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.

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