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.