JUSTIN: Fairly limited as far as dealing with projects with the size and scope of The Merchant. Before that, it was mainly short films, but I always felt that studying was the most important thing I could do. Too many filmmakers come out of the gate thinking they know what it takes to make a good (or even watchable) film. Me, I figured it would be best to take my time and learn as much as I could before taking on a serious project.
The six or so years before The Merchant was spent shadowing other filmmakers, trying out new methods for shots and color, learning all I could about the tech, and finding my voice as a filmmaker. During that time, I was always tempted to jump on a feature project, but I didn't do so until I felt I was ready. I hope the time spent reflects in the film.
How did you get connected to Allen Reed and the script?
JUSTIN: Allen and I started off in music. We come from a rash of small towns situated around Cedar Creek Lake in East Texas, and when you are a musician in that area you end up meeting every other musician at some point. Allen and I had a few musical endeavors together. When the last one broke apart, I approached him about doing films. He had written this piece of a screenplay and I loved it. He's been with me since the beginning and we have a close partnership.
JUSTIN: I can tell you we went into it with nothing. In fact, we fully intended to shoot the entire film on nothing and we would have, too. We found a lot of support in the East Texas community. It's amazing what a bit of resourcefulness and a lot of phone calls will afford you.
The money we did get came from a combination of crowd-funding and an investment team that was put together late into pre-production. To put it in perspective, we didn't see our first dollar until a week before principle photography. We were very glad to have it, though, and the whole production benefited from it. By movie standards, it was very modest, but we are good at stretching our pennies.
As far as recouping, we are going the standard distribution route seeking both domestic and international distribution. We have a couple of strong prospects so we are very excited.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?
JUSTIN: Director of Photography Bradly Hardin supplied us with two Canon 5D Mark II cameras. The 5D's are amazing little machines. I love how small and versatile they are while delivering a huge, beautiful picture.
Data management tends to be a beast on a large project like The Merchant, so we really had to be on our toes with handling footage. It's scary doing a 20-hour day knowing that there is no physical medium like film to retain your work. One bad keystroke or power surge and POOF, it's gone. Thinking about it can give you an ulcer.
How did you and Allen Reed share directing duties and what's the upside (and downside) of having two directors?
JUSTIN: Allen acted as assistant director, so it was never a power struggle or anything. We have been working together for a very long time and have our own frequency on set. It's very helpful. We both know our strengths and weaknesses and neither of us try to be good at everything. As a result, I can't really think of a downside. We have shadowed other film making partnerships before and have seen how ugly and unproductive it can be when both parties are trying to be "the man." There's none of that with us.
JUSTIN: One word: resourcefulness. There's a bit of a pandemic infecting the indie film world. It's called conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom says there's no way you can make a period piece without a trunk full of money. Conventional wisdom laughs at the thought of doing it without the support of a studio. People can become discouraged before they even begin when they do the conventional thing and start placing a price tag on everything from hats to horses.
Like I said before, you would be surprised what some phone calls can do, as well as a little out-of-the-box thinking. Also, remember that you are not shooting a documentary (unless you are, of course) so not everything has to be perfect. And if you are shooting a western, remember that western now and western then are two different things. The number one killer of a good indie western story is to dress your characters up like Clint Black's entourage. Do a little research and have some attention to detail. I'm not going to say it's easy, but a little bit of knowledge goes a long way.
Also, Goodwill is your friend (or as we came to call it, GW Western Wear).
JUSTIN: I think the smartest thing we did during production was to give everyone a day off. We were in a massive time crunch, always working against the clock. There were days when we would be up at 8 a.m. and work until 5:30 a.m. the following day. Then, back up at 8 a.m. to do it again. After about the 7th straight day of filming like this, our cast and crew was understandably wiped out. They pulled themselves out of bed, half of them sick, and set about the day, but there was no energy.
If you've been on a film set, you know there is a certain buzz in the air as the day goes by, and that buzz was dead. So, we got with the script supervisor and plugged the day's work into little gaps in the schedule for the remaining days. I think that saved the production. It's easy to forget that even though everyone works like a machine, they are far from being one.
The dumbest thing we did was to tether a jumpy horse to a piece railing in front of the saloon. One of the crew came bounding out of a door and spooked the horse, who then pulled down a large section of porch. Luckily, the animal's handler was right there or he might've made off with it.
JUSTIN: The amount of stuff we learned could fill a book. We took lessons from every dynamic of the project. Everything from script organization, efficient scheduling, legal paperwork, and what foods to not serve, to ADR, visual effects, the impact of foreign currency conversion for overseas contractors, and the pains of working with animals.
After several years of study, we had NO idea what we were getting into. But that's the beautiful thing about this line of work. You can study and speculate all you want but you'll never know the joyful agony of film making until you put your shoulders back and run the gauntlet yourself.
The Merchant Trailer 2013 from Sub_American on Vimeo.