Thursday, December 19, 2013

Andrew Kightlinger on "Dust of War"

What was your filmmaking background before making Dust of War?

ANDREW: THE SHORT ANSWER: I was born and raised in Madagascar, which is where I got the filmmaking bug.  I studied International Politics and French in undergrad and got my Masters in Film at Boston University. 

Before Dust of War, I’d directed one major short film called You Don’t Know Bertha Constantine, which was a creative blunder but the best crash-course in Producing 101 that no film school could ever teach you.

Since Dust of War, I’ve directed four short films, including Paper People, which has screened at over 25 festivals, including the Palm Springs ShortFest. I’ve also directed a WWII webisode and an experimental short about film projectors. My latest project is a short called Destroyer starring Alan Ruck (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Spin City). Next up are a few feature possibilities, including a WWI project and a horror film.

THE LONG ANSWER: I always say that my film education started when I was 5 years old.  I lived deep in the rainforest of Madagascar in a research village called Ranomafana.  My parents were microbiologists studying rare diseases and I was just along for the ride (complete with worm-infested feces).

My entertainment was limited mostly to my imagination for the first few years of my life.  Then we got a VHS player when I was about 5.  And the first movie we ever popped in was E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.  Despite being only 5 years old, I intellectually understood that this wondrous movie didn’t just appear out of thin air.  I knew somebody had made it because it came on a black rectangle that you inserted into a black box.  SOMEBODY had to have put it on there.   So that was my first understanding of film and it has fed my fascination ever since.

One of the most interesting aspects about growing up in Madagascar and being disconnected from popular art in America was how information tended to shrug its way to the tropical island.

There was this armoire in a rustic building in the capitol city that harbored a collection of pirated VHS tapes.  We called it the “Red Island Video Club” (because Madagascar is famous for its red earth) and to borrow movies from this armoire, you had to drive 3 days by rough dirt road.   And to open this armoire was to dive headfirst into Heaven.  I would indulge in the works of Joe Dante (Gremlins, The ‘Burbs), Richard Donner, and many Chevy Chase films.  But the rotation of movie was never frequent so I’d burn through these moves over and over again until the tracking got bad and they were unwatchable.    I even watched Robert Altman’s Popeye over 100 times simply because it was there.  I wonder if it holds up?

Another odd thing I did that probably was a harbinger of things to come was that I’d lock myself in my room and literally act out movies for hours -- movies I’d seen.  And movies I hadn’t seen, including about 7 sequels to Jaws and The Mask.

So flash-forward to 1998, my parents finally move back to the U.S. (to South Dakota of all places…but my father grew up in SD, so there’s that connection).  I’m lost in translation at first. My 11-year-old mind struggled to adjust to the American school system.   But after wading through a few years of awkwardness, I came into my own high school and became heavily involved in the arts and overall ‘entertainment’ of the Pierre, South Dakota community.     

The acquisition of my first camera is an age-old story.  My parents got it for me.  I don’t think they realized that they were ushering their son into a career with very low-income opportunities, but they liked that I was passionate about something and that it helped me make friends.    So I started making remakes of SNL skits with my buddies.  And then started making our own original skits.  And then we decided it was time to make a full feature.   

So the FIRST full-length feature I ever made was a documentary about my high school Cross Country team.  It was brilliantly titled ‘The Pierre Cross Country Documentary’ and it ran an unforgivable 86 minutes.  We played to a packed house at our high school auditorium and demand for a sequel was at a fever pitch.   So the next year, we did XCDOCII: D.I.L.D. (aka Do It Long Distance); though we thought we were HILARIOUS because DILD reminded us of ‘dildo’.  Young and reckless idiots we were.  Subsequently, the school ended up banning the sequel due to some homoerotic references and language.  In 2004, talking about ‘gay’ issues was still taboo, especially in a high school setting. 

Anyway, I attended a Lutheran college in South Dakota where I got a degree in International Govt and French.  But I continued my filmmaking hobby by making silly shorts that eventually evolved into making very pretentious short films about topics I didn’t know.  Thankfully, I went through the ‘suicide and homeless people are deep’ stage BEFORE film school. I was also heavily involved in directing, acting, and improv. The directing classes were in theater and I’d do the craziest stuff.  Pour paint on people’s bodies and essentially go for shock value.  Haven’t grown out of that stage, but I know when to curb it. 

It was also in college that I learned how to respect the craft of acting and understand how vulnerable acting can be.  I put actors through the ringer in college, but only for things that I would do.   I’ll swim with the jellyfish.  Thus I hope an actor will be willing to do the same.  It earns their trust and fosters a working relationship based on mutual respect and shared vulnerability.   In fact, I’ll usually audibly fart or make weird sounds in front of actors just to remind them that I’m the biggest idiot in the room and they are the pros…that way they’re aren’t worried about being judged.  Because I will be -- because I just farted.  It’s odd.  But it works. 

Of course, going to film school wasn’t an easy decision.  As my senior year of college approached, I faced three options: Get a master’s in Francophone politics, join the Peace Corps, or go to film school.   I struggled to decide as my parents encouraged me to choose a path less risky than film, though the decision WAS mine.  

And then everything changed.   My mother passed away from a SUDDEN heart attack at the age of 59. I had just turned 21. And the LAST conversation I had with her was about my GRE test scores and my future. Naturally, this event rocked the very fabric of my world. And one day, about a month after her death, my dad buried my face in his trembling hands and he implored me to follow my dream. We even set aside the life insurance money to pay for film school.  And so the search began. 

Boston University ended up being the ONLY film school I applied to. Perhaps I was still easing into the idea of a film career, trepid about doing right to my mom’s memory. But I got accepted. They took me in. And when that happened, I threw my entire being into my film career. I was going to make my mother and father proud. And to this day, my respect for my father and for my mother’s memory drives me.

In film school, we started off shooting on celluloid, beginning with The Bolex. The first shot that got my Film 1 professors' attention was a raw fish hooked onto razor wire.  And then I directed a short B&W film that received the first 100% in the history of first year films at BU (at least for this prof).  This accolade was accompanied by my professor's stern warning to stay humble.

To finish my time at BU, I had to direct a short thesis film. It was called You Don’t Know Bertha Constantine and featured a grieving woman tugging her husband’s body through the Badlands as part of a burial ritual.  My choice was to raise way too much money and make a short film in Badlands of South Dakota.  This proved to be both a blessing and a curse.  The short was too long and too plodding, with not enough coverage and a script that got lost by being meddled with too much.  BUT the experience of raising $70,000 (yes, I could shoot a feature with that moolah now) and putting it in the wrong places showed me the value of putting the story over everything else. My very expensive thesis film was a crash course in how NOT to produce a film and it was very humbling to my ambitions.  

So the experience of my thesis film crushed me creatively and yet fueled my passion to direct Dust of War. Every mistake we made on my thesis, we did the complete opposite on Dust.

Since Dust of War, I’ve directed four short films.  One is called Paper People, which is an 18-minute short about PTSD that has played at over 30 festivals, including the Palm Springs ShortFest.  It also recently got a distribution deal on TV.  I also directed a WWII webisode and an experimental short about film projection. 

My latest project (which is still in post) is called Destroyer.  It’s an 8-minute impressionistic short film starring Alan Ruck (Ferris Bueller, Spin City) and Judith Hoag (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, NBC’s Nashville).  It should be hitting the festival circuit in 2014.

My future projects include a WWI feature and hopefully a micro-budget horror feature.

Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like with your co-writer?

ANDREW: Our goal was to make a micro-budget feature and make it look like $1 million. And for some reason, an epic apocalyptic tale was the answer. The idea came from our producer’s love for Star Wars.   I took his idea and tapped into my love of Mad Max and Flash Gordon, and wrote a grounded sci-fi yarn that featured very classic archetypes and borrowed more from Nicholas Roeg than it did George Lucas.  But the producer seemed cool with my interpretation of the idea.  A more ‘elemental’ sci-fi yarn meant a lower budget and that’s where we found our common ‘creative’ ground.

I wrote the first draft in 1 week. And spent 3 months after that tweaking.  I could have spent a whole year ironing out the script, but we had investors to answer to and perhaps our own ambitions nagging us along.  The only struggle was to keep the script at 80 pages, which I did not want to do, but had no choice in the matter.  The producer said, “You only have enough days to shoot 80 pages.  So write ONLY 80.”  Yes Captain!

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

ANDREW: We raised the funds locally, almost 75% coming from our hometown in South Dakota where we had fostered positive relationships with people of influence over the last 10 years. Hint: be active and upstanding in high school and it might pay off down the road.     

We put together an investment plan and basically made the pitch to dentists, doctors, and businessmen.  Like that teapot once said, a tale as old as time…  Our overall goal was to deliver a solid final product, make our investors some moolah, and then make bigger film after that.   When they say film is 90% business, they’re not joking.

On a side note, force majeur is a delicious beast.  One of the more interesting episodes of the fundraising process was the onslaught of a 500-year flood.  About 3 months before principal was slated to start, a MASSIVE flood hit South Dakota.  The Missouri River rose 10 feet and the town shut down for 2 weeks as people sandbagged houses on the banks of the river.      

And of course, most of our committed investors lived BY the river and their homes were underwater, so we lost a bunch of pledges.  And what could we do?  Complain?  “Hey, I know your life is waterlogged right now, but we’re making a movie dammit!”     

So we had a moment of pause (literally 5 minutes) where we discussed pushing the shoot back.   But then we decided to screw force majeur and do the film anyway. Some of our pre-prod suffered as a result and a lot of the rough edges in the film are a direct result of an act of God. Classic story.   

And the creative by-product of the flood was shooting at a time of year when the land is usually very dry and ‘apocalyptic’ looking.  But the flood turned everything green and vibrant.  Color correction was ‘fun’, to say the least.

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

ANDREW: We shot on the Red One in 4.5K.  I love the look of Red because not only are you given ample latitude in post-production, but it looks like what I'd imagine digital would have looked like in the 70s.  But I hated its girth. It's a whopper of a camera and when we're shooting 95% handheld, you need to find a cam-op with a massive sweeping back. So the best thing to do is hire out of Austria (I’ll touch on this a bit more later on)

But what I've quickly learned is that the camera barely matters.  It's the glass that counts.  We shot DoW on Red Primes, but I just directed a short using 40-year old Nikon primes on a Red Epic and the look is stellar.  So get good and versatile lenses, and KNOW what look you want before shooting.

What's the biggest secret to shooting an epic on a small budget?

ANDREW: Throw everyone and everything in front of the camera.  And by that I mean, Location, location, location.  The ONLY reason we embarked on this adventure was because we knew we could create a post-apocalyptic landscape in our backyard.  So if you want to go big, make sure what you're shooting looks epic.

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

ANDREW: I'm not sure there is an upside.  The more delegation I can do, the better.  On this particular project, we simply didn't have the infrastructure to delegate as much as we wanted.  I believe that having to direct and visually conceptualize the film took a toll on writing a tighter story.  And having to raise funds took a toll on, well, everything.

If there is an upside, it's that you get to control the story that's being told, but everything might suffer in the long run.  I have yet to direct a script that isn't mine, but I welcome the day when it arrives.

In the end, no matter how many positions you have, be a collaborators.  Film isn’t about one artist.  It’s about ALL the artists.   No one person is capable of making a film great.  Get that through your thick skull in film school.

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

ANDREW: The smartest thing was hiring a DP who was willing to break his back to make this film. He fought hard for the position (he filmed an entire car chase on a consumer camera as an audition) and delivered in spades. Since DoW, we have developed into frequent collaborators and only grow stronger as a symbiotic creative unit. I hope I'm telling stories with him for the next 50 years. (It also helps that he was born in Schwarzenegger's hometown.  Austrian thunder blood runs through his veins. That's gotta count for something...)

The dumbest thing was neglecting to invest in a casting director.  While we ultimately had a great actors working on the film, the process of finding them was a spirit killer.  I had to be my own casting director, and operated under the pseudonym of Chud Becker (yes, just like those cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers).  Chud managed to nab Tony Todd.  Some agents furrowed their brows at the name Chud.  I just said it was of Azerbaijani origins.  Hiring a casting director may have opened the door for a wider array of talent. But ultimately, we lucked out with a fun cast nonetheless and their dedication is on full display in the film. I have no regrets other than the creative time casting took away from pre-production.

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

ANDREW: Casting is key, continuity is relative, and sound reigns supreme. 

First off, when they say that half of good direction is good casting, they aren't kidding.  Good actors will relieve the stress of actual scene work and will instead be collaborators in protecting the story.  

As for continuity, I believe that if you shoot for the edit and block correctly, continuity will fall into place.  Continuity helps in the editing process and guides the audience along geographically, but if someone notices that a cup has rotated from one shot to the next, you aren't doing your job as a storyteller. Screw the damn cup!   After all, art is an unattainable quest for perfection.

Lastly, I cannot stress enough how important it is for directors to sit in a sound mixing/editing environment and immerse themselves in that process.   Sound is the glue.  It holds EVERYTHING together.  Knowing how sound works will save you on set.  Since Dust of War, I’ve been able to make so many impulsive decisions on set purely on the basis of sound.   Appreciating the art of foley and the complexities of the design will give any director a leg up. 

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