Thursday, September 18, 2014

Jason Chaet on "Putzel"

What was your filmmaking background before making Putzel?

JASON: In addition to making films, I am a theater director and acting teacher based in NYC. I got into independent film when I became involved in the early stages of the film Kissing Jessica Stein, when it was moving from being a play to becoming the film.  I directed workshops of the screenplay in both NY and L.A., then served as Creative Consultant when it went into production.  It was a great experience. I learned a ton and fell in love with indie film.  

After that, I started developing film projects while continuing to direct theater. I directed a couple short films, and worked on feature scripts at the same time. Putzel is my first feature film credited as director, but I had the luxury of having directed hundreds of different types of projects (mostly theater) before I did Putzel.  

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

JASON: Screenwriter Rick Moore and I were throwing ideas around one day when I realized that I hadn't left the upper west side of Manhattan in months. I was working there, living there, and most of my friends were still there (and it was before my daughter was born).  It was a very strange realization and as soon as I said it Rick said “that's a movie.”  

It took us a while to figure out what the movie would be, going through many different incarnations. It really took off when Rick had the very good idea to move it into the smoked fish/appetizing store world (which is a very upper west side type of business). Once we had that, the story built itself quickly. The process was great, Rick is a tremendous writer, a real craftsman and we collaborated very well in developing the story and script. 

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

JASON: We started trying to finance the film in the fall of 2008, which may have been the worst timing in history!  The initial budget was 1.6 million, but because of the economy we had to shrink it several times. We found creative ways to lower the budget, finally settling on a budget a little under 200K.

Once we secured our hero location (the fish store) we were able to raise the money through private investors and shoot the movie in 18 days, for a little under $200K. Even though the budget was significantly lower than we hoped, we didn't sacrifice much in terms of the look and feel of the film. 

Our plan for recouping costs is a combination of the VOD, DVD, Special theatrical engagements and The Jewish festival circuit.  The film plays very well mainstream, but because the film is about a Jewish family, we've been lucky to do well on that circuit. We continue to play those fests into next year along with the international VOD and DVD release.  

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

JASON: We worked with Barden/Schnee casting who were incredible. Paul, Kerry, along with Allison Estrin gave us great advice and helped find an amazing cast.  Some of the actors we were able to get with an offer, some auditioned, and a few of them were actors I had worked with during my time In NY. 

The script didn't change much once we were cast, although we did add a scene for Susie Essman’s character Gilda to help complete her arc. It's the last scene between her and John Pankow where she finally tells him off.  She's great in the scene, as is John. Other than that there were the typical changes to scenes you make during editing, but no major changes.  

Where did you shoot and how did your location help and hinder your process?

JASON: We shot the whole movie in NYC, and with the exception of one interior on the upper west side of Manhattan.  There is no better backlot in the world than NYC, but of course it can be a challenging place to shoot.  Crowds are tough, noise is very tough but you get these wonderful visuals.  We really wanted to capture the small town elements of big city life, and we had to shoot on the upper west side to do that.  There were a number of locations that we had very little time to shoot at (both interior and exterior), so that was a little bit of a hindrance, but for the most part the locations were worth it. 

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

JASON: We shot on the Red One, with the exception of one sequence (the subway) that was shot on a 7D.  Our cinematographer Ryan Samul is a genius and I would work with him again anytime. He really made the film look beautiful and we were lucky to have him. 

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

JASON: Smartest Things: Working hard to be on location and getting the most bang for our (very small) buck from shooting on the upper west side. In my early days working off-off-off Broadway I managed a kosher dairy restaurant at night, and I knew that all the kosher bagel places had to close every year for ten days during Passover. So (producer/actress) Allegra Cohen and I went around the upper west side of Manhattan and asked a bunch of those places if we could shoot there when they were closed.  One place said yes and we were set.  Since one third of the film takes place in the store, this was a huge get and made making the movie at this budget possible. Also, I think getting permits for Columbus Circle, the very small park we shot a comically edgy scene in, and Riverside Park were critical moves.  

Additionally, we did six-day weeks but gave cast and crew two days off between each week which was a great idea that (producer) Sheri Davani had.  

Finally, we hired a great cast that even on this small budget made working very easy. That went a long way in making it easy for me to set a tone that was creative and easygoing.  Which I believe is always the best way to work. 
Dumbest things:  Because of location constraints, we had shoots on sixth floor walk ups two days in a row. And of course those were the two hottest days of the year to that point. No way to anticipate that, but if I could do that over I would.

I think it’s par for the course on this kind of film, but we didn't have nearly enough pre-production.  Didn’t hurt us too much, but it’s not ideal.

Didn't do alternate takes for some of the edgier moments in the movie. In hindsight, it would have been nice to have options for alternate cuts of the movie that could play to wider audiences.  But, of course, hindsight is always 20/20...right?

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

JASON: So much from each phase of the process.  Every time I develop and direct any kind of project (theater or film) I learn a ton of new things.  Different ways to work, different techniques, different ways to be ambitious.  

In particular on this project I learned so much from watching our D.P. Ryan Samul, then working with our two tremendous editors Federico Rosenzvit and Joel Plotch during post-production. We had some challenging days in the edit bay, but their work was incredible and I’m grateful to have collaborated with them.  Because of budgetary constraints I had to be the editor for the last half of post-production.  But this was only possible because of the tremendous work Federico and Joel did.  Plus I learned a ton about editing just watching them!

Also, I learned a lot about achieving clarity in the story in the first ten or so minutes of a film.  When we started letting people look at rough cuts, we were pleasantly surprised by how much people enjoyed the film. But the complaint we heard over and over again was about their confusion in the first ten minutes. Until we started showing other people, we hadn’t realized how complex the goal of our hero Walter was, and what we needed to do to exposit it.  Adding the prologue (with the Robert Klein v.o.) was something we resisted for a while, but we finally gave in when we realized how much clarity it brought to the exposition, and how it allowed the audience to relax since they knew more about what was going on. 

Finally, one of the best notes we got in this area was from our Exec Producer Mary Jane Skalski.  She told us not to worry about laughs in the first ten minutes, even though it’s a comedy.  She wanted us to make things clear and get people to invest as much as possible.  It was a great note that I’ll never forget.

Finally, I have learned so much about the fest circuit and distribution.  Enough to probably fill up another interview!  One thing I’ve loved on the fest circuit is meeting other filmmakers, especially those I’ve seen at multiple fests.  I’ve stayed close with a number of them and we try to help each other out in any way we can.  Indie financing, production, and distribution is tough and we need all the help and support we can get. 

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