Thursday, May 31, 2012

Jennifer Clary on "The Silent Thief"

What was your filmmaking background before making The Silent Thief

JENNIFER: I studied film at Vassar College and started a media company right out of school. At first, I focused on commercial work for corporations, etc… for financial reasons. Once I had saved up a bit, I turned my attention to more creative projects.

My first short film, Dirty Girl, was a great learning experience. I discovered a passion for stop motion animation as well as for live action. Dirty Girl is a mixed media piece which juxtaposes claymation against a desaturated reality on 35mm to reveal one woman’s psychological escape from a violent surgery to a more palatable, cartoonesque state of mind.

Where did the idea for The Silent Thief come from and what was the writing process like? 

JENNIFER: The idea for The Silent Thief emerged from my honeymoon. Kevin Haberer, my husband, and I both became ill immediately following our small beach wedding and were too exhausted and nauseous to leave our hotel room. So we did what any normal, incapacitated newlyweds would do and tore through our wedding presents.

The vast majority of our gifts were gift cards to standard “getting started in life” shops like Crate and Barrel and Bed, Bath and Beyond. However, there was a present from my sister-in-law which stood out. It was a heart shaped box engraved with a quotation about how the ocean waters would rise up and wash away the sandy footprints from our wedding ceremony, but that the memories of our nuptials would last in perpetuity.

We both loved this and started toying with the idea of a story involving a character who repeatedly tries one thing after another near the water in search of happiness and, despite being chronically unsuccessful, never leaves any physical evidence of his struggles behind. Voila—this is the premise of The Silent Thief.

The writing process was unforced and collaborative. We didn’t rush it and we really tried to be very deliberate with our choices. Kevin and I wanted each of the characters to have a unique motivation for their actions and a clear, individual voice. We worked on and off for about a year and a half on The Silent Thief and then happened to meet Chris Sapp, our writing partner on the project, very randomly via our family dentist.

Chris brought a new perspective to the project which, in my opinion, really strengthened some of the dialogue. I enjoy working with other writers and developing the screenplay for The Silent Thief with Kevin and Chris was a very positive process.

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

JENNIFER: The Silent Thief was a SAG Ultra Low Budget project, so there wasn’t too much of a budget on which to comment. Kevin and I got fairly lucky in the world of corporate media from a young age and went on to establish a couple of other non-media related businesses with our initial earnings. We were fortunate to be able to fund The Silent Thief independently as a result of our business backgrounds with just a little additional fiscal support from our immediate families and close friends.

The project was also very fortunate to be awarded a substantial equipment grant from Panavision, without which The Silent Thief would certainly have been produced at a noticeably lesser level.

Although my primary motivation in making The Silent Thief was admittedly not mercenary, I do feel confident in my production company’s ability to recoup costs at this point and am looking forward to learning more about the world of film sales. I’ve been on the film festival circuit for about six weeks straight as of this interview, which has kept me away from my home base in Los Angeles. However, when I return in a few weeks I am meeting with several sales representatives who have expressed interest in picking up the movie.

Hopefully, Kevin and I will find a good fit for the film and will find a wider audience for The Silent Thief outside of the limited, albeit wonderful, film festival arena.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

JENNIFER: Panavision provided us with use of the Genesis camera. I actually love most things about the Genesis. I think that colors appear truer to their actual tones on the Genesis as opposed to other digital cameras, it performs well in low light conditions, and the images which it produces are rich and detailed.

Of course, I also had an amazing cinematographer on The Silent Thief and I credit him (Andrew Wheeler) with the film’s higher budget appearance. A fantastic camera like the Genesis coupled with an unknowledgeable cinematographer isn’t a winning combination by any means; Andy was familiar with the Genesis and created lighting set ups which played to the camera’s strengths.

As far as what we disliked about the Genesis, I think both Andy and I would agree that it’s a beast! The weight and size of the Genesis made our handheld scenes particularly difficult and slower to shoot than they otherwise would have been.

Overall, though, the Genesis is a great camera and Panavision is a gem for having given us the opportunity to use it.
You wore a lot of hats on this project -- director, writer, producer. What's the upside and the downside of working that way?

JENNIFER: This is a tough question, but I think on my first feature that it was generally a positive thing for me to be involved in all aspects of the project.

In my role as a writer, I became highly invested in the story and in my characters. Because I was involved in the development of the screenplay, I felt more confident about my choices on set as a first time feature director than I perhaps would have otherwise. After all, by the time we finally went into production, I had been mulling over The Silent Thief for five years—that’s a pretty long time! I think being immersed in the world of the project for that duration before coming to set unquestionably provided me with an advantage my first time out of the gate as a feature director.

As far as my producing role on The Silent Thief went, I have to say that once shooting commenced Kevin largely assumed that responsibility. I was heavily involved in producing alongside him during the pre-production phase, but the daily operations on the set of The Silent Thief and our ability to bring the project in on budget are to his credit, not mine. Once shooting began, I was focused on directing.
What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?

JENNIFER: The smartest thing I did on The Silent Thief was to surround myself with people who I trust and respect. Obviously, I had the utmost confidence in Kevin because we’re married and have partnered on numerous ventures over the years. Andy, my aforementioned cinematographer, has been a close friend for more than six years and I know him to be an extremely dedicated and talented professional upon whom I know I can always rely for honesty and excellence.

My production designer, Sasha Andreev, has been a friend and artistic partner for a decade; we met at Vassar and have collaborated ever since. My casting director, Emily Schweber, supported The Silent Thief from the get-go and exhibited the patience of a saint during my extremely laborious year-long casting process. The actors in The Silent Thief are all tremendous talents and, just as importantly, are all amazing human beings. They brought passion to set each and every day (not always an easy task on a low budget to say the least), and helped me to tell a very complex, layered story in a way which makes me proud.

I made a number of mistakes on The Silent Thief as well! I didn’t insist upon allocating the funds necessary to shut off the Venice Pier to the public during the shooting of several scenes with Toby Hemingway, Scout Taylor Compton, and John Billingsley. It’s frustrating enough to shoot 7+ pages per day in hot, outdoor conditions with a small crew. Add pedestrians wandering through your limited shots to these already stressful working conditions and you have a recipe for some pretty intense aggravation.

We also had trouble with our locations in Malibu for a number of reasons. Throughout the shooting process, I wore a wet suit that was too big for me in the night time ocean scenes and suffered from some loss of feeling in my extremities due to spending extended time in the cold … I didn’t allocate enough time for some of the scenes which placed my cast and crew under pressure, etc… The list goes on and on.

I can say pretty confidently that I will always be able to look back on any film that I direct and see a million things that I could have done better. Given that this was my first feature, I think that this is doubly true.
And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?

JENNIFER: The most important things I gained from making The Silent Thief are confidence and experience. Completing a film is not easy and having gone through the process from start to finish with The Silent Thief gives me a sort of road map for future endeavors. I have a better idea of what to expect at every stage of the filmmaking process.

I really love directing; every story is different and exciting. I feel like the process of making The Silent Thief was a strong first step towards improving my craft. Right now I’m going into pre-production on an entirely different type of project called The Potters. It’s a stop motion musical about a young girl’s bizarre journey to find her birth parents. Even though the genre is entirely different than that of The Silent Thief, I feel like my experiences on the set of The Silent Thief are informing my creative decisions on a daily basis--I’m looking for very particular qualities in the actors I cast, I’m insisting upon appropriate funding allocations which I feel will ensure a quality end product, and I’m taking new risks stylistically and technically because I’m more confident now than I was a year ago.

To me, filmmaking is a never ending learning process. Every project I work on will teach me something new that I can apply to the next story, and so on and so forth.


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Steve Larson on "Holiday Beach"

What was your filmmaking background before making Holiday Beach?

STEVE: I had directed 4 shorts ranging from 7 to 30 minutes: 7,000 Cows In Guatemala, 26 Summer Street, The Fifth Column, and The New Boy. I am a screenwriter by trade and I got into directing by accident... My script for 7,000 Cows had won a screenwriting competition and we were looking for a director without much success. One of the producers suggested I direct it myself. I resisted mightily but ended up doing it.

As I am technically-phobic, I tried to focus on script and performance because I had observed as screenwriter on several previous low-budget indie productions that script and performance frequently got shortchanged due to time and money constraints. Technical issues oftentimes seemed to take over, caused by (or leading to) “artistic temperament” displays by director, cast or crew. Which ultimately led to a diminished final product. So one of my goals was (and is) to maintain as happy a set as possible. I think it really maximizes your budget, the creativity of cast and crew, and pays off in the finished film.

What was it about the script that attracted you to the project?

STEVE: Right from the start, it was the Harding character. Gary Jenneke, my co-writer and the originator of the story, came with this story based upon his experiences as an 18-year-old radioman in Alaska during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Harding character leapt off the page - and as I am drawn to character in screenplays, it was kind of a natural. Also, I had been looking for a feature-length script to make that had limited locations, so Holiday Beach was a good fit.

Period pieces are notoriously difficult to do on a small budget. What changes did you have to make to the script to make it fit a low budget production schedule?

STEVE: Here it helped to be a techno-idiot and a feature-rookie. While I had directed shorts and had some idea of what kind of resources and effort it would take to make a feature, I severely underestimated both -- especially in executing a period piece. It helped to have Gary’s first hand experience and memories at the ready.

It also helped to be shooting in Minnesota. The North Shore (of Lake Superior) proved to be a good substitute for Kodiak Island exteriors. Another great location resource was Camp Ripley, an army base in northern Minnesota, which opened their gates (and older barracks) to us and were incredibly generous and cooperative.

Probably the most difficult task we faced period-wise was outfitting a radio room with radio equipment appropriate to the era. By sheer good fortune, Minneapolis’ Pavek Museum of Broadcasting had the exact transmitters and other equipment Gary had used at Holiday Beach. The Pavek was generous enough to let us set up a radio room in their warehouse space and that is what became the RC in our film. Recently, a radioman from Holiday Beach during that era, saw our film and sent a note saying both the RC (radio room) and the exteriors were just like he remembered them - that was gratifying and a real complement to our Production Designer, Cheri Anderson.

Finally, to do any low-budget independent feature, let alone a period piece, it takes a really good producer. Julie Kaupa did an exceptional job of pulling everything together and allowed us to shoot pretty much everything we wanted to shoot. Without her, we would’ve either shot a much more expensive film or no film at all - probably the latter.

You -- like me -- had the rare privilege of studying under one of the great screenwriting teachers, Frantisek (Frank) Daniel. What lesson(s) that he imparted proved to be particularly helpful as you worked on Holiday Beach?

STEVE: Among the many “Frank” lessons, was the idea to not be afraid to entertain “stupid” thoughts: try story ideas that seem crazy or idiotic and then think of ways to make them “un-stupid.” An example would be when Harding gets knocked down by a wave in the water and then turns his rage from Miller to the ocean. He literally wants to fight the ocean and this shows just how crazy he is.

Frank, of course, always focused on character as the cornerstone of the script, and that is what we tried to do. The Miller character - our protagonist - was a challenge. Finding a character who could stand up to Harding had been an ongoing problem. One couldn’t beat Harding physically, so we were looking for a character who could out-think him - but Harding was so psychologically-manipulative that we needed to find a character who could stand up to him and quite possibly beat him at his own psychological games... that became the Miller character, who had some education and read books, a person to whom Harding immediately took a strong dislike to and which fed into his own insecurities. It made Harding feel the need to outsmart Miller rather than just physically beat him.

Another “Frank” thing was the use of props as a story device. Miller is reading Lord of the Flies at the very beginning of the film and that book became a touchstone throughout the film because it fit so well era-wise and thematically with our story.

I should also add that with both the Miller and Harding characters, the actors --Dan Hopman and Brent Doyle respectively -- really took ownership of the characters, adding a lot of specificity and dimension to both.

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

STEVE: We used the Panasonic HVX200. Shooting digitally and in HD makes independent filmmaking a whole lot cheaper and easier from shoot through post. Also, we did a two-camera shoot after the first week, which proved to be a big timesaver and cut a couple of days off our shooting schedule. It also gave us a chance to try some different angles and shots that we might not have had the luxury of trying and which ultimately found their way into our finished film.

Shooting digitally also proved to be a post-production savior, what with all the things you can fix in post... like removing an SUV from a distant 1960s airport road or a boom from an otherwise great take or adding gunfire to rifle barrels.

What is your distribution plan for the movie?

STEVE: We are submitting to a few festivals - so far we have been selected for the Minneapolis-St. Paul International and the Park City Film Music Festivals. We are also going to try dyi distribution - ala Peter Broderick’s approach - and self-distribute. We have a website: from which we are now selling the dvd.

And with 2012 being the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, we are hoping that the History Channel or some other cable outlets will be interested... But, in all honesty, we will listen to any and all marketing or distribution ideas that come our way.

What was the smartest thing you did while making the movie? The dumbest?

STEVE: The smartest? Rehearsals. We did a lot of rehearsing - probably 3 weeks before the shoot and it accomplished two things: it honed the script - we were able to see what did and didn’t work; and the rehearsals ended up saving a lot of time and money. Very few of our blown takes were the result of blown lines.

Another smart thing was not short-changing post. What the editors add and fix is not insubstantial. In our case, Dan Geiger and John Gleim brought perspectives that were essential to the finished product. And Ryan Rapsys, really helped the film tonally with his score.

The dumbest? Thinking we could do a feature film period piece on our budget (especially all of the night and exterior scenes) and thinking that the project would take a couple of years from script through fundraising through preproduction through post. It’s taken, I think, about 8 years and that’s not counting distribution... but naiveté can be a wonderful thing.

More seriously, listen to that little voice inside that gnaws at you and sometimes goes against what seems to be the easiest solution - it’s almost always right.

What did you learn that you'll take to your next film project?

STEVE: That I really like screenwriting. And there is, hopefully, another person out there who would like to produce and direct whatever script I next write.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Jay Holben on “Filmmaker in a Box”

Explain to me what Filmmaker in a Box is?

JAY: Ah... the pitch! The logline... I always suck at these... Filmmaker in a Box is an intensive case-study on the making of a micro-budget feature film. In ten DVDs and over 17 hours of material, it takes the viewer step-by-step through the process of exactly how a $100,000 feature film was completed; skipping over nothing. It has the good, the bad and the ugly. The intention is to give the viewer the actual experience of having been part of the production of making 2 Million Stupid Women.

What was your filmmaking experience before embarking on 2 Million Stupid Women and the Filmmaker in a Box projects?
JAY: I've been producing since 1988. Commercials, music videos, industrials, documentaries and feature films.

2 Million Stupid Women is my sixth feature film as a producer. In addition, I have embodied nearly every role on a film set with the exception of makeup/hair and craft service. Professionally, I've been a writer, actor, electrician, grip, assistant director, production designer, carpenter, painter, wardrobe designer, seamstress, rigger, gaffer, sound mixer, camera operator, transpo coordinator, graphic designer, visual effects artist, editor, and more...

Primarily, however, I have worked as a producer and a director of photography. I've worked in commercials, music videos, industrials, documentaries, television, short films, feature films, even a little animation. I've worked on films like Minority Report, Wag the Dog, Surviving Christmas, Mr. Deeds and TV shows like Dexter, Project MyWorld, Femme Fatales and more.

I have also spent much of my career teaching through mentoring, writing and public seminars and workshops. As part of that, I've been a contributing editor for American Cinematographer magazine for 16 years and I'm currently the technical editor for Digital Video magazine. Filmmaker in a Box is, very much, an extension of that desire to share; to teach. It's a big part of my desire to let new filmmakers learn from my experiences (good and bad) to help propel their own education and careers.

At what point in the production of your movie, 2 Million Stupid Women, did you decide to produce Filmmaker in a Box?

JAY: From the same day we got the "green light." Filmmaker in a Box was actually in the planning stages many years before 2 Million Stupid Women. My producing partner, Ryan Harper (who originally conceived the idea for Filmmaker in a Box), and I had tried to implement this idea on his film, Steel City, which was a Sundance Grand Jury Prize nominee -- but it was after the fact.

The film had already been completed and released. There was no documentary crew on the set, no pre-arranged contractual agreements between the production and Filmmaker in a Box and it became an impossible task to really document the production to the detail we wanted. We realized that this would only work if Filmmaker in a Box was involved from the inception of a project.

Shortly thereafter I became involved as a producer on 2 Million Stupid Women. When we met with financing producer Jason Robinson and shook hands on the deal to fund the film, I immediately called Ryan and said "I think I have a project for Filmmaker in a Box." Because I was a producer of both projects, I could ensure that no detail would be overlooked. Filmmaker in a Box would have full access to the production process - with full disclosure. I could make sure that we wouldn't gloss over the "oh, let's not let Filmmaker in a Box hear about this problem..."

It's important to learn from your mistakes - and if others can learn from them, too, all the better. I then went back to the producing team of 2 Million Stupid Women and sold them on the idea of partnering with Filmmaker in a Box. From there -- it was built into the contracts of everyone who worked on the show. It became a very organic and integral part of the production.

I agree with your assessment of the discs -- it's an in-depth case study, not a "how to" on low-budget filmmaking. That being said, a viewer will learn an awful lot about the filmmaking process by going through the series. What do you think is the best take-away from the series?

JAY: There's a lot to be learned from our experience. Especially if the viewer has never made a feature film before. We specifically selected a project that had a feasible budget - $100,000 - that was within reach of many aspiring filmmakers out there.

We also demonstrate the "Hollywood" system of filmmaking - on an extremely low budget - and show the viewers that it's possible to make a "Hollywood" film without spending tens of millions of dollars.

If there's any one big take-away I would say it's about learning when and how to break the rules; or bend them a bit. It's learning how to think outside the box and find creative solutions to your problems within the means of your available resources. At best, we hope this information, and our experience, empowers other filmmakers to get out there and get their films made.

Since I'm in the midst of production on a low-budget feature right now, I used the series in a modular fashion (like you recommended) and went right to the interviews on lighting and sound, which were terrific.

JAY: Thank you very much for that. That's a great compliment.

I'm a big believer in the old song-writing credo, that the more personal and specific you make it, the more universal it actually becomes. I found that to be true in the lighting and sound segments -- the problems you solved on-site, while specific to your film, showed me a way of thinking about problems that will help in any situation. In what ways did producing 2 Million Stupid Women (and Filmmaker in a Box) change your thinking about the filmmaking process?

JAY: Both Jamie Neese (the film's director and executive producer) and I discuss in our Filmmaker in a Box interviews why we chose 2 Million Stupid Women and why we did it the way we did.

Although this was his first feature film as a director, Jamie is a veteran of Hollywood and has been working on films and television for twenty years. He and I have been involved in half a dozen projects over the years that were much larger films that got bogged down and stalled in the pre-production process (almost always with regard to funding). We wanted to find a project that we could go out and get made with very few resources and not fall into the same traps we had in the past.

Jamie was also always a little impatient with the traditional methods of making films. It takes a small army of people and equipment to make a film - and moving that beast along is an exhausting effort. Jamie and I talked for years about approaching a project with an absolute minimalistic production footprint. Keeping the crew and equipment as small as possible to move quickly.

To that end, 2 Million Stupid Women was a unique project for me. It was about fitting the entire production into a single cargo van (camera, electric, grip, set services, production office, wardrobe, props, art department... all in one van). This is a big departure from the kinds of productions I'm used to with a truck for camera and a truck for grip and electric and a truck for wardrobe... we always knew this was possible - but it wasn't easy to do. It was perfect, however, for Filmmaker in a Box because most people making their first films out there don't have access to 10-ton grip and lighting packages and cast makeup trailers and a crew of 100+.

Finding a way to simplify the production process, yet still get what we needed, creatively, was a great challenge - and lessons learned that I will take with me on every production in the future - no matter what the size.

While the interviews and behind-the-scene footage are great, you also include an entire disc of forms, lists and contracts. Why would these be important to someone producing a no-budget movie?

JAY: These are areas where so many filmmakers make mistakes. I've seen it time and time again. A filmmaker is passionate about the creative side of the production and ignores or doesn't understand the business side. They go out and make an amazing project - but they neglect to get contracts for their actors or locations. Contracts that - after the fact - are impossible to get for one reason or another.

When it comes to a distributor actually interested in releasing their project - they can't. Without the proper documentation, no distributor will touch a film. I've seen so many films die that way.

We also wanted to have a completely transparent process. This is why we provide the full budget. So that anyone can come along and see exactly where we planned on spending the money. I actually wish we could have included all of the actual receipts, check stubs and invoices to show where everything was spent - but that became beyond the scope of what we could do with FIB.

Beyond that, again, we were working in the "Hollywood" system - even on a very small film. Providing a look at things like call sheets and contracts and shooting schedules will give filmmakers a glimpse into how the system operates. Hopefully seeing these documents will help them organize and prepare their own projects better.

Looking back on it, is there anything you regret having to leave out of Filmmaker in a Box?

JAY: Yes. Primarily we regret not being able to include the process beyond the production. The film festival process, working with a PR rep, finding a distributor and the long process of getting our deliverables to the distributor and getting the film out there. Really, there's an entire additional Filmmaker in a Box on that process, alone.

However, the logistics of making Filmmaker in a Box and wanting to have it released around the same time as the film - it was impossible for us to be able to cover this process. So few filmmakers have any real understanding of a distributor's deliverables list - and how expensive and daunting that process can be. It's the most common place where completed films die and never get released - because the filmmakers don't know to plan for the requirements of the distributor.

If I have any regret about anything not included in Filmmaker in a Box - it would be that part of the process - which is just as important as pre-production, production and post.

Finally, what key thing did you learn throughout this whole process that you'll take to your next project?

JAY: Making Filmmaker in a Box was a fascinating process. I had a team of editors working with me on the 108 modules, but I did a lot of cutting myself and conducted all of the post interviews. It was fascinating to me to sit down and interview our key crew members - people I hired and worked with intimately - to discuss what they did on a film that I *thought* I knew every step of - only to learn little tricks and tips that they do in their jobs every day that I was completely unaware of.

So many new filmmakers feel that they can do everything: they can be a one-person-band (and some can), but if you do that you're really missing out on the extraordinary contributions that other professionals make to your production. I've always known this - and always striven to work with the best people in each department - but this was reaffirmed through the process of creating Filmmaker in a Box.

Also, as one who loves to teach and help new filmmakers, it was extraordinarily exciting to actually learn, myself, through the process of making this educational tool. If the guy who was involved in every step of the production - from the green light to the movie landing on shelves - can learn from this resource - I guarantee everyone will be able to learn something from it!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Paul Bright of

What's your background in filmmaking?

PAUL: Writing, directing and producing movies started when I was in my late 30's. I was working as a railroad conductor in Texas and was volunteering as the artistic director of a repertory theater company in a small town. After three years of running the theater I realized I could make a film with the same effort that I put into the 12 shows we staged every year and believed that more people would see the movie than all the season's performances.

We shot my first film during my vacation and other days I was off the train.

As a kid I used to do puppet shows in school instead of boring book reports. (Yes, I was a total dweeb.) That desire to perform evolved into doing stupid skits for the talent show and ultimately to playing the leading role in the high school musicals. While I was in high school a talent agent saw me perform and sent me to auditions for TV commercials. I was in a couple of TV episodes and a bunch of commercials until my early twenties. This was a case of being in the right place at the right time; I grew up in LA. My success in the business waned as my looks changed and I no longer fit the roles being written.

Then I moved around a lot and did lots of other things for fifteen years hoping to find a job that would quell my burning desire to work in film. Some jobs came close, but nothing compares to my life now.

What's the best lesson you took away from the first feature you made?

PAUL: HA! There is no single best lesson. Every day of the first film was an overwhelming learning curve. Even though this was only about seven years ago digital technology on the prosumer level was extremely new and no one had the answer for how to make everything work. There was a lot of experimenting with equipment, lighting, colors, sound, fabric patterns, and post-production software to make a movie.

Here are the biggies:

1) Your friends and loved ones will openly or secretly doubt your abilities to pull it off. Plow ahead anyway. The motto in successful completion of any feature film is “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”

2) I was still thinking in terms of stage and not camera as the platform for telling this story and my camera angles often observed the action instead peering over the character's shoulders and revealing information to the audience. I use the camera better now to express the mood and tone of the film.

3) Everyone has a passionate opinion about the movies they watch and have no hesitation sharing their opinion with strangers. People generally either love or hate films. The haters are most vocal, the lovers are usually very quiet. I wasn't prepared for this. It took a lot of time after my first film released to understand that the strident critics were not representative of my true audience that loved the movie.

What's the biggest trap that you think low-budget filmmakers fall into?

PAUL: Visions of glory.

Filmmaking is about telling a story you feel passionate about to an audience that will gain something from seeing your film. It is not about getting famous, rich, or offered a bungalow on the Universal backlot.

The advantage indie filmmakers have is our independence—we can make our own movie and tell it the way we want. The reality of working in Hollywood is that the people with the money control everything: the script, the casting, the location, hiring the crew. You don't go to Hollywood to make your movie. You go to Hollywood to make their movie on their terms.

That means our indie films probably won't be the darlings at Sundance or written up in Variety and we won't get the best seat in a restaurant on Sunset Strip.

We do get to make our movie though, and that's the real reason for doing this in the first place.

What's the most common mistake that a first-time feature filmmaker is likely to make?
PAUL: Poor planning.

It's true for any profession or craft; if you've never done something before, you don't know all the requirements for getting the job done. Novice filmmakers don't schedule enough time for setting up equipment, are busy handling last minute emergencies instead of working with the cast to get good performances, and fail to provide nutritious and delicious meals for the people working so hard to realize the director's vision. And even more stunning to me is the notion that working 12 hours every day is an acceptable norm. Working twelve hour days is the result of poor planning.

There is a huge list of details that need to be worked out in advance of a shoot. I mentor people around the country on getting everything planned so they can have the freedom to make changes on the spur of the moment when better opportunities arise.

As an example I was an actor on a shoot for a novice film crew that shot in 10 days inside a house. Instead of filming every scene for the bedroom on the same day and then moving to the kitchen on the next day, they were filming in several rooms every day and returning to the same room day after day. They wasted so much time, were stressed, and getting sick because of the way they scheduled the shots. I felt really bad for them. As an actor I won't say anything about how they run their shoot, but I knew that if I'd had 20 minutes to mentor them a week before production things would have gone so much better for everyone.

What's the biggest hurdle that a filmmaker will need to overcome during the production/post-production/distribution process?

PAUL: Very recently, post production and distribution has become much more manageable for indie filmmakers. The traditional distribution model is dying a painful death. Painful for the distributors, not necessarily for us.

It used to be that filmmakers had to deliver multiple versions of the same film for different markets; a version with the full soundtrack, a version without the dialogue, a version in PAL and another one in NTSC. However with the new hybrid distribution approach a filmmaker can simply decide to make one version and only one version of the film and sell it to the markets that will accept that version.

It may be true that some films will do better in some markets if they are dubbed into another language, but if the filmmaker doesn't want the hassle and wants to retain the artistic merit of the original actors' performances it is possible to find smaller markets that will accept this version and subtitle the movie.

Essentially with the digital distribution of our work, the world is an open market.

To replace the traditional distribution model, however, a filmmaker must become a social media collaborator. Regardless of how a film is released and what companies are selling it in the different markets and platforms, the filmmaker must create and maintain an online community of supporters and fans who will be cheerleaders for the film.

Marketing a film is more than announcing the movie to the world. Now there is an expectation that filmmakers also create the world of the movie online for audiences to get involved with by playing games, Facebooking with the characters, cooking the same meals shown in the film, getting invited to watch the filming, getting invited to be in the film, etc.

Filmmaking is no longer about just making a movie and telling a story. It's about building a community that experiences that story.

What's the overall premise of your on-line tutorials?

PAUL: I learned how to make films for about $15,000 the hard way and encountered many people who had outright contempt for what I was doing. There is a fallacy from Hollywood professionals that no movie of any quality could possibly be made for less than 1.5 million. That attitude is changing as more people do make great movies with very little money.

Still there are lots of people who have great stories to tell but no experience in turning them into films. I created hours and hours of online tutorials about the specific steps involved in making an indie movie to give people the tools they need to fulfill their dreams.

I learned from many other people. And I've developed a process that makes the shoot stress free and enjoyable. I'm sharing this collective wisdom to make life better for all of us. The site is

What are you working on now?

PAUL: I'm in the middle of three narrative feature films at different stages.

ABRUPT DECISION released at the first of the year with a hybrid distribution plan. I have several online retailers who are also wholesaling the film to smaller retailers, two distribution deals in Europe, a sales rep pursuing distribution in Asian and South Pacific markets, and my own direct-to-consumer retail sales from my site:

GOLIAD UPRISING is in the final stages of post-production as I write this and as you read it I'll be distributing the movie by going to sci-fi conventions, through my own website, and negotiating deals with distributors around the world. This will be another hybrid distribution plan that I'll figure out as I go. I'm intentionally avoiding the film festival circuit and going to the film's core audience which are sci-fi fans.

And I'm writing the script for the next movie tentatively scheduled to film in August. When you're reading this I'll probably be in pre-production with a shooting schedule in hand. But right now the movie is simply an idea I had a few days ago in the shower. I make a movie every year and this is my usual work flow.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Carol Littleton on "The Big Chill"

I love this movie and I think the first reel of The Big Chill is one of the best first reels in movie history. Everything is set up so nicely.

CAROL LITTLETON: Right. All the characters are introduced.

Let me ask -- and this is just because I've always been curious about this -- William Hurt walks into the church in that reel just at the Minister is saying, ".... a man like Alex." Was that juxtaposition in the script or was it found in the editing?

CAROL LITTLETON: That was found in the editing. We could have had those entrances anywhere, in any order. Obviously he was the last one to arrive. We did cut the minister's speech down some, it was a little bit rambling. And it was just more salient to have the line over the Bill Hurt character, Nick, as he sits down.

Was that film similar to Body Heat, in that you found a lot of it in the editing room?

CAROL LITTLETON: It stayed closer to the script than Body Heat, because it was not a thriller. So we didn't have to deal with elements of timing that are alive on film but on the page are sometimes hard to judge.

But we had other things that were equally difficult, and that was how to integrate the music into the scenes and have it make sense. We discovered right away that we would not have a score, that it would be just the music from Motown stuff and things that were popular in 1968-69.

There were only two tunes that were in the script that we did to playback. For the rest of them, I cut the music and then cut the picture to the music. That was, essentially, doing it backwards. Those were not needle drops that we did after the picture was done and we just added it. It was all integrated as we were going.

I had probably 150 tunes that were in my editing room, on a rack. I would try a lot of different things until we found the right tempo and the right piece. Of course, Larry (Kasdan) is very knowledgeable about rock and roll and that era, because he was in college then.

So most of our editorial time went into the stylistic elements of making the film. Making the music choices seem seamless and making it flow from one song to the next, so that the lyrics and the tempo and the musicality of the scene matched. Like I said, they weren't needle drops; everything was cut to the tempo of the music and re-arranged in such a way that the lyrics fell at certain moments that were salient moments in the film.

So you're kind of doing it backwards; you're literally laying the track out and putting the picture to it, rather than cutting the picture and just dropping the music in. It makes a very big difference in the flow of the film, the musicality of the film, the style of it. The style of the picture is, in fact, very musical. So those were the challenges, editorially; it was really questions of style more than anything else.

Do you have a favorite moment, where it all came together?

CAROL LITTLETON: Yes, I think the episode that was very, very difficult was with the character of Meg (Mary Kay Place) who wants to have a baby. And when Glenn Close figures out that she could put her husband with her best friend, well, it's a little preposterous. This was before artificial insemination, so if you were going to have a baby, you actually had to have a partner. We knew that it was a little far-fetched and if the audience lost it in the movie it would probably be with that episode. The humor had to play a large part in allowing the audience to feel that it was appropriate and slightly goofy and also believable and tasteful.

So I think that whole section, with Aretha Franklin's "A Natural Woman," that whole section into the next morning, I felt really worked well for me. The night before, during the night and the next morning.

Let's talk about one of the most famous scenes in the movie -- the ending flashback, with Kevin Costner as Alex, that was shot but then cut from the movie. How did that come about?

CAROL LITTLETON: You could talk to five or six different people who worked on the movie and you'd get several different opinions. But being on the inside of that, the ending that Larry and Barbara Benedek wrote was to have a large flashback at the very end of how all these people were -- the roots of their personalities, the roots of who they were going to be -- were actually evident when they were students.

After I first read the script, we sat down and I said, "I feel very uneasy about this flashback. I just don't think you need it." And Larry with his nasal, West Virginia voice, said, "Carol, I can't believe you said that. You are so wrong. I can't believe it. You are so wrong." So I dropped it. When somebody says you're wrong, you drop it.

When we were shooting it I said, "This looks like a masquerade, with everybody in long hair and beads." And Larry said, "Carol, you are so wrong. The reason I wanted to write this script was because of this idea." And I said, "Yes, Larry, you're absolutely right. It's a wonderful idea. You may have needed that scene to write the script, but you don't need the scene for the movie. At all." "You are so wrong, if you mention this one more time!"

Well, in the editing, we put that flashback everywhere. We took it out of the ending, we put it up front, we put it in the middle, we put it in pieces, we spent a lot of time trying to get the flashback to work.

We showed it to the studio with the flashback and the suits came in -- Larry and I were the only people from our end -- and the guy who was in charge said, "This is not funny. Take it back, re-do it. I don't know what you guys are thinking, this is a comedy? This is bullshit. Start over again."

Well, we were devastated. Devastated. We knew it was funny, we knew it was engaging, we knew it was emotional.

And then he said, "While you're at it, that flashback is a stinko scene."

So we showed it to them the next time with an audience and the movie still did not work as well as it should. So I said, "Larry, why don't we devise an ending, drop the flashback, have two screenings -- one with the flashback and one without -- and let the audience tell us which one is more effective?"

Well, at the screenings, it was clear that the version without the flashback was better. And the next day, when Larry came into the cutting room, he said, "God dammit, Carol, I wanted you to take that thing out from the beginning! How many times do I have to tell you I'm right?"

That's how funny he is. He's wonderful.