Thursday, June 27, 2013

Jane Clark on "Meth Head"

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make Meth Head?

JANE: I took a wandering route to get to filmmaking. I moved to NYC to be a painter when I was 18, and I actually sold a few pieces pretty quickly. During that time, I took an acting class for the fun of it, and got hooked. So now I had two loves. Since I booked the first few auditions I went on, I came up with a brilliant idea – focus on acting and when I was making a living at it I could get back to painting again. Ha!

I moved to LA, and performed in some indie films and theater, and had a recurring role on CHICAGO HOPE, but I was frustrated by the infrequency of the work. I began writing scripts with lead roles for me, only to discover, no one wanted a no-name actress starring in a film, no matter how good the script or talented the girl. At some point, when all the indies I did didn’t turn out as well as I had hoped, I thought I would try directing and producing my own material. If I sucked I would stop bitching about everyone else.

Dog Gone was the trial short. I starred in it with a friend, who co-produced and co-edited with me, and I found I really loved the process behind the camera. The film turned out really cute and it seemed I had a knack for it. From there I wrote/directed/produced and edited 6 more shorts, then produced a feature, Elena Undone, and then set out to tackle Meth Head.

Where did the idea come from and what was your process for writing and refining the script?

JANE: My brother-in-law, Dickie, passed away from complications of a Meth addiction at about the same time my friend, John, came back into my life having come through a horrible Meth addiction himself. John brought me an idea for a script and asked me if I would write it for him and we would produce it together.

As I developed the project, I thought it might be interesting to work a taste of his addiction into the film and that gave me a brief glimpse into his ordeal. That project got put on hold, but there was a hook to his story that resonated with me.

I was at the awards show at Sundance, frustrated that I didn’t yet have my feature in hand and, BING, like a literal light bulb in my brain I knew what I would do. I texted John from the show and said, “When I’m home we have to talk. I have an idea.”

The process of writing began with two long days of interviewing John – taking him through his journey – asking very specific questions. John answered without fear or hesitation and his honesty and the depth of the questioning gave me a good starting point for the treatment.

When I got into writing the treatment, I realized the literal story wasn’t going to work because it didn’t have the arc of a film, nor the brevity. As well there were certain things I wanted to say. So I redeveloped it using John’s journey as the root, but growing off of that.

I interviewed other addicts – in particular an addict friend of John’s from back in the day. Her stories were wild – Heidi Fleiss call girl, coke dealer, ex-con. She became the basis for the female addict in the film, Dickie became the third. I watched documentaries and YouTube videos, read books, pulled it all together and from the treatment wrote the first draft.

I am a nut about rewriting and fine-tuning. I’ll go back and do full passes until I feel like the script and the dialogue are grounded. After that, it’s tweaking. I’ll go on a hike and get an idea and go back and add it in. That happens a lot as the script germinates. I also gathered stories from people I would meet who had an addict in the family or had been addicted themselves. I was like a magpie, grabbing the shiny object, when I’d hear a good story.

I write very specific emotional direction into the script so the actor will have as much information as possible on how I see things, so when we sit down to talk, they are already very much in tune with the emotional truth of each scene. I always start with a one-on-one with each person and I listen to their thoughts, their own experiences. Then I take the workable ideas and adjust accordingly to deepen the characters even further. Through rehearsal there continues to be subtle changes. Even on set we switched up lines a couple of times in ways that were simple, but really deepened the action.

The script really is never finished until you are through post-production, truthfully.

What was your process for assembling your cast? 

JANE: That was a smattering of things. We started with open calls. I love auditioning, because I love the discovery. One of our leads, Blake Berris, was from the audition process, as was Candis Cayne in a supporting role, plus the majority of day players.

Lindsay Pulsipher’s agent was the same as Necar’s and he introduced me to her. I offered several roles to people I had worked with on earlier films. And I did a direct offer to Wilson Cruz through his reps, because I have loved him since My So-Called Life and I just knew he’d be perfect.

We were still working on the lead role and a strong supporting when I was introduced to a casting director, Shannon Makhanian. Shannon loved the script and jumped in to help. It was through her that we got Lukas Haas and Theo Rossi.

Theo came on pretty quickly, driven by the importance of the issue. Lukas was a little harder to convince. It is a very difficult role, especially for a straight guy. There was a lot of risky behavior and he needed to pull off not only gay, but tweaked out. Lukas, before he got sober, was a downer kind of guy and there is a huge difference. He read the script and said, “I love the script, but I’m not going to do it.” I said that that wasn’t good enough. He needed to talk with me. I was just sure that if he talked with me he’d do it. Well we spent an hour on the phone and he called his agent and said, “The project is great. I just don’t think I can do it.” My response was, “I want him and I really think if he just meets me he’ll know I can be trusted to take care of him.”

It took a while and I was beginning to worry. We were a week out and he was still saying no. Shannon suggested I look for a back up so we did one more casting. We found a great guy – not a lot of experience in front of the camera but an MFA in acting and real talent. He happened to know Wilson and I was waiting for Wilson to call me back with his opinion when I got the call from Lukas’ agents. He was willing to meet. Mind you this was the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving and rehearsals started on that Sunday. It was a lot of pressure, but in the end it was well worth waiting Lukas out.

What camera did you shoot with and what did you love (and hate) about it?

JANE: RED MX. I love the RED. I really have nothing bad to say about it. It’s the third time I’ve used it. We actually did a two-camera shoot, which I also love.

The RED is particularly handy in the editing room because of the density of material. We shot METH HEAD in 14 days and when you are moving fast like that you have to drop or alter shots to stay on schedule. It was reassuring to know what I could create in the editing room out of the material, so there were crucial times when I could say, let’s just set a wide master and I’ll create the moves in post. I know DP’s hate that, and no, it isn’t optimal, but when there is no choice, at least I can trust the RED material to hold up when necessary.

What's the upside and the downside of being not only the writer and director but also the editor?

JANE: I think the three things go together. They are all part of telling the story. Knowing the script as well as I did, having breathed it for a year and a half while we waited for financing, once on the set, I was able to confidently make changes and fast decisions. In the edit room as well, I knew where the core of the story was going and having been intimate with the takes from the production process, I knew the options intimately. That meant, when faced with an edit problem (lack of footage etc) I knew my arsenal of takes well enough to find the solution.

I also don’t rely on being the sole arbiter. I get notes on the script through the rewrite process. I use good ideas that are thrown out during production whether it is from the prop person, the actor, or my exec producer. And we did at least 5 small focus groups during the edit process to hone in on what was working and what wasn’t.

Did the movie change much during editing and how did you go about making those choices?

JANE: We basically cut the script. The biggest issue was limited setups/limited takes, though I find there is usually a creative fix to that issue. The problem I had was that of shortages, namely I wasn’t able to get a few establishing and montage shots because of rain and continuity issues. I thought I could squeak by without them, but I was wrong so we went back and grabbed those in a couple of hours one morning a few months after production.

But there remained two bigger issues. I cut a few things in the script process that I thought I could get away with (montage sort of things). I cut them because I didn’t think we could afford to do them financially. In the edit I realized, again, I needed them after all, but was stumped as to how to fix the problem.

Add to that one major time jump that the audience just wasn’t getting. That was the hardest issue to face, because I thought I would need to reshoot a whole scene and that seemed really out of my reach, financially.

I had given up and locked the picture, but then I showed the film to Lukas. He told me I hadn’t finished it, and I knew I hadn’t finished it. He said I needed to take off my producer hat and think like the director, and he would help in anyway he could. I knew he was right and once I let go of the “this is impossible” thoughts, I came up with some very simple fixes for the time jump problem. Lukas got us an expensive location for free for one of the montages, my friends pitched in to help with the rest, and with that we went back in one day and got everything we needed.

It was so simple in the end and so incredibly necessary. It was the difference between a decently good film and a really good film.

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

JANE: The smartest thing I during production…hmmm…there were so many fast decisions that I was later really happy about. One that stands out though – the last day of shooting had a scene at a beach and the beach we were going to was flooded after several days of rain. We pushed the shoot to wait it out, but the rain really didn’t cease until the last possible day to shoot – the day before Christmas Eve. So it was then or never.

On the day we had no idea what shape the beach was in since it was over an hour away. The sky was still overcast; the whole idea of the ocean horizon was ruined. Faced with the uncertainty and needing to finish on that day, I made a last minute decision to stay put and go up to a hill above my house, instead.

I rewrote the scenes to accommodate the change and we went up the street to shoot. We got the actor and camera set, and started rolling when all of a sudden the clouds parted and the sun broke through. It was like some little miracle of nature – the most beautiful moment and we got it on film.

Dumbest thing…was locking the film before it was ready. And knowing it wasn’t ready, but doing it anyway. Only thanks to Lukas and his honesty was I saved from forever being disappointed in myself.

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

JANE: You can’t help but learn a million things on every film, because each project has its own unique set of elements and issues.

One of the things that will impact my next film is the importance of establishing shots and transitions – get more than you think you need, and don’t save them until the last day, hoping to squeeze them in. Shoot them as you go. I also under-planned my inserts and there were times in editing when it would have helped to explain something a little better or to link two clips that had some continuity issues if I had a few more inserts of things.

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