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!

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