What was your filmmaking background before making Don't Know Yet?
TERRY: I began as a screenwriter in 1991, after a career sailing tall ships all over the globe. Time at sea inspired me and gave me time to write - like everyday. I developed the discipline of writing and I discovered how much I liked writing for the screen.
Over the next ten years I took every screenwriting and filmmaking seminar in the country: Robert McKee, Michael Hauge, Maine Photographic Workshop, Dov Simens, Linda Seger, Judith Weston, and the Action/Cut seminar among others. During this time I banged out a screenplay a year, went through a few agents, placed in some big screenwriting contests, talked to a lot of Hollywood agents, and never sold a thing.
It was in the late 90's that I decided to make films myself. Being a sort of independent guy anyway, this seemed like the way to go. Since then I have written, produced, or directed 7 short films, plus our feature film Don't Know Yet in 2013. DKY is the fourth feature I have developed with my company, A Bunch of Us.
Every feature I put into development was nearly made. All had money and actors attached, and one, Sugarfoot, had a distributor and Gregory Hines - the world's greatest tap dancer - contracted at one point. Hines tragically passed away, the distributor was sold, and the investor's came knocking. I gave their money back. The experience of putting that project together around the millennium taught me how fragile the whole filmmaking process is. It helped me realize how many elements had to be synchronized in order to make any film possible.
So the short answer is, I began as a writer, and developed skills as an entrepreneur-producer-director.
Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like?
TERRY: I was channel surfing around Thanksgiving of 2011, when I happened upon The Addiction starring Lilli Taylor and Christopher Walken. Taylor spoke a line that would keep me busy for the next two years: “He picks up hitchhikers and takes them wherever they want to go.” I stopped in my tracks and turned off the TV. Who would become a taxi driver for hitchhikers? My head began to spin with the possibilities and, for the next few weeks, I jotted down ideas about characters and story.
When New Year 2012 arrived, I blasted through the first draft of the screenplay, about 75 pages, in five days. Then I sent drafts to my trusted allies - people I knew in the industry who would be totally honest with criticism: professors, actors, a cinematographer, and an editor. I took what I needed from each - and then went with my heart until the writing ended, at 89 pages, in early June.
I think there were only 4 or 5 drafts of the script. It sort of came out all at once, and was only modified and polished over the development period. In the end, for better or worse, I listened to my heart whenever making story decisions. So, honestly, I rejected a lot of what I heard about character and conflict. I wanted to make the film that I wanted to make. I also knew this would be a film that could be produced with a small budget and a local crew. I was confident that it could also attract a talented cast and financing.
You broke a lot of low-budget rules -- large cast, multiple locations. What was your plan for overcoming those challenges?
TERRY: I used a talented crew of young professionals - all of whom were former students of mine. They had a ton of energy, and moved mountains on enthusiasm alone. We had a meticulous shooting schedule and were all determined not to let any delays get in our way.
We had a twelve-hour day max, which we rarely went over. With minimal takes and a lot of hustling, we were able to stick to our schedule. Having great actors also helps, because there were few flubs. The weather also had to cooperate, which it did, and didn't. It was blistering hot on our 2 longest exterior shoot days at the junkyard. We had to cut a couple of scenes short and one we just didn't shoot. That was the only scene we didn't get to. We had to re-write that scene on the fly.
I hoped that our editor, Nate Daniel, could make some scenes out of this. He did. We also planned for a bunch of improv on set. Having a lot of extra improv footage made the story bigger, without much prep. We shot 89 pages in 17 days, which is just over 5 pages per day. Twelve days were within 20 miles of our home base of Wilmington, NC, and 5 days in the mountains of NC.
Since this is a road movie, we shot a lot from the car on the road, which we knew would make it seem as if we had dozens of locations. Exterior shoots had no lighting set-ups, except for a couple fire scenes. Our longest days were interiors, because of the lighting set-ups with minimal crew. Most cast members had 1-2 days at most, which helped create the large cast feel. James Kyson had 17 days. Lisa Goldstein Kirsch, only 9 days, although it seems like she appears in most of the film.
TERRY: Our DP, Joe Ensley, used his Panasonic AF-100 with several excellent prime lenses. Joe had a very simple steadicam counterweight that allowed for smooth moving camera shots. We never used a dolly. We had access to several additional AF-100's due to my position at the University of NC Wilmington in the Film Studies Department. We used three of these for the balloon scene. One in the picture balloon, one in a following balloon, and one on the ground.
I can't say I hate a camera. There was really nothing to hate about it. I loved it because it was so portable, easy to operate, and made an exquisite image in a variety of conditions. We shot a beach scene that went into deep dusk. I worried we were running out of light, and when Joe showed me the exposure, I was stunned. We could have shot even longer. Joe and I bought an affordable car mount for the camera, which was easy to set up and use. On the first day we experimented with the mount, we happened to be outside of Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington, NC where Iron Man 3 was shooting. As we assembled the tiny rig, the gates of the studio opened and 4 huge semi-trucks rolled out with IM3 gear aboard, including several Cadillac SUV's picture cars. Joe and I laughed as we waved at the union drivers passing by. The most expensive film ever made in North Carolina juxtaposed with one of the cheapest!
TERRY: During principle photography, late June into mid July of 2012, we were also editing. In August we had a rough cut. Our plan was to get the film into the festival circuit asap, so I started submitting to more than 50 film festivals and film markets for 2013-14. We also knew that the AFM was a must attend event in November of 2012.
Joe Ensley and I went to Santa Monica and presented clips from our almost completed film to nearly 60 companies in 3 days of marathon pitching. We had a lot of interest and made some helpful connections for the future, but no sales. At AFM we were testing the waters and finding out what kind of film we had made and what market it could find. I also wanted to get the film in front of producer's reps in LA and NY as soon as we had a finished film.
In the spring of 2013, I began an email and phone campaign to several hundred producers reps, following up over the summer. In September 2013 it finally paid off when I went to LA for a meeting with Circus Road Films, who I signed with to rep us for domestic distribution.
How did you achieve the last shot in the movie -- the fly-away?
TERRY: I have a friend who is a union driver for the film industry in Wilmington, NC. He was starting a side business with his home-built hexicopter camera rig - a portable six-bladed helicopter. We were his first shooting effort. We used a small, lightweight HD camera - I can't tell you which one because I don't remember, but it was the size of a pack of cigarettes. It was a windy day, and we had to do a lot of post-production stabilizing to smooth out that image. Cudos to Nate Daniel, our amazing editor.
TERRY: Smartest thing was to choose "go" over "no go" when we were faced with inclement weather. We shot at high altitude for two days in the mountains, clouds, and rain of NC. We always showed up and were ready to shoot when the weather broke. Had we called a day because rain was imminent, we would have missed some great opportunities to let the weather contribute to the film rather than detract.
Dumbest was having me as the driver of our RV. I ran into an overhanging tree limb that tore into the A/C unit atop the van, and I also smashed the rear-end when I hit a road sign while making a tight turn. These were the only two incidents that went wrong with the shoot. If those were our only mishaps, then we got off easy! Things could have been worse! I did spend my whole contingency on those accidents.
TERRY: That young crew members who are well trained and eager will do the job and surprise you at every turn. The average age of our 12-core crew was 21. We had some seasoned pros in key positions, all graduates of the same UNC Wilmington Film Studies program, but the undergraduates carried the load.
Our production was a test case for a model of filmmaking that I have always wanted to undertake. This model uses several key professionals who guide less experienced film students with support from a university film program and some moderate financing. I learned that the model works great! I will continue with the same model in the future, but I hope this time, with a bigger budget.