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.

1 comment:

Maria Collis said...

Great interview! Thought you'd like to know:
Blue Collar Boys is having its US Premiere at the Hoboken International Film Festival on June 2, 2012. Here's the link to festival info: