Thursday, June 28, 2012

Desiree Lim on “The House”


What was your filmmaking background before making The House?

DESIREE: My career started in TV broadcast in Japan working as Associate Producer and Director on news and documentary shows.  In 2000, I wrote and directed my first dramatic TV movie in Japan and have been writing/directing/producing dramatic TV since.  

I moved from Tokyo to Vancouver and Floored By Love was my first English language drama for prime time TV in Canada that became the first drama that touched on same-sex marriage in Canada shortly after it was legalized.  The House is my first full-length feature film.

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

DESIREE: I've always been fascinated by ghost stories since I was a child, growing up in a superstitious Chinese family in Malaysia.  So ghost stories have always lurked somewhere in the back of my mind.  

When a feature film project I was supposed to make in 2010 didn't quite take off because of financial difficulties, I wanted to make another film in the meantime - something that would have very limited locations and can be filmed on a shoestring budget as I didn't have the real money. And then an old idea I had about a woman trapped in a house who begin to form relationships with the spirits around her came back to me.  

I started to imagine who this woman is and created her character first.  Then one by one, the other ghost characters started to take form and their stories intertwined with the main character like a jigsaw puzzle and that was how I revealed them in the script - piece by piece until we finally see the big picture in the end and find out who they really are.


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

DESIREE: This film was funded entirely from my own money.  The plan is to recoup by selling to world territories (TV and DVD rights) through my Sales Agent.  It will not have a theatrical release so we hope to recoup through world sales and DVD/VOD in North America.

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

DESIREE: Canon Mark II D5.  I was very impressed by how good the quality of the image is.  It's also very versatile because of its size as a DSLR.  This is the the smallest camera I have ever shot any film with.  

What I found most challenging with this camera is the focus issues.  We didn't have a focus puller, so the moving shots were very tough to hit the mark.  Audio issues can be a pain as well.  Despite some technical limitations from a DSLR camera when shooting moving pictures, I was pleasantly surprised by the visuals and image quality, especially holding its own on the big screen.  


How did you and your DP achieve the look of the movie? 

DESIREE: I wanted the whole film to have a very cold, blue tone to it for the most part because all the characters are dead - even the main character who is technically the only one still breathing -- her soul is suffering from a self-imposed internal death.   

A lot of the color tone was achieved in the color timing.  The tone only warms up toward the end of the film when the main character finally starts to come back to life ie she experiences a kind of "resurrection of her soul" and finds herself again.  The blood on her face returns and she is alive again.  

We also played with reflection and light in many of the shots to metaphorically represent this house of mirrors as a "place of reflection" for all the characters who were looking everywhere else but within themselves for answers to the dilemmas they each face.  The ghosts do not come across as “spirits” as much as mortals with flesh and blood whose presence is as transient as rays of sunlight hitting the wall at a certain time of the day.  

They are as tangible as one manages to “catch and perceive them” when their paths happen to cross with each other at a given time.   And the shadows and light captures that kind of transient quality on screen.           


You wore a lot of hats on this project -- producer, director, writer. What's the upside and the downside of working that way?

DESIREE: The upside is that you have total creative control over your work by wearing all those hats, and when everything pays off at the end of the day, the gratification and rewards that come with that is priceless.   You also learn a lot more for the work you put into all those roles in one single production.   

The downside would be the uphill battle to strive for balance between all those roles and constantly wrestling with the stress and fear of falling short in one of them because of the risk of spreading yourself too thin during production.  The trick is finding the will and grit to rise up to that challenge every single time!   

And it's not any different with every production, you start all over again from scratch each time. 


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

DESIREE: Throwing out scenes we didn't have time to shoot and as a result, the film turned out better off without them was probably the smartest thing I managed to do, both as Writer and Director.  

The dumbest thing I did was nearly crushing the movie lights by pressing the wrong button for the garage door when we were shooting the cab scene -- the door jammed right into the lights but luckily nothing and no one was crushed because of that!

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

DESIREE: Always find creative solutions to work with the location, actors and conditions on the day and not be afraid to throw your plans out the window when you need to.  The best creativity sometimes comes from "letting go" and trusting the process. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Tom Malloy on “Bankroll: A New Approach to Financing Feature Films”


Why did you decide to expand your career, from actor to actor/producer?

TOM: After my film Gravesend came out in 1998, with Oliver Stone behind it, I thought I was going to be famous right away.  When that didn't happen, the roles were getting smaller and the auditions were going away.  I think when my agent let me go around 2000, I felt I needed to take control of my own career.

Nowadays "multi-hyphenate" is almost required.  Back then, it was unheard of and/or frowned upon, so I kind of feel I'm a trendsetter in that area!  I felt I was going to do it anyway, no matter who stood in my way.

What's the biggest misconception independent filmmakers have about film financing?

TOM: 1) It's something they can get someone else to do for them.  They don't want to put the effort in, and, 2) They need to raise millions.  This is now untrue (see next response)

How has film financing changed in the last five years?

TOM: Due to the banking crisis of September 2008, investors are a lot more scared to put money into anything, film included.  The economy tanking has created problems, but it has also created opportunities.  The truth is, you can make a movie these days for a fraction of the cost of what it used to be.  A movie made for $200,000 in 2005 would look like a glorified student film... it would have no stars and a non-professional crew.  Nowadays, that same movie can look like it cost $3 million, have several stars, and have a top-notch crew.

What was the best lesson you took away from the first film you raised financing for?

TOM: Never make promises.  I wasn't the producer who did this.  One of the other producers GUARANTEED an investor his money back and ran into problems when it didn't happen.  There are no guarantees in the film business.  We can try as hard as we can to make a good movie, which I can guarantee now but couldn't back then, but a return on investment is a crapshoot for even the biggest studio films.  Ask the producer of John Carter... he's now looking for a job.

What's the biggest or most common mistake a filmmaker can make while raising money for their movie?

TOM: He or she will get in front of the potential investor when the project is not ready.  You're not going to get a second chance.  You need to have all the five elements I outlined in Bankroll working for you.  This includes the Pitch, the Killer Script, The Right Budget, the Business Plan, and the Liabilities Addressed.  If even one of these steps is not executed properly, you're not going to get the money.

What still excites you about the money-raising portion of film production?

TOM: The close.  The day that check comes, or the wire hits, there's really no greater feeling in life.  It's when a project becomes "REAL." Real projects are hard to come by.  When the money closes you feels so good because you know you're making a movie.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Jason Schumacher on “The Telephone Game”


What was your filmmaking background before making The Telephone Game?

JASON: In high school, all my friends were in drama club so I eventually joined as an actor and was in every play they put on while I was there. I took a video class and ended up making a short slasher movie with Jesse Frankson (The Telephone Game). I actually almost didn't graduate because I devoted so much time to acting in plays and making movies.

After high school, I went to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee which was an eye-opening experience, being exposed to experimental cinema and just a whole variety of things I have never knew existed. I began dissecting all kinds of movies and learned how to edit film by hand with a razor and tape.

My second year of college I started a special effects business making rain and snow. About a year later, I was working on the Warner Bros. film, North Country, starring Charlize Theron. After paying off some debts, I used what little money I had left to fund my first feature, Stimulus. I hadn't really made many shorts other than a few 16mm films in college; I basically just jumped right into a feature. 

After that I directed several music videos, edited a documentary that got distributed and did a lot of professional PA work before jumping into The Telephone Game.


Where did the idea come from? What was the writing process like?

JASON: The film is actually unscripted. The actors used improvisation to create all the dialogue you hear in the film. So, the whole film was shot from a 5-page treatment that I wrote with a rough outline of the story and notes on what happened within each scene.

I also wrote backstories for the actors so they had a place to work from as we developed their characters. The Invisible Ropes, the play they are working on in the film was written by Wesley Tank, who plays the playwright and director in the film. When I cast him, he was really interested in writing the play that would be featured in the film. It worked out in an interested way, because the idea was that no one in film really understands what his character’s play is about or what they are getting themselves into, except him.

Wes wrote something that I know was very personal to him, but others in the cast of the film didn’t really feel like they understood it, which is the central theme to the film; how do we create art and what does it mean to share that with others, particularly in the world of theater and film, which are inherently collaborative art forms. So, it was a case of life imitating art, or perhaps art imitating life.


What were the positives and negatives of using improvisation the way you did?

JASON: The negative is that it’s difficult to plan and schedule. Logistically it’s very tough. Some scenes that I thought would be smaller became much bigger as we workshopped them and began to shoot them, which alters the schedule and the shooting plan.

You also really have to put a lot of trust in your actors and they have to put a lot of trust in you - trust that you’ll take the best of what they’re doing. It was also challenging in the editing room, since we had shot so much different stuff. We shot over 24 hours of footage in 17 days. 

The positive is that so many amazing things came out of the actor’s mouths that could have never been scripted. No one writer could have thought to sit down and write these particular words. It was a collective of people, all with their own ideas bouncing around, creating in the moment.

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

JASON: We used the HVX200. The great thing about it is that it’s fairly light weight and it’s pretty versatile for documentary style shooting, which we did to a certain extend in the film. The downside is that you can't change lenses and it’s difficult to get the shallow depth of field that you can now go on a DSLR.


What was your reasoning for shooting in black and white and how do you think that decision will help or hurt the movie?

JASON: When I was envisioning the film, all the images in my head didn’t have any color in them so I stuck with that intuition. I also wanted the film to not be committed to any specific time period. I wanted it to obviously not be the present and instead take place in an ambiguous past. Time period isn’t important to the story. I wanted something a little more timeless because it’s more about ideas, people and the creative process.

For a while it’s been considered somewhat of a hindrance to a distributor/ marketer if your film is in black and white, but the The Artist, which won the Best Picture Oscar last year, was a black and white film AND it was silent.
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I love black and white films.  There are so many films that were made before color was more of the standard that would be completely different had they been in color. The other nice thing about shooting a film that’s very low budget in black and white, is that it really helps in unifying your production design. People wore all kinds of colors that on set looked like they would clash but on camera looked like all part of the same world.


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

JASON: The smartest thing I did was cast some of the most interesting people I know, people that crack me up and are always entertaining to simply be around. I had a feeling that would translate to the screen. I knew that if I put them all in the same place something unique was bound to happen.

Dumbest? Looking back I wish I had a larger production team to help strictly on the organizational end. The people I did have were amazing, but we were still always a little shorthanded and everyone wore a lot of hats. As a smaller operation you end up having to juggle the creative side of it and the logistical/ planning side, which can be very difficult.  At times the crew was very small. I’m pretty sure the boom pole was held up by the ghost of an old submarine captain.

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

JASON: The whole thing has certainly been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever taken on. So, I learned a lot about myself and my own creative process as well as the creative processes of others. It taught me how to share and communicate my ideas with actors, be collaborative, while steering everyone in the same direction.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Actress/Writer Susan Coyne on “Slings and Arrows”

How did Slings and Arrows come about?

SUSAN COYNE: Well, I hadn't really set out to be a writer. But, I hit my late thirties, and I had two children and I couldn't travel across the country in the same way. And, famously, the parts thin out a bit as you get older. So I sort of hit my mid-life crisis and thought, "I'm just going to sit down and start writing," without really knowing where it was going to lead me. And then I got hooked up with somebody who said, "You know, I have a friend who works at Stratford and loves hearing your stories. Would you like to come up with a proposal for a TV series about Stratford?"

So I said, "Sure. I can do that." And then I came up with the premise for the series, basically, although at that time it was a half-hour comedy. We shopped it around and we got wonderful producers, Rhombus Media, involved and they put me together with Mark McKinney of Kids in the Hall, which was really kind of brilliant.

That was an interesting choice.

SUSAN COYNE: He was not the first person you'd think of pairing us with, but it was really great because Mark is so smart and really thinks outside the box constantly. He's worked a little bit in theater and so he knew something of this world as well. He said right away, "This isn't a half-hour, this is an hour, because there's too much good material here."

I think that was one of the most important things that happened, because we thought, “We're doing Shakespeare, we don't want this to be just punch lines and then cut to a commercial. We want to be brave about this and tackle what it's like to do these big plays.”

I'd never seen something like this done very well. I'd often seen actors made fun of, and it's easy. It's easy to satirize actors. I think we do it to a degree in the show. It's also easy to sentimentalize. But between those two extremes I've never seen anybody try to really show what it's like, and that in some ways it certainly matters to the people who do it and it might even mean something to those of us who watch. It might have some value, it might have some weight to it, it might not be a silly thing to do with your life. And that these people might have some passion that has some dignity to it.

Even as I say that I'm always cautious not to give it more weight than it's worth, but I think that when theater works well, everybody recognizes that there's something very powerful about it, transforming and ineffable and not silly at all. It's rare, but when you see it, there's nothing like it. You feel a little bit wrung out afterwards and your heart's beating faster and you feel chemically altered in some way.

It's that we wanted to get at: What is that thing that happens and how do people achieve that? We wanted to show people the kinds of conversations that go on in rehearsals as well as how terrifying it is and the ridiculous things we do to get ourselves where we have to be. All of that.

I always think that when there's a great deal of passion, then there's got to be some kind of dramatic or comic story. Or both.

How did Bob Martin get involved?

SUSAN COYNE: Bob was invited to join Mark and I after we had been wrestling with the series for a couple of years (in the midst of doing other projects- in my case, co-founding a theatre company and writing my first book). Neither Mark nor I had written a TV series before, but Bob had. His experience was the key to making us into a fully functioning writing team.

When you started the project, did you think it would only be for one season?

SUSAN COYNE: Exactly. Mark and I worked for a couple of years, because we were both doing other things. And it took a long time to figure out how this was going to go. We had six episodes in mind, we knew the play was Hamlet, we came up with the idea of the ghost and that our character was going to be a sort of Hamlet figure who was haunted almost in the same way that I was haunted by my theater school teachers. The ones who said those wonderful things and those terrible things, and you're always trying to prove something to them even if they're dead.

It turns out that three is a good number for a writing team, because we could always gang up on the other person and persuade them. The three-legged writing team is quite stable, actually. If you can't quite see something, one of the other two can explain it to you. And also Bob had real experience writing television in a way that Mark and I didn't. And he also has an amazing comic sensibility and a really delightful wit.

So when that came together the work started to go faster and we decided that six episodes would be really satisfying to tackle Hamlet. And that really was the plan until we finished it and watched it. The network said, would you like to go another year? And we looked at each other and I said, "Well, I think we should do a trilogy. If we're going to another one we should do three and we should do youth, middle-age and old age." That made sense to us and felt like it would be a satisfying arc.

We had the idea that, each season, we wanted to watch our characters through the filter of the play -- not in the way that you could draw straight lines between the stories and the play, but in a sort of general way being influenced by Shakespearean themes.

One of my favorite scenes in the series -- and one that really lays Shakespeare out and explains what's he's doing -- is the scene in the first season when the director, Geoffrey, explains to the actress playing Ophelia exactly what her "nonsense rhymes" actually mean. Did you find that there were scenes you created based on things you'd actually experienced?

SUSAN COYNE: There were. But some of them are so disguised that they take on a difference resonance. For example, Geoffrey reminds me of a director I worked with early on who directed me in The Glass Menagerie. He was a refugee from the Second World War, a Holocaust survivor. His family perished and he escaped to Winnipeg. He talked to me about how theater had saved his life, and it meant so much to me, the way he talked about it. It was a life force for him.

I guess there's an element where I've worked with really great directors for whom theater has saved their life. And that passion for its humanity -- for the idea of theater being a place where we can be very human with each other -- is something that I've retained and I always aspire to in the theater. The idea that it's about people communicating; there's no tricks, there's no cinema, it's just us. We're all in the same room breathing together, and if it all works out, we'll all end up having the same heart-rate at the end of the show.

Were you saddled with handling the female point of view on the show and the female characters or was that shared?

SUSAN COYNE: Oh it was definitely shared. Martha Burns, who plays Ellen, is one of my closest friends. We've known each other a long time, we grew up in Winnipeg together, so I loved coming up with storylines for her, like Ellen getting audited. But we all wrote the Ellen character and we all wrote the Anna character.

I loved aspects of Anna, but the boys, actually, I think loved Anna even more. They loved putting her in these terrible situations. The scene where she had to have sex, Mark wanted it to be really explicit and hardcore, and I finally said, "Look, guys, it's me playing the part. So let's just re-think this, shall we?"

And that's when Bob said, "Well, we could do it in the dark." I said "That sounds very good."

Do you have any special or favorite moments from the series?

SUSAN COYNE: I loved everything to do with Bill Hutt in the third season. I was in a production of King Lear with him, at Stratford in the young company, and he is a hero of mine. He's gone now, and his Lear was never filmed. So to get the little bit that we get of him, doing the great speeches, that I feel proudest of, actually.

That is the most important thing to me about the series: that we got him. We always wanted him; we wanted him in the second season and he wasn't available. But we got him in the third season. And then within 18 months he had died. So it was amazing. He was such a wonderful guy and he threw himself into it. I loved that.

Other than that, there was a tiny moment, backstage in the second season, between Geoffrey and Ellen, where they're watching Romeo and Juliet. And Ellen says, "I hate this play." I must say, watching Romeo and Juliet as a middle-aged person, you watch it and you think, "I hate this play." I mean, I love it of course, but you're in such a different headspace from the first time you played it, you can't help thinking, "What, are you nuts?"

What did you take away from the Slings and Arrows experience?

SUSAN COYNE: I learned a lot from working with two other people whose sensibilities were similar to mine, but who also pushed me ways into places I otherwise never would have gone. Although we fought a lot at the beginning, we got into a place where it was much easier to say, "Here's a sketch of the scene, but you should write it because you have that voice down better." It became very respectful -- and although there were still fights, they were good fights; not pulling in different directions, but creative fights -- where you just knew that the other person, it was just their thing and they could write it better. And you knew that when it came time to take over another scene, they would say, "You should have a go at that."

I think that's hard to replicate, when you have developed a working relationship like that with people.

As for the acting, that was more intimidating. Film is socially so different from theater. You don't have an audience; the only person who's actually watching your performance is the director, because everyone else is watching other things, like how your scarf is tied. So I found that a bit intimidating.

But there was a very collegial feeling, and we had so many theater actors coming onto the set, and so it felt much more about the work than it usually does. That was very freeing for me, because I've always felt that I'm very uptight on the set and never felt very free. And so to be with this wonderful team, on a series that you created yourself, playing this lovely character was wonderful. I adored playing Anna.