Thursday, August 16, 2012

Chopper Bernet on "The Twenty"

What drove your decision to add producing and directing to your skill set as an actor?
CHOPPER: I have been working with a few people over the years, JP Allen mainly, on small feature film projects and have been impressed with the whole process.  As compared to huge projects which are fun in their own way but, to put it bluntly, a lot less creative. For me. 

JP encouraged me to take on a project of my own and see if I could make it fly. This encouragement made me step back and look at the situation I was in as an actor living in LA.  You stand around on a street corner, of sorts, and try to peddle your wears. You continually try to convince people, usually skeptical and jaded, that you are the one they need. You are the person who can pull this role off.  You don’t get project after project and you get desperate because you want to work.

In my case, I have little desire to be famous. I simply love to do the work of acting. All of it. Every step is interesting and challenging and inspiring.  And yet, you are always beholden to others to let you do this thing you love.

I have a sister, Meg Bernet, who is a painter. She always laughs at me because she says I have to have an audience to do what I love. She, on the other hand, can simply go in the next room and paint. And she is right. 

I have had an amazingly successful run as a voice actor and yet I still feel this burning desire to tell stories. Mainly through acting but as the acting became harder to pull off in this environment of LA, I started to feel the pull of stories within my own head. The desire to tell them. And I also started to flash back to college where I had done some required directing and remembered feeling really empowered.  And I guess that was the real breaking point of sorts.

I produced a play, with Stephanie Niznik who is also in The Twenty, as well as acted in it and the experience was really great. Then I produced, directed, and acted in a two-weekend set of ten-minute plays where I didn’t charge for entrance and got some really good feedback.  It was a blast. 

So with JP’s encouragement and guidance, and my frustration with the acting word, I decided to jump in and take on a film.  And I decided that a short didn’t really rate on my list of things to do. If I was going to fail, I wanted to fail big!  It’s the actor in me. So, I took on as much as I could and set a date for the start of production. And we stuck to it.

We started when I said and we finished when I said. And as tired as I was at the end, I would have turned around and done it all over again right then and there. It was one of the best experiences of my life.  And I am craving to do it again as soon as possible. 

I guess the simple answer, and one I have heard from all levels of actors, it was about empowerment. 

How did you get connected to Walter Spring and his script and what was the process of getting the script ready to shoot?

CHOPPER: I have a confession to make. I am Walter Spring.  I decided to use a different name because I was sick of seeing my own name in the title sequence. I don’t believe in or like to toot my own horn so I thought it would just be better to give the writing credit to someone else. I didn’t care if I got credit. 

The process for writing it was pretty straightforward. I had the idea in my head for about two years and then talked with some friends about it. They said they would be interested in writing it and I so we sat down and talked about it.  They had their ideas and I had mine. And then I just realized I needed to write it myself. It’s a very personal story for me and I felt like there were parts I needed to tell.

It’s funny because one of the friends I met with told me about a week later that the other writer had told him there was no way I was going to let them write it. He knew it was something I felt I had to birth.  I talked some more with JP and he gave me some guidelines for writing and I just jumped in. I had made fitful starts years before so I went back to those writings and also notes I had jotted down for myself and they helped propel things forward. 

When I would get stuck or unsure, I would call JP and we would just talk and something would click and off I would go again.  I have three kids and a full time job so I wrote mostly late at night listening to music I thought would be right for the story. 

The first draft was 170 pages long.  JP and I come from a background of theatre so we are not afraid of dialogue. And we don’t think, like a lot of people do, that film has to be only about the image. I love dialogue heavy stories. But obviously, babies had to die. So again, I went back to JP, who, god bless his soul, had read all 170 pages, and he walked me through the process of cutting things down on one scene and then I took it from there.

In the end I cut it down to 90 pages, and still there were a bunch of scenes that ended up in the delete box.  All in all it was a pretty painless process although time consuming.  Which is something I am in short supply of.

I read the book The War of Art and I have to agree with the guy, you just have to go do it. No other way around it.  As of now, I am having huge trouble finding the time to write anything new.  For a ton of reasons. Some of them valid, most of them not!

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

CHOPPER: As I said before, I have been blessed with a pretty successful voice over career. I saved money and put it aside and waited for the rainy day.

I was very na├»ve about the production side of things. I just had a chunk of change and wanted to throw it at the project.  My father-in-law, who is a businessman, said he would help me try and raise some of the money so I wouldn’t have to spend all of mine.  He did this, bless his heart, and so I used that for funding and my own money as back up for cost over runs.  I have to say this had two countering impacts on the whole.  One was that it gave me financial support, obviously.  But it also made me, being the failed Catholic that I am, feel guilty about taking people’s money on such a risky endeavor. Which meant I had to think about the end product and how I was going to try and pay these people, all of whom I knew, back.  So the whole thing changed in a big way when this happened. 

I hadn’t really thought about the post end of things. I was going to do it all myself. I had edited some stuff over the years, the film was in my head, especially after shooting it, and so I just figured the post cost was going to be my time.  But after shooting was done, and I had made my own cut and added some music from friends, which is kind of the way JP had done things, my guilt started to take over. And my proximity to Hollywood did too.

I got opinions from a lot of people about “the right way to do things.”  Meaning if you want it to sell and be marketable.  To be honest, I had dreams of the Sundance fairy tale and other festival magic but really, in the end, I was making this for myself. As my DP, Alison Kelly, had said to me, and saved my proverbial ass I might add, she was amazing and wonderful, “you do this for the process, not what happens afterwards.” 

But those outside pressures come hard and fast and you bend to them.  You think, being a first timer, that others know better.  My first cut was 120 minutes with no scenes cut. I liked it. Was proud of it.  But I started pushing for the brass ring in my head. I got and paid for an outside editor and she cut it down to 90.  That cost. I went the next step and finished the sound. That cost. I did color correction. That cost.  I got a producers rep. That cost.  I got a DVD distribution. That cost. 

How much have I “made” on the film?  Zero.  Will I ever see any money? I doubt it. Do I feel bad for the people who gave me their money? Incredibly, on a daily basis.  Could I, would I do it differently?  There are different options today that weren’t there before.  So yes.

What camera did you use and what did you love and hate about it?

CHOPPER: Alison and I talked a lot about cameras.  The HVX with P2 cards had just come out and she was interested in using it.  So was I. But she said that would entail hiring a media manager.  Which, based on the schedule we had devised, made her worried about chewing up time.  It was all rather new to her and pretty much everyone else. 

At the last minute she called me and said she felt we should just shoot on mini DV tape and use a film lens adaptor so she could shoot with primes.  I am forgetting the name of the adaptor, it was not a Red Rock, but it had some problems. One of them was that the glass in it spun and for some reason the spinning made an awful lot of sound and our sound man was about ready to kill me after just the first hour.  We had no budget or choice for replacing it so we just rode it out.

The end product I think is fantastic. Allison is my God. She made the whole thing look amazing. I even had a festival showing here in LA where the projectionist asked me if it was 35 or 16.  And that was blown up on a big screen. There are problems here and there but in the end, she made it look amazing. I even had to go buy an HVX a year later so I could shoot some insert stuff and we didn’t use an adaptor, my sister and I shot the stuff hand held, and I have not heard anyone mention it.

I think the camera did a great job, adaptor grinding sound not withstanding, but it seems to me there are so many more options now that are way better.  Small, faster, cheaper.  That’s what micro budget filmmakers need.  And there are a ton of cameras out there that fit the bill.  I sold my HVX to JP and he made a couple of films on it and they look really good.  So it still has its place as well I think but the world is getting so much bigger. 

What are the advantages (and disadvantages) of directing a movie that you're acting in - - or acting in a movie that you're directing?

CHOPPER: I can’t think of many advantages to directing yourself while acting. It is tough. Especially on a budget. 

This may shock people but I did not view one mm of footage till after the movie was done shooting and I was back in my office.  There were a lot of reasons but the main one was time. I just didn’t have time to move behind the camera, rewind the tape, and watch what had just happened.  I had to trust what I had seen as the actor living in front of the camera and trust Allison to let me know if she had gotten what we wanted.

She and I would talk about upcoming scenes and I would tell her the little things I was looking for and after each take she would nod her head yes or no with regards to what she saw and I would base my choices on her response and my own experience. 

As an actor I went into the project, having written it, knowing a lot about each character and I had even written some of the characters for the actors playing them. But my personal goal was just staying present and being simple and letting myself listen to them talk to me.  And in doing that, I could also be aware of what I hoped we were catching on tape. 

When I got home and started watching I went through a lot of different emotions but in the end I was pretty pleased with everyone’s work.  Except mine of course! 

I don’t know that there are any real disadvantages either though to directing yourself.  I love to direct and I love to act. I don’t have much choice. Or didn’t in this one.

I will say it does create some peculiar moments.  Stephanie Niznik said after one particular take, “I can’t tell if the character is mad at me or the director.”  So for other actors, I learned that there are some odd moments to acting with your director.  But so much of directing comes down to communicating, as does acting.  They’re different boats in the same lake I guess. 

I would do it again no problem.  Although it might be fun to take a smaller role and just concentrate on directing.  Or I might take a big role and have a co-director along to help me with an outside set of eyes. That would be fun.

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

CHOPPER: The smartest thing I did was hire the people who could do their jobs. All of which I was not well versed in.  They all knew what they were doing and they got it done as fast as they could. 

I also made the decision to pay for good food. Hands down on a film of this size the food is the breaking point or the savor.  I have been on enough films, big and small, to have learned that if you don’t feed people well, you are asking for trouble.

One of my biggest regrets actually was that I could not have paid people more. I still regret it.  They all worked very hard for this little film and they traveled far from home to support it. I just wish I could have made it more financially rewarding for them. 

The dumbest thing?  I feel like the list is too long to write out here.  But in truth, they weren’t really dumb, just little things that could have helped make things run more smoothly but that I could not have foreseen since I had never been in those situations before. You learn best through experience.  Now, I think I could run the show a bit more smoothly. Though I do feel things went pretty well all things considered. 

A big part of that was turning things as much I could to David Japka who was my line producer.  He did a great job of keeping things moving.  I always hear filmmakers say making a film is the hardest thing you can do. And I like to say, wrong, having kids is the hardest thing you can do.  Have kids first, then make a movie.  It won’t seem so hard! 

I guess the one thing I wish I could do over is that I would have had a bit more time for shooting with people.  And I think I could have gotten that by cutting things from the script that ended up being cut from the final film.  After cutting the film I could see where I could have cut the script and it now influences my editing while writing.  It just makes things leaner.  Which, during production, counts towards more takes, more acting choices and more time for the camera to do its job. 

Over all though, I feel pretty good about how things went.  Not much I would change really. 

What did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?

CHOPPER: All of the above.  I think I have listed lots of things that I would have done or that changed as I went along. 

I think what I got the most of out of the project was confidence.  I can do this. I can do it well. I can trust my own inner voice and instincts to guide me. I can be open to other’s ideas and yet not lose my way.  I can lead a group of people towards the goal I set for us. 

I also learned that I could have done things for cheaper and am now trying to do just that.  It’s a no brainer now to be able to shoot really good footage for a lot less money.  And I plan on taking full advantage of all those options. 

I am proud of going through the whole “old school” way of making a film and finishing it and “selling” it.  But things are different now. Hollywood is not the only path anymore. I can say I made a film and released it but now, just as with acting in the first question, I want to take control of all of it.  And not let any part of the industry tell me how my film should look, or how my characters should act, or what my story should be about to “sell” tickets. 

JP has had some success with some of his films on Amazon and things are only going to keep moving in that direction. TV and film will be about choice for the viewer.  They will follow their own passions and desires and the studios and networks will have to either offer up a very wide array of choices or get the hell out of the way. 

Will the monetary rewards change?  Yes, they will. But that’s fine.  Will there always be theatres?  I think there will.  But there is a huge paradigm shift coming and my experience in making The Twenty only confirms my belief that the democracy of filmmaking is well on its way to becoming the norm, not the lonely step child hiding in the a corner. 

And, finally, how did you get the name Chopper?

CHOPPER: I got my name when I was borne. My mom knew a kid growing up whose nickname was Choppy.  She always liked the name and gave me it when I was borne. It’s not my legal name but I have never been called by my legal name.  Always Chopper. Oh, and the guy my mother knew growing up?  I married his daughter!         

1 comment:

Adam said...

Sounds like it could have been a 'choppy' relationship! Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Would like to hear this thoughts on the use of things like archive footage in movies and whether it adds depth and realism or takes it away. Seen some terrible uses of it lately and am not sure if I should include it in my next production.