Thursday, November 27, 2014

Jill D’Agnenica on “Life Inside Out”

What was your filmmaking background before making Life Inside Out?

JILL: I come to television and filmmaking via art school where I hounded a fellow classmate and film editor mercilessly for two years to get me a job in editorial, surprising myself with my determination since I had no idea what an editor did nor had I previously exhibited any interest in film or television production, other than being a ravenous fan of watching the stuff. So my formal film and television education took place in editing rooms, first as an assistant, culling through all the dailies and watching how editors approached the material and then becoming an editor myself.

Between television editorial gigs, which have supported my family all these years, I have produced and edited several independent features and shorts, earning my stripes and a few scars battling low budgets, quick schedules, limited footage, and learning curves (my own and others’.) Life Inside Out is my directorial debut.

How did you find Maggie Baird and Lori Nasso’s script and what was your process for getting it ready to shoot?

JILL: I met Maggie Baird at a La Leche League meeting 16 years ago. I was a new, exhausted mother of a ten-week-old baby, Isabella. Maggie seemed to be an old pro, with her six-month-old son, Finneas in a sling, sharing advice and support. As we left the meeting that night, I impulsively ran up to Maggie’s car and blurted, “I want to be your friend” and she graciously didn’t react like I was a lunatic. And so for the past 16 years our friendship has grown through baby playdates, co-op pre-school, and homeschooling our kids.

From very early on we shared our experiences in Hollywood and my refrain was a steady, “We know so many people in this industry, we should make our own film.” Always up for a challenge, it seemed to me that directing would be a great next adventure. The only thing we were missing was a script, which a mere 14 years later, Maggie had produced, co-writing Life Inside Out with Lori Nasso.

Going back and forth with Maggie and Lori, I wrote my own backstories, motivations and needs for each of the characters that I later used as a springboard to discussions with each actor.

Our producer, Tessa Bell, insisted that I storyboard my shots, the idea of which I found fatiguing until our production designer turned me onto Google Sketch Up. I was hooked! I created 3-D renderings of our main two sets (Laura’s house and the Club), populated them with furnishings and people and then zoomed around with a virtual camera looking for cool angles and taking screen shots when I found them. Then my DP and I discussed it all.

With the shoot approaching, and a lot of scenes left unexplored, Guido and I sat down with the list of scenes and tried to describe each with just one still, iconic image. Then we set ourselves the task of getting to that image with our shots. This was super effective and led to some of my favorite visual moments in the film: Laura peeking under her bed, pushing aside her guitar; the wide shot of Laura alone at her dining room table; close up of Laura’s hands playing piano and Shane’s playing the guitar; the pan across Laura’s extended family at the club; the cu shots behind the performers on stage, catching the spot lights.

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

JILL: The main chunk of our budget was raised in a successful Kickstarter Campaign in June of 2012. We had a goal of $35,000 and we raised over $41,000. Private investors gave us the rest and everyone on the crew worked for reduced rates.

With the help of some super supporters, we are doing a limited theatrical release on our own. And in early 2015, Life Inside Out will be released by Monarch Films on DVD and VOD. We are determined to pay back our investors, who put faith in this film and us.

What was your process for creating the music for the film?

JILL: Maggie Baird and Finneas O’Connell (our stars) are each songwriters as well as actors and Maggie and Lori wrote the film around a lot of key songs. These were written into the script from the beginning.

In addition to those songs, the movie is filled with the music of other musicians, Maggie and I spent a lot of time in pre-production going over the script and identifying what songs and musicians would be in the film and where. (We have, I think 39 cues in the movie, total, many of these on camera.) The next step was prepping the music for playback. (Most of the music in the movie was pre-recorded and used as playback on the set, with a couple of exceptions where we shot it live.) I went into the studio with Maggie and Finneas to record their songs. And we had all of our “guest musicians” send us acoustic versions of their songs.

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

JILL: We went back and forth about what camera to use. In the end, our shooting budget was the determining factor. (We were determined to shoot this movie, even if we had to use our iPhones, our producer was very much NOT interested in that option.) In any case, I wanted to leave the decision up to our cinematographer, Guido Frenzel. In the end, he chose the RED Epic with RED Primes.

Here’s what Guido has to say:  “Due to the tendency of the RED Primes to flare out more than other glass we got some of the best shots in the movie (when we played with the flairs for creative reasons,) but we also had to deal with constantly keeping an eye on keeping flares out when we didn’t want them. Otherwise I don’t think the RED is the most ergonomically designed camera for Handheld shooting, but with our HH rig it was fine in the end. (Our film was about 90% handheld.)

The Epic was a great choice for a small indie budget, but with less limited funds I would still go with the ARRI Alexa, which I think has the best digital sensor available at the moment.”

Did the story change much in the editing and if it did why did you decide to make those changes?

JILL: The editor’s cut came in at over 120 minutes long, so there was lots of trimming and some losing of scenes to do. After we had locked picture, we decided that we needed to pace up the first 20 minutes of the movie, so I went back in and lost some additional scenes and expository stuff, trusting the audience to catch on. But other than that and some re-ordering of scenes for pacing and flow, by and large we stuck to the story in editing.

I co- edited the film with my colleague Philip Malamouth. He was responsible for the editor’s cut and really created the pacing and cuts in the club scenes especially. Since I am an editor as well, I sort of took over the controls for the director’s cut, because I am comfortable with and excited about the process of discovery through editing. I would make changes and then send them back to Philip for notes and back and forth.

Also, I had to do a fair amount of editing slight of hand because of our limited footage and as the director, I knew where all the bodies were buried--the performances I loved, the scenelette caught at the end of a take but not marked or identified, the shots I could steal from one scene to use in another. I could work out pacing and story in a quiet, reflective environment, at my own speed.

And countless times in the editing room Jill the Editor said to herself that Jill the Director was lucky to have her, saving her ultra-low-budget butt.

What was the smartest thing you did during production?

JILL: The smartest thing I did during pre-production and production was to seek out and listen to the advice of people who had more experience than I did. Before Life Inside Out, I hadn’t spent much time on a set. (My years in film have mainly consisted of me locked away in dark editing rooms dealing with the footage that has already been shot.) I asked directors I respected to in effect be my crash course film school and they generously complied.

One gave me a list of books to read in preparation of working with actors, one told me to listen to my intuition and go with it no matter who was arguing with me or what else was happening. She also gave me her cell phone number in case I needed to cry or rant, in private, away from the crew. Another suggested a good stiff drink to calm the nerves. And on and on. The advice was often hilarious, always useful, and much appreciated. 

Another great piece of advice came from Guido Frenzel, our cinematographer, who told me that when I walked on set, I would set the tone for everyone. I made sure to put a big smile one my face every morning and to try and stay positive throughout the day.

In our production meeting I thanked everyone for being a part of the movie and asked that we all treat each other with kindness and respect. Also, that when (not if, when) a problem came up, to please let me know the problem and give me a possible solution if they had one, but not to waste anyone’s time by casting blame. This kept the set a positive place and made for a really nice working environment for everyone.

The dumbest thing?

JILL: Was not insisting that we get permits for all of our locations. We were working on a shoestring budget and didn’t always pull them. I am a fan of run and gun, but personally my constitution is not set up for it and our production wasn’t set up for it either. On one important day we got shut down half way through because we didn’t have proper permits and the production (and I) suffered greatly for that.

Even on days where we made it through without incident, I was unnecessarily stressed, worried that we could get shut down at any moment.

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

JILL: Now that I have made the film, all that good advice I got really resonates more deeply. I come to the set prepared, but open to new possibilities as opportunities or problems present themselves. I am much more confident and really do try to listen to and follow my gut. I respect and rely on the other professionals on the set to do their best work. I try to make quick decisions and not spend much time arguing or discussing because that’s one of the big ways you lose time and don’t make your day.

And number one, I let my crew and cast know how much I appreciate them and their work. It’s amazing what we can do together as a team!

1 comment:

Maggie Baird said...

Life Inside Out is playing at the Quad Cinema in NYC the week of Jan 16 - 22 2015.