Thursday, December 12, 2013

Katharyn Grant on “The One Who Loves You”

What was your filmmaking background before making The One Who Loves You?

KATHARYN: Before The One Who Loves You, I made several short films, Including The Accoutrement, which was selected to air on the Independent Film Channel.  The Accoutrement came out of a filmmaking group that I joined, where we would make short films every month.   I also acted in other people's projects as well as directing and producing my own stuff. 

How did you get connected to the script and what was your working process with the writer?

KATHARYN: I was taking a screenwriting workshop in 2009, where we would read our work out loud.  And by hearing me read my own work, Beaty Reynolds, the teacher, thought I was a good actress and approached me about one of his own scripts.  He said I'd be perfect for the lead character, which was based on his Aunt Mary.  I read the script and really fell in love with it; I so resonated with the theme of struggling to be an artist in a conventional world, as well as the moral questions the script contained. 

I showed Beaty some of the short films I'd made, and we decided to collaborate.  His script, then called Swinging Down Home, had been Beaty's calling card in Los Angeles when he first arrived there in the late 80's, and it had been optioned by Faye Dunaway's production company, with big stars attached, but it had never made it to production.  So the notion of finally bringing this jewel to fruition was incredibly exciting.  I wasn't sure if I could pull off the 1960's setting, so we decided to update it to the 1970's and change the musical world of the story from swing to country. 

Our plan was to make a shortened version of it, in order to solicit funds, so we spent many weeks brainstorming and creating outlines for the action, attempting to boil down the most important story elements.  However, when we finally shot that first shortened version, it felt like a bit of a misfit at 45minutes, not really a feature and not really a short.

So we decided to try and fashion it into a true feature by adding a first and third act.  Accordingly, one very talky, expository scene was cut, and we had the opportunity to create some interesting peripheral characters, adding more depth and complexity to the plot.  Beaty would come up with ideas and bounce them off me, and vice versa.  I learned to mostly stay out of his way, because sometimes his decisions seemed to be based on the opposite of whatever I suggested. 

But still we were both very engaged and I tried to leave myself as open as possible for brainstorming and conversation about the script as it evolved.  It was an incredibly organic process, where we started with a core story, and then used what was working best to deepen it and create these other scenes that raised the stakes and created more tension.  And then once we were in the editing process, scenes were once again shuffled for cohesiveness and maximum impact.   

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

KATHARYN: Originally, it was going to be an ultra-low-budget project, with friends pitching in their talents and skills, and Beaty and I making small investments when necessary.  In fact, we lost several hundred dollars when the actor originally hired to play the lead male was paid in advance before we realized he wasn't up for the job and had to fire him. 

But it wasn't easy working with almost no budget.  And by the fifth or sixth of shoot, it became evident to our DP, Chris Graves, that he needed a crew that was dependable, so that he wasn't having to shoulder most of the heavy work single-handedly.  He made the wise decision to start paying a daily rate to the tiny crew, so that they'd look forward to showing up and giving their best. 

During the first few weeks of shooting, Beaty or I would bring food to the set, but it was fairly haphazard and after one actress said she was ready to pass out from hunger, Chris also started allotting our lead male actor money to buy food for the shoots, and he became our make-shift catering service as well.

And little by little, Chris became our executive producer, taking over the role of funding most of the production, with Beaty and I pitching in where we were able.  We did raise a small amount of funds through Kickstarter, but it was extremely difficult and time intensive.  Also, many locations, costumes, and props were found for cheap or for free, with a lot of effort, time, and hustling going into finding those (so we saved on money, but spent our time and energy). 

And now that that the film is complete, Chris has been working very hard to get it into festivals, and he and I are working to promote the film as much as possible to create a buzz, so that we can find distribution, both in the states and abroad.      

What are the challenges of directing yourself in a leading role?

KATHARYN: The challenge of directing yourself lies in the need to be subjective and immersed in the moment of your character's experience, and to also be able to stand outside that and look at the big picture, and think about how all the performances fit together.  Whenever time allowed, I would watch my own takes, and then make adjustments in my performance to give the scene what it needed.  I found this process really cozy, and it allowed me to open up very much as an actor. 

I was also fortunate to have the writer, Beaty Reynolds, on set when he was able, to give input and keep me on track as far as the time and place where these characters lived--a time and place I'm unfamiliar with, but that he knew intimately, having grown up in the South during that era.

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

KATHARYN: We used the Cannon 5D MK II, one of the first DLSR's you could do HD video with.  This camera is so small and unobtrusive we were able to do a bit of gorilla filmmaking, capturing interesting footage on the sly.  We were also very excited about this camera's ability to capture what was, essentially, a cinematic quality, where the depth of field is shallow, meaning the background is blurred, so that one's focus is on the person's face, or whatever action is in the foreground.  This creates a very beautiful, pleasing, cinematic look.

The camera's main drawback was also linked to this shallow depth of field, which gives you such a limited range of focus, so the actor can't move much without the camera operator adjusting focus, which requires a lot of skill and finesse.  Sometimes Chris was working without an AC, which made that very difficult.

Also, when the camera moves quickly, there is a "jelly" effect, where the image wobbles and just isn't stable or smooth, due to the rolling shutter, and so we tended to not use camera movement too much.  Fortunately, we were able to find such diverse and interesting locations that there is still a lot of visual variety, even though the camera is fairly static.  

The other problem with this camera is its lack of flexibility in post.  With this camera, you need to shoot it as close to how you want it as possible, as the image was already heavily compressed coming out of the camera.

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

KATHARYN: The smartest thing I did for this production was finding a script that inspired me so much, that no matter how difficult the journey became, I felt a kind of loyalty to the characters and a real need to tell their stories. When you work this hard on a project, you must have something inside that will drive you, something that is close to your heart, something that is so irresistible to you that you're able to remain focused when things fall apart, when personalities clash, or you start running out of money.  You have to have a kind of higher purpose that carries you through, because making a movie is no picnic.

Another smart thing I did, I feel, was that I wasn't rigid about trying to recreate what I was seeing in my head; instead I worked with the elements that I was able to gather and the locations we found.  Making art requires creativity in the moment, and using what you have, instead of trying to adhere to an abstract notion in your head, or plan. 

Yes, pre-visualize and a shot list is a must, but it's also beneficial to remain open to the unexpected in the environment which can add to the visual texture of what you're doing, and give you unique surprises that you would never have been able to create if you'd tried. 

The dumbest thing I did was giving a particular actor too much benefit-of-the-doubt in the audition.  This was the actor originally hired to play the male lead, but later fired.  He was referred to me by a trusted friend in the business, so I was seeing him through rose colored glasses from the start. 

As an actor myself, I tend to over-empathize and worry about the auditioning actor being nervous, making allowances for a so-so performance, thinking that they'd be able to give much more once on set.  But I had to stop doing this.  I try to create an environment that feels safe enough for actors to let their guard down and be natural, but past this, I had to learn to accept that I can't cast everyone, and I can't cast someone just because I like them or because a trusted friend tells me they are "the best." 

So essentially what this boils down to is learning to trust your instincts and while being open to the good that others offer, also developing definite boundaries, and not listening to others when what they're telling you clashes with what your gut is telling you. 

Sometimes on set, people would give me suggestions on how I should play a scene, and there were a couple times when I'd go against my impulse in order to use other people's input, and then I'd see in the footage that I was doing something that was wrong for the moment, and then I'd have to work around these less-than-perfect acting moments. 

And as a woman, it's really hard to learn to listen to your inner directives and be very discerning and keep a healthy wall up, because as women we're conditioned to accommodate people.  So I found myself in this leadership position, dealing with very strong male personalities telling me how I should do things, but the situation was asking me to listen to my own inner voice sometimes to the exclusion of what others were telling me.  Well, this was a life changing experience, and became the center of what this journey has been about for me. In other words, the greatest lesson I learned was to listen to my own inner voice, and not let myself be easily swayed from what my gut was telling me.

And whereas one actor gave a tepid audition and I hired him against my better judgment because a friend insisted he was "the only good actor in Denver," on the other side of the spectrum, an actor gave an incredible audition that even inspired us to change the character to accommodate his age; but once on set it was obvious he'd been drinking the night before or was currently drunk, and he struggled just to remember lines that he'd had memorized at the audition. 

In the future with someone like that, I would say either don't hire the person, or keep an eye on them the night before, so you know they aren't out drinking! Otherwise they will drive you crazy.  But it's hard to vet the drunks. And it's surprising that this is a problem in indie filmmaking, where you can't afford to hire Lindsey Lohan,
Another dumb thing I did was to not look at the monitor when we were overly busy with a complicated scene that required a crowd.  You always need to be taking into account what you're getting, and know what you're getting, no matter how busy you are. And when you're the one in front of the camera, too, this is incredibly challenging.  Even if a crowd is gathered around the monitor looking at the shots, you have to shove in and watch, too.  And again, this is where being shy and quiet won't serve you.  It was easy for the DP and crew to just think of me as the acting talent in these instances, and they didn't want to stop so I could study the footage, but it was imperative for me to find the strength to be engaged in this way.

Also, there were times when I stayed up all night working to get props and costumes in order, and it is not fun or healthy trying to function on only a few hours of sleep, for days at a time.  When our DP extraordinaire, Chris Graves, shot a scene at 3 in the morning at the end of a very long and crazy shoot day, he recounted later not being able to remember much of the shoot, and that was a red flag. 

While it's important to hustle and shoot as much as you can and maximize your time, there are also limits, and people's health needs to be taken into account.  In particular, when you're working on a period piece, each scene requires so much intensive prep, it became better for us to space out our shoots and film only a scene or two per week, so that everything was in order and no one was ready to keel over from lack of sleep.

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

KATHARYN: I've realized that it's to my advantage to know as much as possible about the technical elements of filmmaking.  I came to this project as an actor's director and a story teller. I've since learned the importance of understanding how to shoot and edit, whether I end up doing these things myself, or merely being able to speak the same language as the shooter or editor I work with. 

And understanding lighting is so important too, and how the camera you're using perceives light.  It's become important for me to know what will blow out a shot and what will give a room interest in terms of placing the furniture away from the wall, and lighting to give depth to a room.  These things might sound tedious, but the more you know, the more you can steer your ship and instill confidence in those co-creating with you, and the more you can make informed decisions about the look of a scene, rather than letting things happen by default.

Also, as an actor who is directing, having a strong AD sometime in the future would be great, someone who could help organize the set and be my eyes and ears and insulate me a little against the chaos, so I could really focus on the character I'm portraying. 

Let's face it, it's hard to juggle many jobs at once, and some help in that department would be more than desirable! But in ultra-low budget indie filmmaking part of the adventure is that you are doing 500 things at once in any given instance, and in the end that is the challenge, and what makes it fun, or at least you try to tell yourself it's fun, in order to survive the process with your bruised sanity somewhat intact.

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