What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make Dead Dad?
KEN: I studied film history, criticism and production and received both my Bachelors and Masters in the field. During that time I made dozens of short films and dabbled in music videos and commercials, basically everything but feature films.
What was the genesis of the project and what was the scriptwriting process like?
KEN: I had just finished my Master’s degree, moved out to Los Angeles along with my classmates and for months was stuck in a monotonous cycle of interviewing and working soul crushing freelance jobs. I was heading into my late 20s and all I could think about were the great directors who had completed their first film around my age. I must have been channeling Fassbinder’s energy at the time because as soon as I found a stable job I knew I had to make something NOW. That was around August of 2010, and I knew I wanted to start submitting to festivals in the fall of 2011.
I began with a blank slate because the screenplays I had been working on would’ve taken another year to write and a six-figure budget to produce. I approached a good friend, Kyle Arrington, to co-write a film that would shoot the following spring. I specified that it would be a no-budget film with a large emphasis on improvisation to meet the production’s needs. I didn’t have to do much convincing, as he was also eager to get a feature off the ground. It didn’t take long before he tossed me a line about siblings dealing with their father’s death and I latched on; it was a simple idea with endless possibilities and I was ready to get started.
We met for a couple weeks and had casual discussions about our families and experiences with loss. I recorded every conversation and took extensive notes on those initial meetings, which became our foundation throughout the writing process. We continued to meet for several weeks until we felt comfortable with the characters and their backstories. We then spent two full weekends in my apartment plotting out the film with index cards on my dining room wall.
After we had a diagram of the film, we took alternate passes at the outline for a couple months and continued the same process to complete the first draft of the screenplay. We entered principal photography without a locked, shooting draft, since I knew rewriting would be necessary to compensate for our hectic schedule and limited resources. As I mentioned before, I had also planned on improvising with my actors and throughout the shoot we did a lot of rewriting on set so the actors could hit the beats with their own words. We were shooting mostly on weekends, so I made adjustments during the week to tie together the moments that were discovered on set.
Can you talk about how you raised your budget -- your Kickstarter campaign -- and your financial plan for recouping your costs?
KEN: From the onset I didn’t want to be that director who maxed out his credit cards and went into debt to make HIS FILM. Instead I surrounded myself with talented people who were all searching for ways to breakthrough and prove that we were capable feature length filmmakers; I simply presented them with an opportunity. The result was a successful Kickstarter campaign with contributions from family and friends of all members of the cast and the crew at the time.
We also received contributions from outside of our circles because of the effort put into the campaign. Where we stood out, I think, is with the character vignettes that we called Kickstarter teasers. Unlike other projects that only did the introductions or showed a trailer of a film that was near completion, we shot original content specifically for the campaign to give our backers an advanced look at the style and tone of the film. Not only did this show our creative potential and commitment to the project, but it also gave the backers the excitement of following a project from the very beginning.
The financial plan was to spend as little as possible so we would have to recoup as little as possible. There were numerous situations when we could’ve used more money but we kept reminding ourselves of our commitment to frugality. We succeeded in keeping the budget abnormally low and are currently in the midst of finding the right distributor.
What camera did you use and what did you love and hate about it?
KEN: We shot primarily on the Canon 5D Mark II. We also got supplemental footage on the 60D and 7D.
I forced myself to let go of a lot of control on this shoot and one aspect of this was the image. It helped that I have great respect and trust in my DP, Eric Bader, who still is a good friend and collaborator. We blocked and shot designed the whole film, but on set I treated the plan a lot like the script and let Eric improvise with each scenario. The majority of the film was shot handheld and because of the small profile of the camera, Eric blended with the actors and was able to get intimately involved with the action.
To put it simply, I like that it’s small and captures a quality image. The dislikes, well that becomes a much more tedious and technical discussion, and I would rather not bore you with all the details.
What was the value of working with a colorist and how did you approach that process?
KEN: We couldn’t afford a colorist... sorry Eric!
Eric, our DP, colored the entire film. He was onboard from the early stages of development, and we spent many hours over drinks discussing the look of the film. At the same time I was forcing him to accept that the limitations of the shoot may not allow him to capture the look we were trying to achieve. Those pre-pro meetings were basically a running joke of how screwed we were and an excuse to hang out.
Once we entered the coloring process we were surprised by how close we got to those initial ideas. Eric spent several weeks coloring the film and I sat in from time to time to be his second set of eyes. We developed the final look during those meetings, but all we had to really do was enhance what was captured in camera.
What is your overall marketing plan?
KEN: This is one of the toughest hurdles of our film because we don’t have a proper budget, and marketing is costly. For some festivals we were lucky to find publicists who were willing to help us at a discounted rate, but for the most part we were on our own.
The key was to have a polished website that we were proud to share (designed by our editor Eric Ekman) and like everything else we approached marketing with a grassroots mentality and used social networking as our base. We traveled to as many festivals as we could and got involved with each community by handing out postcards and flyers to raise our visibility and promote our screenings. To be honest, my producers and I are still figuring things out and we are using this film as a learning tool for future films. Ask me after the next project and I should have more wisdom to share.
What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?
KEN: The smartest thing I did was create a mentality and environment where everyone involved could feel like this project was his or her own. When recruiting cast and crew, I emphasized that I had nothing to offer but an opportunity for everyone involved to showcase his or her talent. This might sound like any other production, but it wasn’t because of the extreme degree of creative freedom given to everyone involved.
This communal approach gave everyone a desire to push as hard as possible and to better the whole; no one wanted to let each other down. I was merely a guide and problem solver in most cases and the end product truly represents the perspectives of the cast and crew at that specific time in their lives.
The dumbest thing I did is also the biggest lesson learned. Because of the communal environment, we relied on verbal contracts, a little too long in certain cases. Don’t get me wrong - we got most of our paperwork taken care of right away, but the ones that fell through the cracks caused some of the most stressful days of my life and sadly it wasn’t just one instance.
Once the next project gets started and real money is involved, I will travel with a portable printer and laptop everywhere I go and trust me, not a single entity will get involved until I get a signature.
And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?
KEN: This is something I’ve already known but not to this extent - that letting go of control can have surprising and positive results. On my next project I hope to have a larger budget and the ability to shoot continuous days to allow for more structured planning, but I know this flexible mentality will stay with me and guide me through the new obstacles that come with, well, more money and more time.