KEVIN: I’m an English professor with a diverse background. Long ago, when I had a full head of hair, I was an actor and a musician, both of which come in handy in filmmaking. I have also taught screenwriting at a number of universities, including Penn State, where I am currently on faculty. I directed and produced a short documentary a number of years ago and I’m a film scholar who has published a reasonable amount of film scholarship, such as Script Culture And The American Screenplay (Wayne State University Press, 2008). So I come to filmmaking from the perspectives of creative writing, performance and film criticism.
What was the teaching goal in producing Two Days Back with a class of film students and how -- in general -- did it work?
KEVIN: First off, they weren’t all film students. Some were, but we also had a contingent of English and communication majors. As a pedagogical experiment, I wanted students to experience all aspects of the filmmaking process the way it actually happens in the “real world,” and, if successful, to have legitimate experience of which they could be proud.
Students can often gain real-world experience in university-related films, but they are usually relegated to the roles of production assistant or intern. Seldom do they have the opportunity to contribute to story, work camera, and provide creative input to the core elements of film production.
As to whether it worked, I think it did. The problem with assessment, though, is that with each success, you raise the bar a little higher. My original goal was to produce a full-length feature that would hold up as an independent film, one that wouldn’t look like student video shot in someone’s backyard with an eighteen-year-old police captain investigating a ketchup-smeared crime scene.
We definitely have a film and best guess from the focus groups that have seen it, we did pretty well. The ultimate test, however, is what paying audiences will think, and that doesn’t happen for two weeks yet.
Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like?
KEVIN: The Mont Alto Film Project was a four-semester practicum in no-budget filmmaking. The entire first semester was dedicated to the development of the script. Students voted on whether they wanted to do a documentary or a feature. In this case, they chose a feature. From there we talked about the limitations of no-budget film story and how screenplays are constructed. As a group, we work-shopped ideas.
Once we settled on a story arc, we structured the acts and put the individual scenes in place. Then those students who were interested in writing were given sections of the script. They each wrote the first draft of those scenes and then I took their work and used it as a guide for the final draft.
Because it was a no-budget film, we developed the story around available assets: a campus, wilderness, a forestry department, students.
Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan (if any) for recouping your costs?
KEVIN: The entire budget was right around $15,000, which I received in a grant from the Penn State Mont Alto Campus to fund the curriculum. Nearly all of that went to buy equipment, props, costumes, and the like. About two-thirds of the way through principle photography I had to start digging into my own funds, so a few thousand dollars more went into the production, much of it for craft services.
Recouping costs? Is that possible? My goal was to make a good movie. I gave no thought to how we might make money off the project. Making money on a no-budget independent film is extraordinarily difficult. Even now, I’m shelling out money for film festival fees that I don’t really expect to recoup. It would be nice, of course, as all the principle actors have back-end deals, but my concern is more to have a good film that everyone involved feels proud to have been a part of.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?
KEVIN: We shot the film with a Panasonic HMC 150. We had a Letus depth-of-field adapter so we could use camera lenses and get a more film-like look.
What I liked about the camera was the workflow. It shot AVCHD in 24 fps, 1080p onto SDHC cards, which were easy to pull from and drop into Premiere without transcoding. With such a small budget, I couldn’t afford to deal with a camera that used something like P2 cards. A 16gb P2 card would run me $350 bucks, but I could buy a 16gb SDHC card for less than $50.
I didn’t hate anything about the camera, but if I were to do it again, I’d rather get a camera that allows me to attach Nikon lenses without a DOF adapter.
What was your process for prep ... shooting ... and post with the students?
KEVIN: Since I was adamant about following the typical filmmaking procedures, we did most everything the way it would be done on a feature with a budget. We ran open auditions. Invited specific actors to private auditions. Scouted locations. Reviewed wardrobe and makeup choices. Tested special effects. Produced the shooting schedule with scheduling software. Worked up all the appropriate documents (deal memos, contracts, releases, call sheets, location sheets, etc.). And then shot each scene using the typical Hollywood style (i.e. master, reversals, closeups, inserts). Because students had classes during the week, we shot the film on weekends across two months. Sixteen shooting days, many of them in the woods.
By the time we got to post, many of the students had graduated or moved on to the main campus. There were only four students involved in post and each did the first rough edit on a sequence.
Everything else I had to do, so I cut the final film, did sound-engineering, mastering, and composed the soundtrack. I did, however, get a chance to show the rough edit to many of the original members, all of whom provided valuable input before I began on the final cut.
What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?
KEVIN: The smartest thing I did during production is the smartest thing anyone does during production, and that is to thoroughly organize the shoot. If you go in with the proper planning and documents, you eliminate hundreds of mishaps that could result in production delays.
We didn’t have time for many mistakes (though there certainly were some), so it was important to stay on schedule and have adequate references for wardrobe, makeup, props, cast calls, and so on. I might add that the value of having a good first AD cannot be overestimated. I was pretty busy on set and my first AD, Tressa Bellows, was invaluable.
The two dumbest things I did on set was:
1) I didn’t make sure the students knew the importance of lighting. More than once, I called for lights and was told that no one had brought them to set. When you’re deep in the woods and on a tight schedule, you simply don’t have the luxury of going back for them, so some of the images suffered visually—particularly the day-for-night scenes.
2) I trusted my sound people. Normally this wouldn’t have been a problem, but since our crew was all undergraduate students, I needed to spend more time listening to the sound we were getting. I spent hundreds of hours in post cleaning bad audio. I’d rather not do that again.
And, finally, what do you think your students learned from making the film that they will take to other projects?
KEVIN: That’s hard for me to say. I would hope they learned that planning is essential to a successful film, that a movie can never be better than the screenplay upon which it is based, that they should always use professional, trained actors, that they should shoot everything because you can’t go back, that filmmakers have to be decisive and confident and, if they aren’t, they still need to appear that way, that filmmaking is not magic, it is the combination of numerous skill-sets coming together for a common purpose, and most importantly that a person can accomplish a great deal if s/he studies the craft, swallows his or her fear, and obstinately forges ahead despite whatever obstacles may lie in his or her path.