Thanks to all the readers who continue to make this site a pleasure to curate.
As a special thank-you, here's my last feature, "Ghost Light," which you can watch here for free.
Thursday, September 18, 2014
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.
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?
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.
Thursday, September 11, 2014
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.
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.
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.
Thursday, September 4, 2014
We really can't talk about Patti Rocks without talking about the film that came before, Loose Ends. How did that film come about?
MORRIS: I saw Memories of Underdevelopment, a Cuban Film, at the Walker Art Center, and I rushed home to my wife, Victoria, and I said, 'You know, we can make a movie really cheap. I just saw this great movie, it was black and white. If we can scrape together $20,000, we can make a movie.' And so we did. She wrote it. And it shot for two weeks, Loose Ends. That was sort of a calling card. We went to 20-25 film festivals, didn't win anything really, but Roger Ebert discovered us and Vincent Canby and Andrew Sarris and we got all these great notices.
Finally got enough money, in the early 80s, to do a movie called Purple Haze, and that did very well. It won Sundance, and that was our first real movie. It was 35mm, color, we actually a shooting schedule and a budget. And that did very well. And we looked like we were on our way.
I then, subsequently, got fired from two studio pictures and was very unhappy -- we're now talking mid-80s -- and I was thinking about quitting, I was thinking about getting out of the business because I was really unhappy. And I thought back to the only time I had a really good time making a movie was my first film, Loose Ends. And I thought, maybe I should think about writing something for those guys and making it back in Minnesota and sort of re-creating my enthusiasm for making movies.
How did you and the actors create the script?
MORRIS: We did a lot of just riffs on sex. We had another movie in mind. And I had all these long cassette tapes filled with Mulkey and Jenkins riffing on women, and I thought, this is interesting. Somehow I got the idea of putting them in the car, driving all night to see Patti to talk her into having an abortion. I did a first draft and I'd give it to them and we'd tinker with it and do some more improvs. Jenkins lived in Chicago, so we flew there a couple times and do some more improvs, and I'd type that up.
How did you come up with the title?
MORRIS: The way I got the title was interesting. I was at the Chicago Film Festival, on a panel. I was dinner with a group of people from the festival and this woman was sitting next to me. I said, 'What do you do?' She said, 'I sing in a band.' I said, 'What's the name of the band?' She said, 'Patti Rocks.' And I said, 'Oh, that's a really good title.'"
How did you get the financing?
MORRIS: I'd known Sam Grogg, because he was head of the USA Film Festival in Dallas. And he'd started a film company called Film Dallas. So I gave him the script and said, 'What do you think?' He said, 'We'll make it.' It was the easiest thing I've ever done. I wrote it and within a month they'd given me $400,000 to make this movie.
He had very few notes. He just said, 'They have to get out of the car midway through this movie.' I said, 'What do you want them to do? See a flying saucer?' He said, 'I don't know, you'll think of something.'
Did you make any big changes to the script once you got the money?
MORRIS: I wrote it for the summer, because Mulkey's running around in his underwear. But we couldn't get it all together, and we got the money in November, and I said, 'We're going to make the movie. We've got the money, we're going.' And it actually turned into a more interesting film, just because of the look of the snow and Mulkey running around in his underwear in 23 degrees below zero.
I had a lot of fun making the film. We had our problems, obviously, because of the money and the cold, but it just re-enthused me for making movies again.
Did you worry about the subject matter at all?
MORRIS: I thought it was risky, in terms of the subject matter. I didn't know until after it was done how people would react to the language in the picture. The ratings board first gave us an X for language, and that had never happened before. I guess I was just so used to it. Not that I talk that way, but certainly I hear that. I was kind of surprised by the reaction.
When I first started putting this together, I thought people are either going to love or hate this. I had no idea I was going to divide audiences, and it did. And it did. People loved the movie or hated the movie. More people loved it, thank god, than hated it.
At the very few personal appearances I made before the movie, I'd say, 'Some of you people might get uncomfortable during the first two acts of this movie. Just wait, okay?'