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.

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