Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dave Ash on “Connected”

What was your filmmaking background before making Connected?

DAVE ASH: Prior to making Connected, I made the feature film, Love: A Documentary, as well as five short films—some of which have been seen by human beings.

I got into filmmaking in 2005, after trying my hand at screenwriting a couple years earlier. Since college, I had always done some writing on the side--first a newspaper column, then freelancing for magazines, then I wrote a book no one asked for or was interested in, and then I decided to go into screenwriting because there’s just not enough screenplays out there.

Soon after writing my first script and learning the market for screenplays, it became apparent to me that no one was ever going to make my movie. So, in early 2005, I decided to take every class in filmmaking I could find at the Minnesota IFP so that I could learn how to make my scripts into films myself.

My first short film, Who Killed Tony, was made in a Video Production class at IFP. I wrote the script for a class assignment and then we shot it during a three-hour class using the other students as the actors, with myself playing the lead. Sounds kinda lame, I realize, but the film had a very creepy low-budget ($20) vibe that somehow worked in the context of the script and the film ended up playing at a number of festivals.

From there, my instructor in that class, Chris Mick, asked if I’d like to work with him on making more short films. So, we made four more short films over the next year or so, and then the feature film, Love, which was released in 2008 and screened at a few theaters in the Twin Cities.

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

DAVE ASH: I wrote Connected during a dark passage in my life effectuated by a series of unfortunate events I won’t get into here. But, the net result was that during the time I was writing the film I was quite depressed and feeling increasingly detached from everything that sustains you in life—my friends, my family, my work, and, especially, my God or any sense of spirituality.

So, as a form of therapy more than anything else, I wrote the film as an expression of this feeling of isolation, as well as the corresponding innate yearning to feel part of a larger whole--even though logic and reason tell us that God doesn’t exist.

Thus, this existential quandary is expressed more specifically through the central theme of the film: If we will soon be able to completely reverse engineer and replicate the workings of the human brain on computer software (a very real impending landmark referred to in scientific circles as “the singularity”), then how can we believe that God, and even love for that matter, are anything more than make-believe, self-sustaining constructs?

So, the idea of the film is to ask the question as clearly and honestly as possible through the relationship and arcs of the lead characters, John and Emily. I created these characters to speak to this ontological dilemma, as well as the more specific feelings of disillusionment I was feeling at the time.

But, the point of the film is not to provide anything resembling a definitive answer to the central existential question posed by the narrative, because clarity on that one is pretty elusive, as most of us know. The hope in writing the film was that others who have had similar struggles as John and Emily would be able to relate to their feelings of isolation in an increasingly alienating modern world and, for a couple hours anyway, feel a little less alone in their loneliness.

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

DAVE ASH: I financed the film entirely myself. I’m lucky enough to have a decent paying day job outside of filmmaking so I’ve always personally funded 100% of my projects. It’s possible I could raise some cash for a film, but I really enjoy the artistic autonomy of not having to answer to a deep-pocketed “Executive Producer” or to investor(s) that would be looking for some kind of return on their contribution.

It’s also conceptually possible that I could recoup my cost for the film, but it wasn’t a huge investment to begin with, so I’m not losing sleep over whether I ever get paid back. I just really enjoy filmmaking and collaborating with other like-minded people and that’s always been the pay off for me.

However, would I ever want to make millions on my films and blow off steam every year at Cannes by smoking cigars and drinking cognac from snifters on Harvey Weinstein's yacht with Zooey Deschanel while talking about the gritty authenticity of independent film and the soulless excesses of the Hollywood studio system? The answer to that question is yes.

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

DAVE ASH: We used a Panasonic HVX200 and shot in 24p. I thought it was a great camera for the handheld style we went with for the majority of the film in that it was light enough for Jason Schumacher, our DP, to move around with while still giving us a high-quality picture. That said, the camera was still heavy enough that he did want to kill me several times after I asked for additional takes for a few very long handheld tracking shots.

Describe a typical shoot day -- how much did you try to get done and how did you make that happen?

DAVE ASH: Not sure this if is how Dreamworks does it, but we shot for a full day about once a month on average for a little more than a year. “See you next month,” was often how we said goodbye after each shoot. Most of the people working on the film had day jobs and other commitments; so once a month was about as often as we could all get together.

For each shooting day, we would shoot as much as was reasonably possible to get through in 8-10 hours for the group of scenes in a given location. For the shoots at private businesses such as the coffee shop, bookstore, diner, movie theater, et. al, we were always shooting early in the morning before the establishment opened for business. So, getting enough coverage and takes in before the manager opened the doors was probably the most stressful aspect of directing the film.

The protracted schedule we followed required a lot of patience, but I found it very helpful to have the time between scenes to treat the original script as a draft and thoroughly re-write the upcoming scenes to be shot based on how I saw the characters and story developing in previous shoots. So, rather than following a more traditional model of starting with a full script and executing that story as well as possible, I used the original script as more of an outline that I was continually filling in based on how the characters and story grew through the performances of the actors and how scenes were actually playing out--which is invariably different than what you visualize when you are constructing the screenplay.

How did you and your DP come to choose a handheld look for the film -- and what's the upside and downside of that sort of global decision?

DAVE ASH: I always felt that the unvarnished realism of these characters and their interactions lent itself to the immediacy of an uninhibited handheld camera. There’s not a lot of car chases, or sword fights, or marauding aliens in the film, so what we are left with is real people in everyday situations and we wanted to capture that with the voyeuristic intimacy of documentary style camera work.

Other than the aforementioned upper body work that must be endured by the DP, another challenge with this style of filmmaking is getting the right level of camera movement for a given scene—too little movement and what you get is no different than a standard tripod shot, but too much movement and editing shots together cohesively becomes a post-production nightmare.

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

DAVE ASH: I was fortunate enough to have on board some of the most experienced theater actors in the Twin Cities, so I think the smartest thing I did as a director was realize that with this group I could and should give them all a lot of latitude to explore their characters by not tying them down to verbatim line readings that tracked exactly to how I heard the characters in my head when writing the script.

Along these lines, we also shot what we began to call “actor takes” for every scene. In other words, after I felt satisfied that we had what we needed for a given camera set-up based on how I felt the action should unfold, I turned the scene over to the actors and told them to interpret the scene in whatever they wanted. This approach allowed the actors to switch from trying to consciously modulate their performance to what they thought I wanted to a method of more directly expressing their characters, which invariably yields a more realistic scene.

The dumbest thing I did during production was not shoot enough coverage for certain scenes—specifically cutaway shots. In the argot of indie filmmaking, this means not getting enough “sitting cat shots.” In other words, when you’re shooting two people talking for any length of time, always get a shot of the cat lying down on the opposite side of the room. Then if you can’t get a cut to match in the edit, you can always cutaway to the cat during that part of the dialogue and then cut back to the action. So, while editing the film, there were numerous times I was kicking myself in the ass for not getting enough sitting cat shots.

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

DAVE ASH: On this project, I think I learned that what matters most as a filmmaker is perseverance, because a production never unfolds anywhere near the way you think it will. And, in that sense, I think scrambling and improvising aren’t part of indie filmmaking--that is indie filmmaking.

Along these lines, because the journey is always long, challenging, and often frustrating, the most important decision you will make as a director will always be who you choose to have along for the ride. If the folks on the bus for this bumpy trip don’t get along, it can be a miserable experience.

But, if you’re lucky, as I was with Connected, during this time together you get to forge battle-tested relationships with fun, inspiring people that will last long after the film has played.


Ted Benjamin said...

Thank you for recommending this movie i defiantly give it a go and i'm sure i wont be disappointed after reading your review.

Rob Mueller said...

I met Dave at this weekend's ifp conference. I wish you/him luck on this project. Well done!