co-creating their hit show Lip Service and going to three Spring Breaks, etc etc etc. I was also an on-camera Correspondent for Court TV's irreverent and unwatched show Snap Judgment.

After 12 years in TV I became pretty disillusioned with television, and decided to fumble my way into the world of film. I made a number of short films, then threw myself into making Stags.

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

JAMIE: The idea came about mainly from looking at my life and that of my friends. I had come up with the term "Stags" in my head years before, as a kind of joke with myself: shorthand for guys (like me) who were in their 30's or older, yet had never married or had children.

When it came time to write a feature, I specifically wanted to do something fairly mainstream and approachable, as a lot of my short-film work had been mock historical or fantasy stuff. So I decided to make something out of this Stags concept.

The writing process took place over a year, and since a lot of my previous long-form work had been with a writing partner, I decided to replicate the "writing partner dynamic" between myself and the legal pad. So I intentionally wrote a lot of loose, sometimes unconnected ideas-- the way two writers would, when trying to crack each other up in the room.

Eventually I had to pick and choose among the ideas and beat it into a narrative. There were originally more than 4 main guys, and additional storylines, etc. Killing some ideas so that others may live is necessary... but awful.

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

JAMIE: I sold myself outside the Port Authority bus station. I now have 431 minority investors in the film. I guess this is what they mean about giving investors "a piece."

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

JAMIE: The Sony EX-3. It was mainly handled by our DP, Salvatore Interlandi. However, after we wrapped principal photography, there were various inserts and pickups which I had to shoot myself, so I had to learn to use the camera as well.

I love the fact that it's affordable and shoots full 1080p. I don't love the fact that its depth of field is quite deep-- the opposite of the dreamy, filmic "shallow depth of field" everyone is chasing. Since we shot the film, several solutions for shallow DOF have become very popular, such as the Canon 5dm2 and 7d dslr's.

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

JAMIE: Smartest: casting the film well. Having a strong, engaging cast means viewers will forgive you a lot of the smaller stuff. Also the cast made very few mistakes, meaning we didn't lose a lot of time on-set due to actors forgetting their lines, etc.

Dumbest: shooting much too long a script, which meant a VERY long and involved edit process in order to figure out how to trim it down to decent length. With the wisdom of hindsight, shooting less would have meant more time to devote to any given scene, and also less stress in post.

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

JAMIE: Movies truly are a different medium from the written word, and visceral moments -- a glance, a reaction -- can seem like nothing in script form, yet be the most powerful moment in a scene. The trick is to magically predict these moments when writing the script!

"STAGS" Trailer from Jamie Greenberg on Vimeo.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Jim McBride and L.M. Kit Carson on "David Holzman's Diary"

What was your inspiration for making this film?

MCBRIDE: It was a combination of things. Michael Powel's Peeping Tom had a big impression on me. I saw it when it was banned in the United States; maybe it was banned everywhere, I don't know. On my first visit to California, a guy I knew got a hold of a print of it and showed it at midnight at a movie theater that no longer exists here. I was just knocked out by it. The whole idea of self-examination.

Then, in addition to that, I was very interested in Cinema Verite. Kit Carson and I were going to write something for the Museum of Modern Art about Cinema Verite, and we interviewed all these filmmakers--like the Mayles brothers, Ricky Leacock, Pennebaker, even Andy Warhol--who were making films that purportedly were for the first time entering into real life and finding out the truth.

People were really passionate about this idea that you could find the truth with this new, light-weight equipment and faster film stocks and synch sound--all the stuff that was very new in the sixties. So at that time I was very passionately interested in all of that, and at the same time I felt there was something wrong here.

So you didn't out to specifically fool people?

MCBRIDE: That certainly wasn't the idea. One wanted to make a movie that would be believable. Yes, on one level you wanted people to believe that it was real and to affected by it, but on the other hand, I didn't set out with the intention of fooling people. But just as with any film you make, you want people to suspend their disbelief, you want people to believe it.

I know that this film is an important film to a lot of people, and always, constantly surprised when people come up to me and say, 'I saw your film when I was in college.' My own experience with the film is that it's never had any kind of commercial release, it's never shown in theater. It really only has a life at film festivals and colleges. So I'm always surprised that more than seven people have seen it.

I know that at a lot of early showings people walked out, but I think that was more from being bored than being fooled.

How did you and Kit write the film?

MCBRIDE: I had a different way of working with Kit. We were writing this thing for the Museum of Modern Art, exploring this whole idea of truth.

For those parts of the film that took place in his apartment--we really did it all in one long weekend, I think--we spent several days beforehand with just a tape recorder in a room. I would give him a sense of what I wanted to have happen in a given scene, and then he would put it into his own words, and then we'd listen to the tape and I'd say 'I like this, I don't like that, change this.'

It was very much controlled improvisation, and by the time we actually went to shoot the scene--although it wasn't written down--we all knew exactly what was going to happen. Because we didn't have a lot of film to fuck around with, so we had to get it on the first or second take. So it was pretty carefully rehearsed.

How did you get involved in this project?

CARSON: Jim had conceived of this idea to do a film called David Holzman's Diary, which was, at the time he introduced it to me, a 12-page outline on David Holzman, this guys who starts the movie by saying 'My life is all fucked up and I'm about to be drafted and I figure it's time for me to try to figure what's going on. And if I shoot everyday and look at the rushes of everyday, I can find the plot again, because I've lost the plot.'

The interesting thing is that at the time I was also studying the roots of the English novel. And the roots of the English novel are these fake diaries, like Robinson Crusoe and Pamela. It was the first way they figured out to do long-form fiction, was to make diaries out of it.

So that also informed what we were attempting to do, because a diary is something that feels like it's real time, but you know, if you think about it for two seconds, 'Oh, yeah, he's edited this together.' So it's not really happening in front of you. It's been examined and purposed, structurally, to be this way.

What was the experience of shooting the film like?

CARSON: On my Easter break from college in Texas, I came to New York. And since I didn't know how to do it any other way, I just became the character. I lived in the editing room, I slept in the closet, and I lost my girlfriend who at the time thought I was nuts -- just like Penny in the movie thinks I'm nuts. So it worked.

We did several days of improvising through the scenes, between McBride and myself, until he felt that we got the shape of the scene. And then when we would shoot, I told Jim that I was not going to rehearse. 'Just turn the camera on and I'm going to do it.' Because I didn't want to filter the improvisation any further. If I had rehearsed it before we turned the camera on, it would have turned it into self-conscious thought. And I wanted to keep it raw.

We were satisfied that we had the shape of the scene, built off of the 12-page outline. We knew the beginning, middle and end. But I said to Jim, 'I want to surprise you.' I had no idea what I was saying when I said that, but the idea was to keep that instant alive, the instant when anything can happen.

I like the idea of not filtering the moment, not knowing how I'm going to do.

So we shot maybe two or three takes each time.

Were you involved in the film after it was shot?

CARSON: I came back from Texas and Jim had put the film together, sort of, and he had Thelma Schoonmaker come in and take a look, because Thelma was everybody's pal at that time.

What Jim had done was take the worst takes of the two or three that we had made, because he felt that was more truthful to the character. And Thelma said, 'Fine, that may be more true, but it's horrible, so you have to use the best takes. Otherwise it's really painful if you don't use the best takes.'

I understand his thought, that the bad takes make it seem more like a documentary. But Thelma talked him into using the best takes.

What lesson did you take away from making this movie?

CARSON: The lesson I took away is that there is a lot of depth of thought required; you can't just do it off the top of your head. Jim had this brilliant idea. It came out of six months of experience interviewing a dozen documentary filmmaker to conclude that, 'No, wait a minute, this is not true. Therefore, let's expose it.' That was all Jim's energy. But it came from spending all that time thinking about it.

And from my angle, it came from studying the roots of the English novels, studying what documentary IS, so that you say, 'Oh, I know. It's an act of fiction.' It looks real, and you propose it stylistically as 'this happened, just now,' but it's actually been edited and pieced together.

What you try to achieve when you create any fiction is truth, a fictional truth that has the right ending.

With the movies I've made since that time, I've always tried to stay in touch with the job of telling the truth in your own way in this particular story.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Adam Lefevre on “Return of the Secaucus Seven”

What was your experience making Return of the Secaucus Seven?

ADAM LEFEVRE: It was really quite wonderful. It was my first film -- for a lot of people who were in it, it was their first film -- and it was John Sayles’ first film. All of us had the blessing and the curse of being gung-ho and not quite sure what we were getting into.

I think there was only one person who was in the Screen Actors Guild at that time; the rest of us had gotten together at a summer theater where we shot it, in North Conway. We actually used the Lodge that the theater people stayed in, and John shot it at the end of that theater's summer season.

The movie is always held up as the perfect example of how to construct a low-budget movie, writing to the resources at hand.

ADAM LEFEVRE: John had very specifically tailored the script to who he knew he had. He had tailored the movie to people's type and abilities. Because his budget was very limited, it had to be thoroughly plotted out. People have said that a lot of it sounded improvised, but really very little was improvised, because he didn't have enough money for film to do that. He knew going into it exactly what he had to get, and he was very diligent about getting shots and moving on, getting shots and moving on.

Everybody knew everybody and worked with each other before, so there was a level of comfort there and a lot les time necessary to get to know each other, because the centerpiece of the film was this group of friends. I think it was advantageous that we had a shared communal history, and I think, since there was so little time, it was good to have that going in.

John knew that and I think exploited that in a very good way. I think from the point of view of the actors, that made it easier for all of us, because there was already a history there of friendship. Subsequent to that, sometimes you arrive on a movie set and you end up in bed with somebody you haven't met yet. In this case, the working relationship among the core group was already established.

It was really a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

What did you learn from working on that movie?

ADAM LEFEVRE: I learned a lot. The lesson for me was learning to be still and not to act. If you thinking right and feeling right, the camera will see it. It was great for me in that regard, and the fact that the movie got some notoriety was helpful for me subsequently, it was a calling card for me.

Working in a low-budget movie is very much like my experience in working in episodic television, because there you gotta move. You get the shot and you move on.

So it was helpful for me, because as an actor you learn to take care of yourself, there's a baseline that you want to give, an artistic standard that one sets for oneself and that you want to make sure that you do.

And so you learn to have a certain amount of confidence that, even without any direction, you can come up with something that will work and hopefully be interesting as well.