Thursday, March 29, 2012

Joan Micklin Silver on "Hester Street"

How did you find Abraham Cahan’s novella (which was the basis for the screenplay) and what attracted you to it?

JOAN MICKLIN SILVER: One of the films that I made for the educational film company was on immigration. I read just about everything I could find on immigration and one of the things that I read was the novella by Abraham Cahan called

I was really floundering around and wanting very much to make my own films. My husband, Ray, who was a real estate developer, told me that if I could do a film that would not cost very much, that he would try to raise money from some of the investors that he'd been going to for real estate deals. And that was how we did it.

Frankly I didn't think I'd ever get to make another film. I was pretty discouraged about it all. My family were immigrants and I wanted to make a movie that would count for them.

Was the story in the public domain at that point?

JOAN MICKLIN SILVER: Yes. And that was one of its attractions.

What challenges did you face in the adaptation?

JOAN MICKLIN SILVER: Well, the story itself is more the husband's story. I think what grabbed me about it was what happened to the wife. So it was really just telling the story from the point of view that interested me. The challenge of it, of course, was to try to make it authentic.

I felt that because my father had told me so many stories about his life as an immigrant boy from Russia, I knew that language was a huge factor in getting along or not getting along. He told me stories of not quite knowing English and once leaving some money on a bus; he was a paperboy and he had made some collections and left the money by accident on the bus. He thinks people were trying to tell him and he didn't understand what they were saying. He got off the bus and then realized it -- things like that. Knowing the English language was extremely difficult.

And also both my parents were Yiddish speaking and I can remember dinners at our house with all sorts of relatives and wonderful stories being told and then punch lines coming out in Yiddish and my mother turning to us and saying, "You know, it doesn't quite translate." She would try to translate it, but never could quite do it. And I associated that language with something very rich and interesting and enjoyable.

Were you worried about breaking some of the cardinal rules of low-budget filmmaking: You don't do period pieces, you don't do something that's half in English and half in Yiddish?

JOAN MICKLIN SILVER: I didn't know enough to know that I was breaking cardinal rules and that's the truth. I had to tell this story and I had to do what I could to tell it.

Did the fact that you knew you wouldn't have much money to shoot this movie have any impact on you while you were writing the script?

JOAN MICKLIN SILVER: Constantly. I was constantly thinking, for example, about how I could do Ellis Island, things like that. It was one thing after another, just constantly trying to figure out how I could tell the story without having a budget that would have allowed me to tell the full story, where you could recreate the Lower East Side, like they did in Godfather II.

We used one street, Morton Street, and we could only shoot in one direction, because that direction faced Bleecker, where the streets formed a "T," so that you only had to create the look on Morton up toward Bleecker.

If we faced the other way, it was Seventh Avenue and obviously we couldn't close Seventh Avenue, we didn't have that ability. In Godfather II, they had street after street, traveling shots that were gorgeous. So we just did what we could and everything was written and organized with that in mind.

My own experience in writing low-budget films is that you often have to do a part of something; a part has to stand for something larger.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dui Jarrod on "Lesson Before Love"

What was your filmmaking background before making Lesson Before Love?

DUI: Screenwriting has always been my one true passion, I’ve been writing plays and films as long as I can remember. But, I really didn’t see a true reality of getting any of my scripts produced until I went to a film festival in New Orleans and saw a short film back in 2006. I had heard of short films but I had absolutely no idea what they were.

I grew up in Arkansas in the 90’s and we just didn’t have access to the film industry outside of the local theater, I honestly didn’t even know film schools existed.
When I saw all those shorts, I was hooked. I directed my first short in 2007 and quickly followed it up with another a few months later.

Since then, I’ve had traveling plays, more shorts, a web series, and I recently completed my first feature film.

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

DUI: Funny you should ask that. I always have some type of story or character floating around my head. I had all four of the main characters floating around my head in separate stories for years, then on Valentine’s Day 2008 it all came together.

It’s hard to find modern character stories in African- American film, so I decided to write a film that explored self-discovery in the landscape of love. I just thought an interesting dynamic would be finding yourself, while finding love.

I’m not belabored by the writing process like many people are. I love it, even though it is an arduous process. It took me about three weeks to pen the initial screenplay, then I just keep studying screenwriting and keep re-writing. I may have done about 30 plus drafts, with major and small characters tweaks or story arc shifts during that time.

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

DUI: This is one part of the journey of a filmmaker that I have come to appreciate. We had three budgets: the first was bare bones with no star power with the other two increasing from there.

I took meetings with everyone! One investor presented us with our mid-range budget and we thought the film was definitely going to happen. But something in me told me that it wasn’t right and we walked away from the table. I lost a good friend because of that too. Sometimes in pursuit of a dream, especially when money is involved, people shift on you. It can be emotional, financially or based on lack of a common vision, and that’s hard, but you must do what feels right.

If you don’t feel right about something, no matter what anybody says, don’t do it. Oddly enough, almost a year to the date, we approached an entrepreneur named Scotty. But this time we took it slow. We worked on small projects to build trust and went from there. We did the film on even less than our "bare bones" budget. It was really really tough, but we all sacrificed and got the film done.

Just recently, we’ve started to get regular calls from distributors, which is great, but until the ink dries we understand there are no guarantees. So, we’ve taken a very proactive approach to recouping the budget. The film has got into some major festivals and we embarked on an 8-city BUZZ tour of the film for promotion. We’ve booked several theaters for a spring release as well, so we are gearing up for that.

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

DUI: We shot the entire production on Mark 7D. My DP calls it his daughter, so I guess that makes her my niece. It is a great camera for a first-time feature director. It was versatile and easy to manage the media. We have several different prime lenses, so it was easy to make different decisions based on the location and look we were going for.

The problem with it is that it's not film. Shooting on film is the ultimate desire of any filmmaker. So to achieve that true film look, we really had to study and shoot with the camera a lot. Once we learned how to use it and how the different lenses react to light, we were able to be skillful in the way we shot the picture.

How did you and your DP go about creating the look for the movie?

DUI: I probably had more discussions about the look of the film than perhaps anything else. We first took an honest look at our resources and decided not to try techniques at which we were not skilled. We weren’t going to let the tools we didn’t have stop us from making something beautiful.
Tyler (DP) and I love 60’s and early 70’s films, and if you look at them you would see there isn’t a lot of movement or complicated lighting plots. There is a purity to them: holding frames and honest, thematic lighting. So we drew off of that base and infused it with some Spike Lee/ Ernest Dickerson color techniques from the late 80’s and early 90’s. Then, from the two of us working together so often, we developed our own style and that’s mostly what we used.

Each character had a lighting color and we lit them in those colors, as there were certain key emotional shits in the characters' lives. It gave a very subtle but deeply felt effect when you watch the film.

You wore a lot of hats on the movie -- director, writer, producer, editor. What's the upside and the downside to taking on all those tasks yourself?

DUI: I did wear a lot of hats on this film, but initially it wasn’t designed that way. One thing I’ve learned from being on so many sets is that nothing ever goes the way it's planned. EVER! Being the writer didn’t affect the film much negatively because it's done prior to production, but the upside is, we didn’t have a script supervisor on set and because the screenplay came from me, if the actors missed a line, I immediately caught it.

Directing a feature was my dream, so I loved every minute of that. Not a single moment went by where I didn’t live each moment to the fullest.

Producing and editing, for me were by far the biggest challenges. I never understood how necessary a strong producer was cause I had been producing my own shorts. Organizing the film shoots, dealing with the production crew, and figuring out schedules is unbelievably difficult when you're trying to create. My 1st AD, Mesheka, really stepped up on that.

Another tough decision was editing the film myself because that wasn’t the plan. The editor we hired just proved to be extremely unreliable on such a time sensitive project. Luckily, I had some years of editing under my belt, so I could do it. My DP, Tyler, helped out a lot on that as well. Although it would have been nice to see what a talented, responsible editor could have brought to the project.

Upside - I COULD do it all. Downside - I HAD TO do it all.

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

DUI: The smartest thing we did was actually completely unintentional. The first time we were at the table to produce the film, I planned the film out completely. Script breakdowns, wardrobe vision, source music samples, EVERYTHING! So, when I walked away from that investor, I thought I had wasted time. However, when the other investor showed up he didn’t give us much time to get everything rolling. But because we had already produced everything, we were ready.

Another smart thing was that I personally spoke with everyone involved in the production about what this film meant to me. That made our days go by so much easier! I loved the cast and crew to death. They got paid pennies and worked for me as if I were President Obama.

The dumbest thing I did was to have a 18-day shoot. Not that we didn’t get everything we needed, but I would have loved to spend another week on set with that cast and crew. They added to my life in such a special way, words almost can’t describe it. Some days I wish I could do another film just to hangout with them.

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

DUI: Filmmaking is about people. It is about an earnest human connection and that experience is what making entertainment is all about. I came to that project constantly reminding myself to bring a positive and enlightening energy to set. They took that energy and returned it in kind. I will take that to every set I ever get the blessing to work on.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Koran Dunbar on “Greencastle”

What was your filmmaking background before making Greencastle?

KORAN: I started off as one of those weird kids in the neighborhood that would borrow my friend’s dad’s camera and shoot my own movies. Believe it or not, that was a critical part as it helped me learn to become creative and work with what I had. That was key to my start.

I later became involved in TV in my school’s Television Productions class, which no one really watched until I started writing and acting in my own skits. After graduating high school, I studied communications and media at Penn State. I got into stand-up comedy, which introduced me to the circuit and eventually the production world working with MTV and making an appearance on NBC’s Conan O Brien.

There is no really right way to start you just need to roll your sleeves up and make mistakes. So many people with college degrees do nothing because they think work should be handed to them. It doesn’t work that way and you need to go after work or create it your self.

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

KORAN: Honestly the idea came to me from a daydream I had before going to work. The idea started to grow…and you know what they say, you write what you know. My experiences growing up in a rural area and raising a child by my self began to influence my writing and it just took off from there.

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

KORAN: I had money saved up from when I was in college and every time I earned a bit of side cash, I would put it into a business account. The primary funding was taking a loan out on my 401-K. A combination of funds from and a local screening of the film should help to repay some or all of the loan (depending on ticket sales!). After that it’s all in God's hands…

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

KORAN: I was always in love with Canon, which was my first real video camera (Canon XL1), so I was sold on it. When I hired my DP he shot his last project in Africa on the Sony EX1 so that is the camera that we purchased for Greencastle. I loved the camera in every aspect. The only downside was you could not change the lenses out. That was available on the next model up, the EX3.

You wore a lot of hats on the production -- acting, writing, directing. What's the upside and downside of doing that?

KORAN: It was once said that when you are the artist and the entrepreneur it’s like being superman. But lets face the reality. You are never going to have a movie shot unless you do it yourself, especially the first time. And let’s be even more honest…roles for African Americans are not in high demand. So the only real way to put something out there that you are proud of is by doing it yourself.

Of course the down side is you tend to work extra hard and spread yourself too thin. I fell in love with directing, writing is a challenge and something I would like to get better at, but acting is my true passion.

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

KORAN: Hiring my production manager and working with Dave Vanderveer. We work very well together and in fact he and I get along the best when it comes to meeting deadlines. He pushed me to be a better me. At the end of the day God placed this guy in my life and it was the best thing that could of happened.

As for the dumbest thing I don’t really think there was anything dumb I did at least not to me. The mistakes I made were necessary mistakes that are made as a first time filmmaker. If anything I would of just purchased the camera rather than renting it because I ended up purchasing it in the end.

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

KORAN: I learned a lot about myself, and my family and friends. I learned that at the end of the day, sweat equity and having the right people around you cast and crew are imperative. This is key: you can do a lot with no or little money. I have learned how strong I am and also how fragile I am. At the end of the day, I learned that without God, my project would never have happened.

And all of this I will take to my next projects.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Mark Nistico on “Blue Collar Boys”

What was your filmmaking background before making Blue Collar Boys?

MARK: Before Blue Collar Boys I had been working in various positions on films for over ten years, just gaining experience. In terms of directing, I had made two documentaries and three short films, with limited budgets, some of which had brief festival runs. I had also worked in casting and produced a feature to build contacts and witness the trials and tribulations of making a feature length film before taking that leap with my own self-financed film.

Where did the idea come from?

MARK: The concept for some of the elements in the film came from one of my co-producers, who is also an actor in the film, Kevin Interdonato. He came to me with an idea about making a film about a modern-day gang. I wasn’t interested in most of it, but the spark that I did see within that concept was the idea of touching upon the desperation behind the origin of many gangs formed during times like the Great Depression.

Taking that with me, it wasn’t until I met an elderly couple while working as a waiter that I found my inspiration for Blue Collar Boys. The man was paralyzed and his wife, who was spoon-feeding him his dinner, told me their story. He had single-handedly built his business from the ground up. The stress had caused a stroke that led to his paralysis and, because of this incident, the business was going under. His family was going to lose everything that he had spent his life building for them.

Their two sons, who had never taken the torch before, finally stepped up and, with their father’s guidance, saved the business. The wife took a spoonful of some soft food she was feeding him and stated the following; “All of my life he treated me like a queen… and now he is my king.” She then fed him his food and kissed him on the forehead. That was when it clicked for me.

What was the writing process like?

MARK: I’ve written a number of screenplays and each time the writing process is a little different. With Blue Collar Boys I committed to the decision to draw from true stories and, consequently, it made the writing process extremely difficult.

I spent about a year, give or take, researching real life stories and developing the script from them. What made it really hard was that the material was very personal to everyone involved and I didn’t want to compromise it. Some of the stories are from my family, some of the stories are from the families of the other producers on the film, and some of the stories are from people I met along the way while working blue-collar jobs.

I accumulated so much material that it became a collage of stories on my wall. I really got to know each person and learned how important the stories they shared were to them, and so it was difficult to decide what to use and what to abandon. What I did a lot of the time was find ways to marry bits of one story to bits of another and create new stories that would fit the elements needed to comprise a narrative. That’s why it’s inspired by true events, and not based on true events.

Branching out was easy, but coming back to structure was not. This is a first for me, but I got so lost in the idea of realism and lack of plot structure that I actually brought in a script consultant to ground me. Katrina Rossos was an English major and recent college graduate with the principles of structure fresh in her mind, and she brought that knowledge to help me finalize the script. I instructed her to battle with me and drill the “rules” of writing a screenplay into my head no matter what I said. Consequently, we fought a lot. In the end it was about finding the edge of that line where everything seems real and spontaneous, but in fact a narrative structure does exist.

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

MARK: The budget for this film was not raised in any traditional sense. There are no investors, production companies, or producers that led us to money on Blue Collar Boys.

Kevin Interdonato and I had been working together for years fishing for money on other films. After I calculated the amount of money and time that was spent trying to get investors, or having found financial backing and then having it fall through, I realized that I didn’t want to play that game on this film. I suggested that Kevin and I save up our own money for Blue Collar Boys over a period of a year or so while I finished the script, and then put all of that money into the film. We did, and when we needed more, I financed the rest on credit cards over the next two years.

In the end everyone got paid and there were no debts owed. That makes for a great deal. Having no debts or deferments was most important to me, more important than making that money back. We always said we would treat the money like we had a very bad weekend in Vegas, forget about it and look forward. Now that the movie is finished and making its festival run, I hope we make some money back. That would be nice.

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

MARK: We shot on the Panasonic HPX170 with a 35mm adapter. It is a professional HD camcorder and was a popular pro-sumer model used with lens adapters before the emergence of the DSLR technology that has become so popular today for that “film” look.

What I loved about the camera was that we could get it for a rate that we could handle.

What I hated about it was that it wasn’t film. If I had the money I would have loved to shoot on film, or even with the Red camera so we could eventually blow up to film, but we’re homegrown and we did the best that we could with what we had.

In the end, through precise planning, knowing our limitations, and pushing everything to the edge, we achieved a production value with the film that is surprising everyone who sees it, especially when they find out how much we had to make it. We recently won Best Micro-budget Feature at the Toronto Independent Film Festival after going up against films that were made for almost ten times our budget.

How did you and your DP go about creating the look for the movie?

MARK: The look was achieved through enormous planning during pre-production. I meticulously designed detailed storyboards with my co-producer/ storyboard artist Adam Buller, and Ian Dudley, my DP, did a marvelous job of framing them on the set. I planned every color that would be used in the film and put an arc to that palette to serve the purpose of the story. In the simplest terms, we move from nature to industry; browns and greens turn to grays and blues, and the saturation is subtly sucked out of the film from start to finish as if the characters’ dreams are slipping away from them as they sink into a lifestyle of hate.

Even down to the actor’s wardrobe and the locations that we secured for each scene, the palette was controlled across the board. This way when we treated the film for color correction and grading in post, the aesthetic was already there and very little manipulation was needed to get the color grade to flow. In terms of luminescence, I wanted harsh lighting throughout the film to depict the harsh conditions of the blue-collar lifestyle. I knew I wanted to shoot in winter for those dreary and harsh skies, and Ian brought years of experience to design what I wanted. We worked very well together.

You wore a lot of hats on the movie -- director, writer, producer, editor. What's the upside and the downside to taking on all those tasks yourself?

MARK: The upside of doing everything yourself is that you don’t have to answer to anybody creatively. The downside is that you’re doing everything yourself. It’s a tremendous amount of work that is enormously taxing on your life and it gets insanely lonely.

I’ve done this a few times already, but never at a feature level, and the one thing I can say is that you can drive yourself crazy and get lost sometimes. It becomes very important to have close friends to encourage you along the way.

It’s also very hard to wear all of those hats as a filmmaker, and I don’t recommend it if you can help it. Producing brings problems that draw you away from the creative zones you need to immerse yourself in as an artist/ director. At the same time, it is hard to come out of the directing process and bring an objective point of view as an editor. The same goes for the transition from writing to directing. It sounds crazy, but you really have to convince yourself that you are a different person, because if you can’t be objective at each stage, the film will suffer.

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

MARK: The smartest thing I did was to plan everything involved with the production from the start, and firmly stick to those plans. Even during the process of writing the screenplay, I wrote big, but only as big as I knew we could handle during production.

When you get to production everything always goes wrong. You will never be able to prevent that no matter how much money you have to make a movie. I go into it knowing that, and I plan as much as I can. This way when stuff does go wrong, you may not have all the answers, but answers come to you quicker, almost as if you’ve developed an instinct. This saves time, money, and prevents you from making poor creative decisions that will affect you later.

The dumbest thing I did was to agree to move forward with production when our infrastructure clearly wasn’t ready. I was adamant about having a producer on this film in order for me to focus completely on directing. Unfortunately, we had three separate producers that successively did not work out, for one reason or another, and the last one that bailed on us left during casting.

So with winter approaching, money already spent, and our SAG contract already approved, it became apparent that we couldn’t put a halt to things and go find another producer. I didn’t really have much of a choice in the matter, but I had to agree to produce it myself with only the aid of my brother and a few friends who had never produced before. That was dumb, and I’ve paid a brutal price over the last four years because of it.

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

MARK: I’ve learned what a long road making a feature film is from start to distribution. I’ve learned something that I’d only previously read about and that is the massive level of endurance required.

I’ve learned how hard it is to keep yourself on the path, and seeing the path. I’ll never make a feature film again without a producer. What I’ll take into my next film is an understanding of the journey.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Edie Falco on "Judy Berlin"

You've known the writer/director of Judy Berlin, Eric Mendelsohn, for a long time -- over 25 years. At what point did you become involved in the project?

EDIE FALCO: Usually he'll wait until a script is finished and then give it to me to read, which is what he did. After I read it and told him how much I loved it, he said 'I would love for you to play the part of Judy.' I was flabbergasted, because he had not said a word to me about it.

You didn't realize that he was thinking of you for the lead?

EDIE FALCO: I've read everything he's ever done and given my feedback, so I assumed that that's what this was.

What are the advantages of working with someone you know so well?

EDIE FALCO: A lot of the films I've done I've done with friends and family. The advantage is you go in there feeling no obligation to prove yourself. There's a camaraderie and a trust that is inherent in just all of you being there together. It makes all the difference in the world. It's like raising a child, I imagine. They become what is expected of them. I know they trust me and I trust them. It gets that all out of the way so we can get down to the work.

Eric took the interesting approach of keeping you and Barbara Barrie (who plays your mother) apart before your scene together. Did that help add to the awkwardness of the scene?

EDIE FALCO: It sure did. Although I thought it was just a matter of scheduling. I thought, 'All right, I won't meet her until the day we shoot.' That's the way these things are. I think in retrospect it did help.

She was a woman around whom I was unfamiliar. You hold your body differently, eye contact is different than with someone that you're comfortable around. I think physically the relationship that Judy and her mother had sort of mirrored that of strangers. In that regard, the subconscious stuff that was already taking place probably only fed what was happening in the script.

Is your preparation any different when you know you're going into a low budget project?

EDIE FALCO: No, not at all. Really nothing about my preparation or involvement is any different on anything I do. The only thing that varies is, if I read something and I like it, I'll do it. If I read something and I don't like it, I won't. Once I've decided I'm doing something, I approach everything exactly the same, whether it's a play or a movie or a low-budget movie or a big budget movie. It's irrelevant.

What's the hardest part of working on low-budget movies?

EDIE FALCO: You get a lot of directors who are nervous and they don't trust themselves or they don't trust the process. So, they might end up doing a lot more takes than they need, as if the actor is an infinite source of these things. Because at a certain point I know I'm not doing work that I'm proud of anymore, I'm just exhausted. And they are just too afraid to say, 'Okay, let's move on.' And so you'll do another four, five takes, and I start thinking, 'Oh, this is not what I meant to do, this is not the take I want.' So that's a little rough.

I wonder if I'd never done bigger budget stuff, perhaps I would never have noticed the difference. But once you start doing things where they put you in a nice trailer, and you've got people running around and taking care of you, when you all of a sudden have to change clothes in the back of a Chevy again, you think, 'You know, this does kind of stink, come to think of it. I would prefer to be in a trailer right now.'

So I don’t know if I've been a little bit spoiled by some of the bigger budget stuff. And you realize there's a reason you're taken care of, because you want to show up and do the best you can each time you're out there. It does help to be rested and warm and all that stuff.

What are the advantages of working on a low-budget project?

EDIE FALCO: There are so many advantages to working on a low-budget project. I feel a totally comfortable with the idea of trying something and having it not work. I feel a sense of freedom to just go for it, because money is not at the forefront of everything that goes on in these things. You don't have a producer standing over you saying, 'We gotta make the day!' Everybody's just flying by the seat of their pants and I feel a sense of freedom that I don't when money is being talked about. You feel the energy of these big-budget things.

Also, on a big-budget thing, there are a zillion people working on it. Oftentimes nobody knows who anybody else is and they don't necessarily care about their job, they're jus trying to get enough days so they can become an AD.

On these low-budget things, everybody's there because they want to be. They know the director, they love the work of the director, they're a friend and he needed a helping hand. You know you're not going to make money and you know it's going to be hard work and you're there because you love it. And that is infused in every moment you spend on the set of a low-budget movie. It's been my experience that nothing but good stuff will come out of that.