Thursday, April 25, 2013

Nelson Cheng on "The Magic Life"

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make The Magic Life?

NELSON: I had just produced my first web series (The Consultants) -- so my background was pretty light. However, after the rush and angst of learning everything that you do the first time you produce something, I realized that I both had a decent amount of film equipment (or knowledge of) and connections to cinematographers and other film professionals that my mind started expanding in terms of the types of projects I could do. A documentary seemed daunting but feasible.

Where did the idea come from and what was your process for determining the film's subjects? 

NELSON: At the time, I was a member of the Magic Castle -- it's sort of the home / clubhouse for magician's all around the world and as a consequence, I got to know a lot of magicians. A story I often heard was something along the lines of that these magicians would meet someone, and that person would inevitably ask what they did. They would say they're a magician and the person would say something like, "Oh that's fantastic! That's great!" Then there would be this pause and they would be asked, "So what is it you actually do?" The original conceit was a documentary looking at "the business side of being a magician" -- this profession that people couldn't even conceive of as being a profession. 

In terms of determining the film's subjects -- initially, I just started filming magicians. I would then ask those magicians if they knew anyone else I should talk to and one magician led to another until I reached Dale Salwak -- a significant character in the film who runs the Chavez Studio of Magic. At the time, one of his students was Yang Yang, one of the film's main subjects. He had a certain joie de vivre that I responded to and we filmed a lot of Yang Yang and originally built much of the film around him.

However, after sharing some early footage with a very important contributor -- Penelope Falk (who won the editing prize at Sundance for "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work") -- Penny just thought we needed more and asked who else I had / knew. The first two names I mentioned were Matthew Noah Falk (I described him as a 20-something living a block from the Magic Castle and performing for tips on Hollywood Boulevard) and Michael Friedland (I described him as an NYU MBA graduate, successful in business, and just moved to L.A. to pursue a career in magic.) She said, "Those two sound interesting. I would go film them." So we did.

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

NELSON: This project was self-financed. It's never cheap making films, but certainly the production costs of a documentary can be kept quite manageable. For me, at least, it's post and then festival / marketing related expenses which proved to be the majority of expenses. Regarding a financial plan for recouping costs -- I think the strong likelihood is I won't recoup the costs. Statistically, there are just very few docs that recoup their costs. The sale prices and other revenue simply aren't high enough. That being said, and I'm certainly not alone among filmmakers who feel this way, but simply hearing from and interacting with people who respond to and with whom this film resonates with has made it all worthwhile.

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

NELSON: We used a number of different cameras. We primarily shot on the HVX-200 but also used the AF-100, the 7D, and -- believe it or not -- there's some footage from the Flip HD. I was pretty stunned that the Flip HD could hold up when blown up to a theater-size screen. It's not ideal, but usable. Also, a lot of those shots we simply would not have gotten or would've had a lot of trouble getting if we didn't have such a small / convenient camera available.

The HVX-200 is a good camera -- it's a real workhorse. The main drawback for me is that it's not that good in low light conditions. Also, no interchangeable lenses and the offloading of footage is a little cumbersome. The AF-100 (at the time I had only rented the camera -- now I own one), I think, is better than the HVX in every way. Bigger chip size, very good in low light conditions, interchangeable lenses, shoots to CF, etc. It's really terrific -- if I did another doc, I would primarily use the AF-100.

The 7D (and 5D Mark II) are really difficult cameras to use for shooting docs. Much harder to manage because you'll want to record sound to something like the Zoom H4n and the camera has that automatic shutoff thing after 10 min, etc. It's just not designed for docs -- the workflow is quite messy.

The Flip HD -- I certainly can think of improvements. Would love even higher picture quality (terrible in low light conditions) and just an overall upgrade in terms of its audio which can be quite bad -- but it's hard to beat its portability. I usually had a couple of Flip cams lying around just to take something spur of the moment.

How long did shooting take and did your vision for the movie change much during the shooting and editing process?

NELSON: We shot for about a year and a half. The vision changed quite a bit, frankly. I started off wanting to make something probably a lot more analytical -- investigating the business side of being a magician. Over time, it evolved into something -- for me at least, that was much more visceral -- following the stories of three fairly different individuals as they try and turn their passion into their career.

What was great about how it evolved was that it both gave a framework with which to look at the larger world of magic (talking to builders of magic, world champions of magic, famous magicians, etc.) but also asked questions along the lines of why some people make it and some don't -- how much of it is talent vs. attitude vs. perspective vs. support system, etc.

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

NELSON: The two smartest things were getting more experienced people involved and to just start filming. Re: getting more experienced people involved. As an example, I met Seth Keal -- one of the producers on "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work" -- after one of their Sundance screenings. I just loved that film and frankly, started randomly talking to him. He's a magician himself, became interested in the project, and offered to help. In addition to literally sharing all the details of what they shot "Joan" on (literally sending me links to the various pieces of equipment on B&H), he also introduced me to Penny Falk -- their editor.

As I mentioned earlier, Penny was instrumental in helping guide and shape the film from some of its earliest stages and introduced me to our wonderful editor, Erik Dugger, with whom she had previously co-edited a film. Penny felt that Erik's sensibility would both work well for this film and also that he and I would work well together -- and she was absolutely right.

The reason I also mention to just start filming was that I think it would been easy for me to sort of sit in stagnation -- especially because I didn't have any experience. So I could hang out for a long time paralyzed by fear of not knowing what I was doing, or that I was making a mistake, or even being afraid of what other people might say.

What was good about filming immediately was that one thing always led to another and, frankly, you start seeing problems and solving them -- especially when you get people involved. As a minor example, there's a scene in the film where one of our characters, Yang Yang, meets Lance Burton. I remember looking at the footage and just thinking it was a bit dark -- I mentioned this to Seth and he immediately told me, "Oh, buy an onboard light." That solved it. So sometimes it was small things and other times it was big things -- but by doing, we could get to fixing issues quickly rather than planning ourselves into oblivion.

The dumbest thing, and I'm not trying to be clever with this answer -- but it's the same two things, but on the flip side. I wish I got even more people involved. I'm certainly more secure and knowledgeable now in terms of what I know I can do and what I don't -- but at the time, everything was just such a mystery to me and I didn't always feel comfortable reaching out for help. Or even knowing who to go to.

I've thought about this in the context of when I was a product manager. When I worked as a PM, I liked to gather as much information as possible -- at times, I would literally read every customer service email for the products I worked on. The vast majority of information I came across was not actionable -- but some percentage was and all of it helped shape my view of the product.

So someone might have a thought on a particular sequence or music cue or even a magician that could strength a storyline -- all of it helps contribute to making an even stronger film and so I would've liked to have really pushed myself more in that aspect.

Re: filming right away -- I think it's always a fine balance between preparation and just doing it. I know people on the extremes -- those that plan so much they never do anything and those that do things too soon and could benefit from even a modicum of planning. I recently read an interview with David France, whose documentary, "How to Survive a Plague" is Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary this year. In it, he mentions that in preparation for making the doc (he was a first time filmmaker), he watched a documentary every day, for two years. What fantastic preparation. So that's a great lesson for me -- do but always push yourself in terms of how much you can prepare.

What has been the reaction to the movie by its subjects?

NELSON: I would say surprisingly good. Positive feedback from all of them and a number of subjects have appeared with us for various Q&As and the like. I only use the word surprisingly because being in a documentary is quite an intimate experience -- and we get to see many of our subjects in fairly substantive / private moments, so you never know how someone will react when they see it in that format.

I think one of the pieces of feedback that I've felt most proud of is when subjects or their friends say something along the lines of, "That's you." -- which I interpret as us having really captured the spirit and essence of who they are and those circumstances. 

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

NELSON: I found making a film to be a fairly complete and fascinating process. I mentioned earlier that I used to work as a product manager -- as great and challenging of a job as that is, it's very different in the sense that there's a lot of visible and invisible institutional support / structure. That's something that was quite apparent when I started making this film -- there's no structure around you. Everything has to be built from the ground up -- from the nuts and bolts logistics to the network you invariably need.

I think the biggest thing I learned was that anything -- whether it's something completely brand new or a close variant of something you've previously done -- there's just a process and a way things are done or could be done. It's learning those things and just incrementally learning, getting better, and moving forward. Not to be paralyzed by the enormity of it all. There may be 1000 things you don't know at the start, but if you learn 3 of them every day -- you'll get there in a year. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Lauralee Farrer on "Not That Funny"

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make Not That Funny?

 LAURALEE: I started producing other peoples' films, and made my first personal, handmade documentaries Laundry and Tosca ( and The Fair Trade ( less than a decade ago. With them I began to develop a style of storytelling that investigates the internal life of true stories. It intrigued me to go from there to making fiction by inserting narrative into documentary circumstances. I did that to a small degree with Not That Funny, and much more so now with my latest project Praying the Hours—with which I have much more creative license.

Not That Funny was a sort of commission I was hired to make, even though I did write, direct and in some ways help to produce it. It was a departure in some ways, but it was invaluable experience. I am influenced by Errol Morris, Terrence Malick, Kristof Kieslowski, Paul Thomas Anderson. Those will seem strange influences for a movie like Not That Funny, but it's all part of a long process of learning the craft and finding one's voice. I came to the process of directing later in my life, so I bring a lot of eclectic experiences with me.

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

LAURALEE: The movie stars Tony Hale as a romantic lead, and this unique project started as a desire to show Tony's considerable range as a charismatic actor. We are friends, and had been wanting to do a film for some time together. Then the executive producer of what became Not That Funny came to me with a low budget and a script that I didn't resonate with.

I woke up soon after remembering a story idea that a friend of mine (co writer Jonathan B. Foster) had—a story about a guy who tries to become funny to interest a woman he's taken with. The idea of casting the funniest man I know as a serious romantic lead who tries to become funny and fails—that seemed like a great idea, and producer Jack Hafer went for it. I will always be grateful to him for letting us make the film we wanted to make instead of the script he had put a considerable amount of development time and money into finding. That was a bold risk. We brought in hands-on producer Terence Berry and we were off.

As for the collaboration process, Jonathan lives in Seattle, and we flew him down to Los Angeles a couple of times, but mostly we wrote together through email and over the phone. I'd write at night after work and he would write in the morning before work. We'd pass the drafts off to each other like relay runners. We have a very long and dear friendship, so we knew we would work well together, even though, as the saying goes, I hate writing—I like having written. But our collaboration could not have been more ideal. He's a gifted writer and a dear friend. Plus we did not kill each other.

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

LAURALEE: This is the first film I have made that I am not financially responsible for, so I can't really answer that. As I say, the exec prod came to me with a set figure and the hopes that I could pull off a feature with it. We employed all the basic tenets of no-budget filmmaking, even though (in order to use Tony and most of our cast) we had to be a SAG signatory.

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

LAURALEE: We bought two Canon 5Ds and borrowed a 7D as well. It was when the 5D was newly out and I think we were one of the first features shot with it. It was a risk back then because very few people were using the 5D for a product that was intended to hold up on a theater-sized screen. We ended up with an amazing look given the cost-point of the camera—I've seen it on large theater complex screens and it looks amazing.

I started with the intention to have more than one camera and wanted the freedom of shooting in such a way that allowed everyone to keep their full-time jobs, so that meant having full access to the equipment. So, we purchased. Also, we scheduled over half the film with "micro-crews" in order to get authentic moments with a lot of ready-made production value by having a crew of 3-4 people (sometimes with a sound guy in a nearby van). In this case, the camera's low-profile SLR appearance allowed us to keep a relatively small footprint.

We were very happy with how the film looked in the end. Of course, there were challenges--it's a challenging camera to focus, it's not that mobile for hand-held, and it doesn't do very well with contrast, so we ended up with some blown out whites that we were unable to fix in post because there simply was no information there.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to our DP Brandon Lippard, our editor Matt Barber, and our colorist Greg King for what they did with the limited resources we had. They made an amazing looking film.

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

LAURALEE: As I say, our editor Matt Barber and our colorist Greg King were able to do wonders managing the great amount of footage we had and articulately cutting the film together, and then matching and enhancing that imagery. We all spent a lot of hours together, which was great because I came to love those guys very dearly. I was very lucky to work with this gifted team, and became very attached to them all, including Michelle Garuik who did miracles with the sound.

We shot and cut basically the film that we wrote, but I ought to acknowledge that we wrote the first draft alongside doing pre-production and wrote throughout shooting to accommodate shifting locations, cast hiccups, etc. I remember losing a location at the last minute and calling Jonathan at work in the middle of a company move to ask, "What will shift if we make Kevork an auto-repair guy instead of a shoe repair guy?" And he rewrote while we were driving to the new location.

And it should be said that the film matured in the editing process because of the music, as always. Our composer David Hlebo's soundtrack was augmented by some very talented local bands who are also friends—Evan Way, the Parson Red Heads, Lauren and Matt Meares, Jeana and Mikey Master, to name a few. The music has been a big hit with festival audiences, and we were privileged to have that kind of talent so generously loaned to us.

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

LAURALEE: The smartest thing we did during production was to make the loving treatment of people our first priority. We have a code of honor that we call the Kinema Commonwealth, articulated by our First AD Matt Webb and editor Matt Barber, which calls for three things: the respectful treatment of the story, the creative artists involved (and by that I mean all the filmmaking community) and the community within which the film is shot.

We had a reputation for creating a supportive environment, and Tony was a hero as the leading man setting the tone, he was always encouraging and in a great mood. Similarly, he claims it is the best shooting environment he's ever been in. One of my favorite memories is from after we wrapped: one of the grips texted to say "I started a new show today and the director did not hug ANY OF US!"

We had great food hand-prepared by our Associate Producer Ron Allchin and his team (including his wife Dolores). The night that we wrapped one of the featured actors, he put his head on my shoulder and cried, saying he'd never in his life been treated so well by a film crew. I know the film industry has a reputation for eating its young, but from my perspective that's intolerable. Life is too short to treat people unkindly.

The dumbest thing we did was anything that failed at keeping that respect for people our first priority. I am not saying we always succeeded. But when we didn't, it was our biggest mistake.

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

LAURALEE: Not That Funny was a terrific experience for me, even though it was a departure from the style of film that I normally make. My creative partner at Burning Heart Productions Tamara Johnston McMahon and I made two sober, thoughtful documentaries before it and now we are working on a very ambitious project called Praying the Hours ( which is also much less light-hearted than Not That Funny.

But this film taught us a lot about the challenges of making a film that is sweet, humorous, charming. We wanted very much for it not to be a film that was broad humor, but one that left people feeling good and also thinking about what it means to truly love. We have had a great reception from audiences—we've won the audience award several times in festivals.

I am very proud of this little film, and what we were able to do with the resources we had available to us.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Michael Olmos and Youssef Delara on "Filly Brown"

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make Filly Brown?

MICHAEL: Film school. Production work. I did a microbudget feature for Dark Horse Entertainment called Splinter. I directed a segment in the feature, Bedrooms.

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

YOUSSEF: I found myself at the Green Cottage one night, a small cave-like venue with bleachers and a weather-beaten stage in West Hollywood, CA. An annex to Fairfax High-school hidden away behind the bustle of the city, It’s a place where street poets, rappers and dreamers come to spit verse. After my first show I was hooked.

The poets held an uncanny power over us, taking us on a journey. We laughed and cringed as they dealt out word after word. I was intrigued by the idea of how words informed the world, how that night they drew me and the entire audience into the mind of the artist.

I left that night with the idea of telling a story about a person who uses a lie to create her world. When the basis of one’s word is built on lies it is unable to cause change or move people. I think that’s why we gravitate to music that is honest, sometimes vulgar even, because the truth is a magnet. I wanted to tell a story about a person’s journey to discovering herself through their music.

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

YOUSSEF: I remember the exact moment I got the news that we were financed and the deep sense of relief that took over me. I get a ton of anxiety during the financing portion of a film, when key cast members agree to do the picture but you don't have all the money.

There is only a small window where the cast, especially one's as talented and busy as the ones we had, would be available. You have to strike while the iron is hot and many independent films don't come together for this reason.

Bottom line, my brother and Producer on Filly Brown, Amir Delara, found us an angel investor who financed the picture. We were mindful to keep the overall cost to a reasonable figure based on the type and genre of picture but it was definitely one person who believed in the story and the commercial potential of it.

We set out to tell a story that needed to be told. We felt 2nd and especially 3rd generation Latinos would be drawn too this story, but we never imagined that it would be selected by Sundance and then distributed at the scale that it is. We never imagined we'd find distributors bold enough to take a film like this to its audience, which typically has been very difficult to draw.

People have preexisting notions of how a "Latino" film or "Hip Hop Urban" film should look and sound like and they carry those notions around with them. Fighting through that and all the media that audiences are bombarded with from bigger studio releases to present a challenge to an indie film. Our plan was to release the film independently knowing that there would be a massive audience for it and that we'd have to slowly tease them out to experience the film. We felt Filly Brown cold be a word of mouth film which could really grow and find its audience.

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

YOUSSEF: We shot with the RED camera on a MX sensor at a 1 to 6 compression. I absolutely love, love, love RED. I understand the nostalgia of film but I've been one to embrace technology.

On an indie film it just makes so much sense, the post workflow is pretty easy and the image is phenomenal, especially when you color correct the 4K footage. No need to process film, convert to video for editing , or negative cut. All that is eliminated which saves money. Being effecient in post is crucial to the success of an independent film.

MICHAEL: We were moving so fast that not waiting for camera reloads came in handy. 

You shared roles on this project: Director and Producer. What's the upside and the downside of doing that?

YOUSSEF: The very nature of an independent film is such that you have to wear multiple hats and you have to wear them well. You're always under-manned and under-financed so you have to over work.

The advantage is the wealth of experience and knowledge that's available to you as a Director, then Producer and in my case as an Editor, and Post Supervisor. I can't stress what a luxury it is to be able to just get it done and not rely on others. The short hand you can have with yourself and the efficiency of last second critical decisions without dealing with other people's egos.

The negative is that at the end of the day, you’re overworked and underpaid and that's not easy on my wife and my little two-year old boy who I miss terribly when I have to put in 16 hour days, 6 days a week. The film takes over, and your real life is put on hold.

And once you done with the movie, you have to catch up on all the menial stuff you couldn't get time to do. After a week of catching up, you really didn't make enough money to take a vacation, so you have to get back to work surviving anyway you can. You're equal parts fulfilled and exhausted. Being fulfilled is very important to me, so for now, I'll take being exhausted.

MICHAEL: Producing came with it's own set of challenges. You constantly have to switch from creative mode to put out a production emergency, and back.

Directing together also had it's own pros and cons. We have a friendship and respect for each other’s aesthetic that made our collaboration organic.

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

MICHAEL: Smartest? Spent time working with the actors to establish trust and a common creative language.

Dumbest? Not sleep enough and came down with the flu for the first 2 weeks of shooting.

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

MICHAEL: Prep as much as humanly possible.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Henry Jaglom on "Someone To Love"

What was your inspiration for making Someone To Love?

HENRY JAGLOM: I was alone, and I didn't understand why I was alone. And I looked around at my friends and I realized that I was part of a whole generation of people that were alone and that it wasn't just a generation but that it was a function of something that was happening at that period in the 80s and the 90s where people who always assumed that they would be married and have families found themselves somehow in the middle of their lives on their own.

So I thought I would try to make a movie about it, but what I would do is go through my phone book and actually pick out people I knew who were alone and put them together in some central location.

You had an idea, right, but not really a script for the movie.

HENRY JAGLOM: I had a plan, a super structure, but I left it up to the individuals as to what they would say and depending on that was what I would say. I knew what I wanted to talk about in terms of loneliness and relationships, but I was actually seeking the movie as I was in the movie.

I decided I would just do it that way and then when I got back to my editing room I would look at what I got and what everybody gave me and find a way to put it together into a narrative.

What did the people in the movie -- your friends -- know about what they were getting into?

HENRY JAGLOM: No one knew anything. I just told them I wanted them to be in a movie, and I wanted to be able to deal freely with the facts about their own single situation in their romantic life at this moment. I confirmed with some of them that they were in fact still single, that they weren't involved, that I didn't miss anything, and that's all I asked then to do.

And only one person ended up leaving. Kathryn Harrold left, she didn't realize it would be that personal. The truth was, she was uncomfortable, and I thought more people would be uncomfortable, but actually everybody likes to talk about themselves.

How much did you find that movie in the editing?

HENRY JAGLOM: One hundred percent. Actually, fifty percent in the shooting and fifty percent in the editing. But nothing in preparation. It's the kind of movie where you absolutely cannot prepare, because you don't know what people are going to say.

Several of my movies have a mixture of a storyline -- which is a narrative, which is created by me -- and an interview structure, which is spontaneous and real and comes from the people. So I can prepare one half of that, but I can't possibly prepare the interviews without interfering with the reality of it.

But in the case of Someone to Love, because the entire thing was about somebody making a film, there could be no preparation. It would be absolutely wrong for me, from my point of view, to have anybody know anything in advance of what anybody was going to say.

The narrative is created in the editing rather than written beforehand, and that's true of many of my movies. Orson Welles said to me once, 'Everybody else makes movies, but first they decide what the narrative is, and out of the narrative they try to find their theme. The difference with you, Henry, is that you choose your theme first, and then you try to discover, out of your theme, the narrative.' And that's very true of my process.

You're known for not rehearsing before you shoot. What's the benefit of working that way?

HENRY JAGLOM: The magic of reality. The honest surprise of what happens the first time when somebody thinks of something or you see them thinking and discovering it and saying it.

The most truthful moments, it seems to me, are the moments that just happen and even surprise the person themselves as they're saying something, because they don't know they're going to be saying it. If you rehearse, no matter how good you are, you know you're going to be saying it. And unless you've got a Brando or a Meryl Streep or the handful of actors who are better each time, you've got human behavior which is better and truest the first time.

God, I would die if I rehearsed and someone in rehearsal gave me a great moment, because a great moment is what you look for in film. It's all about the moment.

I was complaining about not having more time, not having more money to do something I wanted to do, and Orson said this line that I now have over my editing machine. He said, 'The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.'

That was just about the most important thing that has ever been said to me, because if you don't have limitations you start throwing technology or money at a problem.

But if you have a limitation, you have to find a creative solution, and therefore you create art.

For me the most valuable lesson from Orson, and it happened during that movie, was make whatever happens work. It's good to have limitations, because you have to find an artistic or creative way to surmount them. And it's more fun.