Thursday, August 14, 2014

Lisa Menzel on "Thinking Speed"

What was your filmmaking background before making Thinking Speed?

LISA: Before Thinking Speed, I was a novelist, an entertainment critic and a photographer. I had been a stage actor since the age of 14 and I did bit parts for student films as favors to friends. A friend of mine was working on shorts in LA for Thinking Speed. She warned me about how challenging it would be. I told her I had to attempt it. And I wanted to shoot it with a Chicago backdrop to be true to the story. I learned as I went. And post was much the same, with many hours of effects and software tutorials to get the look I had in mind.

Did you write the novel first and then adapt it into the film? What was that process like?

LISA: I did. Thinking Speed began as a 130 or so page novella as a college entry project. It caught the attention of Columbia's fiction chair, Randall Albers, who encouraged me and introduced me to Irvine Welsh. Welsh was also very supportive of other short stories I was doing at the time. Gayle Redfield, a sci-fi writer from Seattle moved to my town and began counseling me on expanding it into a 400-page book.

When I began casting for the film, the script wasn't finished. One of the actors we hired was very interested in preparing early. So I was getting him act after act until it was assembled. Looking back on it, I wished I had not such a crash course in screenwriting, because the novel is abstract and meant to be convoluted to keep the audience guessing. But the pacing is more like a book.

So even I watch it in sections - in its three acts. Today, I would have made a 90-minute film, which would have covered the book store, the van, the bar and the conclusion. The bonus is having visuals of the entire novel to accompany reading once the book is released. 

Can you explain your production process and your thinking behind shooting the movie the way you did?

LISA: Well after my friend decided to change career paths on account of doing more editing than she bargained -- as she favored photography and expected more autonomy in the industry than freelance work -- my fiance, Luke Sejud, told me he would step in as AD, DP and technical supervisor. He wasn't versed with composing shots yet, but he was pretty much a tech guru in every other aspect. He told me if I could handle composition, the business end and pre-production, he could build what we needed and set the film in motion.

It was a grueling 176 day process with over a hundred hours of reads because we had more newcomers than seasoned actors. Our first scene was the Woodstock flashback, which was daunting because the track had issues and we had to get all the drivers and classic cars lined up and out before the summer heat had set in. We shot in the hottest and coldest weather the gear could stand. Many actors had scheduling conflicts so we also went out together and shot backgrounds for the green-screened footage. We often joke we were half a filmmaker. Although now we're both seasoned shooters and can offer each other a lot more. A lot more gear has been donated since as well.

You wore a lot of hats on this project – in fact, I think you may have set some sort of record. What's the upside and the downside of working that way?

LISA: The downside is obviously burnout. You start to go all Howard Hughes Bring-In-The-Milk crazy. Ice Station Zebra is threaded up. You grow long fingernails. You wear tissue boxes as shoes.

Seriously, though, you're isolated from the world and you get a little awkward when you return to society. I was in post for five years. Cameras have come a long way and the new footage is much easier to work with. And of course, people expect you to have all the abilities of a large studio or post house. You have the job of telling everyone it's coming, but you know there's so much to do. The nature of the film is something any major studio would put a five year ETA on, so that has been encouraging.

Lastly, it's just you. You take responsibility for everything and it you are critical of yourself, you may not survive yourself. It's important to have a support team if you must take this route.

The upside is it's just you. Many people come up with excuses as to why things can't be accomplished. No one is asking for formulas. Keep in mind with this freedom comes the possibility you may be making a very personal picture with which others may not identify. But a small niche audience is all you need. Over the years, your film is either forgotten, dissected for process or good parts or criticized for its downfalls.

However, the greatest thing being a lone artist is when it comes time to work in a team, when the team has a problem, you have more than likely encountered it already. And you can put out a lot of fires with very little effort. You become as my composer Bob Mason calls it a walking callous with a black eye.

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

LISA: We used the Canon HV20. I loved Tony Wash's Hopscotch and wanted to use the camera he used. Luke made modifications to mimic film. It did well in low light, which was important on such a dark film. We had a problem where actors were tripping over wires and jacks were breaking. So we had a little down time at the end on account of parts. Canon was awesome in getting us working again. It was actually hard at the time to find replacement shooters who had HD cameras with the same specs to match what we already shot. 

I love Canon in general for its color and warmth. This camera though had two drawbacks. The first drawback was jello effect, which is the slightest movement makes this wobbly meniscus and distorts the scene. Those frames were cut. The tape took a good three months to scan before I could even cut, which was a 26 day process out of 52 hours of footage.

The main pain was the green screen software. Before switching to Primatte, we used Keylight and it has a sizzled edge effect. I couldn't work with the software real time and we had those early South Park renders where a minute could take up to 5-40 hours depending on how much post it had.

In September of 2012, I thought I was done and then realized I had sizzling edges in my screener and had to start all over with a different keyer. Some scenes had to be rotoed if they didn't key out. And people ask me where the effects are. Then I know I've done my job. They think it's actually night and we're actually there and I know it's right.

Now we use 5D, 7D and 50D and it keys beautifully. On the next few projects we'll likely be using Black Magic for its performance in low light.

Can you describe your post-production process and how you put the finished movie together?

LISA: So three months of scanning, 26 days of cutting and then originally there were 85 scenes. I did an Excel sheet of scenes that were ready to go and I built custom filters for the two-strip look I wanted. Then I went on to day-to-night scenes. Then green screen.

There were 85 scenes cut down to 72, I think. And then more effects and 3D were added. Lots of compositing. Each time the color would change, however, because effects, composites and different elements had to be relit in post and blended. I took the first still of every shot for a gallery to compare side by side.

We worked on many different screens to get something that looked good on both cold and warm monitors. Contrast was challenging on composites. But nothing was as hard as the Clock Goblin's eyes. One eye could take 26 hours to animate. The trouble with the software was it had trouble locating where the original eye was, it would have to track and replace with chrome. But sometimes it was way off mark. I listened to everything Van Morrison ever wrote at the height of a heat wave working on the eyes in each scene. So if you go through his whole discography starting with his band Them, that's how long just the eyes took.

Thankfully, we now have cameras and software that make undertakings like this merely a few hours work from start to finish. I can turn around a trailer now in the span of three days. When it was all done in October of 2013, we added soundtrack and the composers added some pieces. Once rendering was over, I had 20 hours a day I didn't know what to do with. Amen for advances is all I have to say.

What was your approach to choosing and creating music for the movie?

LISA: The book came with its own music that was written in. If you watched a scene with certain songs, it was a perfect match. However, some of this soundtrack was very expensive to clear. And the composers started digging in before any of us realized this film needed around 100 pieces.

So I contacted artists directly that owned the music like The New Amsterdams and Dead Ghosts. The rest were obscure Creative Commons and Chicago bands. Some of the music I requested was released to me once I was finished. I had to go back to Universal and tell them thank you, but we're done. But Universal was very, very nice and helpful. Easily, some of my favorite people to talk to.

Also Bob Mason and I have had a band for seven year called Quiet Pills. He donated some music from his other projects and we wrote a new piece. I finished up the end credits by myself. Ben Kopec was essential in teaching me composing - where to begin, end and timing to cuts.

If I had it to do again, I would have put in less music, but I kind of like it as a long rolling music video. It has the feel of Pink Floyd's The Wall. Craig Dodge who did the trailer music told me if he had known I needed him, he liked it so much he would have done the whole thing. I'm working with Alan T Yurich right now, so we definitely have room for Craig. I'm always up for a musical collaboration. It's probably my favorite part of the process.

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

LISA: Smartest thing I did during production. There were some on the fly rewrites that went well based on actor scheduling. Probably during the chase scene when Sasha Rossof was getting close to bedtime and we made the change that she went missing only to be reunited with her at the end added another dimension. I had some day to night that was cut because it just didn't work but getting ahold of a generator for night scenes on our budget was tough.

I made some casting changes and decisions I wasn't thrilled with, but they were necessary. I think I could have asked for more assistance. A very dumb thing that cost me a lot of time was green screening the van in daylight from the outside. The light shot right through and we were green. To get around this, I turned us blue in post but I had to roto everything which resulted in less van - which is a scene people seem to enjoy. You still get a lot of it, but you could have had even more. I just couldn't draw any more at one point. It was like 20,000 frames of hand drawing humans, which made me a much better artist, yet caused a great deal of stress.

But the dumbest thing I could have done didn't happen on production but well before. I think I should have been looking at avant-garde distribution beforehand before some of those guys went out of business. It would have meant we would have had more budget to work with and therefore more help and a faster turnaround time. I just knew I had to make it and started making it.

I would have searched for some more names as well for audience value. And we definitely needed more motion shots. More planning for shots rather than just adhering to the location. It was a miracle for what it was, but I would never do it this way again. Also I would not begin a following so early. Five years is a long time to wait. I would tell my cast to wait on promotion. I know they're excited but once the toothpaste is out of the tube, you can't put it back. 

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

LISA: I have written several scripts since which have all landed the support of a team. First thing is I would look at catalogues of sellers and distributors and find the right fit for my film. Next, I would partner with as many people as I could for as many platforms as I could.

There is a new option for theater runs now called Tugg. If someone wants to see your movie beyond DVD or VOD, you can get say 60 of them together, sell the tickets, take the promoter's fee and that's your theater run. Gone are the days of $300K releases. However, you do have to change your files over DCP if they aren't already in that format. Other than that, it's a dream come true and many theaters may be saved based on the sheer amount of movie fans looking for their favorites on the big screen. They're even reviving classics like The Crow and Gremlins. It's something that still can be offered for this picture.

The most important lessons filmmakers can remember are these two. One: Relationships are important. So be kind to people you want to work with and don't give any more time to troublemakers than you would to a spider. Never take anyone for granted and whatever "fame" you are chasing, put it out of your mind. You are here to do good work, learn and realize fame is creepy people asking you for money you may not have.

Two: If you need help, ask. Many people will tell you no, but so many people are waiting for you to reach out. Do what you love. Selling out is not worth it.

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