Thursday, December 27, 2012

Drew Cullingham on “Black Smoke Rising”

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make Black Smoke Rising?

DREW: Black Smoke Rising is my third feature as writer/director/producer. The previous one was Monk3ys, an odd mélange of Big Brother, SAW, some nasty whisky and the perennially funny situation of a grown man yet to have lost his virginity! It's a micro-budget containment thriller that riffs on the world of reality television, found footage movies and the sorry state of the film industry.  

It's also an experimental and weird entity that actually scooped the Raindance Festival award for best microbudget film.   

Before that was Umbrage: The First Vampire featuring Doug 'Pinhead' Bradley as an antiques dealer, stuck in the arse end of nowhere, who has to contend with demonic and vampiric grudges as well as the melodrama of his heavily pregnant wife and petulant step-daughter.  

Before that I cut my teeth on shorts, music promos, corporate crap and even some food television. Before that I didn't know whether to be a writer, a photographer or a musician, and kind of thought that filmmaking was a good compromise!

What was the genesis of the project and what was the writing process like? 

DREW: This film really shouldn't be. It just shouldn't. I lost my brother in 2010, so it was born from that loss.  That grief.   

Monk3ys actually was a fresher wound, and has a lot of anger in it that came from that chapter of my life.   Black Smoke Rising was written a little later, and was a cathartic experience to write and to film.    

There's not a lot of biography in the film, but there is a lot of me.  I shouldn't admit that, but I can't help but be honest about it. As is often the case with me, the writing was not a tortuous process. The story here is fairly vanilla in terms of a hero's journey. The protagonist resists the call, then answers it, has help from a mentor or two along the way, and learns a lesson in the end.  

I wanted it to be a familiar structure and a positive message. It's a highly emotional journey and there are some particularly emotive scenes that had me pounding the keyboard through a haze of misty grief.  I'm just thrilled that James Fisher did such a wonderful job of re-interpreting my personal rants!

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

DREW: There's not a lot to talk about here. The film was shot on a shoestring by the small group of loyal and wonderful friends and brothers that I have in this crazy filmmaking trip. I'm so grateful to all of them, and thrilled that somehow I've elicited this kind of fraternity in such giving people.  

What few things we needed, in terms of subsistence, accommodation, insurance and so on - I paid for out of a small inheritance.  As I said - in an ideal world this film would not exist - but it does because of the people around me and especially because of all that my brother gave to me - not just financially, but personally too.

I could say that I just want people to see the film and to feel it.   If it makes a little money, then great.   In reality we are looking very seriously at how dead the DVD market is to films of this stature and looking to explore alternative means of distribution.   The digital age is consuming us, not the other way around, so we need to be making our offerings as palatable as possible.

Why did you decide to shoot in black and white and what's the upside and downside of that choice?

DREW: Both myself and Glen Warrillow, the DOP on the film, are avid lovers of monochrome. There is just such simple beauty in seeing the full colour world in terms of tone rather than colour.  I think it is a lost art, and that a lot of people just decolourise things and think that's enough. It's not. It's so liberating to get to the point where you 'see' in light and dark.   

Aside from that, there are a couple of reasons for the film being in black and white.  First up I like the sense of 'vintage' that it brings.  I think it sits with the road trip, with the blues music, with a few noir sensibilities that I love.  

Also, the film is a study of grief.  It is a world without colour.  Grief is such a powerful and horrible beast of an emotion that it can utterly consume you and affect every facet of the world and how you see what is around you. There is nothing else. It IS monochrome. 

Honestly I don't see upsides or downsides to the choice. It is what it is. There are moments when I thought we'd inadvertently found some wonderful combinations of colour that nobody would ever see, accidents of production design, but that's hardly a downside.   It really just affects the way you work.  It affects the way you light scenes, especially when you start veering towards noir.  We even created a gobo at one point, which is something rare these days, and a real staple of noir.

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

DREW: We shot on the Panasonic LUMIX GH2.  Everyone else seems to be shooting on Canon 5Ds these days, and I've done that too.   Obviously here, we're talking about shooting microbudget stuff on DSLRs - which is so damn feasible now!    

I did a fair bit of research and testing and just didn't find the Canon to be what I wanted.  The dynamic range of the GH2 suited me better, as did the clarity of the nice lenses that you can get for it. It renders blacks and highlights beautifully.   Granted, it suffers a little more in the midrange when you blow it up, and perhaps the full frame and better sensor of the Canon can cope better here - but we were shooting black and white, with highs and lows.  I had very little midrange to worry about, so I much preferred the definition that the GH2 gave me. 

I normally wouldn't propose shooting too much on DSLRs.  I think they just aren't suited for a lot of things.  If you want a pull focus you need a hell of a rig, and by the time you add in a monitor, follow focus and all that you may as well use a full on camera.  

What I love about the GH2 for this kind of film, where I was more concerned with a beautiful photographic frame for the action to move within (as opposed to a constantly moving camera) is that (1) it takes such beautiful photographs, and (2) it is so compact and easy to get in places you just couldn't get a bigger camera, which affords you angles and opportunities you'd never otherwise get.

Hate about it?  Nothing.  I knew its limitations.   I wish the battery lasted better, and I wish now that they had a 3.5mm jack input for a shotgun mic, rather than an odd 2.5mm one.  But hey - you can't have everything, right?

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

DREW: Movies always change in the edit, and this one was no exception.   There were bits that I knew would be MADE in the edit, bits that had no need for continuity of action but would be effectively a montage of soliloquy!   

Did it change profoundly?  Not really.  The first cut was mercifully way too long,  a relief since the script was actually on the short side.   I'd shot way more than I needed, and was able to cut almost 20 minutes of stuff, some of that being bits of scenes and some being entire scenes.   I also moved a chunk from what was becoming an over long act one into the beginning of a slender act two and reshuffled a couple of things.  Being a largely episodic piece this was relatively easy.   

The most important thing in any edit is good pacing, and having the ruthlessness to excise favoured segments in pursuit of that pace.  Black Smoke Rising is a long way from an action thriller, but in some ways that makes the pacing even harder. It is a slow build of momentum that can only really be created in the edit, no matter what the script says!

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

DREW: Smart?  I can't lay claim to anything of the sort!  Haha.  Ok... I think on any film set, especially micro-budget ones, there are moments where you just have to improvise.  The shit will hit the fan at some point and the measure of the man is how swiftly and successfully you manage to integrate that shit into the seamless fabric of the story you are weaving.  

There's a scene in the film where the protagonist is contemplating an urn full of his brother's ashes, and wondering what size tupperware pot to decant him into for his trip, since the urn isn't really roadworthy.   In the script he just chooses one, and next thing we see is him walking to the car with a pot full of ash.   

IN THE SCRIPT - when he returns from his trip without the ashes, the urn is on the kitchen counter where he left it.    IN THE FILM, he breaks the urn accidentally earlier on, and when he returns there is no urn (and instead one of my favourite shots where the entire frame is out of focus until he puts his hand where the urn should have been and his hand is suddenly sharp).   

This is because our esteemed DOP decided to smash the urn in an act of wanton clumsiness and I was faced with this horrible moment where I had to either (1) panic and lose the plot (2) freak out and try and get a matching prop (3) integrate the DOP's idiocy into a new story element and embrace the dark humour of it!   I chose (3)!  OK - it wasn't that smart.  I tried to say I hadn't done much smart to begin with!

The dumbest?  Without a doubt the dumbest thing I personally did was travel to the lake district in early October with just one pair of cheap crappy trainers.   They got so wet after half a day of traipsing around the lakes that I was already getting tetchy.  When, on a simple shot of a drive by somewhere in the Yorkshire Dales, I decided to inadvertently step knee deep into a camouflaged wet dyke (and I mean that literally!) that signaled the end for those shoes, and those socks.  

I proceeded to direct the rest of that day barefoot in the moors and dales of a flooded Yorkshire until a suitable shoe-equipped supermarket reared into view hours later.  Stupid!!

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

DREW: Crikey.   It's so hard to pinpoint this kind of thing.  Everything is a learning curve.  I've learned to consider what footwear is appropriate!   

As a director, every time you interact with an actor you learn a bit more about directing.  You learn things that you can never really apply, but at the same time you are stockpiling experiences and ways NOT to deal with situations or people.   You learn constantly when it's best to trust your instincts.   You learn to trust other people.  That's a big one - part of the building of the team, of the family.  

Learning the abilities, and limitations, of the people around you is very useful.   For me especially, as a weird kind of perfectionist (I think it's more that I'm a control freak than a perfectionist to be honest!), it is good to know that other people have your back and won't let you down when it matters.  

Mostly every time I get on set I re-learn everything, and I am reminded of why I do this.   There is nothing quite like making movies...   I used to think that filmmaking could never rival the thrill of being on stage and playing music to an audience.  But it can.  I'd never show it, but I get palpitations when I know something special is happening on set, and it only adds to the thrill that there's a camera bearing witness to it rather than an audience.  Oddly enough it's a thrill that I can only imagine getting from filmmaking (as opposed to on stage).  

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Marty Lang on “Rising Star”

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make Rising Star?

MARTY: Before Rising Star, I worked producing independent films in Connecticut for about ten years. I produced the film A Little Bit of Lipstick starring Mia Tyler and Soupy Sales, co-produced Being Michael Madsen, starring Michael Madsen, Virginia Madsen, David Carradine and Daryl Hannah, and associate produced The Other Side of the Tracks, starring Tania Raymonde and Brendan Fehr.

I also created and helped run the Connecticut Film Industry Training Program, a state-sponsored workforce training program that trains Connecticut residents to work as crew members on film and television projects. I had also directed nine short films, including the award-winning Cheap as Hell: A Christmas Story.

What was the genesis of the project and what was the writing process like?

MARTY: The genesis of the project came from two places. First, it came from my work life. I've been laid off five times in my career. Being laid off sucks. And the prospect of being laid off is almost worse. You think all day, every day about if today will be my last day at work, or how much longer you can last. Dealing with that stress at my own job led to a need for catharsis. So I started thinking about writing a movie about it.

Second, it came from a movie I saw with a friend. Our producer/lead actor, Gary Ploski, and I went to see a film called Medicine for Melancholy in New York City. Watching that film, where the city of San Francisco was actually a character in the film, made us think if we could do something like that in Hartford, Connecticut. I started researching, and over the next year, I was able to write the script when I wasn't working or sleeping.

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

MARTY: We raised our budget through three avenues: a Kickstarter campaign that raised $15,211 over 45 days, fiscal sponsorship through the Independent Feature Project, and private investment.

Our plan to recoup costs is to sell the worldwide rights to a distributor; we're currently working with two producer's reps who are selling the film for us.

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

MARTY: We shot Rising Star on the Canon 5D Mark II. I loved the mobility of the camera, and the surprisingly good image it created. We were able to move quickly because of how light the camera was, and it helped us with our handheld work as well. I wasn't thrilled with the moiré issues the camera has, and the audio quality was awful in tests, so we recorded separate audio and sunk them together in post.

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

MARTY: The story of the film stayed more or less intact through the editing process, but one major change was made to our lead female character, Alyza. In early cuts, Alyza had no faults or weaknesses, and came off as a little arrogant as she presented her viewpoints to our lead male, Chris. So we reshot one scene, cut three others, and added new audio to give her a problem she also had to overcome, in addition to Chris. This gave her growth and an arc, and the film was helped greatly for it.

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

MARTY: I'd say the smartest thing I did in production was to let my actors make the script their own. There were a few times where my words were stilted or wrong for the moment, but the actors were always able to come up with something that fit perfectly for their scene. I'm really happy I was smart enough to do that.

The dumbest thing I did in production, though, was to try and design every scene the day we shot it. I think we'd have saved a lot of time if we had designed out all our shots ahead of time. I thought I could do it on the fly, and it was really, really hard.

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

MARTY: In making Rising Star, I learned that preparation really helps solve a lot of problems. I haven't gotten onto another film yet, but when I do, I'm going to make sure every detail is thought of beforehand, so that the making of the film is almost an afterthought. If I can get to that point, I think things will be much easier.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Emily Lou on "The Selling"

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make The Selling?
EMILY: My directing background is primarily in Theatre.  I bought a GL 1 eleven years ago and started shooting away. I shot a few things to feel out my aesthetic, DIY film school.  The Selling is my first feature film. 

What was the genesis of the project and at what point did you become involved? 

EMILY: I wanted to make a feature film.  My husband and I were talking about how to make it work, we needed someone to partner with.  Gabriel Diani and I went to college together and had worked together many times.  We had started a theatre company back in college - I directed a play of his and also him as an actor.  We called him up and told him we wanted him to write, star in, and help produce a feature film.  He said yes.   Ideas proceeded to go back and forth from there.

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

EMILY: Private investors who believed in us.  Our hope is to pay them back via DVD and VOD sales.  It would mean the world to me to be able to do that. 

What was your working process with the writer, Gabriel Diani?

EMILY: Gabe threw out a few ideas and we landed on "Real Estate Agent Trying to Sell A Haunted House".  He wrote an outline, then more outlines, then more and ultimately many many many versions of the script.  I would give notes, we would chat about them and eventually we did a few readings with actors that proved very helpful.  We also gave the script to some "readers" that gave some great feedback.  

There were a few times that we considered moving forward with production before the script was "just right" and I'm so glad we waited.  Many people came on to the project because of the strength of the script.  Gabe did a great job.

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

EMILY: We used the RED camera.  I LOVED it, the picture quality is fabulous -- we were able to crop the image, contort the frame in ways we wouldn't have been able to do with other cameras.  When you are shooting in 14 days on a shoe string budget, 1-2 takes per shot, those are the kind of options you need to have in the editing suite.

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

EMILY: Oh yes...certain scenes were cut entirely and many many lines were cut.  We clipped it as much as we could to get it as funny as possible.  We kept pushing ourselves to make it work, make it the best film we could make and we didn't give up.   We had some people trying to tell us it was "good enough" many times, but we didn't buy it. Thank God.

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

EMILY: The smartest thing we did is to surround ourselves with a fabulous crew that really worked very hard and cared about the movie.  The dumbest?  We trusted some people we shouldn't have, put too many eggs in a very faulty basket and lost a lot of valuable post-production time.

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

EMILY: Publicity and Budgeting.  Publicity needs to start before the script is even completed.  There should be a plan in place for creating a fan base as soon as you know you are moving forward with the production. Budget for that publicity!  Budget for film festivals, if you are going that route and deliverables to your distributors.  

Things like that add up, especially when you don't have any money left in the bank. Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign and some pretty amazing supporters we have a little cushion now for a limited theatrical release and those added expenses we didn't budget for.  We are very grateful to our backers!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos on "The Last Broadcast"

How did this project begin?

LANCE WEILER: Stefan and I got excited about the prospects of being able to edit on your desktop, so we got the board and started messing around and built some systems and then started making this movie almost as a lark, to see how little we could make it for. And that's when we came up with the idea and the storyline for The Last Broadcast.

STEFAN AVALOS: We came up with a very detailed outline and we did script out a lot of scenes. But then we decided to basically do a question-and-answer role-playing game with a lot of the people for interviews. We would give them the answers to the questions and then we would keep asking them the questions in various ways, and sometimes ask them questions that they did not have the answers to. We would give them only as much information as their character in the movie would have. And since we were shooting in video we would just let the camera roll, and we were able to get some great performances that way.

LANCE WEILER: We wrote it knowing what we had access to, which I think really helped to keep it low cost. Everyone in it are friends and family. We knew that if we cast ourselves in it that we were guaranteed to show up. And we knew that we would work cheap. We also structured the movie so that we would be shooting and doing a lot of the sound work ourselves; a lot of the movie consists of us actually on-camera and holding mics in the scenes. So I think it was a very conscious effort to try to work within the limitations that we had. Stefan had already made a previous film, The Game, so he was well-versed in guerilla techniques and we applied a lot of those to the making of the movie.

STEFAN AVALOS: We joked that the first thing we tried to get rid of when we made this movie was film, shooting digitally, and the second thing were the actors, because you have to feed them and hope they show up.

None of the people in the movie were professional actors, so we didn't really want to script their stuff, we thought that wouldn't work at all. Including ourselves; I didn't think that I'd be able to pull off a serious acting role requiring scripted dialogue. But it was very tight improvisation; we knew exactly where the story was going to go--the beginning, the middle, the end--so it wasn't like we were just winging it on set.

A lot of people thought it was a real documentary when it came out ...

LANCE WEILER: I think a lot of time it's the details that convince people. There were things that would happen that helped, almost accidents. Everyone brought different things at different times; like the way Tony (playing a cop) put ATF on his shirt that day.

STEFAN AVALOS: We call it Theater of the minimal. The psychologist is a friend of ours who does high-end carpentry. But we brought some psychology books, just a couple little things here and there --

LANCE WEILER: And that birdhouse.

STEFAN AVALOS: Yes, the cuckoo clock birdhouse. It's amazing how little it takes to convince people. Which is something we were commenting on in the movie: What's reality, what do you believe? And I found it amazing how readily people believed the movie, based on just a couple little pseudo-realities within the movie. I think a lot of documentary filmmakers were perturbed by that.

So was the low budget a blessing or a burden?

LANCE WEILER: Not having any money made us be more creative. I think sometimes there's a tendency to fall back on money as an answer to a problem, where we found ourselves brainstorming and trying to find ways to make things work without the money.

STEFAN AVALOS: Having no money and really spending no money gave us a carefree attitude that I've never had before or since making movies. We didn't have a producer breathing down our necks concerned about a budget that was spiraling out of control. It's ironic that no having money gave us that freedom.

LANCE WEILER: I remember the shock when we totaled up the receipts, to see what the budget at the end. We rounded up, but it was very close, maybe within 28 cents, of $900. And that was the first time we really knew what we had spent.

STEFAN AVALOS: We had wanted to make a movie for no money, but we missed the mark by 900 bucks.