Thursday, September 11, 2014

Joel Allen Schroeder on "Dear Mr. Watterson"

What was your filmmaking background before making Dear Mr. Watterson?

JOEL: I attended the University of Southern California’s Cinematic Arts program, and found myself working on a lot of documentary content after graduation.  I’ve cut countless short-form nonfiction pieces, and I’ve shot a lot of behind-the-scenes content.  It isn’t that I’ve never been interested in narrative filmmaking, but my skill set sort of led me to documentaries.

Where did the idea come from?

JOEL: The real genesis goes back to a script I was writing many years ago, in which I wanted to reference a Calvin & Hobbes strip.  The script wasn’t really working well-enough, though, and I gave up on it.  It did spark the idea for a documentary about Calvin & Hobbes though.  

And like I say in the film, the thing that really interests me about Calvin & Hobbes is how perfect a legacy the strip has.  There’s the mythology surrounding Bill Watterson and his reclusiveness and all that, but the most brilliant thing about it to me is how he’s had an impact on millions of readers with his pen and ink and paper.  Many other ideas for films had come and gone, but this idea stuck.

At what point in the process did you decide to not only narrate but also to appear in the movie?

JOEL: I think I knew from early on that we’d need narration, but I didn’t plan to be in the film.  However, it became apparent that we sort of needed a bit of a tour guide since we wouldn’t have Watterson himself.  Finding someone else to fill that role would have been complicated, as we had essentially no budget, no serious schedule, and plenty of limitations at the beginning.  And the other members of the team—Chris Browne, Matt McUsic, and Andrew Waruszewski—encouraged me to take on a bigger role.

If the tag at the end of the movie is to be believed, you never attempted to contact Mr. Watterson. Was that your plan going in?

JOEL: The end tag is completely true.  I wanted to respect Watterson’s privacy.  Nevin Martell’s book Looking for Calvin & Hobbes had come out a couple years after we began the film, and Watterson had turned down Nevin for an interview.  That was a 100% confirmation that we would not have him for our film, as we knew he wouldn’t participate in a film about his strip if he wouldn’t participate in a book about his strip.  

The last thing I wanted to do was make a film about Calvin & Hobbes that would annoy Bill Watterson.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs? How much of your budget was raised via Kickstarter?

JOEL: I put in about 10-15% of the budget and countless hours of unpaid time.  The rest was raised via Kickstarter, about $121,000.  By raising most of our budget through Kickstarter, we not only found evidence that Calvin & Hobbes had a tremendous cultural impact, but it meant we didn’t have to worry about recouping costs to pay back an investor or loans.  We could just focus on making the film.

Any tips for a filmmaker thinking of using Kickstarter?

JOEL: I could talk for hours with a filmmaker who is thinking about using Kickstarter to raise funds.  I love the concept of Kickstarter for so many reasons, and obviously I love it even more because of how we were able to find success via Kickstarter.  

Since every project is different, I’ll just say this: your Backers (I always like to capitalize Backers) are putting their trust in you that you’ll complete your film, and films take time. Don’t promise things you can’t deliver, and keep your Backers informed.  Be open and honest, and let your Backers get to know you.  Respect that your Backers have contributed their hard-earned cash to your project, and don’t take them for granted.  Do not think of them as simply regular retail customers who are buying your product.  They are helping you to make it in the first place.

How did you go about getting the rights to all the comic strip images in the movie and what did you learn from that process?

JOEL: More than a year before the film was complete, we began to seek advice regarding Fair Use for most of the images in the film.  It was a big learning experience, as there are guidelines you need to follow in terms of when and why and how much of images and video you can legally use.  Luckily, there are great resources for learning about Fair Use for documentary filmmakers.

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

JOEL: Our earliest interviews were shot on a DVX-100b, a camera I absolutely love, but one that is standard definition (this was in 2007).  We quickly realized we needed to go HD, and began borrowing a Sony EX1.  I have no complaints about the EX1, but we wanted to have our own camera that would be at our disposal at any moment.  

We bought a Canon 7D, which is a great option for budget-conscious filmmakers, but it does have one major flaw: you’re going back to dual-system when it comes to audio and video.  It isn’t the end of the world—especially for narrative filmmakers, but it definitely makes things a bit more complicated when you’re shooting a documentary.  

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

JOEL: Smartest?  Jeez.  You’d have to ask somebody else that question.  I’m not sure I have the perspective to name the smartest thing—although convincing some really talented collaborators to be a part of it was a good move.  

But I can tell you the dumbest.  We lost about 90% of the video from our interview with Andrew Farago, curator at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco.  Somehow one of the cards wasn’t transferred or backed up or something…  But there’s maybe a nice thing about dual-system…we still had the audio.

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

JOEL: I think I’ve probably learned a million little things that are too many to name.

Going through the whole process has been an education.  We had such a small team involved in the film, and I was a part of every single little miniscule piece of the project.  

This has been a big confidence-builder.  It was my first feature film, but now I have no doubt I can repeat the process.  I know what it takes to finish.  

And one thing I know for sure is I’ll never have an HDcam-SR master made of any future film unless I am told I definitely need it.

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