Thursday, August 7, 2014

Eric Branco on “Stay Cold Stay Hungry”

What was your filmmaking background before making Stay Cold Stay Hungry?

ERIC: As a child, I acted in a few stage productions.  As I got older, directing drew my interest more and more.  I briefly attended the School of Visual Arts and double-majored in Directing and Cinematography.  It wasn’t really a fit for me, and I started looking for work in the film industry while I was still in school.  I ended up leaving to work as a Grip.  I worked my way from Grip, to Best Boy Electric, to Gaffer, to Cinematographer.   

I work mainly as a cinematographer these days, which I love.  My career as a cinematographer has been building steadily, and it seems like the path I’m on will lead me to shooting larger projects and then directing smaller, character driven films between projects. 

I've directed a multitude of shorts, but Stay Cold Stay Hungry is my feature debut. 

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

ERIC: The original plan was to drop out of film school and shoot this movie the following summer.  Ten years later, here it is.  

What really inspired me to get this movie made was the experience of shooting a feature with a friend of mine, Chad Peter.  I had just come off a relatively straightforward season of shooting tailgating videos for Monday Night Football, and was really starved to do something creative.  Chad invited me out to LA to help him with Apocalypse, CA, a feature that he had been shooting for a year or so, and I immediately said yes.  It was a really tough shoot with a tiny tiny budget, but he handled it really well, and made me realize that I could do the same thing with Stay Cold Stay Hungry.  

I started going over the script again while sleeping on his couch, and called my writing partner Brandon Taylor as soon as I got back to New York.  He really helped me find the story I was trying to tell, and helped to filter out the material that wasn’t moving that story forward.  We had a draft I was happy with just a few months later, and went into production a few months after that.

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

ERIC: We were entirely self-funded.  I spent a few months looking for funding, and found that investors didn’t believe that I could make a movie for as low a number as I was asking for, and because I was an unproven director, didn’t want to give me more either.  I was really stuck in a no-man’s land of financing, and eventually said “The hell with it”, and just started shooting.

Once we started shooting, the plan was always to self-distribute.  We're about halfway through our festival run now, and then we'll probably four-wall a small theatrical release and put it up on iTunes.

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

ERIC: I had known both actors for years.  I actually met Johnny in high school, and we made a few shorts together over the years.  We were very close (I spend Christmas Eve with his family in Queens), and I bounced ideas off of him as I was working out the story for Stay Cold Stay Hungry.  It became clear that he knew the character as well as I did, if not better.  I don’t remember when I officially asked him to play Harley, but it was a very organic process.

Stephen Hill is an actor I had known from an acting studio we used to frequent.  I had long been a fan, and respected his work tremendously.  I gave him a call while I was away shooting a feature and sent him the script.  He called me a few days later and left one of the nicest voicemails I’ve ever gotten.  He basically said “I’m in for whatever you need,” and he was.

I don't know if this was a product of casting, but the script did change quite a bit while we were shooting.  The original script was much more a film where we followed one character, and then other came in and out of his life.  The final film is much more even handed in how we tell the story.  I feel like both characters are on equal footing now.

We didn’t really improvise while on set.  It was more a situation of being open during rehearsals and finding things that worked better than what I had originally written.  We rehearsed extensively before shooting, and when we found something that worked well I wrote it in.  Once on set, though, we stuck to the script for the most part.  Stephen Hill did write a tremendous scene where we really get a window into the heart of the character he plays.  Aside from that, though, it was all on the page.

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

ERIC: I definitely bit off more than I could chew with this one.  I was writing, producing, scheduling, directing, shooting, recording sound... And although I cut the scenes, I even acted in the film.  The most challenging obstacle I faced was just keeping it all straight in my head, and developing the muscle that allowed me to shut everything out once we got on set and just focus on directing.  It’s a skill that I had to learn while making this movie, but it’s served me very well on projects since.

As hard as it was, though, I wouldn't trade it for the world.  Most shooting days, it was just myself, Johnny and Stephen.  It almost felt like rehearsing a play in that sense.  That same rush of feeling completely safe with people you trust entirely, and making discoveries that you might not have hit upon in a larger group.  That same rush of something really clicking, and being filled with an overwhelming excitement to eventually share it with audiences.  Not to mention having the freedom to shoot at our own pace and completely blow a scene up and start from scratch if it wasn't working.  You definitely don't have that freedom on a traditional set when there's 50 crew members looking at their watch and you're about to go into meal penalties.

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

ERIC: We shot on the Canon 5D Mark II.  It was just the right camera for this kind of film.  We shot without permits, and most days it was just myself and the two actors.  Shooting with such a low profile camera granted us access to locations where having a larger camera would have drawn attention to what we were doing.  

We shot everywhere with this thing, on the subways, on buses, in the library.  I’m not much of a gearhead, but this is a case where the technology truly allowed us to make this movie.  I don’t think we could have done it differently.

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

ERIC: The smartest thing I did was cast the actors I did.  Not only do they both give powerhouse performances, but they also became family while shooting this movie.  I've never felt support like Johnny and Steve gave to both the film and myself.  I still feel it every time we're all together for a festival screening or other event.  I couldn't have been luckier to find these guys.

The dumbest thing I did was not getting a publicist on board from the start.  Naively, I thought that all I had to do was make the best movie possible and people would see it.  After dealing with the festival world for a few years now, I realize that couldn't be further from the truth.  If people aren't aware of your film, and if it doesn't have significant buzz surrounding it, you aren't going to get eyes on it.  It's as simple as that.  You really need someone championing your film to those who can get it out into the world from the start. 

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

ERIC: Oy.  I don't know that I can boil this entire experience into just a lesson or two.  It's not even a matter of learning, actually.  It was a life changing experience.  I'm truly a different person because I made this movie.

I can say that it's made me both a better director, as well as cinematographer.  In doing both on a long-form project, I really came to understand what a director goes through emotionally while making a feature length film.  As a cinematographer, I find that after shooting this film, I'm much more emotionally supportive of my directors than I may have been in the past.  I can also see when they may be falling into traps that I've fallen into myself, and I try to raise a red flag if I can.  It's my duty as a DP to help my directors make the best film they can possibly make, and if I can offer some experience of my own that can help move us toward that goal, I'm obligated to do that.

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