Thursday, July 24, 2014

Nikki Braendlin on “As High as the Sky”

What was your filmmaking background before making As High as the Sky?

NIKKI: Having been an actor, I had been on film and television sets so I knew the basic process of the day, but I had never made a film. I had directed small theatrical productions, which helped me be comfortable working with the actors.

I took a semester course on directing, basically to get the terminology I needed to communicate more effectively with the crew. And I self-studied via books, articles and videos. But, really, this film was essentially my schooling.

Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like? 

NIKKI: This writing process was different from other scripts I have written, because I had the location and two of the actresses (Caroline Fogarty and Bonnie McNeil) first. Caroline and I have been friends for quite a long time and we really wanted to work together. She lives in the gorgeous house we shot in. I suggested that I write a script that was set there and where she could play the lead. I’ve also been friends with Bonnie for years and wanted her to be a part of the film.

Usually I start with themes I want to explore and work down to the details, so this script’s process was sort of in reverse. I felt the two actresses could be sisters and thought the location (a minimalist mid-century modern home) lent itself to someone with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, something I was interested in examining as I struggle with them myself. I have experienced my symptoms worsen when I’m working through a particularly difficult time and wanted to examine the ramifications of someone who has never learned to identify, and thus process, her emotions at all.

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

NIKKI: I was fortunate to be able to fund the film through contributions from family and friends. And I feel doubly fortunate to have our film acquired by Cinema Libre Studio. They focus on socially conscious films, so I feel like we’re in great company.

With regard to recouping costs, that will be a long ways away but hopefully this film will help me get my other scripts made. 

How did you cast the film and did the script change much once you had your cast in place?

NIKKI: The only role I cast for was “Hannah.” I saw between 50-60 young actresses because I was still narrowing down the age I wanted “Hannah” to be. I wanted her young enough that she still needed a mother figure but mature enough to understand and process the changes occurring in her life. We were extremely fortunate to find Laurel Porter for the role. She really exemplified Hannah’s depth and also her playfulness.

Caroline and Bonnie are both often cast in broad, brassy roles and I wanted to write something for them that would be different and not for what I might feel their strengths are.

In general, I think films fall into trouble when they alter the script for actors. If a writer has a clear vision for a character, it’s probably serving the overall story in the best way possible and it’s dangerous to start tweaking for actors’ perceived sensibilities. I think actors appreciate not being typecast and being able to create the character based on way it’s written, bringing their own, original ideas to her or him.

Did you find your primary location or did you need to create or alter it to make it work?

NIKKI: I knew the location before I began writing so I tried to make the house its own character. I added a few small set pieces but in general, what you see on screen is how the house usually looks and I tried to use its nuances. For example, I wrote the pops of orange that Caroline has in the house into the script; “Margaret” is trying to find the right pillows for her couch that have just the right amount of orange in them. I utilized the kitty door in the guest bathroom and great tree wallpaper in the exercise room.

It was also fortuitous to know the house well because I could make sure I kept the action moving. I wrote the scenes intentionally to be shot in different rooms and tried to shuffle them around so we weren’t spending three or four scenes back-to-back in, say, the living room. I also tried to address or use the unique details of each room in the scenes.

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

NIKKI: We shot with, and liked, the Canon 5D for a few reasons. The first was it fit our budget and the second was that we had some tight spaces (bathrooms, closets) to shoot in and the 5D is small enough that it worked well in those locations. Third, the 5D is great when you aren’t doing a lot of movement and we had envisioned a very still film.

One of the challenges we encountered during the shoot is that there is not a lot of latitude with the 5D. Because we were often shooting inside a house, looking out through windows, the outside is more blown out than we would have liked. We had to accept that we couldn’t see as many details with this camera. Additionally, the images compress more than a higher format camera.

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

NIKKI: My OCD helped a lot during pre-production. I colored coded all my notes and I was very detailed with them. I knew exactly where each character was coming from and going to, physically and emotionally, for each scene. I wrote down visuals that I thought would help the actresses prepare before the shots and I made sure every word in the script was necessary. I had every prop and wardrobe change written down. This made it easier when things got hectic. I had my own go-to and reminder guides.

The most ridiculous “directing” thing I did was to do takes where the actresses were just reacting to one another, without dialogue. My thought was that I wanted to make sure I had enough reaction shots but the exercise was very inorganic and I don’t think I used any of that footage.

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

NIKKI: I went into this project believing that collaboration is key and that belief is now cemented in me. You have to hire and cast people that understand the story and the tone and are also awesome to work with. Listen to what everyone has to say and let them feel comfortable enough to state when they aren’t sure of something. I’d much rather have honesty on set than arrogant bravado!

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