Thursday, April 26, 2012

Travis Mills on “The Detective's Lover”

What did you learn on The Big Something that had an impact on how you produced The Detective's Lover?

TRAVIS: The Big Something was a confirmation that we could tell a good story in a short span of time with a small amount of money. It also pushed me in the opposite direction: towards a dark story, a more handheld visual approach, and a subtle acting style. I must admit that I did not learn some of the lessons of The Big Something till after I had completed The Detective's Lover.

Where did the idea for The Detective's Lover come from and what was the writing process like?

TRAVIS: The day after we wrapped The Big Something, I felt the urge to make a Film Noir. The film I'd just completed was a murder-mystery but it owed more to Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. than it did to Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep.

I divorced myself from humor and dived head on into the murky waters of Noir cinema. Gus Edwards (my producing partner) and I have long discussed what are the true elements of Film Noir and this is my attempt to make a film in the genre.

The writing process was very fast: ten days from the start of the outline to the finished screenplay. I will try to write all future scripts this way, a dangerous creative journey with no interference. Self-analyzing and the criticism of other must come later.

You made The Big Something for $2,000. What was your budget for The Detective's Lover and what did you spend it on?

TRAVIS: We made The Detective's Lover for $3000. I still have been able to find skilled and committed cast/crew to work for free, either for the experience or faith in the project. What we did spend went mostly towards our trip to Winslow, a small town in Northern Arizona where part of the film takes place. The rest was used to coax some locations and supply my cinematographer, Dave Surber, with the bare necessary equipment.

Why did you decide to make the movie in black and white?

TRAVIS: It was my initial instinct, though it earned an immediate negative response from my collaborators. It was even suggested that we shoot in color and then make the decision in post. But I hate options; they breed lazy filmmakers who avoid hard decisions. It is right for the genre and the story.

What are the technical considerations (pro and con) for shooting in black and white?

TRAVIS: This would be a better question for my cinematographer, since I'm not very technical. But I will tell you that it was refreshing to not have to worry as much about color temperature when lighting. Another positive element was the ability to get away with more on a low budget, being more flexible with how we managed action sequences and production design.

Though I'm sure there are others, the one con for me was the way this style of shooting restricted or changed information in the image. To convey story and character, we were stripped of basic elements that we take for granted in color and it was sometimes difficult to find ways of communicating these ideas without it.

In your interview for The Big Something, you said for your next project you wanted to challenge your actors and yourself to know the characters better -- did you meet that challenge and, if so, how?

TRAVIS: It's an ongoing challenge, perhaps the biggest one. I made progress.

In rehearsals, I pushed the actors (many from the cast of The Big Something) towards more subtle performances, reserving heights of expression and emotion for key moments. I think the best directors are manipulators of minds and I am still learning how to steer the various types of individuals I work with. To challenge myself, I took on the lead role in the film. I wanted to know what it was like to create a character and sustain him for the length of a production. I felt I had to play him the day I finished the script and, good or bad, I will never regret that decision.

As a final note, I hope to work less with dialog and formal scripts. The actors I work with rely too much on the lines, so I aim to remove these crutches and force them to walk in the character's steps without them.

What was the smartest thing you did on this movie? The dumbest?

TRAVIS: I can't credit myself for being clever. I creatively produced as usual to make something for diddly squat. The smartest thing I did was to make another feature immediately after the first one.

I can pinpoint a specific moment of stupidity however. During a Thai restaurant scene where my character is supposed to eat spicy curry that tortures his tongue while being scolded by a detective, I decided to squirt Sriracha (hot sauce) into my mouth. Unfortunately I did not feel the effects till after the take and scene were over. It was a long drive home.

And, once again, what will you take to the next project that you learned from this one?

TRAVIS: Beyond the directions I've already mentioned, I want to break the structure of my stories and productions. There is no correct formula for cinema and after two films made with the same blueprint (The Detective's Lover could be called the evil twin of The Big Something) and the same method of filmmaking (two to four weeks of straight production), I will make a different kind of film. What that is, I'm not quite sure yet.

Specifically, as a director, I have learned from my two features to be more bold. In some ways, I have made these films as a coward of cinema and watching Ford, Hawks, Herzog, Clouzot and others, I know that I must toughen up and forge ahead as a storyteller, no matter what.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dave Ash on “Connected”

What was your filmmaking background before making Connected?

DAVE ASH: Prior to making Connected, I made the feature film, Love: A Documentary, as well as five short films—some of which have been seen by human beings.

I got into filmmaking in 2005, after trying my hand at screenwriting a couple years earlier. Since college, I had always done some writing on the side--first a newspaper column, then freelancing for magazines, then I wrote a book no one asked for or was interested in, and then I decided to go into screenwriting because there’s just not enough screenplays out there.

Soon after writing my first script and learning the market for screenplays, it became apparent to me that no one was ever going to make my movie. So, in early 2005, I decided to take every class in filmmaking I could find at the Minnesota IFP so that I could learn how to make my scripts into films myself.

My first short film, Who Killed Tony, was made in a Video Production class at IFP. I wrote the script for a class assignment and then we shot it during a three-hour class using the other students as the actors, with myself playing the lead. Sounds kinda lame, I realize, but the film had a very creepy low-budget ($20) vibe that somehow worked in the context of the script and the film ended up playing at a number of festivals.

From there, my instructor in that class, Chris Mick, asked if I’d like to work with him on making more short films. So, we made four more short films over the next year or so, and then the feature film, Love, which was released in 2008 and screened at a few theaters in the Twin Cities.

Where did the idea for Connected come from and what was the writing process like?

DAVE ASH: I wrote Connected during a dark passage in my life effectuated by a series of unfortunate events I won’t get into here. But, the net result was that during the time I was writing the film I was quite depressed and feeling increasingly detached from everything that sustains you in life—my friends, my family, my work, and, especially, my God or any sense of spirituality.

So, as a form of therapy more than anything else, I wrote the film as an expression of this feeling of isolation, as well as the corresponding innate yearning to feel part of a larger whole--even though logic and reason tell us that God doesn’t exist.

Thus, this existential quandary is expressed more specifically through the central theme of the film: If we will soon be able to completely reverse engineer and replicate the workings of the human brain on computer software (a very real impending landmark referred to in scientific circles as “the singularity”), then how can we believe that God, and even love for that matter, are anything more than make-believe, self-sustaining constructs?

So, the idea of the film is to ask the question as clearly and honestly as possible through the relationship and arcs of the lead characters, John and Emily. I created these characters to speak to this ontological dilemma, as well as the more specific feelings of disillusionment I was feeling at the time.

But, the point of the film is not to provide anything resembling a definitive answer to the central existential question posed by the narrative, because clarity on that one is pretty elusive, as most of us know. The hope in writing the film was that others who have had similar struggles as John and Emily would be able to relate to their feelings of isolation in an increasingly alienating modern world and, for a couple hours anyway, feel a little less alone in their loneliness.

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

DAVE ASH: I financed the film entirely myself. I’m lucky enough to have a decent paying day job outside of filmmaking so I’ve always personally funded 100% of my projects. It’s possible I could raise some cash for a film, but I really enjoy the artistic autonomy of not having to answer to a deep-pocketed “Executive Producer” or to investor(s) that would be looking for some kind of return on their contribution.

It’s also conceptually possible that I could recoup my cost for the film, but it wasn’t a huge investment to begin with, so I’m not losing sleep over whether I ever get paid back. I just really enjoy filmmaking and collaborating with other like-minded people and that’s always been the pay off for me.

However, would I ever want to make millions on my films and blow off steam every year at Cannes by smoking cigars and drinking cognac from snifters on Harvey Weinstein's yacht with Zooey Deschanel while talking about the gritty authenticity of independent film and the soulless excesses of the Hollywood studio system? The answer to that question is yes.

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

DAVE ASH: We used a Panasonic HVX200 and shot in 24p. I thought it was a great camera for the handheld style we went with for the majority of the film in that it was light enough for Jason Schumacher, our DP, to move around with while still giving us a high-quality picture. That said, the camera was still heavy enough that he did want to kill me several times after I asked for additional takes for a few very long handheld tracking shots.

Describe a typical shoot day -- how much did you try to get done and how did you make that happen?

DAVE ASH: Not sure this if is how Dreamworks does it, but we shot for a full day about once a month on average for a little more than a year. “See you next month,” was often how we said goodbye after each shoot. Most of the people working on the film had day jobs and other commitments; so once a month was about as often as we could all get together.

For each shooting day, we would shoot as much as was reasonably possible to get through in 8-10 hours for the group of scenes in a given location. For the shoots at private businesses such as the coffee shop, bookstore, diner, movie theater, et. al, we were always shooting early in the morning before the establishment opened for business. So, getting enough coverage and takes in before the manager opened the doors was probably the most stressful aspect of directing the film.

The protracted schedule we followed required a lot of patience, but I found it very helpful to have the time between scenes to treat the original script as a draft and thoroughly re-write the upcoming scenes to be shot based on how I saw the characters and story developing in previous shoots. So, rather than following a more traditional model of starting with a full script and executing that story as well as possible, I used the original script as more of an outline that I was continually filling in based on how the characters and story grew through the performances of the actors and how scenes were actually playing out--which is invariably different than what you visualize when you are constructing the screenplay.

How did you and your DP come to choose a handheld look for the film -- and what's the upside and downside of that sort of global decision?

DAVE ASH: I always felt that the unvarnished realism of these characters and their interactions lent itself to the immediacy of an uninhibited handheld camera. There’s not a lot of car chases, or sword fights, or marauding aliens in the film, so what we are left with is real people in everyday situations and we wanted to capture that with the voyeuristic intimacy of documentary style camera work.

Other than the aforementioned upper body work that must be endured by the DP, another challenge with this style of filmmaking is getting the right level of camera movement for a given scene—too little movement and what you get is no different than a standard tripod shot, but too much movement and editing shots together cohesively becomes a post-production nightmare.

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

DAVE ASH: I was fortunate enough to have on board some of the most experienced theater actors in the Twin Cities, so I think the smartest thing I did as a director was realize that with this group I could and should give them all a lot of latitude to explore their characters by not tying them down to verbatim line readings that tracked exactly to how I heard the characters in my head when writing the script.

Along these lines, we also shot what we began to call “actor takes” for every scene. In other words, after I felt satisfied that we had what we needed for a given camera set-up based on how I felt the action should unfold, I turned the scene over to the actors and told them to interpret the scene in whatever they wanted. This approach allowed the actors to switch from trying to consciously modulate their performance to what they thought I wanted to a method of more directly expressing their characters, which invariably yields a more realistic scene.

The dumbest thing I did during production was not shoot enough coverage for certain scenes—specifically cutaway shots. In the argot of indie filmmaking, this means not getting enough “sitting cat shots.” In other words, when you’re shooting two people talking for any length of time, always get a shot of the cat lying down on the opposite side of the room. Then if you can’t get a cut to match in the edit, you can always cutaway to the cat during that part of the dialogue and then cut back to the action. So, while editing the film, there were numerous times I was kicking myself in the ass for not getting enough sitting cat shots.

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

DAVE ASH: On this project, I think I learned that what matters most as a filmmaker is perseverance, because a production never unfolds anywhere near the way you think it will. And, in that sense, I think scrambling and improvising aren’t part of indie filmmaking--that is indie filmmaking.

Along these lines, because the journey is always long, challenging, and often frustrating, the most important decision you will make as a director will always be who you choose to have along for the ride. If the folks on the bus for this bumpy trip don’t get along, it can be a miserable experience.

But, if you’re lucky, as I was with Connected, during this time together you get to forge battle-tested relationships with fun, inspiring people that will last long after the film has played.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Sylvia Caminer on "Tanzania: A Friendship Journey"

What was your filmmaking background before making Tanzania: A Friendship Journey?

SYLVIA: I come from a narrative film background and have been producing indie film mostly out of NYC since 1993. I got to work with and learn from a lot of really talented filmmakers and actors.

My very first film job was as a p.a. for one of my idols, Martin Scorsese, on The Age of Innocence; from there I went on to work with another idol, Robert Deniro, on A Bronx Tale. For a few years I was kind of the "go to' p.a. in NYC to work with extra's on big films with lots of background actors.

While p.a.'ing I got my first big break producing a film for writer/director, John Gallagher. I had produced a couple of music videos for him. I was also the casting director and assistant director. The film was Men Lie and we won a bunch of film festival awards. I was busy producing films for the next eight years until personal reasons took me out of NYC and to Florida in 2001. That was when I started producing and directing for Discovery/Travel Channel and got to travel the country and then Europe and South America. I even won an Emmy award, which was pretty thrilling.

The feature documentary bug hit me and I started work on a long-term project, Angels Among Us, which is an extremely personal film that I am still working on.

Tanzania is the first full doc feature I have directed and produced and since completing that in 2011 I have completed another feature doc, An Affair of the Heart -- the journey of Rick Springfield. My tastes/interests are quite varied and I plan to continue to explore different genres. I have a narrative feature film, which I wrote along with John Gallagher, The Exchange, which I plan to direct Winter of 2013.

What was your pre-production process like?

SYLVIA: It's funny I tend to live by the words "a film is made or broke in pre-production" but this all happened super FAST! I only met the subjects of the film in November and that was when I started to conceptualize the journey of the film and we were in Tanzania filming in early February.

Much of the pre-production process was spent working out logistics with the executive producer, Michael Hinds. I also spent countless hours dealing/thinking thru safety and power issues. I knew there would be plenty of places where we would not have access to electricity and that would of course make dumping footage and charging batteries very challenging.

We had a to buy a bunch of spare computer batteries and memory cards. We even arranged to have a very small generator to take up Mt. Kilimanjaro though we knew there was no way to insure it would work all the way to the top.

The two subjects of the film, Venance (Ven) Ndibalema & Kristen Kenney did quite a bit of research. Especially Kristen, who had never been to Africa or anywhere off the beaten path. Ven and I worked quite a bit figuring out the route we would take across Tanzania. It all had to make sense though within the confines of the emotional journey so we often did not take the shortest/most economical path.

There were also things like international insurance, immunizations, medication and endurance training -- to better prepare me to make it to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro (not sure how effective that was since I only had a period of four weeks for this). Budget concerns, visas and shooting permits also plagued our pre-production process.

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

SYLVIA: We had some incredible obstacles to overcome regarding the budget. Initially we were supposed to have the majority of our funding (for the shoot and post-production) from one source and 10 days before we were supposed to get on the planes it became very apparent that they were not going to come through. Tickets were bought, shots taken, visa's and permits lined up and no money to take us thru the shoot in Tanzania.

I made a hail mary pass to a friend/colleague I had worked with previously and he came through with the cash we needed to get us thru the 6 week shoot in Tanzania. This really saved the entire production. I knew this meant having to come home and immediately look for finishing funds but I felt confident that with beautiful and compelling footage we could put together a killer teaser and raise the rest. That's exactly how it happened.

David Dean edited an amazing trailer and with that I raised the rest of the money. I was super fortunate to find someone who really believed in the project and the vision of what we were trying to do and he took us through most of post with just a few additional smaller partners.

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

SYLVIA: We shot on the Sony EX1 and EX3. I love these cameras, they are small enough not to intimidate and also capture great images and sound. I think the person behind the camera is incredibly important and I had two brilliant cameramen, Douglas Bachman and Francisco Aliwalas.

There is nothing I really hated about the cameras, the work flow was pretty simple, though quite time consuming. The SXS memory cards however are ridiculously expensive! And that was a bit limiting especially with our power concerns. These cameras are real sturdy, they survived crazy conditions (bitter cold & excessive winds) climbing up Mt. Kilimanjaro and hours and hours of the bumpiest roads you can imagine! We also had a third cameraman, Scott Shepherd, who shot with us on Mt. Kilimanjaro and in the Serengeti. He used the JVC GYHD100.

What was the smartest thing you did during production?

SYLVIA: Allowing time to film interviews with the two subjects of the film on an almost daily basis. This really allowed me to check in with them emotionally nearly every day and capture their immediate thoughts and reactions.

The dumbest?

SYLVIA: Having a couple of guys whom we rented a large 4-wheel drive vehicle from extort money from us. In fact they actually held Kristen hostage until we paid this additional money. Pretty crazy ...

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

SYLVIA: Always be open to the unexpected and never no matter what change your moral compass because of what you're filming or the hectic pressure/schedule you are on.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Nancy Morgan and Rance Howard on "Grand Theft Auto"

How did you first hear about Grand Theft Auto?

NANCY MORGAN: My agents were contacted by Ron! Can you imagine? The reason for that was when he was casting for this role he was for someone who, first and foremost, he didn't have to pay a lot. It couldn't be a star -- it had to be an unknown. At the time, one of my first movie that I'd ever acted in -- in fact, one of my first acting jobs ever, because I came to Hollywood untrained and unprepared -- was a movie called Fraternity Row, with Paul Newman's son, Scott Newman, in his first and only picture. And it was out in the theaters when Ron was casting and he liked my performance in it and found my agent.

What was the audition like?

NANCY MORGAN: Back then I used to say to myself, 'There are a lot of people here who know a lot about acting, but all I really know is that you just have to pretend that it's happening.' And so, during the audition process, I did as close to what I felt a human being would do under the circumstances, and that was to say the lines like I meant them, and then when Ron was talking to me, react to what he was saying. And that's all I knew -- that was about as much acting as I knew.

Ron later said to me, 'You know, I interviewed a couple hundred girls. Did you ever wonder why you got it?' And I said, 'Yeah.' And he said, 'Because you were the only one who, when you weren't speaking, was still listening.'

Because that was the only thing he told me, that was something that forever stuck with me as one of the things that was important and not everyone's top tool.

Did you handle any of the stunts yourself?

NANCY MORGAN: If you're a good driver, and you're a little bit fearless, you're going to do some of that stuff, because it makes it more exciting and real. So when those shots of us going, "Whoa!," I'm driving. When you see the car stop suddenly along the freeway, and fishtail along the edge, or start up really fast, it is me driving.

What I didn't do were any of the really long shots from the air -- those were all done where you can't see the people inside. The scenes where we're just talking were frequently towed. But I did a lot of driving.

Did you rehearse much?

NANCY MORGAN: The cars rehearsed. The stunts rehearsed. And the explosions rehearsed. We basically just had to know our lines and pretty much bring it to life. We would run through the scene once or twice, but really rarely for the acting of it. Ron knew what he was doing, so he didn't really need it. And every scene I was in was with Ron, so it was like, 'Could I do it? Did I know what I was doing or not?'

When you're hiring a young actress or actor and you know you're not going to have a lot of rehearsal time, you better do your best to get the person that you want to see, as opposed to the great actress who will be able to bring Paula to life. So, it's just me, saying the lines and trying to bring some life to them.

Looking at the script, there appeared to be a thousand interchangeable scenes of Ron and I in the car, talking about this and that. I understood enough about story to know that it had to build and climax and resolve. And so the first thing I did with my script was to break it down into an outline and had an understanding of where Ron and I were in our relationship, from the first scene to the last.

Ron, on several occasions -- since he was in charge of the whole picture, directing everything -- he realized that I had done this and that I was aware of where we were in the script at any given point in terms of his and my relationship. He would sometimes say, 'Where are we?' And I would say, 'Well, this has happened and this has happened and this has happened, but this hasn't happened yet, so we do know about this but we don't know about that.' And he's say, 'Okay. Got it thanks.'

My breaking it down was something that I could do that was helpful to him and that would orient him as to where we were in the scene, and then Ron just acts -- he doesn't even to have to worry.

RANCE HOWARD: Ron had acted in Eat My Dust, and it had been a huge success for Roger. He wanted to do another car chase/car crash film. Ron said, 'I will do another movie for you, with one additional job added.' And Roger said, 'What is that?' And Ron said, 'I want to direct. And Roger said, 'Well, Ron, you always looked like a director to me.'

Now the question becomes, what is the movie?

Who came up with the title?

RANCE HOWARD: Roger already had the title. He had tested it. It was going to be called Grand Theft Auto, and it was about young people on the run. He said, 'If you and your dad could come up with a story like that, we'd have a deal.'

So we sat down and put our heads together and started kicking ideas around. We did a treatment first; Roger read the treatment and loved it and we went right to script.

Why a Rolls Royce and the demolition derby?

RANCE HOWARD: We thought the Rolls Royce would be the perfect automobile for the girl's father to have, and then she would take his car because he had, in essence, taken her car. And then we'd put the car through all the punishment we could, in order to get back at her father, and then finally wreck it at the demolition derby.

I was fascinated with the demolition derby. At one time, Ron, Clint and I went to see a demolition derby, and it was just fascinating. At that time I had considered writing a script about a demolition derby. Then with Grand Theft Auto, it just seemed perfect for the car to end up in a demolition derby.

How was it for Ron working with his father and his brother on the movie? I'm guessing it's okay, as he's done it in just about every movie he's made since then.

I think any director likes to use people that he is familiar with and that he can trust and has confidence in. Both Clint and I fit nicely into those categories. And his mother, at that time, had been working quite a lot coordinating extras for other filmmakers. And so she coordinated a lot of the extras for that film, in particular the senior citizens on the bus.

Involving his mother, and his brother Clint -- an excellent actor, and who was at that time, almost as big a name as Ron -- in the film just made good sense.

We had been feeding the crew Kentucky Fried Chicken for lunch every day, and they were getting close to a mutiny, because they didn't appreciate having Kentucky Fried Chicken for lunch every day. And, of course, the reason we were doing it was the most reasonably-priced thing we could give them.

Ron's wife, Cheryl heard about our problem, and she said, 'Let me cook lunch. Give me the budget that you're spending for the Kentucky Fried Chicken, and I'll prepare a hot lunch for the crew.' And I said, 'Cheryl, you don't want to do that.' And she said, 'Yes, I do. I can do that.'

She enlisted the help of her grandmother, and they prepared lunches on that budget that -- if you run into any of the crew to this day -- they will comment on what great food Cheryl provided for that shoot.

What's the biggest lesson you took away from the experience?

RANCE HOWARD: Stand up for what you believe in. For example, if we had allowed ourselves to be easily talked out of it being a comedy and cut it as a straight action picture.

You need to be tenacious; you need to stick to your guns, but at the same time, you have to be prepared to compromise and negotiate. That was really driven home to me, the importance of compromise. There are a lot of aspects of making a film where you can compromise. In some places, you can't. You need to know what compromises can be made and what compromises can't be made.

Coming to that realization is important: understanding that you're not going to get everything you want, you're going to get part of what you want.

Filmmaking is a team effort, it's really team work. We happened to have a great team.