Thursday, January 31, 2013

Joshua Sanchez on "Four"

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make Four?

JOSHUA: I went to film school at Columbia University in my early 20's. I've done a handful of short narrative and experimental films in and out of film school since then. 

Before this I was just a fan of movies and I made music videos and skate videos with my friends in Texas. I studied Radio-TV-Film as an Undergrad at UT-Austin, but didn't really specialize in making films. I just had a passion for it and started doing it.

What was your process for adapting the play and what challenges did you face?

JOSHUA: The main challenge was to try to preserve the essence of the play without the movie seeming too much like a filmed play. I wasn't interested in literally adapting the material, but rather to use the character dynamics and situation as a jumping off point to tell the story. I also wanted to preserve as much of the perspective and the wonderful language of Christopher Shinn and not lose his unique perspective on this story, which was coming from a place of youth and purity.

My process tends to be a bit scattered. I write in short but intense fits and starts, then put it down for awhile to get some perspective on it and test what I've written. It took me about a year, off and on, to adapt the play into what eventually became the shooting script, although the final film is somewhat different even from what we intended to shoot.

Essentially the Joe/Abigayle story is a bit more flushed out and the second half of the movie reveals more about what is going on in the inner lives of the characters than the play does, which I think is necessary for the story to work as a movie.

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

JOSHUA: The producer Christine Giorgio and I raised the money together through private investors and through a few grants and a couple of small Kickstarter campaigns. Our plan is to release the movie in a small theatrical run next year and through digital and DVD, then to go into some foreign markets. It didn't cost that much to make the film so I think we have a good chance of at least making our money back, but obviously it's such a challenging time for small American independent films.

You also have to think about these things in terms of building a career. This is my first feature film and I think it’s gotten a solid response, enough for me to be able to make my next film. It's good for everyone involved because they have something solid to show to keep working and building on what we've done here.

What camera did you use and what did you love and hate about it?

JOSHUA: We shot with the Arri Alexa. Mostly I loved it. I think it was the right camera for what we needed and I think the end result was far and away more compelling that I originally thought it was going to be. We shot with these vintage lenses called Super Baltars which were used a lot in the 70s. The two combine to make everything look very wet and milky, which I liked because we shot mostly everything at night so it creates a really neat effect.

You can also shoot on this 'log c' mode that gives you so much latitude in the coloring process. It looks sort of shitty while you're shooting it, almost like a film negative would look, but you can do so much with it in the end.

I guess the downside of that camera is that we didn't shoot the full uncompressed format because you need this really expensive drive to do that with the Alexa. But the post was a breeze because you don't have to do all that lame processing that you have to do with the Red camera to work in Final Cut. I'm not the most techy director, so for me it was mostly a really great experience.

Did the movie change much in the editing process, and if so, how?

JOSHUA: The essence of the play is definitely still there, but we did rearrange and cut some scenes that were really different from how I envisioned them in the script. If you watch the film, the scene where Abigayle sees her father in the car is kind of a hybrid of like four scenes put together and that's how it worked best in the film. Some scenes were totally cut out of the movie as well.

I really loved working with David Gutnik, the editor of Four. He's the first editor I've ever worked with that thinks like a writer. Both of us are really story oriented, so we weren't too precious about what to leave in and didn't feel so committed to the original text. It was more like 'if it works, it works'.

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

JOSHUA: Probably the smartest and the dumbest thing I did were both the same... trusting and not trusting the actors.

My main process in making film is always in the casting process first and foremost. If I can choose the right people to inhabit the role, then a lot of my work becomes just steering the ship so to speak. For the most part, I did that with Four and it worked and that was the best thing I could have done to make the film good.

But there were a few times when I was unable to provide the actors with the space enough to explore how to best do what they needed to do. The dumbest thing you can do as a director is always to give in to the pressure cooker situation of a film set and then pass that bad energy on to the actors. I regrettably did that a few times, but thankfully not too much for it to affect the over all work of the actors in the end. 

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

JOSHUA: I think with every film I've made I've been able to take big lessons and pass them on to the next project.

With this film I think that trusting my instincts will be the thing I take with me in the long run. Every time that I was pressured into something I didn't fully believe in, it turned out to be a mistake. Thankfully there was not anything major on that front, but still there were a few things I would have made different choices about.

You should always trust your gut with creative decisions. After all, it's the director's job to protect the vision of the film and even if it makes people uncomfortable, the end result is always the thing that matters the most.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Will Tiao on "Formosa Betrayed"

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make Formosa Betrayed?

WILL: I started off as an actor, first in Washington DC, then New York, then Los Angeles. I did a lot of plays, television roles, and independent films. I once did an original theatre piece which was a hit, so my partner and I made it into a short film. That short film ended up doing well on the film festival circuit, and I got asked to produce a low-budget feature film. Once I had that under my belt, I realized that if I was to be a producer, I really wanted to put my energy into my own film, which was Formosa Betrayed.

What was the genesis of Formosa Betrayed and what was the writing process like?

 WILL: My parents were political refugees from Taiwan, and when we were growing up in Kansas, my parents had been spied upon there for their political activities and blacklisted by the government in Taiwan. As I got older, I did some research and realized that this spying was going on throughout most US college campuses throughout the 70s and 80s, and in some cases, led to assassinations and murder.

I then developed this into a story set in the early 1980s about an FBI agent who is investigating the murder of a professor, and is sent to Taiwan where he realizes that the investigation leads to the highest levels of US-Taiwan-China relations.

To develop the story, I did a ton of research on the actual murders, and found newspaper articles, Congressional testimony, and lots of books on the subjects. Then I hired a writer (the first of what would be 6 writers) to help me turn it into a treatment (a short story version of the film).

After a couple of revisions, I then hired her to do an initial script. At that point, I had a director attached and we decided to go in another direction, and hired a different writer to do a rewrite. This went on for about a year, and I ended up going through 3 directors and 6 writers, until we finally got to a point where we were happy with the script and ready to shoot.

The final version that you see on screen was developed by the eventual director, Adam Kane, and writer Nathaniel Goodman. I had final say on what went into the script. We took inspiration from such films as The Killing Fields, The Year of Living Dangerously, Z, Missing, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and a number of other political thrillers from the 1970s.

Did the movie change much in editing, and is so, how?

WILL: The film did change a bit in editing. Not so much the story but more about the timeline of events. Audiences are very story savvy nowadays, and we didn't want it to feel like a CSI or Law & Order episode, so we changed things up a bit just to keep the audience on its toes.

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

WILL: I think the smartest thing we did was choose to shoot in Thailand instead of Taiwan for 1980s Taiwan. We got some criticism for not shooting in Taiwan, given that the story took place there, but we did scout Taiwan and found that it looked completely different 30 years later, and the amount of CGI we would have to do was out of our budget. Moreover, Thailand is very film friendly and had the look we wanted. We were able to work with an American production services company that had worked on many big budget movies.

Probably the dumbest thing we did during production was to go into pre-production and scouting before our script was finished. We were actually already in Taiwan on our way to scout Thailand when we got the shooting draft. The timing was critical because it was between the WGA strike and a potential upcoming SAG strike, so we felt rushed. It was a dumb move but we felt we needed to do it so that we could get the shoot done before either of the strikes affected the production.

Can you talk about how you raised your $8M budget?

WILL: I started by, as I mentioned earlier, putting together the story with a writer and getting a director on board. Then I hired a lawyer and set up a production company to begin raising financing.

I reached out to Taiwanese-American cultural and political organizations and through word of mouth began to raise financing from individual investors. Over a year, I was able to raise over $5 million, which allowed us to begin principal production. I worked with an investment bank to then raise the finishing funds which allowed us to finish the film and get additional funds for prints and advertising (P&A). The film was released nationwide in 2010 and is now in over 40 countries.

What is the biggest mistake that beginning filmmakers make when they set out to raise financing?

WILL: I think the biggest mistake I see is the lack of preparation before speaking to investors. Most producers/filmmakers see investors as kind of annoyance they have to deal with. I always remind them THESE ARE THE PEOPLE WHO WILL MAKE YOUR DREAM POSSIBLE -- TREAT THEM WITH RESPECT! Always be respectful and at the same time make sure they feel included in the project. I see way too many filmmakers be completely clueless when it comes to speaking with investors, particularly those who are not savvy about the film business.

What did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?

WILL: What I've started to do now is work on slates of films rather than single pictures. What making Formosa Betrayed has done is open certain doors and I'm now looking at working in different aspects of the industry including television and distribution.

What are you working on next?

WILL: I've got a number of feature film projects that are in pre-production and development. I've also got a producing partner who is a producer on two hit Showtime shows, House Of Lies and Californication, so we are working on some television projects as well. As I mentioned before, I'm also interested in getting into distribution -- so it's been a very busy slate of things to come!

I also started to think about how to help other filmmakers get their projects off the ground, as over the years, I've had many people offer to take me out to lunch, or a drink, just so they can pick my brain when it comes to filmmaking and particularly film financing.

I finally decided to create a film financing workshop that encompasses the A to Z of how to make a film -- from a business perspective. It's the type of stuff they don't teach you in film school. I've been teaching that workshop in Los Angeles over the last couple of years, and recently have turned it into an online course called FILM FINANCE MASTER CLASS:

It's a mix of videos and live webinars where I interact with students specifically to help them get their dream projects off the ground. I've designed it so that the beginning filmmaker to those who have been in the business for many years (but have not been able to get their projects running) can benefit from it.

If any of your readers are interested in checking it out, the link above will give them access to several free lessons as well as an upcoming live webinar which will serve as an introduction to the entire workshop.

Because the course has live elements we plan to start next session of the course in the next couple of weeks. So if you're interested, please feel free to sign up here:

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Ken Adachi on "Dead Dad"

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make Dead Dad?

KEN: I studied film history, criticism and production and received both my Bachelors and Masters in the field. During that time I made dozens of short films and dabbled in music videos and commercials, basically everything but feature films.

What was the genesis of the project and what was the scriptwriting process like? 

KEN: I had just finished my Master’s degree, moved out to Los Angeles along with my classmates and for months was stuck in a monotonous cycle of interviewing and working soul crushing freelance jobs. I was heading into my late 20s and all I could think about were the great directors who had completed their first film around my age. I must have been channeling Fassbinder’s energy at the time because as soon as I found a stable job I knew I had to make something NOW. That was around August of 2010, and I knew I wanted to start submitting to festivals in the fall of 2011.

I began with a blank slate because the screenplays I had been working on would’ve taken another year to write and a six-figure budget to produce. I approached a good friend, Kyle Arrington, to co-write a film that would shoot the following spring. I specified that it would be a no-budget film with a large emphasis on improvisation to meet the production’s needs. I didn’t have to do much convincing, as he was also eager to get a feature off the ground. It didn’t take long before he tossed me a line about siblings dealing with their father’s death and I latched on; it was a simple idea with endless possibilities and I was ready to get started.

We met for a couple weeks and had casual discussions about our families and experiences with loss. I recorded every conversation and took extensive notes on those initial meetings, which became our foundation throughout the writing process. We continued to meet for several weeks until we felt comfortable with the characters and their backstories. We then spent two full weekends in my apartment plotting out the film with index cards on my dining room wall.

After we had a diagram of the film, we took alternate passes at the outline for a couple months and continued the same process to complete the first draft of the screenplay. We entered principal photography without a locked, shooting draft, since I knew rewriting would be necessary to compensate for our hectic schedule and limited resources. As I mentioned before, I had also planned on improvising with my actors and throughout the shoot we did a lot of rewriting on set so the actors could hit the beats with their own words. We were shooting mostly on weekends, so I made adjustments during the week to tie together the moments that were discovered on set.

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

KEN: From the onset I didn’t want to be that director who maxed out his credit cards and went into debt to make HIS FILM. Instead I surrounded myself with talented people who were all searching for ways to breakthrough and prove that we were capable feature length filmmakers; I simply presented them with an opportunity. The result was a successful Kickstarter campaign with contributions from family and friends of all members of the cast and the crew at the time. 

We also received contributions from outside of our circles because of the effort put into the campaign. Where we stood out, I think, is with the character vignettes that we called Kickstarter teasers. Unlike other projects that only did the introductions or showed a trailer of a film that was near completion, we shot original content specifically for the campaign to give our backers an advanced look at the style and tone of the film. Not only did this show our creative potential and commitment to the project, but it also gave the backers the excitement of following a project from the very beginning.

The financial plan was to spend as little as possible so we would have to recoup as little as possible. There were numerous situations when we could’ve used more money but we kept reminding ourselves of our commitment to frugality. We succeeded in keeping the budget abnormally low and are currently in the midst of finding the right distributor.

What camera did you use and what did you love and hate about it?

KEN: We shot primarily on the Canon 5D Mark II. We also got supplemental footage on the 60D and 7D. 

I forced myself to let go of a lot of control on this shoot and one aspect of this was the image. It helped that I have great respect and trust in my DP, Eric Bader, who still is a good friend and collaborator. We blocked and shot designed the whole film, but on set I treated the plan a lot like the script and let Eric improvise with each scenario. The majority of the film was shot handheld and because of the small profile of the camera, Eric blended with the actors and was able to get intimately involved with the action.

To put it simply, I like that it’s small and captures a quality image. The dislikes, well that becomes a much more tedious and technical discussion, and I would rather not bore you with all the details.

What was the value of working with a colorist and how did you approach that process?

KEN: We couldn’t afford a colorist... sorry Eric!

Eric, our DP, colored the entire film. He was onboard from the early stages of development, and we spent many hours over drinks discussing the look of the film. At the same time I was forcing him to accept that the limitations of the shoot may not allow him to capture the look we were trying to achieve. Those pre-pro meetings were basically a running joke of how screwed we were and an excuse to hang out.

Once we entered the coloring process we were surprised by how close we got to those initial ideas. Eric spent several weeks coloring the film and I sat in from time to time to be his second set of eyes. We developed the final look during those meetings, but all we had to really do was enhance what was captured in camera.

What is your overall marketing plan?

KEN: This is one of the toughest hurdles of our film because we don’t have a proper budget, and marketing is costly. For some festivals we were lucky to find publicists who were willing to help us at a discounted rate, but for the most part we were on our own.

The key was to have a polished website that we were proud to share (designed by our editor Eric Ekman) and like everything else we approached marketing with a grassroots mentality and used social networking as our base. We traveled to as many festivals as we could and got involved with each community by handing out postcards and flyers to raise our visibility and promote our screenings. To be honest, my producers and I are still figuring things out and we are using this film as a learning tool for future films. Ask me after the next project and I should have more wisdom to share.

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

KEN: The smartest thing I did was create a mentality and environment where everyone involved could feel like this project was his or her own. When recruiting cast and crew, I emphasized that I had nothing to offer but an opportunity for everyone involved to showcase his or her talent. This might sound like any other production, but it wasn’t because of the extreme degree of creative freedom given to everyone involved.

This communal approach gave everyone a desire to push as hard as possible and to better the whole; no one wanted to let each other down. I was merely a guide and problem solver in most cases and the end product truly represents the perspectives of the cast and crew at that specific time in their lives.

The dumbest thing I did is also the biggest lesson learned. Because of the communal environment, we relied on verbal contracts, a little too long in certain cases. Don’t get me wrong - we got most of our paperwork taken care of right away, but the ones that fell through the cracks caused some of the most stressful days of my life and sadly it wasn’t just one instance.

Once the next project gets started and real money is involved, I will travel with a portable printer and laptop everywhere I go and trust me, not a single entity will get involved until I get a signature.

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

KEN: This is something I’ve already known but not to this extent - that letting go of control can have surprising and positive results. On my next project I hope to have a larger budget and the ability to shoot continuous days to allow for more structured planning, but I know this flexible mentality will stay with me and guide me through the new obstacles that come with, well, more money and more time.

Dead Dad - Trailer from Connell Creations on Vimeo.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Stephen Dest on “My Brother Jack”

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make My Brother Jack?

STEPHEN: Before making My Brother Jack, my film background was peppered into a successful theatre career (actor/director) during which I did some documentary work and narrative shorts. My short film Blind went on to screen at many film festivals around the world; including the Cannes Film Festival (2008) and was subsequently sold to Movieola (a Canadian based film distributor). My Brother Jack is my first attempt at a feature-length film.

What was the genesis of the project and what was the writing process like? 

STEPHEN: The genesis came from a painting by the artist Larry Morelli. The painting had a real tragic sense of loss, seen through the eyes of the model used for the piece, who had a very maternal quality about her as well.

The first draft of the script was done as a spec deal with a film production company based in New York; the project sat for a few years and then I retained the rights back. I took the main characters (the two brothers) and started rewriting the script with the image of Larry's painting as a visual stimulant and that's when things really started to take shape. The aforementioned painting can be seen in the of life!

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

STEPHEN: I raised the budget for the film via Kickstarter. We did three campaigns for the film and were successful on two of three. I also had a private investor invest the majority of the production budget and a lot of in-kind contributions. 

The plan for recouping will hopefully come from a strong showing in the film festival market (where we hope to acquire a distributor) and through self-promoted screenings. I spent my teen years in the rock and roll scene, where self-promotion was the way of life, where a heavy duty stapler (for fliers) was more important then the guitar you played and I wouldn't want it any other way!

What camera did you use and what did you love and hate about it?

STEPHEN: Canon 5D. Loved everything about it.

Did the movie change much in the editing process, and if so, how?

STEPHEN: The end result is incredibly close to the original takes time to get it there but eventually what brought you to the editing room in the first place was the script and if you trust it (the script) it will be there for you when you need it the most. Often what happens once you get into the editing room is a need to tell the story with the best footage possible but if it's not what is right for the story you have to let it go, which is never easy but always necessary.

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

STEPHEN: The smartest thing I did on production was I listen to the talented group of people around me (cast and crew); even if I disagreed with them it helped me see another option and ultimately help in making decisions faster and more effectively, because on an indie, time is everything! 

The dumbest was that I didn't eat enough.

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

STEPHEN: What I learned was that your instincts are your best friend but patience is your lover and without her you’re lost. The art of making a film takes time and preparation. I will make sure I have plenty of both on the next project.

My Brother Jack - Official Trailer from My Brother Jack on Vimeo.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Tom Noonan on "What Happened Was ..."

What was the genesis of What Happened Was ...?

TOM NOONAN: I had never written a play. I'd written a lot of movies. So when I original wrote What Happened Was ..., I was going to do it at the theater, but the intention was to do it as a film.

I always thought of it as a screenplay, and because I'd never acted in something I'd directed, I thought, 'Well, if I do it on stage for a while, in front of an audience, I'll find out what the thing's about.' And, because I was acting in it, I wanted to make sure that we'd worked out all the acting parts before we shot it.

We did it for six weeks as a play. We rehearsed for a month and a half. And then, on the last night of performance in the theater, we took out all the chairs, and we shot the script in the theater -- I'd made the theater look like an apartment. Then, for the next six months after that, before we shot the film, we rehearsed pretty regularly. We rehearsed for eight or nine months before we shot, a couple times a week.

That's a lot of rehearsal.

TOM NOONAN: My general rule is that either you rehearse a lot or you don't rehearse at all. If you rehearse the middle, you end up not being authentic and kind of looking like you are.

When I finally shot the film, they would say, 'It's your close-up, Tom,' and I'd say, 'Okay,' and I'd just sit there and just talk. It wasn't like I was acting; I'd done it so often and what was going on seemed so real to me. I didn't have to worry about learning the words or learning the blocking or doing any of those things that you have to worry about when you're doing a film. It completely went away. It was just me, just being there. So it felt very real to me.

The movie is relatively simple when you first look at it, but it's actually got a lot of sophisticated stuff. The camera moves are all perfectly timed to counts. By the time we shot the film, everybody in the crew knew the count on every dolly move, on everything. It was very choreographed.

There's an amazing cut in the film, early on in the date, when he accidentally touches her, and it's a very quick cut ...

TOM NOONAN: There are very few cuts in the film, so when you put a cut in like that, it's very powerful. I knew that was the case and I shot it with that intention of possibly cutting it in.

There's a moment when you're sitting down in a chair, from standing, at which point it's impossible for you to stand back up again. And I find that kind of moment very dramatic.

What happened in that moment was I reached out to her with the intention to reassure her, because she seemed really nervous. And at that moment, she turned and I inadvertently touched her, not on her butt, but close, without meaning to, because I'd already started the motion and by the time she turned, it was too late to stop.

When we did the play, we rehearsed that moment over and over and over again, for days, the timing of it. Because if I touch her too soon, there's no way that she can bend over; and if she bends over, and then I touch her butt, it looks stupid. It has to be perfect.

Have you ever locked your keys in the car and as you slammed the car door you see the keys on the dashboard but your arm keeps going because the signal hasn't gotten there yet?

That's the moment I was trying to create. It happens all the time in life. I knew the wide shot wouldn't get it, and if I covered the whole thing close you wouldn't get it, so I decided to do this wide shot into an insert, to create this jarring, embarrassing moment.

It took a lot, a lot of work, rehearsing for months to get it to seem real. And we would do that for hours on end, I'd reach and she'd turn, trying to make it seem believable. It's very difficult to do that and not make it look phony.

How did live audiences react to the script when you performed it as a play?

TOM NOONAN: People were very uncomfortable, because we were pretty good at acting it. Part of the problem, during the play, was that people got so uncomfortable -- because it was like being on a first date with somebody that was not going well -- that people really didn't want to be there.

And part of what I would try to do during the play, and in the movie, was to not make people so uncomfortable that they didn't want to watch. I wanted it to be funny and make them engaging enough and compelling enough that you'd stay with the story even though it was painfully awkward.

There were times when I was doing the play when I could tell that the audience couldn't wait for it to be over, because they couldn't stand how awkward it was for the two of us. They just wanted me to leave and let this poor woman go to bed.

One of the great lessons I learned doing it was that the story of a movie does not have to depend on the story of the script. What I mean is, there were nights when we would do the play when I could tell that the audience hated me.

And there were other nights when I did the play when I could tell that the audience thought, 'Oh, this poor guy. He's being manipulated by this woman, who has invited him into her apartment on her birthday, and is setting him up to be disappointed.'

And other nights, again, people would go, 'This smarmy, condescending, asshole guy is just playing with her like a bug.' And it would change, night to night, and the story would be very different.

I learned a lot doing the play in front of people, because that's something I wanted to have in the movie. At times you think, 'God, this guy is such a jerk,' and other times you think, 'God, why doesn't she give him a break?'

The narrative of that script can hold a lot of different interpretations and different stories, without giving away that he's the bad guy and she's good.

It's really both all the time, which is what life's like.