Thursday, February 9, 2012

James Ferguson on "Happy Holidays"

What was your filmmaking background before making Happy Holidays?

JAMES FERGUSON: When I was a kid there were two things that I used to win book awards for in middle school: art and creative writing. So, I think, at some point I decided that a career in film was a smart blend of those two skill sets.

When I was a teenager, my mom bought a video camera that she said wanted to use to “film” dressage events. (If you don’t know, dressage is essentially horse ballet. It’s a choreographed show where the animals have to perform a specific set of Oh my God it bores me as much now as it did when I was sixteen!). This was 1986 and MTV had just started broadcasting the old Monkees television shows. They looked like they were having so much fun that my friends and I “borrowed” my mom’s camera (without permission, I’m sure) and ran around our town like knuckleheads trying to recreate these completely absurd and scatological videos. I’d hook our VCR to a companion one a friend had and edit the bits together to music. Very high-minded stuff! But it was sort of my first experimentation with assembling images in a specific order, to music.

I had no sense of narrative, or theme but I did really like two elements of the process: I liked trying to put the puzzle together and I liked the fact that the process seemed like one big magic trick.

At college (Emerson College in Boston, MA if you’re curious) I joined a comedy troupe and filmed a couple of my own sketches as well as some other people’s. They still weren’t story-driven -- they were primarily joke-driven if I remember correctly – but it was fun to collaborate and further my understanding of the process. Baby steps.

After college, around 1993, I moved to Los Angeles and split my time writing and performing on stage with our sketch comedy troupe and working in film production. I was mostly an office guy, though I did slowly pick up more and more experience on set. I started as a P.A. and worked my way up to Production Coordinator (and eventually Producer). This is where I really leaned how films get made. There are so many moving parts – It’s kind of mind-boggling.

Working in the crew on various shoots really prepared me for directing because I had a really strong understanding of how all those elements fit together and how, in general, to keep the whole engine turning. It also gave me a really good understanding of the crew’s point of view, which is extraordinarily helpful when something goes horrendously wrong, as things tend to do on film shoots at one point or another. It gives you an extra set of tools to help fix problems, or work around them so you can keep the entire production on track and moving forward.

By the time I got to Happy Holidays in 2006, I had been writing and performing on stage for years, and working behind-the-scenes on all kinds of productions since 1993, so I had a pretty realistic understanding of what was possible on a certain budget, although my learning curve – since Happy Holidays was the first feature length script I directed – was huge. Just enormous. I can’t imagine what would have happened if I’d tried to direct a feature any earlier than I did. I would have crumbled into a broken pile of tears and whimpering, I’m sure.

Where did the idea come from and how were writing duties shared with Tom Misuraca?

JAMES FERGUSON: Happy Holidays was the first screenplay I tried to write. I started it in college and finished it out in L.A., around 1994 or so. I was in my early 20’s and the story reflected that. It was an obvious story about the commercialization of Christmas. It still centered around three friends, but they were in their 20s and not particularly interesting. When the opportunity arose around 2005 to shoot my own feature, I only had a very little amount of funding. So I looked in the drawer and this script seemed like it was the one that was the most feasible. No visual effects, no monsters, no aliens, no explosions, no big crowd scenes – it seemed manageable.

But I knew the old script was not something that was worth putting our backs into. So I scrapped it, pulled in a writer who is much better than I am and we set about re-writing the screenplay from the point of view of three characters in their 30s. I’ve known Tom since college. He’s a really terrific playwright, short story writer and editor so he seemed like a natural choice. He’s also a tremendously funny writer – some of the best lines in the film are his! - and I knew his voice would be a huge asset.

The story we ended up with was I think reflective of the times and who we were as people. I’m not sure the faith theme would have shown up before 9/11 because it’s just not something I was thinking about. I also felt like we were seeing a lot of films on the indie film circuit that were taking themselves really seriously I wanted to go in the opposite direction. If we were going to have a message we were going to pitch it as a softball and wrap in a lot of humor.

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

JAMES FERGUSON: A couple of years beforehand I had been hired to adapt a Richard Yates short story entitled Builders into a feature-length screenplay. People liked the script, a lot – we got some great coverage from I.C.M. – but it was a satiric, period story and no one wanted to help us set it up and make it. So we tried to make it ourselves, which means we had to try and raise the money.

That process was so maddeningly frustrating that when it all fell apart, my father said to me, “Why don’t you make your own movie?” Which is really weird considering there’s such strong father / son themes in the film. He sort of got the ball rolling and helped us pull together the budget. It wasn’t much but it was enough to at the very least get the job done.

We shot the film in March of 2006 and as soon as we were done the world changed in two very important ways: The economy drove off a cliff and everything in the entertainment industry fully embraced the fact that everything was going to go digital.

We had a film that we produced under the old model, but suddenly we were in a world where we going to have to sell it with some sort of a new model. Our sales agent, luckily, is fantastic and has – slowly but surely – been lining us up on digital platform after digital platform. It’s been a slow – painfully slow at times – process – BUT the one advantage that we seem to have which was not really premeditated is that because it’s a “holiday” film, we can roll the thing out every year. Every season I get a free pass to remind people about the film and that seems to be a huge asset for us. Every year we get a little bit more attention, our fans grow, the platforms we’re available on grow – it all keeps moving in a very positive direction.

The real challenge we have is that our audience is a little older, they tend to like the theatre and Woody Allen films – our film is not for people with short attention spans. But are the people we need to connect with consuming their media via online platforms, yet? I don’t know. Some of them do, but a lot of them still enjoy going to the movies and watching DVDS – My father can barely work his DVD player; is he going to watch a movie on iTunes? Probably not. So that’s a tough road for us to navigate. In fact, as far as distribution goes, that’s probably been our biggest challenge.

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

JAMES FERGUSON: We shot on a Canon XL 2 and we used a P+S Technik adapter so we could use a set of 35mm prime lenses.

I have no opinion about the camera, at all. I really don’t care what kind of camera I use. Because, to me, honestly, it has nothing to do with the camera. It has everything to do with the Director of Photography. You’re not hiring camera, you’re hiring a D.P. You’re hiring his or her eye. (Unless you shoot yourself, of course.)

Kurosawa is one of my favorite directors because you can have all the gadgets and toys in the world - and I know camera folks who do love their gadgets! – but when it all boils down, it simply has to do with where you’re putting the camera. That’s my opinion, anyway. Kurosawa’s films always have such depth and resonance to me because every shot, every camera placement, supports the story, and it all always somehow fits together perfectly. It’s amazing! You could have an amazing camera but a D.P. who isn’t in synch with your vision, and you’re cooked.

But then again, this is just my opinion. I could be – and probably am – totally and completely wrong. Or not. Who knows?

Why did you choose to shoot in black and white -- and what are the upsides and downsides of doing that?

JAMES FERGUSON: We shot in black and white because black and white isn’t black and white. It’s all sorts of different shades of gray. And I felt this reflected the characters. They’re conflicted. They’re confused. They’re – gray. They don’t have clear answers. Everything is muddled. It seemed to be an accurate aesthetic reflection of the people in the story we were telling.

Also, if you don’t have a lot of money, black and white lets you hide a lot of shit in the shadows.

The upside is that I think Josh Blakeslee’s photography is beautiful. Just stunning. He’s fantastic. The downside is that selling the film has been even harder than I thought it was going to be, and I say that knowing that it was going to be a challenge. People want nothing to do with black and white. It’s shocking to me. Lesson learned, I guess …

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

JAMES FERGUSON: The smartest thing we did was to have a lengthy rehearsal process, just like a play. We had a very short shooting schedule but when our actors come to set they knew their stuff, backwards and forwards. Granted, our film is wall-to-wall dialog, but still – in this case, a lot of rehearsal was just invaluable.

The dumbest thing we did was not budgeting for P&A or PR. Never never never again. Never. Especially these days. How you’re going to sell your film should be an ongoing effort that is budgeted for and begins in your very first production meeting. It’s essential.

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

JAMES FERGUSON: The thing I learned that trumps everything else is that I really, really, really want to make another film. Our cast and crew – they were fantastic. They inspired me. I would someday love to try this again and see if I can put into effect any of the lessons I learned on Happy Holidays.

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