Thursday, August 22, 2013

Jenny Abel on "Abel Raises Cain"

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make Abel Raises Cain?

JENNY: This was my first feature film project, so I literally learned filmmaking on the job. Thankfully, I was able to gain some digital experience while I was at Emerson College as a video major, since the digital age was just taking off then.

After I graduated, I decided to move to Los Angeles and look for work in the film and commercial industry. Moving up the ladder from P.A. to Production Coordinator on various shows, the cumulative experience of working in the field became so valuable to the process of making my own film. Production is all about problem solving, organization and efficiency.

DIY filmmaking comes naturally to those non-delegator types who enjoy micro-managing to an insane degree. That pretty much describes me! It takes an embarrassingly long time to get a film made working this way, on your own, especially when you don't have much previous experience. But it is possible to do it.

I can't take all of the credit, however. My boyfriend came onto the project toward the end and we finished the film together. With his extensive TV news and editing background, he brought with him a way higher production value and without his creative sense, the quality of our movie would have undoubtedly suffered.

What's the upside and downside about making a movie about a family member?

JENNY: Where do I begin? My proximity to the subjects allowed for an intimacy that no one outside of our family could have captured. The funny thing was that even though I was my parents' only audience behind the lens, they still hammed it up. It took a long time for them to finally relax that tendency to 'perform' for the camera.

I can't imagine a crew of strangers attempting to capture the daily lives of Alan and Jeanne Abel. I was really the only one qualified for the job, although my father compared my following him around incessantly with a camera to getting a colonoscopy. And as a retaliatory measure, he mooned me one unsuspecting afternoon on the road somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania. It was an eyeful that I would rather not remember. I don't think he would have done that to a director whom he wasn't related to. But then again, this is Alan Abel we're talking about here. So maybe he would have.

The documentary brought my family closer together in the end, but it was challenging at times. I have a very proactive father who wanted to be involved in every aspect of the film, from resurrecting cutting room floor material to soliciting distributors. Sometimes there were too many cooks in the kitchen, as they say!

Some of the decisions I made, my parents did not agree with. But they were excited for us - and so were we - when things started to take off with the movie. The roller coaster ride began with our winning the grand jury prize at Slamdance. It was pretty thrilling for us to go up on stage and receive the award alongside of my father.

The documentary was the ultimate way to preserve his legacy. My parents experienced a rebirth as a whole new generation of fans were now discovering their work. This culmination point, which was a catharsis for me, also marked the beginning of a new chapter in their lives. That sense of fulfillment for all of us is indescribable.

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

JENNY: I initially applied for grants and I solicited funding from friends and fans of my father. I cut together a promo reel and sent out copies of it along with a publicity packet via snail mail. The targeted mail campaign was more successful than the blind application grant-seeking process.

Grant-writing is a specialty unto itself and not exactly my forte. I kind of gave up on it, realizing that fundraising was taking time away from actual production. I only wish that Kickstarter or Indiegogo were around when I started this project! Sadly, I went broke making the movie because I poured my own savings into it.

The long and the short of it... there was no plan! I winged it the whole way though, financially speaking. I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. Between equipment purchases, deliverables, legal costs, festival submission fees, etc. we are talking tens of thousands of dollars right out the window. Even with sales to overseas TV channels and multi-platform digital distribution in the U.S. earning decent returns, we still have not recouped our total costs.

Making a documentary guarantees you're pretty much already operating at a loss even before you've shot one frame.

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

JENNY: We shot the documentary on the now-defunct former 'high-end' prosumer camera, the Canon XL1. What I liked about it was that it had the option of creating a more film-like look when shooting in 'frame' mode - only one field per frame as opposed to two. The effect was a softer warmer quality as opposed to the cold crispness of standard definition video.

 In terms of audio recording, there were not a lot of options. I was too cheap to invest in or rent real XLR microphones. We ended up plugging in a mini jack external mic and using a crappy mic stand that always seemed to sneak into our shots. This was guerilla filmmaking at its best - no resources and no budget! But, all in all, the XL1 got us through the project and for that, I'm grateful. It's sitting in my closet now, in fact, and I don't know what to do with it.

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

JENNY: It seemed like an epic adventure. The downfall of shooting video is never knowing when to quit. It was five years of actual production, with two of those years in post. Editing in our own living room was a dream come true. FCP really opened up a whole new world of possibilities. A decade previously, we would have had to have rented an Avid suite and it would have been incredibly cost-prohibitive.

The vision definitely morphed as Jeff and I worked on the film together. Major pieces of the puzzle had to be taken apart and put back together again multiple times before it seemed right. We wanted to avoid too many talking heads as well as staying chronological with content.

The 'a-ha' moment came when we realized the story should be told through my POV, giving the documentary a personal touch and providing a true insider view into the madness of my father.

On the flip side, we knew that this could not just be a film about Alan Abel's pranks. There needed to be more depth. So we interjected elements of the love story between my parents and their financial struggles along the way. We debated whether or not to include the latter depressing stuff, but realized that the pathos was necessary to counter-balance the frivolity of the pranks.

What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?
JENNY: Taking classes at Moviola in Hollywood to learn Final Cut Pro was the smartest thing I could have ever done. It permitted us to edit the movie without too many technical glitches because I learned the idiosyncrasies of the program and how to avoid disasters with media management.

There really are no dumb mistakes when you make your first movie, because the mistakes are necessary to learn from. That's why it's a process that cannot be rushed. We compromised the quality to meet several deadlines along the way, which is easy to do with festival submissions. You want so badly for your movie to get into a top level fest, but then you hand over the latest version with sloppy mistakes.

In retrospect, I may have wasted money on some festival fees that were a long shot but, like they say about the lottery, "you have to play to win." And sometimes my scattershot approach paid off.

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

JENNY: I have become hyper-aware of the fact that filmmaking is a process comparable to raising a child. It requires a tremendous amount of patience and nurturing.

I don't think that I had realistic expectations going into the project in terms of just how much time would be involved not only in the completion of the film itself, but in the distribution end.

But having said that, I learned that passion goes a long way. I just have to find another film subject now that I'm equally as passionate about.

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