Thursday, September 6, 2012

Jim Hemphill on "The Trouble With the Truth"

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make The Trouble With the Truth?

JIM: I made one film before The Trouble With the Truth, but it was a very different kind of movie. It was called Bad Reputation, and it was a low-budget horror movie that was my attempt to pay tribute to the movies of my youth -- it sort of crossed something like Wes Craven's Last House On The Left with Pretty In Pink or 16 Candles.

Anyway, it was a feature we made for $20,000, and the crew consisted of three people most of the time -- me, producer Ward Porrill, and director of photography Forrest Allison. Between the three of us we did all the jobs that a crew of dozens or even hundreds would do on a normal film set. Our ambitions definitely exceeded our resources, but it was a fun movie and ended up getting distributed -- you can get it on iTunes and Amazon and places like that. And it was a great learning experience; I have a lot of respect for every job on a film set because I had to do so many of them myself on that first movie.

What was your writing process like?

JIM: I spent a couple years trying to get a thriller called Hard Feelings made and kept seeing the financing fall apart for one reason or another, so I decided to write a character-driven drama with no special effects and no action that I could make with limited funds. After wasting so much time on the thriller I was impatient, so I set myself a hard deadline of a month to finish a first draft, which meant I had to write around 4 pages a day.

I used a trick I stole from one of my favorite directors, Yasujiro Ozu, which is to just start writing dialogue before you even know the story or the characters; then, as you write the dialogue, you discover who's saying it and what the story is. It's a strange way to write a movie and it wouldn't work for every genre, but for this film it was surprisingly effective. I had the draft done in a month and then spent a few months revising it.

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

JIM: Well, I raised my budget in a time-honored independent film tradition -- I hit my parents up for money. The movie is opening theatrically in a few big cities on September 14, but these days the hope is that the theatrical run will act as promotion for the various digital revenue streams. I think a movie like this, that's geared toward adults, will do well on VOD and cable and places like that, but right now we're still talking with a few different distributors to see who we want to go with for all that.

How did you go about securing name talent (John Shea, Lea Thompson) and what's the value of doing that for a low-budget filmmaker?

JIM: We went to Lea in the usual way, sending the script to her agents and managers, and just got lucky in that she loved the script and happened to have a few weeks free in her schedule. When she was cast I wanted to make sure we cast a guy opposite her who she had chemistry with, so I asked her for names of people she thought would be good for the male lead. John Shea was her idea, and I loved it - I was a huge fan of a movie he did with Alan Alda called A New Life, and of course Missing is one of my favorite movies of all time. I imagine John said yes because Lea was doing it -- they had acted together in a miniseries years before and have immense respect for each other.

As far as the value goes, I'm a big believer that the most important thing is to find the right actors for the right part -- not necessarily the most famous. That said, if you can get people who do have names, like John and Lea, who happen to also be great actors and right for your movie, they add immense value in terms of getting audiences interested in the film.

We've been showing the movie at film festivals for several months, and NO ONE comes to see the movie because they care about who directed it. They come because they're fans of Lea, or John, or both. And I imagine that the fact that John and Lea have done so much notable work in television will help us when it comes to getting the movie on cable and DVD and everything.  

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

JIM: We used two Canon 5Ds, which my director of photography Roberto Correa suggested. His feeling, which was exactly right, was that they would make the actors look great without getting in their way. We always had two cameras going so that Lea and John could respond completely in the moment without worrying about matching other takes; there would always be coverage on both of them for any given exchange, so getting continuity to stay consistent wasn't a problem.

For this kind of movie -- a dialogue, character-based piece -- DSLRs were the way to go. I don't know how well they work if you're doing an action movie or moving the camera around a lot, but for us they gave us exquisite images. Lea usually hates the way she looks on film and she thought this was the best she ever looked in a movie, which is a testament to both the camera and to Roberto's skill with light and color.

Did the movie change much in the editing, and if so, how?

JIM: No, the final movie sticks pretty close to the script. The biggest challenge my editor Benni Pierce had was keeping the emotional balance in working order. John and Lea gave me a lot of options -- they would play scenes happy in one take, sadder in others, angry in others -- and Benni and I had to decide which level of emotional intensity was most appropriate for each stage of the movie. We also cut a chunk out toward the beginning to get the characters to the restaurant faster, but the movie stayed remarkably consistent from script to screen.

What is your marketing plan for the movie and how have your results been so far?

JIM: Thus far it's all been your typical indie DIY marketing via festivals and the internet. The festival reaction has been terrific, and I'm confident that eventually we'll find a large audience for John and Lea's excellent work in the picture.

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

JIM: The smartest thing was partnering up with a couple guys named Daniel Farrands and Thommy Hutson to produce. They helped me assemble an outstanding cast and crew in less than a month, and during shooting they put out all the fires that were going on so I could just focus on the actors and not be distracted by the zillion things that go wrong on an independent film set.

The dumbest thing came late in post, after Benni was done editing. We went to a fairly established post house to do the color correction and sound, but my instincts told me early on that I just wasn't on the same page with these guys; every time I would ask for something they would tell me it couldn't be done the way I wanted it. This seemed fishy to me, but having never worked on a film at this level before I didn't really know. I wasted a lot of time and money with these guys only to get to a point where I was totally unhappy with the work.

It ended up getting fixed because I went back to Benni and he did a spectacular job color timing the film, and another very good sound mixer, Brant Biles, did us a favor and cleaned up the sound. But if I had just listened to my instincts right from the start I could have saved all of us a lot of money and hassle.

In fact, overall I would say that EVERY dumb thing I did on the film happened because I went against my own instincts. Luckily, we were on such a tight schedule that I usually HAD to follow my first instinct on everything, and that served me well.

And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?

JIM: This is going to sound somewhat obvious, I suppose, but I learned that if you have great actors, a great cinematographer, a great A.D., and a great editor -- all of which I had -- you're 90% of the way to making a good movie.

You have to really make sure those key people are not only talented but in sync with how you see the film and how you see the process, because if they are they will all save you MANY times throughout production and post.

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