Thursday, February 28, 2013

Raymond Guarnieri on “Buffalo Boys”

What was your filmmaking background before making Buffalo Boys?

RAY: I started out in the industry as a professional actor. After I graduated from The American Academy of Dramatic Arts – New York I was hired to work on two-major projects, Rendezvous Point, by Korean Director D.K. Lee, which won Best Picture at the CUNY AIRR Film Festival, and Payin’ The Price, which won Best Picture at the HBO Martha’s Vinyard Film Festival. I was very observant during the production of these projects, and became more and more interested the overall process of filmmaking.

Shortly afterward, I met with fellow actors Matt Tester and Mckenzie Trent (and later--cinematographer Jason Montalvo) and we formed Better StirFry Productions in hopes of making shorts that we could use to pad our acting reels. But once I got behind the camera and started shooting my own scripts, I realized I was exactly where I was supposed to be in life.

Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like with your co-writers?

RAY: In 2009, a friend of mine (the young man on whom the main character of Buffalo Boys is based), passed away. This was around the same time that The Better StirFry Team and I had completed a few successful short films and we were looking for new material. I was deeply moved by the story of my friend’s life, and everyone agreed that it would make a fantastic movie.

I researched by interviewing the young man’s family and friends before writing the first draft of the script. It was pretty awful the first time around. But we all still agreed that the story was good if we could just get the script right, so Mckenzie and I teamed up and developed it over the next eight months. About nine or ten drafts in, we solicited the help of my novelist girlfriend, Elana Lott, and she helped polish the script up until we began production.

Writing is one of the most challenging parts of the process. I believe that it’s where most filmmakers go wrong. When you start, there’s nothing but a blank page. When you turn on a camera with the lens cap off, there’s always something happening in front of it already. If you don’t have a great script, you’re just practicing. Mckenzie and I fought a lot during the process. It was a battle. But I wouldn’t do it again any other way, because what we came out with I’m truly proud of.

What was your Kickstarter experience like for raising pre-pro funds? 

RAY: We knew from the beginning that we were going to need to be modest, so we only asked for a $1,250 goal to get us through pre-pro. We ended up raising $6,000. Most of this came from family and friends. It was humbling. It gave us the momentum and confidence we needed to go out and raise more from private investors until we reached our final production budget.

What's the upside and downside of using a crowd-funding source?

RAY: Kickstarter is great, and running a campaign is a full-time job. We’ve just launched a new Kickstarter where we’re offering tickets to the World Premiere in NYC, as well as copies of the DVD, all so that we can raise the necessary funds to send the movie to film festivals worldwide.

The upside is that you have the opportunity to not only raise money on a platform that gives you added legitimacy, but to promote your project to the general public as well. The downside is that these platforms are film saturated. This also has a lot to do with the digital filmmaking boom. Everyone and their mother has a DSLR nowadays.

It’s exciting because it democratizes filmmaking and gives great artists the opportunity to produce works they never would have been able to ten years ago. But it’s also terrible because you see a lot of poorly thought out projects appearing on places like Kickstarter.

But in the end people will know the difference when they watch your video and read your story. It’s just frustrating because when some people hear that you’ve got a Kickstarter going, they roll their eyes and remember the fifty other people with mediocre ideas that told them that today.

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

RAY: We used a two camera setup with the Canon 5D MKII and 5D MKIII. We are the instant gratification generation. I’ve only ever shot on film once. (If there are any filmmakers with 20+ years of experience reading this, I’m sorry for the heart attack).

It’s tough for me to think of anything I don’t like about DSLR filmmaking. It’s fast, cheap, you have instant playback, and with proper color correction and post-production techniques you can end up with very, very beautiful pictures--on TV/Computer screens, but also even small cinema screens. If we had shot Buffalo Boys on super 16mm we’d have spent something like $300,000 on film stock and development alone. That’s 10 times our entire budget.

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

RAY: I feel like all indie filmmakers end up doing this. It just comes down to the fact that you don’t have money to hire people, so you end up doing multiple jobs. In my case it’s a little different--the story was very personal to me, so I was one of the screenwriters, and I’m a professionally-trained & experienced actor, so I wanted to continue doing that because I love it.

The upside for me is that I not only got to oversee the project as a Director, but I got to participate more specifically in other ways that I love. The downside is probably the lack of sleep and toll it takes on your body after a year or two of working on a project. We held the wrap party at my house outside of Buffalo and after I made a little speech and thanked everybody--I snuck upstairs and slept for about a week.

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

RAY: This is a tough question. I suppose the smartest thing I did was in pre-pro and not production, and that was making sure we had a solid game plan. Production was really a process of just making sure we stuck to that plan while still getting everything we needed creatively.

But I’d say that asking for resources (for free or for very little) whether it be locations, equipment, crew, etc., was the smartest thing I did. Some people have a tendency to not ask for things at the crucial moment. One of the biggest things I learned is that if you have a good idea and charisma, people will believe in you and want to support you in any way they can. That’s not to say you should ever take advantage of that--but you should have the confidence to ask for the things you need to make your project come to life. The worst thing that can happen is that people will say no.

The dumbest thing I did happened on the 3rd or 4th last day of production. I was recently awarded The Colin Powell Fellowship for Leadership and Public Service and had to attend an all-day seminar in NYC the day after we wrapped production. I forgot to pack a suit for this and went one morning before call time to the mall to pick one out. But it turned out that the whole process took forever and even though I was rushing through it, I caused us to be almost two hours late into the schedule. My AD, Tom Quigly was NOT happy about this. We ended up catching up throughout the day, and I learned two important lessons: don’t try to buy a suit in 30 minutes and DON’T piss off your AD by making stupid mistakes.

What's your game plan for distribution of Buffalo Boys and recouping your costs?

RAY: In the end, we just want people to see the film. If that means going to film festivals and no distribution deal then so be it. But I really believe that this film is well written, produced, and acted enough to receive at least some kind of DVD or Netflix distribution.

I’m not going to delude myself--I know that the chances of a first time filmmaker getting a distribution deal are slim, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to try. As of right now, we’re pretty under the radar, so we’re trying to get some press and film festival screenings to establish credibility. Once people in the industry have had a chance to see the film is when we’ll see where we might end up.

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

RAY: I haven’t really had the chance to move on to the next big thing yet. Buffalo Boys is still a full-time job for me.

But like I said before--asking for help is a big thing I learned. That, and really take the time to make sure your story is not only well-written, but that is says something (artistically) that you want to say as an individual. In the case of Buffalo Boys, it’s that the consequences of your actions are much more far reaching than you ever might have thought.

And don’t ever forget to treat each member of your production team like the invaluable gear in the machine that they are--from extras to PA’s and your DP. Keep your team happy and the energy on set positive and clear and everything will go much smoother and you’ll get exactly what you need to make a great movie.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Jason Christopher on "Nobody Gets Out Alive"

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make Nobody Gets Out Alive?

 JASON: I always filmed stuff when I was a kid. I don't have those Super 8 Spielberg stories, but I got those Handy Cam stories, ha.

 My producer Deven Lobascio and I did this movie that was called BarRats when I was like 10 and he was like 8 haha. I was obsessed with Mallrats. My parents were cool and let me watch whatever I wanted pretty much besides the nudity...had to close the eyes for that. I filmed a few movies with friends and my brother around the neighborhood.

I did my first serious thing when I was 17. My film study teacher asked me to submit a video for a film festival, cause I took the class seriously. Turned it in and I got sent to the guidance counselor and expelled from school for making things too ahead of my time and too violent. My brother who plays the main character in it shoots himself at the end and blood sprays everywhere -- it was awesome.

When I was like 20, I think, I made this pretty cool short that I did all seriously. Then reunited with Deven and we made this no budget flick called The Pendant, people really dug it. We sold out the local theater 187 seats and turned away 200 people. It was a great feeling, so after that Deven asked if I had any scripts. That script was called Down The Road (original title of Nobody Gets Out Alive). Now that flick has three names people know it by, so annoying: Originally Down The Road; other territories: Punishment; and in the US: Nobody Gets Out Alive.

Where did the idea come from and what was your process for working on  the script?

JASON: I always wanted to write a script, a throwback to those 70's and 80's genre horror flicks. They're the only kind I watched when I was a kid. Unfortunately, I was born in '87 so I didn't get to see them first hand. They're the only ones that stuck with me until Scream came out.

It wasn't until my father died from a freak accident when I was 17 that I was like all right...I'm going to personally kill someone myself (from anger) or I'm going to write a script. I wrote the first draft when I was 17 years old (2005) and it went through drafts all the way up to filming in 2010.

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

JASON: My producer found a majority of the money. I found some of the budget. We had investor meetings and stuff and a lot of them fell out. Only one came through and gave a nice bit.

We were stuck for a bit then we did the unexpected...we asked our family. It was so crazy how easy it was to get the rest of the budget from our family members. I thought it was going to be really hard because I don't come from a rich family or anything like that but the people we asked they were so for it and more. It was amazing.

I definitely recommend other people to try that for their first flick. My family understood this is the only thing I was good at though, haha.

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

JASON: We used the Red Camera for camera A and camera B was the Canon 7D. Unfortunately, I'll probably never get to make a movie shooting on film. I love the look of film. Digital cameras leave this milky look. There's only a couple flicks I know that were shot on a Red and don't look milky. I didn't want that with ours.

I threw a ton of grain on the flick, really set you back more to that 70's and 80's vibe I was going for. It's really cool though in post. There'd be some moments on set where the DP was like, just punch in closer in editing if you want a tighter shot. I was like, get the hell out of here. But in post I tried it and with the resolution those cameras have, you could never even tell.

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

JASON: The original cut of the movie was like 87 minutes long and we shrunk it down to 78 minutes for the final cut. Some scenes just dragged on or didn't really fit with the tone of the flick.

I edit my own stuff too and I used to be a control freak about nobody else helping me edit. I'm an idiot and my color corrector who is also a great editor did another cut, making things sharper, switching some things, and I couldn't be happier. He'll definitely be my editing partner from here on out. We share the same taste in a lot of things and it's just really great to have another eye.

How did you find distribution for the movie and what was that process like?

JASON: We knew we had to get the money back to the investors, family or not, not paying someone back is the absolutely worst.

I wanted to tour the movie first. Nowadays YOU yourself have to build an audience. The system isn't how it used to be. I didn't want to just start looking for a distributor right away. We toured the flick to I think, close to 20 film festivals. Nothing big but they're film festivals with a small audience...even if two people watched it, that's two more people who know about the flick.

Deven and I won two best feature awards, I won a best director award, and actor Brian Gallagher (who plays the villain Hunter Isth) got a best actor award. Those things would've never happened if we went straight to a distributor.

We wanted to build buzz first. We sent it to a few distributors and just never heard back. We got a sales rep and that was another smart move. They sold the movie to 12 Germany? If we didn't have a sales rep that would've never happened. It was funny though, our US distributor we have now was one company that never got back to us, but when our sales reps sent it they got right back to them. Companies seem to take you more seriously if you have one. So far they have me smiling.

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

JASON: The smartest thing was getting as much as I could've with the access I had. I couldn't get into college so I went to movies. I went with my gut instinct. I went with my eye. I learned so much though.

The dumbest thing I did was not be too demanding. I'm such a down to earth dude and like to make everything fun in the long run, but when filming this flick, it was the first legit thing I ever did, so I was too nice. I got screwed for some shots I wanted and stuff. On the next flick, that's not happening.

I always felt that the no budget flick I did with Deven was our high school movie, Nobody Gets Out Alive is our college movie, and the next one is going to be the first movie. Does that make sense?

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

JASON: I learned about being responsible, being organized, and being planned. If you don't have those things, you're going to fail a ton. Those are crucial.

This job is also perfect for people who can do more than 12 things at once, haha. My mind is always spinning and happy I have that body skill to get done a ton of things at once.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mo Collins on “MadTV” and “Detective Fiction”

How did you get started in comedy?

MO: I don't have schooling beyond doing the Dudley Riggs Brave New Workshop classes for improv. I got started by just doing it. You just start.

When I was in school I learned some improv, and then, when I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, I remembered loving improv. I saw an ad in City Pages for classes, took the classes and before I knew it an agent called and then there was a check in the mail and I thought, "Well, I guess this is what I do."

How did you like the classes?

MO: It was great, because I finally realized where I belonged, which was with fellow comedy people. I learned how to improv and how to write.

A lot people who start in improv say that it provides a bedrock of learning for the rest of their careers. Was that the case for you?

MO: Absolutely, because the biggest thing that's learned there is the work ethic, which is what has carried me through. You really had to work hard there. You had to. You worked really hard and were paid very little. A great lesson, especially if you're headed to Hollywood.

But the work ethic was the biggest thing I learned at Dudley Riggs. So any other long day that came along later, I was used to it, because I started at Dudley at 20 and it's just in my blood that you do long days when you're working. But it's play, so you don't feel it.

And the Riggs experience also taught you how to write?

MO: It did some teaching of that, yes. I still hesitate to call myself any kind of a writer, but because I do improv, I am writing in mid air. But when you learn scene structure from improv -- beginning, middle and an end -- and character development, you kind of naturally get the writing skills that come along with it.

How did you use those skills once you left Riggs but before you moved to LA?

MO: Up there I was doing commercial work and industrial work and plays.

How would your improv skills come in handing while shooting an industrial video?

MO: Well, I was fearless. Improv is theater without a net, as we used to say, so anything else just seemed easy. And safe. Which isn't as fun. But when you have a sense of humor and go into these serious industrials that you're doing, to me it was just playing another comedy character, but playing it seriously.

The first thing I remember seeing you in was a part in a dinner theater mystery show ...

MO: Oh my gosh. Does that fall under acting or that waiting tables?

Then we cast you to play Lucille Ball in an industrial video. And even though you look nothing like her, you became Lucy.

MO: Because I understand what she's doing. It's funny, I just saw her show yesterday -- I hadn't watched Lucy in a while -- and as I was watching her I was noting to myself that I know exactly how she feels doing what she was doing. I understand how she got that performance. I totally got it. I could feel her rhythm and understand what she was doing. If that makes any sense at all.

I feel that I understand comedy so well; if there's something that I've studied in my years, it's comedy. I've been in all kinds of different groups of people who have a different comic tone, and I really do believe at this point that there's any camp of comedy that I could walk into and find my way.

I can feel it. I can feel what they're doing, even if it's not me or what I would naturally do.

As a for instances, I just did a pilot recently with David Cross and Bob Odenkirk. And they're a very different group. In fact, women aren't typically a part of that group. They're comedy nerds; they don't even know what to say to women. They don't. But I got in, because I knew how to make it safe for them to let me in and feel okay and not threatened. Not rock their boat but just come in and assimilate into what they're doing, because I understand their geek comedy. I can do it too. And I think it's just because, ultimately, I am a mocking bird. That's what I'm doing. I'm mimicking what they're doing and putting it into my body, my person, my mouth.

What made you decide to move to LA?

MO: I had a two year-old son. And I knew that Minneapolis was only going to allow me to do so well. I was doing okay, making a living, paying my mortgage, but that was going to continue on an even plane, instead of an upward climb. And I didn't want that. I knew that I could do more; I just knew it. And it wasn't going to happen in Minneapolis.

So what was your plan?

MO: To make it.

So like on the top of a piece of paper: "Day One: Make it."

MO: Yes, I'm going to go and I'm going to do this and it's going to work. And with in nine months I had Mad TV.
I knew I had something. So you just do it until you're seen. By the right person. And that's what happened.

I had done a play called Cabin Pressure, with a bunch of women from Minneapolis. We collaborated on this project, a really quirky comedy that we put together and put up on a stage out here. A casting director saw my character and she just jumped on board the Mo ship. She told the Mad TV casting people about me and I got the audition.

I knew, when the audition came, that I was going to get it.

How come?

MO: Because that's exactly what my resume is. It's exactly what I do. I was ready for it. Everything I had done had prepared me for that audition.

I knew, because I had taken a leap of faith, that I would be rewarded. You don't take such big leaps without rewards; I don't think the universe really works like that. I just knew it was going to work out.

It's funny, there were six auditions, and during the fifth one they sent me home early. And I thought it was a horrible mistake. I went home and I was crying and I thought, "They've made a terrible mistake. I'm going to get this. Somebody made a mistake."

Why did they send you home?

MO: Because they already knew they were going to cast me and didn't want to waste any more of my time that day. But I just wanted to stay and play. I wanted to show them more: "I've got more!"

How did the first show feel?

MO: It was thrilling and terrifying, because television wasn't something I knew, at all. I didn't know how television worked; that wasn't something I had experience at from Minneapolis. Commercial work is not television.

Things like, when the first AD starts the countdown ("Five, four, three ...") and then he doesn't say "One." I didn't know that he was just being quiet. And I had the first line, the first entrance in my first scene, and I didn't know. Nobody told me how that works.

I decided to fake it 'til I make it. And it worked out fine. But that was a learning process.

How were you used and how did you want to be used and how did you influence how you wanted to be used on the show?

MO: There's a lot of nuancing my position on Mad TV because there are politics involved and I'm a nice Minnesota girl and an easy doormat. I had to stand on my talent because I wasn't a squeaky wheel as far as saying "Use me more!" That kind of stuff. "How come she's got this and I don't?" I just wasn't that person. And I watched as that didn't work. I watched as the squeaky wheel got the oil and that was really hard for me.

This was where I started to see that Hollywood didn't always function through talent. That talent wasn't what always propelled one forward and upward. And that's a really, really tough lesson. And potentially fatal to a career. But I decided not to let it kill me.

I learned how to stand my ground enough, and stay nice at the same time. And I let my work ethic, my non-complaining, my always showing up with my work ready and my characters full-bored. I kept growing my arsenal of things I could do and add to the show. And I kept growing. And the audience started to pick up on that and writing into the show and saying, "She's good. More her."

One of the things that sets you apart -- and above -- others in your field is your absolute commitment to each character you played. How did you build and grow that ability?

MO: I really love playing characters and taking them as far as I can. Really it's just a self-discovery that's happening within the performance. I'd get a script and there would be an image that would come to mind or a voice or something -- a character just starts. And by the time I'd chosen a wig or wardrobe or whatever, you're looking in the mirror and you see this character emerge. And that's fun. It's dress up. It's play time. And I'm just really good at playing.

Did you ever get to a point where you thought, enough already, I've got no more characters in me?

MO: I did always try to do something, even if it was just for three lines in a scene, I would think, "I'm going to make a person here, that fits in this scene and serves this scene."

On one of my last shows there was this scene and I thought, "I'm just going to go at this completely differently. I'm not going to think about an internal person. I am just going to make one of the ugliest faces I can make, I'm going to throw on the ugliest wig that they have, and just do that." Because a lot of people come at characters from that external place; they'll throw on some character glasses or whatever. But for me, there's a person in there that I can kind of feel when I read a script.

But in this case I went at it completely externally. It was really fun, I was like a kid, just making faces with this wig on. And it turned out to be a really fun character that people loved. Her name was Carol Fitty and I did her for a game show sketch. And then when they invited me back, after I'd left the show, they had me do her again.

So even in my trying not to do a character, a person emerged, which is pretty funny. And it was really fun for me to go at it so differently.

Were you in a position to bring in ideas for characters and sketches?

MO: You had to. You had to every week. It was part of the job. You'd dip into the writers room, pitch ideas, talk about a character or a thought. You had to do that.

Did you like doing that?

MO: Yeah I did. It scared me a little bit, too, because I felt like, they're the writers and who am I?

But you'd been writing on your feet for years. Why would you find that intimidating?

MO: Because I'm also insecure and will over-think something when I'm not on a stage. So I'd think, "This will be funny. I'll take it in tomorrow." And then the insecurity goes, "That's not funny, they're not going to like it, they're not going to get it." Whereas, if I'm on a stage and I'm doing it in an improv sketch, I know I can make it work. It's different telling, I'm much better at showing. It can be intimidating.

At what point did you decide to leave the show?

MO: Six seasons felt just about right. And I think you should do something else before Hollywood thinks you can't do anything else. You can get really trapped in the sketch world and once you do sketch, they say, "Oh, you're a sketch actor. You're not an actor." Especially if you're a woman.

What attracted you to doing Detective Fiction?

MO: It was something other than comedy and it was a lead. I needed it. I wanted to try that.

You have to look at yourself and see where you're at, get a gauge on how you'd do in something like that, so you know what you need to work on. And I certainly need to work on a lot after I saw it!

Really? I thought you did a great job in that film -- very real, not a caricature at all, but a real person in real pain.

MO: I thought I could have nuanced it a whole lot more. I was being, maybe, too polite on the set in terms of making choices that I would have thought would have been stronger, but I didn't want to rock the boat. And I was learning, too. I was learning.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Gary Winick on "Tadpole"

Why did you decide to shoot Tadpole as a digital feature?

GARY WINICK: There's the economics of it, which is obviously a big deal. There's the time factor, which is actually a bigger deal, and there's the fact that now actors and distributors will take low-end digital filmmaking seriously. It's not discriminated against at all, in terms of getting actors or in terms of distributors wanting your film."

How did the cast react to being in a digital feature?

GARY WINICK: Not only were they open to digital, they were actually curious and looking forward to it, because digital is a performance-oriented medium. Sigourney Weaver said, 'I hear it's like a hybrid between theater and film and I want to try it.'

How did you come up with the idea to use Voltaire quotes between key sequences?

GARY WINICK: I had a really, really, really unfortunate experience with my cinematographer on this movie. The camera wasn't on sometimes, so I'd get back to the edit room and the script supervisor had these shots that said that I shot, but yet they were never recorded. I had focus problems, camera operating problems.

When I got in the editing room and found out that my DP/Operator did such a poor job, I was left with some really hard, clunky ways to get from scene to scene. And that's when I came up with the Voltaire quotes. So it came out of necessity.

I went to Barnes & Noble, because I'm not an Internet guy, and went through some Voltaire quotes, and I was like, 'Oh my god, this is going to work great.'

How did you come up with the story and the script?

GARY WINICK: We came up with the characters first, and then thought of what sort of situation that we could put them in that would support a low-budget, 12-day shoot.

When you're making a low budget film, you really only have one focus, and that focus is story. Because costumes and lighting and design and all that stuff, you can never either afford it or have the time to do it right. So you really have to focus on the one thing that you know that the audience is (hopefully) going to respond to, which is the story and being engaged with those characters on screen.

I have 84 million dollars now for
Charlotte's Web, and I have huge effects, and computer people, and Stan Winston and all this stuff … but it all comes back to story.