Thursday, September 19, 2013

Donna McRae on “Johnny Ghost”

What was your filmmaking background before making Johnny Ghost?

DONNA: I trained as an actor for three years. After I graduated I had a couple of good years then the work was harder to come by. Naively I thought that I would ‘write something that I could be in’ but found that I enjoyed writing just as much as acting. I started working with two directors (I had worked on their short films) developing screenplays. One by one they moved interstate and overseas, so I was writing by myself again. I was  accepted into a screenwriting residency and the mentors there encouraged me to direct my own work and finally I did – via film school.  I made quite a few shorts there and after, and then thought I was ready for a longer length film. 

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

DONNA: The idea came from experience, I suppose. Even though it is not autobiographical, I did live through the post punk years in Melbourne (Australia) as a young girl and was fascinated and intimidated by all the great music, people and lifestyle. It was a very short time however, and quite a few casualties were claimed by that hedonistic lifestyle of drugs and rebellious behavior. 

I had started a screenplay a few years earlier about a woman who was in a punk band with her boyfriend – so years later I got to thinking about that character and wondered what she may be like 25 years on! That was the basis of Johnny Ghost. It came together very quickly after that.

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

DONNA: I was doing a Masters of Fine Art at Monash University and was really enjoying investigating storytelling through images. The thought of going further into postgraduate study also interested me and I knew that they offered scholarships for some PhD candidates. So, I thought to myself, why not try to get a scholarship and spend it on making a feature film!!! Crazy? Yes, but it worked.

The area of ghosts – cinematic and beyond – really interested me and I knew I wanted to make work in this area. So I got a doctorate and a feature film out of the process. It was 4 years but I really loved it and feel like I have only scratched the surface of all things ghostly.

My film cost $30,000 to make and I have probably spent an extra $10,000 on it if you count marketing and trips to film festivals. I don’t have much of a plan to recoup that money – it was a scholarship in the first place – but I now have distribution in North America, Canada and Mexico and working on local (Australian) distro too, so you never know, I may get something back !

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

DONNA: At the time, all I could afford was the Panasonic P2.  The Red camera was out of reach and the Alexa was about to be launched.  I had already shot a short on it and was pleased with the results, so had no problem with using it again. It was robust and portable enough to not need a huge crew supporting it.

My DOP Laszlo Baranyai liked it and really pushed it for a good result. Obviously, if I had more money I would have used something better but I am very pleased with what we got.

What drove your decision to shoot in black and white ... and what are the pros and cons of that decision?

DONNA: One of the reasons I shot in black and white was the P2 – I thought it could handle the blacks quite well. Also I wanted to give the film that netherworldly, classic ghost story feel – a nod to The Innocents and Rebecca – all those old ghosts films that play to the shadows.  I thought that going that way wouldn’t date the film as much as colour would.

It was a bigger job for the Production Designer (visual artist Michael Vale) but much more satisfying.  It has been interesting in the market place though. There have been some distributors that wouldn’t even look at it when they knew it was black and white – they said it would be too much of a hard sell. One even said to turn it back to color!
I can’t imagine it in color now – but I wonder if I would do another one in black and white…maybe…maybe not.

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

DONNA: Even looking at all those hats in your question I feel tired!!!

The upside was that it was good to keep control on all those departments as it was such a small project. Also, because I had the university scholarship I had to run things past my supervisors, which made it easier. And I could do all those roles for free!

The downside was that the buck stopped with me, so I was responsible for everything. It was ok in pre production and post because I didn’t really have to liase with many people -- and post I just had to edit it myself (with the help of grading from my DOP and a sound mix from a post house).

But the production of the film was hard. It would have been nice to just concentrate on just one role but I never could. I am an organized person, so everything was drilled beforehand, but even so I was always watching out for another department.  Our next project ( that we have just shot a trailer for we had more people and it was amazing! (Even though I kept cross checking as if it was just me – lucky I had an understanding producer).

You also didn’t mention catering, which I did a number of times. I will know that I have ‘made it’ as a director when a catering truck pulls up on set!!!  J

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

DONNA: The smartest thing I did on production was casting the best actor for the role. The main role of Millicent is played by Anni Finsterer, who gives an amazing performance. I felt that I didn’t have to do much at all – just tweak for the camera – and she really carries the whole film. I didn’t have to worry about it one bit.

The dumbest thing I did was not checking whether the fake tattoo transfer actually did work.  Of course it didn’t!!!!  The production designer Michael Vale had designed it but someone else had taken care of the transfer. Luckily Michael was with us everyday, so everyday he had to draw it on Anni. Both troopers !

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

DONNA: I have learnt so much from that project and others along the way.

Firstly, organization. Everything needs to be so organized, because then and only then can it allow time for experimentation – things that aren’t scripted.

Secondly, marketing. Knowing what kind of film you are making and who your audience is. Setting up social media before you shoot is vital in this climate.

Thirdly, making sure you have a good time and treat people well. I have always strived to do this and because of it I have a great team that work together all the time. Filmmaking can be so stressful that you need to have lots of laughs along the way.

Fourth – be in love with the project. You are stuck with it and it deserves your time to really push it once it’s done.

Also, probably the most important one – collaborate! Your team can make it much better than you can imagine! 

One more – try not to do the catering…

Johnny Ghost official trailer 2013 from Donna McRae on Vimeo.

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