Thursday, December 27, 2012

Drew Cullingham on “Black Smoke Rising”

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make Black Smoke Rising?

DREW: Black Smoke Rising is my third feature as writer/director/producer. The previous one was Monk3ys, an odd mélange of Big Brother, SAW, some nasty whisky and the perennially funny situation of a grown man yet to have lost his virginity! It's a micro-budget containment thriller that riffs on the world of reality television, found footage movies and the sorry state of the film industry.  

It's also an experimental and weird entity that actually scooped the Raindance Festival award for best microbudget film.   

Before that was Umbrage: The First Vampire featuring Doug 'Pinhead' Bradley as an antiques dealer, stuck in the arse end of nowhere, who has to contend with demonic and vampiric grudges as well as the melodrama of his heavily pregnant wife and petulant step-daughter.  

Before that I cut my teeth on shorts, music promos, corporate crap and even some food television. Before that I didn't know whether to be a writer, a photographer or a musician, and kind of thought that filmmaking was a good compromise!

What was the genesis of the project and what was the writing process like? 

DREW: This film really shouldn't be. It just shouldn't. I lost my brother in 2010, so it was born from that loss.  That grief.   

Monk3ys actually was a fresher wound, and has a lot of anger in it that came from that chapter of my life.   Black Smoke Rising was written a little later, and was a cathartic experience to write and to film.    

There's not a lot of biography in the film, but there is a lot of me.  I shouldn't admit that, but I can't help but be honest about it. As is often the case with me, the writing was not a tortuous process. The story here is fairly vanilla in terms of a hero's journey. The protagonist resists the call, then answers it, has help from a mentor or two along the way, and learns a lesson in the end.  

I wanted it to be a familiar structure and a positive message. It's a highly emotional journey and there are some particularly emotive scenes that had me pounding the keyboard through a haze of misty grief.  I'm just thrilled that James Fisher did such a wonderful job of re-interpreting my personal rants!

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

DREW: There's not a lot to talk about here. The film was shot on a shoestring by the small group of loyal and wonderful friends and brothers that I have in this crazy filmmaking trip. I'm so grateful to all of them, and thrilled that somehow I've elicited this kind of fraternity in such giving people.  

What few things we needed, in terms of subsistence, accommodation, insurance and so on - I paid for out of a small inheritance.  As I said - in an ideal world this film would not exist - but it does because of the people around me and especially because of all that my brother gave to me - not just financially, but personally too.

I could say that I just want people to see the film and to feel it.   If it makes a little money, then great.   In reality we are looking very seriously at how dead the DVD market is to films of this stature and looking to explore alternative means of distribution.   The digital age is consuming us, not the other way around, so we need to be making our offerings as palatable as possible.

Why did you decide to shoot in black and white and what's the upside and downside of that choice?

DREW: Both myself and Glen Warrillow, the DOP on the film, are avid lovers of monochrome. There is just such simple beauty in seeing the full colour world in terms of tone rather than colour.  I think it is a lost art, and that a lot of people just decolourise things and think that's enough. It's not. It's so liberating to get to the point where you 'see' in light and dark.   

Aside from that, there are a couple of reasons for the film being in black and white.  First up I like the sense of 'vintage' that it brings.  I think it sits with the road trip, with the blues music, with a few noir sensibilities that I love.  

Also, the film is a study of grief.  It is a world without colour.  Grief is such a powerful and horrible beast of an emotion that it can utterly consume you and affect every facet of the world and how you see what is around you. There is nothing else. It IS monochrome. 

Honestly I don't see upsides or downsides to the choice. It is what it is. There are moments when I thought we'd inadvertently found some wonderful combinations of colour that nobody would ever see, accidents of production design, but that's hardly a downside.   It really just affects the way you work.  It affects the way you light scenes, especially when you start veering towards noir.  We even created a gobo at one point, which is something rare these days, and a real staple of noir.

What camera did you use and what did you love and hate about it?

DREW: We shot on the Panasonic LUMIX GH2.  Everyone else seems to be shooting on Canon 5Ds these days, and I've done that too.   Obviously here, we're talking about shooting microbudget stuff on DSLRs - which is so damn feasible now!    

I did a fair bit of research and testing and just didn't find the Canon to be what I wanted.  The dynamic range of the GH2 suited me better, as did the clarity of the nice lenses that you can get for it. It renders blacks and highlights beautifully.   Granted, it suffers a little more in the midrange when you blow it up, and perhaps the full frame and better sensor of the Canon can cope better here - but we were shooting black and white, with highs and lows.  I had very little midrange to worry about, so I much preferred the definition that the GH2 gave me. 

I normally wouldn't propose shooting too much on DSLRs.  I think they just aren't suited for a lot of things.  If you want a pull focus you need a hell of a rig, and by the time you add in a monitor, follow focus and all that you may as well use a full on camera.  

What I love about the GH2 for this kind of film, where I was more concerned with a beautiful photographic frame for the action to move within (as opposed to a constantly moving camera) is that (1) it takes such beautiful photographs, and (2) it is so compact and easy to get in places you just couldn't get a bigger camera, which affords you angles and opportunities you'd never otherwise get.

Hate about it?  Nothing.  I knew its limitations.   I wish the battery lasted better, and I wish now that they had a 3.5mm jack input for a shotgun mic, rather than an odd 2.5mm one.  But hey - you can't have everything, right?

Did the movie change much in the editing process, and if so, how?

DREW: Movies always change in the edit, and this one was no exception.   There were bits that I knew would be MADE in the edit, bits that had no need for continuity of action but would be effectively a montage of soliloquy!   

Did it change profoundly?  Not really.  The first cut was mercifully way too long,  a relief since the script was actually on the short side.   I'd shot way more than I needed, and was able to cut almost 20 minutes of stuff, some of that being bits of scenes and some being entire scenes.   I also moved a chunk from what was becoming an over long act one into the beginning of a slender act two and reshuffled a couple of things.  Being a largely episodic piece this was relatively easy.   

The most important thing in any edit is good pacing, and having the ruthlessness to excise favoured segments in pursuit of that pace.  Black Smoke Rising is a long way from an action thriller, but in some ways that makes the pacing even harder. It is a slow build of momentum that can only really be created in the edit, no matter what the script says!

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

DREW: Smart?  I can't lay claim to anything of the sort!  Haha.  Ok... I think on any film set, especially micro-budget ones, there are moments where you just have to improvise.  The shit will hit the fan at some point and the measure of the man is how swiftly and successfully you manage to integrate that shit into the seamless fabric of the story you are weaving.  

There's a scene in the film where the protagonist is contemplating an urn full of his brother's ashes, and wondering what size tupperware pot to decant him into for his trip, since the urn isn't really roadworthy.   In the script he just chooses one, and next thing we see is him walking to the car with a pot full of ash.   

IN THE SCRIPT - when he returns from his trip without the ashes, the urn is on the kitchen counter where he left it.    IN THE FILM, he breaks the urn accidentally earlier on, and when he returns there is no urn (and instead one of my favourite shots where the entire frame is out of focus until he puts his hand where the urn should have been and his hand is suddenly sharp).   

This is because our esteemed DOP decided to smash the urn in an act of wanton clumsiness and I was faced with this horrible moment where I had to either (1) panic and lose the plot (2) freak out and try and get a matching prop (3) integrate the DOP's idiocy into a new story element and embrace the dark humour of it!   I chose (3)!  OK - it wasn't that smart.  I tried to say I hadn't done much smart to begin with!

The dumbest?  Without a doubt the dumbest thing I personally did was travel to the lake district in early October with just one pair of cheap crappy trainers.   They got so wet after half a day of traipsing around the lakes that I was already getting tetchy.  When, on a simple shot of a drive by somewhere in the Yorkshire Dales, I decided to inadvertently step knee deep into a camouflaged wet dyke (and I mean that literally!) that signaled the end for those shoes, and those socks.  

I proceeded to direct the rest of that day barefoot in the moors and dales of a flooded Yorkshire until a suitable shoe-equipped supermarket reared into view hours later.  Stupid!!

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

DREW: Crikey.   It's so hard to pinpoint this kind of thing.  Everything is a learning curve.  I've learned to consider what footwear is appropriate!   

As a director, every time you interact with an actor you learn a bit more about directing.  You learn things that you can never really apply, but at the same time you are stockpiling experiences and ways NOT to deal with situations or people.   You learn constantly when it's best to trust your instincts.   You learn to trust other people.  That's a big one - part of the building of the team, of the family.  

Learning the abilities, and limitations, of the people around you is very useful.   For me especially, as a weird kind of perfectionist (I think it's more that I'm a control freak than a perfectionist to be honest!), it is good to know that other people have your back and won't let you down when it matters.  

Mostly every time I get on set I re-learn everything, and I am reminded of why I do this.   There is nothing quite like making movies...   I used to think that filmmaking could never rival the thrill of being on stage and playing music to an audience.  But it can.  I'd never show it, but I get palpitations when I know something special is happening on set, and it only adds to the thrill that there's a camera bearing witness to it rather than an audience.  Oddly enough it's a thrill that I can only imagine getting from filmmaking (as opposed to on stage).  

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Marty Lang on “Rising Star”

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make Rising Star?

MARTY: Before Rising Star, I worked producing independent films in Connecticut for about ten years. I produced the film A Little Bit of Lipstick starring Mia Tyler and Soupy Sales, co-produced Being Michael Madsen, starring Michael Madsen, Virginia Madsen, David Carradine and Daryl Hannah, and associate produced The Other Side of the Tracks, starring Tania Raymonde and Brendan Fehr.

I also created and helped run the Connecticut Film Industry Training Program, a state-sponsored workforce training program that trains Connecticut residents to work as crew members on film and television projects. I had also directed nine short films, including the award-winning Cheap as Hell: A Christmas Story.

What was the genesis of the project and what was the writing process like?

MARTY: The genesis of the project came from two places. First, it came from my work life. I've been laid off five times in my career. Being laid off sucks. And the prospect of being laid off is almost worse. You think all day, every day about if today will be my last day at work, or how much longer you can last. Dealing with that stress at my own job led to a need for catharsis. So I started thinking about writing a movie about it.

Second, it came from a movie I saw with a friend. Our producer/lead actor, Gary Ploski, and I went to see a film called Medicine for Melancholy in New York City. Watching that film, where the city of San Francisco was actually a character in the film, made us think if we could do something like that in Hartford, Connecticut. I started researching, and over the next year, I was able to write the script when I wasn't working or sleeping.

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

MARTY: We raised our budget through three avenues: a Kickstarter campaign that raised $15,211 over 45 days, fiscal sponsorship through the Independent Feature Project, and private investment.

Our plan to recoup costs is to sell the worldwide rights to a distributor; we're currently working with two producer's reps who are selling the film for us.

What camera did you use and what did you love and hate about it?

MARTY: We shot Rising Star on the Canon 5D Mark II. I loved the mobility of the camera, and the surprisingly good image it created. We were able to move quickly because of how light the camera was, and it helped us with our handheld work as well. I wasn't thrilled with the moiré issues the camera has, and the audio quality was awful in tests, so we recorded separate audio and sunk them together in post.

Did the movie change much in the editing process, and if so, how?

MARTY: The story of the film stayed more or less intact through the editing process, but one major change was made to our lead female character, Alyza. In early cuts, Alyza had no faults or weaknesses, and came off as a little arrogant as she presented her viewpoints to our lead male, Chris. So we reshot one scene, cut three others, and added new audio to give her a problem she also had to overcome, in addition to Chris. This gave her growth and an arc, and the film was helped greatly for it.

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

MARTY: I'd say the smartest thing I did in production was to let my actors make the script their own. There were a few times where my words were stilted or wrong for the moment, but the actors were always able to come up with something that fit perfectly for their scene. I'm really happy I was smart enough to do that.

The dumbest thing I did in production, though, was to try and design every scene the day we shot it. I think we'd have saved a lot of time if we had designed out all our shots ahead of time. I thought I could do it on the fly, and it was really, really hard.

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

MARTY: In making Rising Star, I learned that preparation really helps solve a lot of problems. I haven't gotten onto another film yet, but when I do, I'm going to make sure every detail is thought of beforehand, so that the making of the film is almost an afterthought. If I can get to that point, I think things will be much easier.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Emily Lou on "The Selling"

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make The Selling?
EMILY: My directing background is primarily in Theatre.  I bought a GL 1 eleven years ago and started shooting away. I shot a few things to feel out my aesthetic, DIY film school.  The Selling is my first feature film. 

What was the genesis of the project and at what point did you become involved? 

EMILY: I wanted to make a feature film.  My husband and I were talking about how to make it work, we needed someone to partner with.  Gabriel Diani and I went to college together and had worked together many times.  We had started a theatre company back in college - I directed a play of his and also him as an actor.  We called him up and told him we wanted him to write, star in, and help produce a feature film.  He said yes.   Ideas proceeded to go back and forth from there.

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

EMILY: Private investors who believed in us.  Our hope is to pay them back via DVD and VOD sales.  It would mean the world to me to be able to do that. 

What was your working process with the writer, Gabriel Diani?

EMILY: Gabe threw out a few ideas and we landed on "Real Estate Agent Trying to Sell A Haunted House".  He wrote an outline, then more outlines, then more and ultimately many many many versions of the script.  I would give notes, we would chat about them and eventually we did a few readings with actors that proved very helpful.  We also gave the script to some "readers" that gave some great feedback.  

There were a few times that we considered moving forward with production before the script was "just right" and I'm so glad we waited.  Many people came on to the project because of the strength of the script.  Gabe did a great job.

What camera did you use and what did you love and hate about it?

EMILY: We used the RED camera.  I LOVED it, the picture quality is fabulous -- we were able to crop the image, contort the frame in ways we wouldn't have been able to do with other cameras.  When you are shooting in 14 days on a shoe string budget, 1-2 takes per shot, those are the kind of options you need to have in the editing suite.

Did the movie change much in the editing process, and if so, how?

EMILY: Oh yes...certain scenes were cut entirely and many many lines were cut.  We clipped it as much as we could to get it as funny as possible.  We kept pushing ourselves to make it work, make it the best film we could make and we didn't give up.   We had some people trying to tell us it was "good enough" many times, but we didn't buy it. Thank God.

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

EMILY: The smartest thing we did is to surround ourselves with a fabulous crew that really worked very hard and cared about the movie.  The dumbest?  We trusted some people we shouldn't have, put too many eggs in a very faulty basket and lost a lot of valuable post-production time.

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

EMILY: Publicity and Budgeting.  Publicity needs to start before the script is even completed.  There should be a plan in place for creating a fan base as soon as you know you are moving forward with the production. Budget for that publicity!  Budget for film festivals, if you are going that route and deliverables to your distributors.  

Things like that add up, especially when you don't have any money left in the bank. Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign and some pretty amazing supporters we have a little cushion now for a limited theatrical release and those added expenses we didn't budget for.  We are very grateful to our backers!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos on "The Last Broadcast"

How did this project begin?

LANCE WEILER: Stefan and I got excited about the prospects of being able to edit on your desktop, so we got the board and started messing around and built some systems and then started making this movie almost as a lark, to see how little we could make it for. And that's when we came up with the idea and the storyline for The Last Broadcast.

STEFAN AVALOS: We came up with a very detailed outline and we did script out a lot of scenes. But then we decided to basically do a question-and-answer role-playing game with a lot of the people for interviews. We would give them the answers to the questions and then we would keep asking them the questions in various ways, and sometimes ask them questions that they did not have the answers to. We would give them only as much information as their character in the movie would have. And since we were shooting in video we would just let the camera roll, and we were able to get some great performances that way.

LANCE WEILER: We wrote it knowing what we had access to, which I think really helped to keep it low cost. Everyone in it are friends and family. We knew that if we cast ourselves in it that we were guaranteed to show up. And we knew that we would work cheap. We also structured the movie so that we would be shooting and doing a lot of the sound work ourselves; a lot of the movie consists of us actually on-camera and holding mics in the scenes. So I think it was a very conscious effort to try to work within the limitations that we had. Stefan had already made a previous film, The Game, so he was well-versed in guerilla techniques and we applied a lot of those to the making of the movie.

STEFAN AVALOS: We joked that the first thing we tried to get rid of when we made this movie was film, shooting digitally, and the second thing were the actors, because you have to feed them and hope they show up.

None of the people in the movie were professional actors, so we didn't really want to script their stuff, we thought that wouldn't work at all. Including ourselves; I didn't think that I'd be able to pull off a serious acting role requiring scripted dialogue. But it was very tight improvisation; we knew exactly where the story was going to go--the beginning, the middle, the end--so it wasn't like we were just winging it on set.

A lot of people thought it was a real documentary when it came out ...

LANCE WEILER: I think a lot of time it's the details that convince people. There were things that would happen that helped, almost accidents. Everyone brought different things at different times; like the way Tony (playing a cop) put ATF on his shirt that day.

STEFAN AVALOS: We call it Theater of the minimal. The psychologist is a friend of ours who does high-end carpentry. But we brought some psychology books, just a couple little things here and there --

LANCE WEILER: And that birdhouse.

STEFAN AVALOS: Yes, the cuckoo clock birdhouse. It's amazing how little it takes to convince people. Which is something we were commenting on in the movie: What's reality, what do you believe? And I found it amazing how readily people believed the movie, based on just a couple little pseudo-realities within the movie. I think a lot of documentary filmmakers were perturbed by that.

So was the low budget a blessing or a burden?

LANCE WEILER: Not having any money made us be more creative. I think sometimes there's a tendency to fall back on money as an answer to a problem, where we found ourselves brainstorming and trying to find ways to make things work without the money.

STEFAN AVALOS: Having no money and really spending no money gave us a carefree attitude that I've never had before or since making movies. We didn't have a producer breathing down our necks concerned about a budget that was spiraling out of control. It's ironic that no having money gave us that freedom.

LANCE WEILER: I remember the shock when we totaled up the receipts, to see what the budget at the end. We rounded up, but it was very close, maybe within 28 cents, of $900. And that was the first time we really knew what we had spent.

STEFAN AVALOS: We had wanted to make a movie for no money, but we missed the mark by 900 bucks.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Joe Benarick on "The Ultimate Ultimate"

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make The Ultimate Ultimate?

JOE: I started doing stuff in ’07, up in Philadelphia. I bought a little Panasonic 3-chip and thought I was on my way. I don’t think I started to get comfortable behind the camera until we did Days of Lightning a couple years ago, though. But I’m still not comfortable—I’m never comfortable with myself. Ask my wife why I turn off the lights before I undress. God, I need to hit the gym.

What was the genesis of the project and what was the writing process like?

JOE: Well, The Ultimate Ultimate is a stand-alone sequel to a movie we did and no one saw, called Days of Lightning. My buddy and producer Frankie Aguirre and I were working at this dump of a hotel in Miami, and I had the idea to shoot a little comedy set at work with the equipment I had. I didn’t really have equipment; it was just the Panasonic I bought years earlier, but whatever. It would do. I knocked out a script and we shot it over a few months. We got fired after the hotel discovered what we were doing, too. But that’s a story for another day. That’s a story for a dreary Sunday, maybe during an electrical storm.

Anyway, the movie turned out okay; we were pretty happy with it. The production values were shit, but the content was on-point. I felt like that’s when A Set of Works found its voice. It was such an experimental movie; we were just doing what we thought was funny—what we’d want to see in a comedy. There was a structure, but it was all about the humor.

And after DoL, I talked to Frankie, and it was like, “We could really make something special if we had better equipment,” so the idea for The Ultimate Ultimate was born. And I was all for it, and I think Frankie was too, I don’t know. He hides things from me. But we knew we wanted to stay in this world, so we knocked out a script for a “sequel,” but a detached one.

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

JOE: It’s a lot of bullshitting, man. That’s the truth. Like, if we need to use a hotel, it’s a matter of talking to the right people the right way. I’m good at that. And I throw them some money, of course.

I’d say we spent a little over five thousand on this. All the money I made at the hotel, I put towards this. We got really lucky that some talented people thought so highly of the script and jumped on-board, too. Same with the music: these awesome musicians—AluKard, D. Lector, our buddy Back to the Futrell—these dudes gave us the go-ahead to use their stuff, and I couldn’t be happier with the soundtrack. I love our soundtrack.

As far as recouping the costs, we’ll be pitching the movie to distributors in the coming months for DVD release. I think we have a great shot at securing something, especially with all the attention the movie’s garnered. There’s a big audience for The Ultimate Ultimate. Of course, we’ll have to spend more money on that. Press packets and stuff. It’s all an investment.

What camera did you use and what did you love and hate about it?

JOE: It was a Sony HXR-MC50U, with a couple shotgun mics. It’s a great camera; I was happy with it. I wish I had more time to practice with it—to learn it, prior to filming. We got it right before we started principal photography—like the same week. We learned as we went. That’s a problem when you’re working and it’s like, “Man, we should’ve used this feature last week during such and such scene,” but you keep moving. If it’s something small, you can reshoot it. I try not to harp on the small stuff too much, but I always do.

Did the movie change much in the editing process, and if so, how?

JOE: No. I have everything planned out prior to shooting, so if we do it right—if we do it the way I want to do it, the footage I’m editing unfurls exactly as it’s written in my notes. I make a ton of notes on my script before everything we shoot. “Unfurls”—what the hell is that, right? Sounds like something a snake does when it’s pissed.

The one thing I did in post that I hadn’t planned was color work. There’s so much color work going on in this, but people don’t notice. But I guess that’s good. You don’t want the editing stuff to jump off the screen. If you did it right, the audience doesn’t notice. The colors are always changing in the movie according to what’s happening on-screen. I hope, even if people don’t see it, they feel it, because that was the intent.

By the way, after we completed this, I was watching Punisher: War Zone, and in the bonus features they said they did the same thing. I like that movie. Maybe they’ll let me helm the third.

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

JOE: The smartest thing was going with our guts. Frankie and I have no qualms about bringing up ideas, or questioning others. If he has some idea, and he believes it’s good, even if I’m not feeling it, I’ll ride with it, because I trust his comedic judgment. We listen to each other’s input. As long as we’re making ourselves laugh, we know we’re doing well. I don’t mind shooting hours of extra stuff that might not even get used, just to have tons of options in post.

And the dumbest thing we did…I guess not being familiar with our equipment, like I said before. It all worked out, but that was definitely bush league. Flying by the seat of our pants, man.

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

JOE: If you know that your product is good, then you’re in a good spot. When you make something, and afterwards, you’re going, “Damn, that’s great,” then you’re on the right track, because I think a lot of people know their stuff isn’t great, and they roll with it anyway. For the longest time, I thought just making stuff was good enough, and I was way off. You gotta make great stuff.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Dean Peterson on "Incredibly Small"

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make Incredibly Small?

DEAN: I went to film school and made a number of short films before. Right before I made Incredibly Small I was working for a company called Range Life Entertainment where we toured independent movies around the country. The tour served as a very accelerated, real life film school for me. I watched a lot of incredible movies, met a lot of filmmakers who were making the kind of films I wanted to make and learned the nitty gritty details about the film industry that they don't even go near in film school. I also met a lot of people that would help with and star in Incredibly Small.

What was the genesis of the project and what was the scriptwriting process like? 

DEAN: I got the idea randomly from seeing a made for TV documentary called Incredibly Small on TV one day. I'm not sure why but the name sparked the idea of a young couple moving into an impossibly small apartment. From there I fleshed out the story with personal details and it transformed into a story about adulthood and accepting the harsh realities and responsibilities that await you after college.

I had worked on the script off and on for about a year, and then as the production came closer and we cast all the roles I wanted the actors to add their own personality to the characters, so there were some significant rewrites in the weeks before shooting. It was a very good crash course in screenwriting and learning importance of remaining adaptable to changes. You're open and receptive to new ideas and whims that come up on set your movie benefits enormously.

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

DEAN: Our budget was about as small as you can be, which was a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because we were able to raise all the money in non-traditional ways such as fundraisers, using Kickstarter and using personal funds. This meant that we weren't accountable to any external financiers, we didn't have huge investments looming over our heads.

It was also beneficial because simple economics will tell you that the lower the cost of your movie, the easier it is to make your money back. So we had a lot of freedom in the release of our movie. We were able to be adventurous and try out some different strategies, which we might not have been able to do with a much bigger budget. 

What camera did you use and what did you love and hate about it?

DEAN: We used the Sony EX-1. I really liked it because it was small and was good in low light situations. When our DP Adam and I were discussing what camera we should use, portability and the ability to shoot with minimal lighting were the main factors we took into consideration. It also allowed us to shoot really long, uninterrupted takes which was very important to the story and which is one of the major detriments of DSLR's. 

What was the value of working with a colorist and how did you approach that process?

DEAN: We shot the movie with a pretty flat profile so there would be a lot of latitude in post. I was amazed at what color correction was able to pull out of the footage. When I watched rushes I thought the footage looked amazing, I wasn't sure we'd even need to color it. But after the final color correction had happened I was blown away.

We colored the movie pretty quickly. After we locked picture I think it only took about 2 or 3 weeks to color correct it and it was happening while we were mixing the sound, so after picture lock we probably had the final cut in about a month.

What is your overall marketing plan and why did you decide to release the movie for free on the Internet?

DEAN: Since we had self-financed the film and the budget was so small, we had the option of straying from the normal path that most releases follow. I was really excited to put the movie online for free. I'm really interesting in the free model that a lot of artists use and had seen the success others had and thought that with our heavy emphasis on social media that it would be a good fit for our film.

Our marketing was almost 100% online. We relied heavily on social media such as Tumblr, Reddit, Twitter and Vimeo to get the word out about our screenings and release of the film. Social media had the benefit being free, easy to reach a broad audience and the ability for our fans to share our film themselves.  

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

DEAN: The smartest thing we did was to shoot the scenes in order. It allowed us the ability to make lots of changes as we shot; we added scenes, cut scenes and it also freed us up to improv a lot.

The dumbest thing I did was to quit drinking coffee two weeks before shooting.

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

DEAN: The main thing I learned is that making movies is hectic and crazy and you have to accept, anticipate and roll with the madness. Things will happen; actors will drop out a week before shooting, a marching band will start playing across from your location, somebody will forget to bring an important prop. These things will happen and they'll seem like the end of the world, but you'll learn to shut down that part of your brain that freaks out, you'll deal with it and hopefully learn to use them to your advantage.

Everyone should watch Burden of Dreams before shooting a movie so you can remind yourself that it could always be A LOT worse.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Rebecca Miller on "Personal Velocity: Three Portraits"

What was going on in your life before Personal Velocity?

REBECCA MILLER: I had basically given up, at least for the time being, the idea of making films, because it was so hard for me to get my films made at that point. I had made one film, called Angela, which had won the Filmmaker's Prize at Sundance, They've discontinued the Filmmaker's Prize; all the filmmakers voted on their favorite films, the ones in competition.

Angela did well with some critics and things, but it didn't make money. It was a very uncommercial film. And then I had written The Ballad of Jack and Rose, which was something I would make later, and I wrote another film that collapsed in pre-production. So I had gotten to the point where I just felt like I didn't want to just wait and wait to make films and tell stories. All I did all day was write these screenplays that nobody seemed to want. So I decided to write short stories.

My friend Gary Winick called me. He was making this series of films for the Independent Film Channel. He had come to them with this idea that he would make ten films a year for a million dollars, but what they ended up giving everybody was a $250,000 budget.

He asked did I have anything, did I want to make a film on mini-DV for that much money? And none of the films that I had already written were really right for that, because I figured (and I was right about this), that you'd have to tailor a script for that medium and for that budget; you shouldn't just take one of your script and try and turn it into that kind of shoot.

I was sick of writing screenplays that no one was going to make, I said, "If you want to look at the stories that I'm writing, I could maybe do something out of one of them." So I gave him a few stories from the collection and he read them and he really liked them. He ended up giving them to Caroline Kaplan, who was running InDigEnt with him, and they ended up green lighting the film. It was also Gary's idea to use three stories at once and make a trilogy, and when he said that my mind took off.

The thing that's great about Gary is that he really insisted that I feel completely free. At first I was sort of checking with him and saying, "I'm doing this, I'm doing that," and he was like, "Look, do whatever. The point is that we want to get filmmakers who have experience and who we believe in to feel free."

And so I wrote the script for Personal Velocity in about two months. It took me about two years to write the book, and I knew what everybody in those stories was feeling and I knew the characters from top to bottom, so writing the screenplay was mostly about finding the form and the structure.

How did you decide which of the three stories to use?

REBECCA MILLER: I chose the ones that were the most dynamic in terms of action, where there was conflict that was externalized, because some of them were very interior. And also where I thought that there was a good clash; like I thought there was a very good clash between Delia, which is a story about a working-class woman struggling with an abusive marriage, and Greta, which is about an upper-middle class woman struggling with the clash between her own ambition and a marriage which is feeling increasingly stultifying, and finally her ambition propels her out of her own marriage.

They both involve crisis, but of a different order.

And then, class-wise, Paula is kind of a floater, because she's an artist, she's from that class although she doesn't really produce anything, but she's in-between the two classes.

At what point in the process did you decide to use narration?

REBECCA MILLER: I always knew I was going to. The narration was built into it.

Early on Gary had said that he loved the way the narrator spoke in the stories and that it would be a pity to lose that. And I also thought that with the three stories, I thought it would be a good thing to link them together. And it also gives you a lot more freedom, because we're jumping back and forth through time constantly. And the narrations also carries a lot of the humor. It's a sympathetic third voice.

In the end there was a whole debate about whether or not to make it a male or female voice. I always knew that it was meant to be a male voice, but then there were some people who saw it and said, "You can't make it a male voice; it's about women."

But I just ended up really liking the male voice, because I thought it differentiated itself from the other voices. Otherwise, it was just another's woman's voice, it was like a soup of women's voices, and I thought it was good to have the male voice.

Also, I thought it was kind of optimistic to have a male voice, it seemed to be sympathetic and unjudgmental of this of these women while some of there struggles were against men, and it was my overriding view, my own point of view, which is that it's very possible to have sympathetic males in your movies.

How did your background in acting help the writing process?

REBECCA MILLER: I think there's a really big advantage to have been an actor when you're the director, because you have more of a sense of what the actors might need and help them keep it all natural.

In a way, the film isn't naturalistic at all. It's like a poem, in a way. But the way that it's happening and the way that it's shot leads you to believe that it's naturalistic. It's a funny combination.

I think that acting was a very necessary step for me. I had a weird, long apprenticeship, in that I was a painter for quite a while and then at a certain point realized that I wanted to make films.

I acted for about five years while I was writing my first screenplays and still painting for some of that time -- it was like a bridge. Without the acting I don't know that I would have been able to successfully make that leap -- when I was a painter I was so far away from the mindset of being a filmmaker and being more sociable like that and thinking about what it's like to be on a set where there are so many people. I just learned all sorts of things, just how it works, what a film set's like.

One of the problems with being a director is that you never get to go on sets -- even if you go to film school, you don't usually get to be on sets when you're coming up. You learn when you get on your own set, but it was nice to just understand certain things, to have been around directors. For writing it probably helps, too.

You're writing to shoot, and that's what's important to remember. And I really remembered it with Personal Velocity. That screenplay was really tailored, it was absolutely tailored to the medium. I don't think I even cut any scenes out; there was no waste in that thing.

You shot what you wrote.

REBECCA MILLER: I shot what I wrote and I kept what I shot. Which is really unusual. Usually you end up realizing that there are internal repetitions that you didn't notice. But this was all done in a spirit of such economy, so I was very conscious of not wanting to shoot anything extra.

We had no overtime, so we had to finish our days, and we had no extra days. So there was no leeway at all. If you weren't making your day, you had to start cutting scenes. And there was on occasion where I did have to cut a scene, which was completely unnecessary and I think in the end I would have cut it anyway afterwards.

Did you tweak the script after it was cast?

REBECCA MILLER: I'm sure I did. I'm usually kind of tweaking things until they get said. But I do really believe very, very strongly in having a very, very strong script, then you can throw it out. The thing is to have a really strong script and if you are the director then to fool yourself into thinking that you didn't really write it and that it's somebody else's. Then you can be totally irreverent with it and throw it out.

It's a blueprint, it's only a blueprint, but at the same time, if you're really well prepared, then you can always change everything. It's when you're not prepared, I think, that things get really scary.