What was your filmmaking background before making Desperate Acts of Magic?
JOE: Desperate Acts of Magic is the first feature film that Tammy Caplan (my producing partner and girlfriend) and I directed. But back in 2005, we produced our first feature film, Never Say Macbeth. We asked our friend Chris Prouty to direct that one. Never Say Macbeth went on to do festivals, and came out on DVD in 2008 through Vanguard Cinema. We've also made a few shorts. We both have acting backgrounds and degrees in theater.
Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like?
JOE: I have a background as a magician and have performed over 500 kids’ birthday parties, and used to compete in magic contests quite a bit. Many of the events in the movie actually happened to me. Tammy and I were banging our heads against the walls trying to find money for two higher-budget projects that we had written.
I was struggling to come up with a new idea, and she suggested I try an acting exercise that we learned from the Pacific Resident Theatre called "A Perfect Scene" where you identify a moment from your life (real or imagined) that you can act out better than anyone else on the planet because it had such a huge impact on you. And I remembered this time that I competed at a magic convention, and the events that transpired there had a huge impact on my future in magic. So I decided to tell that story. That was February of 2010 when I started writing it.
Meanwhile, I saw that the International Brotherhood of Magicians convention was going to be held that July in San Diego, and I thought if I could write the movie fast enough, we can shoot a lot of it at the convention and we can get locations, extras, and production values for free. I actually thought I might compete in the convention contest for real, and we would just capture it for the movie.
I had been inspired by a film called The New Year Parade, which was a sweet drama about divorce, but is shot against the backdrop of the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia. I thought it was a brilliant way to have high production values without paying for them. Unfortunately, the convention said no, and told me I couldn't shoot any convention activities. But we went anyway, just for one day with a crew of one, and shot tons of b-roll, and some small scenes, especially the scenes in the large dealer's room.
JOE: We shot a day or two per month for eighteen months, and Tammy and I both kept full time jobs the whole time. So most of the money came out of our day job money. We would shoot a day, and then save up for the next day. We also kept our living expenses very low, and didn't go out much. Meanwhile, we also set up a website with donation buttons, similar to Kickstarter.
We did get donations from friends, family, fans of magic, and other supporters of the film. Since it was through our own website (as opposed to Kickstarter), we could keep those donation buttons up during the entire eighteen months of shooting. As we shot the film, we would meet new people who would become interested and involved with the production, and they might donate or encourage others to donate. Kickstarter is great, but everyone who succeeds tells you it is a full time job, and we already had full time jobs in addition to making the movie.
Ultimately, we raised about $18K from donations. Right before we released the film, TV producer Lee Aronsohn discovered the trailer, saw the donation buttons, and made a deal with us to come on board as an executive producer. He invested some money into our distribution costs. He also gave us some great feedback and guidance to tighten and improve the film. The entire budget was around $77K, plus an additional $60K for marketing and distribution and all of that was spread over three and a half years.
As for recouping our costs, well, we never expected to fully recoup our costs. It's very rare for a film made under $100K to do so. But our revenue is coming from theatrical box office (we released in NYC and L.A., both 4-wall rentals), screening fees from magic clubs, Tugg screenings (we had one successful Tugg screening in Dallas), DVD sales at magic conventions, DVD and poster sales off our website, DVD sales to magic shops, and V.O.D revenue. Gravitas Ventures released our movie on iTunes (in 6 countries) and cable V.O.D. on November 1st.
JOE: We both did everything. I was on-camera for most of the scenes, so Tammy was watching the monitor most of the time. But we both gave notes to the actors, and guidance to the crew. The two of us also handled props, costumes, and production design. And we edited the film as we went. Sometimes, I would start editing a scene, and she would finish it, and vice-versa.
Since we were shooting a day or two per month, we were able to edit scenes in between shoots, and see where things weren't working. And then if we needed a pickup, we could grab it at another shoot.
Did actress Valerie Dillman have magic training before you cast her? If not, what was your process for training her?
JOE: No. Valerie had no magic background. But she's an excellent actress, and was excited to learn magic. I had acted in plays with Valerie at the Pacific Resident Theatre.
Casting this role, the lead role of Stacy Dietz, the female street magician, was very challenging. There are so few female magicians in the world and even fewer who have an acting background. Due to budget constraints and the long drawn out schedule, it was challenging to cast a magician outside of the Los Angeles area. So we took a chance on Valerie, and it worked out very well.
Each month, Tammy and I would brainstorm methods for the magic with our magic consultants, Tony Clark and David Regal. Then we would teach Valerie the magic, and she would practice diligently for each shoot. It helped that we were only shooting a day or two per month. She only had to prepare magic for a few scenes at a time.
What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?
JOE: We used the Canon 7D. We loved how small and unobtrusive the camera was. We didn't always have permission for our shoots, so the Canon 7D helped us with our under-the-radar guerilla shooting. We shot at the magic convention, at a hardware store, at a gas station, and in a hotel lobby, all without permission. We could never have done that with a big camera.
The negatives are it goes out of focus pretty easily, and it can have a moiré effect, especially with busy patterns on clothing. We also had a dead pixel through almost our entire movie, which we had to painstakingly remove during post.
You wore a lot of hats on this project -- director, writer, producer, actor, editor. What's the upside and the downside of working that way?
JOE: The upside is you have more control over the process. When you hire someone, for props, or costume, or make-up, etc., it's their job to make that aspect the best it can possibly be. And the pay is so low, so the pride in their work is one of the biggest rewards. But sometimes their desire to do a great job can slow down the production, and increase costs. They don't always see the big picture, and realize that their perfect prop, costume, or makeup is less important than getting the day in the can.
But it's very hard to tell that to the crew member, and you end up having to choose your battles, and lose some of them. So we didn't have a make-up person, a costume designer, or a props person. We did it ourselves so that we could focus on it when it was important, and ignore it when it wasn't.
The downside to that is of course, things get missed. A shirt gets forgotten. Faces get sweaty. (We joked that this movie could be called Sweaty Acts of Magic.) And because I was acting in most scenes, I had to try very hard to stay focused on what I was doing as an actor. I had to struggle to not to think about the stresses that came with my producer hat - like when the owner of the bar we were renting told us in the middle of shooting that we'd have to pay triple if went over-time.
JOE: Probably the smartest thing was how we dealt with my car, which got rear-ended and totaled in the middle of production, with one more scene to go. It was an important location. We needed to find a matching titanium-colored 2000 Honda Civic with black stripes on the side. Although this may sound like a common car, it proved to be extremely difficult to find. We tried rental car places, picture car providers, used car lots, and Craigslist, but the car could not be found.
Then one day, walking in my neighborhood, I saw an exact match. I ran up to the driver's window at a red light, and banged on his window, freaking out the driver who thought he was being car-jacked.
Finally Tammy and I came up with an idea. We had a scene to shoot where we needed six audience members. So we put out a casting notice looking for actors who owned a titanium-colored 2000 Honda Civic with black stripes. Hundreds of actors submitted for the role offering various cars, including a blue Jaguar. Ultimately only one actor had an exact match and she was cast. But as backup, the other five audience members were all cast based on their similar colored cars.
A dumb thing we did was to shoot our three shell game scene near an A.T.M. machine. Customers kept using the A.T.M. machine and there was a constant BEEPing that we couldn't shoot around. When we scouted the location, we should have listened more carefully. The beeping was a real challenge in editing.
We didn't get a permit for that scene (or any scene for that matter). And we probably should have gotten a permit or shot in a more populated area. We only had a couple extras. That scene looks like the three shell game hustler picked a rather secluded location to run his game, which doesn't make a lot of sense.
JOE: We were really happy that we made a movie that a core group of people (magicians and magic fans) really want to see. And I always kept that audience in mind while making the movie. That's why we didn't use any special effects. That's why we avoided cutting in the middle of a magic effect. And that's why we cast a lot of well-known magicians (at least they are well known in the magic community).
By doing that, we had a real target audience that we could market the movie to, and because they have magazines, websites, stores, conventions, and organizations devoted to magic, it was cost effective to market to them. In other words, they were easy to find.
So on my next project, I will hopefully be able to identify the target audience for the film before we start shooting. And if I cannot find that target audience, then I better keep my budget ridiculously low.