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.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Jeff Mizushima on "Etienne!"

What was your filmmaking background before making Etienne!?

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.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ravi Godse on “Help Me, Help You”

What was your filmmaking background before making Help Me, Help You?

RAVI: I went to film school for two years and directed some student movies. After that I directed two feature length movies. Dr.Ravi & Mr.Hyde a comedy on mid-life crisis and a murder mystery called I Am a Schizophrenic and So Am I.

I know how hard it is to find a home for independent movies but we were fortunate to get a DVD deal. So before I directed Hollywood actors under a SAG contract, I had a solid real life experience of having been there and done that. And my first movie was no slouch. It did well in DVD market and gained a ton of good reviews.

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

RAVI: Life imitates arts. So the idea always comes from there. I can't call it autobiographical but I love to give advice and I really love to help people. I have noticed others who are well meaning but you wish that they just left you well alone. So I built a story on this kind but goofy doctor who gets everything wrong and lands his friends in trouble.

I am so glad you asked about the writing process. We shot this movie in 10 days so I had to set the script in stone. I wrote it in one sitting, gazing over the sea of Cortez in Mexico. Twelve hours and the first draft was done. Then I took it through rigorous process of defining the story, stream-lining it, polishing the dialogue, arching the characters etc.

Then I held script readings with focus groups to see what makes people laugh, what is it that they don't get. Then I got a few script consultants. Spent a lot of time listening to them, rejected all of their suggestions and moved on. I told the actors that they can take some liberties with the script if they were in a one-on-one scene with me but for the group scenes I requested them to stick to the script to the last comma.

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

RAVI: I will duck this question. But can't resist the temptation to get on the soap-box. Once you have a track record, once you are little known, you can find people to help you. I admire everyone who wants to make a movie. But when I take a look at their target talent or their expected budget, I wonder why are they throwing a hail-Mary on the first play in the first quarter. I believe, no matter how humble the budget, how unknown the cast, if you do a full-length movie, and do it well enough to be seen, then you can look back and point to that shiny disc as something tangible and real. You keep at it and you get somewhere.

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

RAVI: We used Panasonic HDX 900, true Hi Def uncompressed. I loved the fact that we were able to throw prime lenses on it to give it a film look and I hated the fact that it was too cumbersome to do a 2-camera shoot on the climax.

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

RAVI: When I answered the previous question, I was just answering the question to show off the nut and bolts knowledge. The real answer was I trusted my Director Of Photography and my lighting director with my life. I left the technical issues in their capable hands and then got the heck out of there. What made wearing these hats easier was, I had a competent producer, terrific lawyer and beyond comparison production team who had ownership interest the movie.

The upside of wearing the hats, is, like, Truman used to say, the buck stops here. So the decisions were clear and lightening fast. And I had to live with them, good or bad. Steve Guttenberg missed his flight coming in due to some scheduling problem. Within seconds, I had the script supervisor looking at doing the group scenes without Steve and I asked the producer to buy seats on as many flights to Pittsburgh on that day, whether the ticket was refundable or not. So we bought four first-class tickets on 3 different airlines in a minute. It would have taken some time to clear this decision with a committee.

The downside is at times it is just too much. We were location scouting at Hartwoond Manor is Pittsburgh and figuring out the scene to be shot there. I got a call and I was talking for a while. The crew asked me as to what I was doing and I told them that I was giving directions to the Locations Manager who was lost!

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

RAVI: The smartest thing I did was to spend months on pre-production to think through pretty much everything.

The dumbest thing I did was not to build some slack into the system. When we shot the opening scene, it was just not happening the way I wanted it. We had that day and that time to get the shot in the can and no back up. That is the only thing, I can think of. I am sure, my friends will find others and point it out to me.

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

RAVI: I learned that I have to figure out a way to foresee unforeseeable issues. It was a team effort and a happy team gave me happy efforts. For the next project, I will be adding a few more members to the team, strip some responsibilities away from me, some away from the producer, trust the team and go with the flow.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Barry Canty on “L.A. Proper”

What was your filmmaking background before making L.A. Proper?

BARRY: I did not go to film school, and although it obviously isn’t necessary, I feel it is a shortcoming of mine and limits me as a filmmaker. I chose to go to Wake Forest University for the basketball scholarship they offered, and when my interest in filmmaking was sparked during my junior year, I was disappointed to find out that not only was there no film school, there weren’t even any filmmaking classes. However, I minored in theatre and began writing one act plays my senior year.

A few years out of college, while working as a model in New York and Miami, I wrote my first screenplay, a drama called Brevard. The script was about a group of kids who run away from a small town in the North Carolina mountains and make a suicide pact to never return, and is an homage to one of my favorite films, Badlands.

Brevard was optioned by indie producer Richard Harding, who went on make the 2010 movie The First Grader, starring Naomie Harris. A funny tidbit: A pre-DUI/cocaine/shoplifting Lindsey Lohan was attached to play the lead. Unfortunately, Brevard was never made.

After that, I created and co-starred in the web series Net Profits. Net Profits is about a group of hard-partying college kids in L.A. who sell drugs online and get mixed up with organized crime.

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

BARRY: I am a huge fan of Woody Allen, Kevin Smith and Ed Burns, and self-referential art has always appealed to me. The idea for L.A. Proper was born out of the contrast between the way Los Angeles is depicted in films and on television, with the reality of the city I was experiencing on a daily basis.

There is a notion that many who have never lived in Los Angeles have about the city, and it is that L.A. is mostly populated by people trying to make it in the entertainment industry...and gangbangers. That ain’t exactly an accurate assessment, and when I first moved here I found a lot of humor in the clumsy interactions I witnessed between people from various ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, and, unlike in the movie Crash - which I find to be one of the more unintentionally funny movies ever made about Los Angeles - I wanted to examine this through humor.

The lives of the eclectic group of friends I had assembled provided points of view that were not generally taken into consideration by filmmakers who set their movies in L.A., so I decided to tell a story that works as a sort of tour of a more accurate depiction of Los Angeles...with jokes about sex, race, immigration and unemployment.

One of my favorite movies about L.A. is Swingers, so I decided to steal ideas from the development process used on that project. I heard about the live readings Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn did around Hollywood to draw the attention of potential investors, so I held auditions and set up a staged reading of the script at a performance space in Santa Monica.

Many of the actors in the film were part of that reading and it gave me confidence that the material didn’t suck completely and that my characters were at least relatable.

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

BARRY: I quickly came to the realization that there was no way I would ever be able to raise enough money to make the movie as it was written in its original form. Luckily, the story isn’t plot driven and the humor is mostly in the dialogue, so I came up with the idea of placing the characters primarily in places that could serve as multiple movie locations that I knew I could get for free or at minimal cost (we actually ended up only paying for two locations).

I used my apartment, the homes of friends and exterior locations throughout Los Angeles and Orange County that we could steal. We did have permits for some scenes, but it was surprisingly easy to shoot guerilla-style when needed. The budget for L.A. Proper was a combination of my own cash, credit cards and money from friends and family.

In terms of recouping the budget, in May 2010, the movie was purchased by a small east coast distributor. I had never heard of the company prior to being contacted by them, but they offered an advance and guarantee equal to 60% of the budget. Unfortunately, after only receiving the advance, due to a breach of contract caused by their failure to release the movie as scheduled in May 2011, I am now in the process of suing the company.

After considering how lucky I was to get ANY money from my ultra low budget movie with a no name cast, I decided to make L.A. Proper available for free on Youtube and Facebook in August of this year. Unfortunately, due to Youtube’s file size restrictions on my account, I’m not able to present it in full HD, but if something’s funny, it should work no matter the resolution.

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

BARRY: L.A. Proper was shot with the Canon HVX200. I can’t really say I hated anything about it. Our cinematographer, Valentina Caniglia, has a lot of experience shooting documentaries in HD and she was able to adapt to all of the shooting situations we were in.

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

BARRY: My smartest act as a director on L.A. Proper actually took place during post production. Once I came to grips with the fact that my limitations and lack of experience as a filmmaker prevented me from executing some of my more ambitious goals, I embraced how the editing process could conceal some of my failures.

The original cut was bracketed by two overly long sequences that didn’t work and are no longer part of the movie. I decided to take the approach of first removing anything that I felt was weak - scenes, moments, bits of dialogue - no matter how strong my emotional attachment to it was.

I then worked on figuring out a way to tell a coherent story - even though it’s very different from my original script - with the pieces that were left over. I mercilessly trimmed almost 30 minutes, and I think I now have a comedy that makes you laugh while you’re watching, but subtly suggests that I have more on my mind than just jokes...and then ends before you get sick of it. In my opinion, that is what a humorist should always attempt to do.

The dumbest thing was to failing to recognize how superfluous some scenes were. Due to the brief shooting schedule (12 days) and my duties as director and co-star, I was unable to watch dailies, and I actually didn’t start seeing footage until halfway through the shoot.

In the final cut of the movie, many of the most difficult to film scenes are nowhere to be found. This is time that I wish I had used for the most important sequences to create more options for my editor to play with. We have many scenes in the movie, with multiple actors, where we only shot one take!

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

BARRY: Writing: Less is more, more or less.

Directing: I come from a sports background, and while some aspects of the communication style used in that arena can be applied to filmmaking, plenty others cannot. Athletes are taught to adjust to their coach, but when you’re a nobody director, co-starring in a low budget movie that you wrote, the smartest and most efficient thing to do is quickly figure out how each cast member ticks, what communication style they prefer, and do whatever you have to do to get the performance you want out of them.

Marketing: I can’t overemphasize the importance of marketing your film and yourself. L.A. Proper won the Heineken Red Star Filmmaker Award and I was profiled in Variety and on, but due to the fact this all happened after my first time having a movie at a film festival, I wasn’t ready, nor did I know, how to capitalize on the exposure. I now appreciate the value of marketing a project during pre-production, production and post production, and I plan to do that for the web series I’ll be creating based on L.A. Proper (see, I just did it!).

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Dan O'Bannon on "Dark Star"

How did the script come about?

DAN O'BANNON: John (Carpenter) and I were talking and he said he was going to do this graduate film project. I was very taken with it, and I started pitching ideas back at him. First thing you know, I was helping him make that film. At first he just wanted me to act in it, and I did that. But I was very excited about working on all aspects of the thing.

By the time we got through, the thing was about 50 minutes long. And when we took it to the USC Cinema department and started talking to them about taking it to festivals, we were told it was too long -- that it should have been 20 minutes long, and then they would have taken it around to festivals. But because it was 50 minutes long, they couldn't do anything with it. John and I were pretty upset about that, because it meant nobody would see it.

What did you do then?

DAN O'BANNON: A friend of ours said he would put $10,000 of his own money into it if we could expand it into a feature, and then we could try to get it distributed. It was a tough decision, because it was pretty tight at 50 minutes. Expanding it meant we were going to have to shoot a lot of scenes that were filler, and that would lessen the tightness of the story and make it into an episodic film.

Since they weren't going to take it around to the festivals, we were pretty much stuck. We only had one option--go ahead and shoot some extra scenes. It was kind of disappointing, because that meant we had to go from the most-impressive student film ever made to one of the cheapest features. It wasn't a question of choosing between two venues; there was only one venue offered.

We added a lot of stuff with me in it, because I was the most reliably available as an actor. And we added a lot of slapstick stuff, like the whole subplot about me chasing the alien balloon around, up and down shafts and things. All of that was done to pad.

How did the elevator scene come about?

DAN O'BANNON: We were talking about that old Harold Lloyd film, where he's climbing over a building and how funny and scary it is. We had this idea that we could do this funny thing with this creature going up and down in the elevator shaft. And then we had to figure out how to shoot it.

The first thing we thought was that we'd go find an elevator shaft somewhere, but that didn't get very far before we realized--never mind practical or impractical--it was dangerous. So we finally came up with, let's just do it on its side. What the hell. At least we can do it that way, and maybe if it's funny and exciting people won't care.

I ended up having an appendectomy right after I shot that scene. I just had that board down to my butt, and I had to keep my legs up, waving around in the air. Sometimes I think that I forced some food or something into my appendix from all that stress. I was 26 years old, and you really don't think what that sort of thing is going to do to you. You just have a good idea and you start to do it. And then you find out how hard it is. Today I wouldn't be able to do it all, even if I were willing to try, which I wouldn't be.

What's the biggest lesson you took away from Dark Star?

DAN O'BANNON: I learned all the wrong lessons on
Dark Star. When I finally directed a movie for real, I thought I was supposed to do everything. And I ended up making everybody mad. I was over-prepared for directing and I was mis-directed by having gone to film school, and thought that the director was supposed to be an auteur and do everything himself. When I actually tried doing that in a real movie, I found that I couldn't get anything I wanted, because they would sabotage me.

It basically took me two pictures to learn an entirely different orientation toward directing.

What I learned was very simple: A director doesn't make a movie. Everybody else makes the movie. That means the director doesn’t have to know how to do anything. All the director has to do is be there and stand there and make creative decisions if he feels like it. I had to swivel around 180 degrees and stop worrying about exactly how I wanted to get everything on the screen and start worrying about how to trick 300 people into doing it for me.