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!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Tim Savage on “Under the Blood-Red Sun”

What was your filmmaking background before making Under the Blood-Red Sun?

TIM: Primarily, television commercials.  I think commercials are a great training ground for features because you must be extremely well prepared and disciplined in visual storytelling.  I’ve also worked on several short films, both as branded content for advertisers and for my church, New Hope Oahu, and these were important in expanding to longer stories.

I studied at Stanford and graduated with a BA in Communications.  I spent 4 years at a television station before moving in to commercials.

What attracted you to Graham Salisbury's book and what was the process for making the transition from book to screenplay? 

TIM: First and foremost, I loved the story of Under the Blood-Red Sun.  Second, I felt I had a specific voice in telling this story set in Hawaii.  And third, it’s an award-winning book that is required-reading in middle schools across the country with a loyal following for 20 years, so I felt it was smart investment of my heart, mind and soul.

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

TIM: Like all independent filmmakers we begged and borrowed.  Some of the funds came from the original partners – Dana Hankins (producer), Graham Salisbury (author) and me (director). 

Next in, was my best friend since high school, who believed in us before anyone else did, and then we mounted a successful (thankfully!) KickStarter campaign and raised $50K.  Since finishing the film, we’ve received support for several community organizations including a generous donation from the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii.

We deliberately planned to skip the theaters.  We’re going straight to digital purchases through Gumroad to start.  After a period of time with Gumroad, we’ll see what other distribution opportunities come our way. 

We chose this route primarily because we think the majority of our audience is young and they’re used to watching content over handheld devices like tablets, phones and computers.  This is the new paradigm for indie distribution but there’s not a lot of data available to vet the system, so we’ll have to wait and see how it works out for us.

Additionally, we believe there will be opportunities for us in educational arenas.

What tips have you learned (now that you've done it) about how to create a period piece on a low budget?

TIM: You mean other than, don’t?  Experts, consultants and owners of vintage cars and toys ultimately want to showcase either their knowledge or their stuff, don’t over pay for those things unless you plan on destroying them (at least this is true in Hawaii), but treat them with mad respect because they will save your tail.  Don’t plan on saving things in post, but just know that advances in technology have made it easier to do so (removing buildings, signs, etc).

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

TIM: We shot on the Canon 5D Mark lll with external Atomos recorders recording at ProRes 422 HQ.  The VFX shots were acquired on Red.  I love the image of the 5D and I think it gave us the most value for our budget.  The size factor was also important because some of our period houses were extremely small and we were shooting with multiple cameras.

I hate that we can’t significantly reposition shots with the 1080 size of our frame.  The 5D/Atomos connections weren’t robust enough for rigorous field production requiring extra time and effort to repair or re-rig.  I hope that on my next film we can step up to the Red or the Alexa, but overall I’m very pleased with the image of the Mark lll.

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

TIM: Probably the smartest thing we did was to extensively prepare.  We scouted every location several times, we mapped out every scene and shot.  We knew where to position big period military trucks in order to block contemporary buildings, we knew the days we needed more crew and when we could get by with skeleton team.  Obviously we couldn’t just make things up as we went because we didn’t have trucks full of wardrobe, props and equipment to support it. 

One example was that the TV show Hawaii 5-0 built a similar set to our internment camp a couple of months prior to us.  Rumor has it they spent about $100,000.  We chose a different location that had some appropriate-looking Quonset huts in the background, worked with volunteers and friends and got a comparable look for $1,000.

The dumbest thing we did was to produce a film starring an unknown 13-year-old Japanese boy set in 1941, with extremely limited financial resources.  Ultimately, I hope that will be the reason our film will succeed.

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

TIM: Test each piece of gear before putting it to work on your movie!  I have to live with a couple of shots that are problematic because of a recording issue in one of our recorders.
Choose your color grading station wisely, then have faith in it – every projector and monitor you see your film on after that will be different and it’s a wild goose chase to fine tune it for each.

If at all possible, test the film at your screening venues beforehand for picture and sound.  So far, every venue we’ve screened at has had some issue (projectors not working correctly, setup wrong, speaker output messed up, etc).

I’d also like people to know that our film is available on our website:

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Stephen Belber on "Tape"

Where were you in your career before you wrote Tape?

I was not highly far along. I had just quit my day-job to work on The Laramie Project. It was the year that we were researching the murder of Matthew Shepard. I was going out to Laramie every couple of months and then coming home. So I was just starting to get paid. I had been writing plays for a long time, I'd come out of the Playwright Fellowship program at Julliard, but I was sort of adrift and not sure.

And then Tape came along. It was not one of the big plays I was planning on writing or was working on. It was something were two old friends of mine came along and they wanted to showcase themselves as actors in the New York theater world, and they said, 'Can you write us something that can really show what we can do?"

So I really wrote it for them and then one of the actors was dating this girl, so I added her because it got boring with two guys after awhile. So it wasn't like, "I'm going to write this big play." I was just doing it because I liked these guys and I liked their work and it was fun.

What was your day-to-day writing process?

I guess I'm pretty intense when I come across an idea and I don't sort of do an hour a day. My wife is French and we were living over in France, in these guys' apartment while they were out of town. She was working on a job, and I was transcribing tapes for Laramie. And as soon as I got done with my current load, I dove into this.

I remember trying to describe this idea: A comedy about date rape was how I was forming it at the time. And she sort of laughed me off and said I should come up with a different idea. But I was able to keep writing; I remember starting over at one point, fairly early on and scraping what I had when I came up with the idea that she might show up. I was writing by hand at that time. I like to get really into it when I'm writing and get a first draft done as soon as possible, and then go back in and work on it.

And you're able to do that even if you don't know exactly where you're going?

Yeah. I had, at the time, a philosophy that when you're dealing with those types of tight friendships, where you don't know yourself where the conversation is going, that it would be truer and more genuine to write within that vein and to have a general goalpost that you were headed for, but to let the turns happen.

If you're writing quickly enough in your mind, and keeping up with your pen, let those twists and turns come at you, almost as quickly as they're coming at the characters. At least for this type of play, where it's sort of down and dirty.

When you were adapting it into a film script, was there ever any talk of "opening it up"?

There was briefly talk about it. That would be the first instinct for any filmmaker. That's the great thing about Linklater. We talked a little bit about opening it up, but his inclination was definitely not to, that it was going to be more interesting to keep it enclosed.

The problem was how do you not repeat the theatrically that comes when you try to film a play, because so often it doesn't work. Because of the DV cameras that were sort of new at the time, which allowed you to go into a motel room or a soundstage that really felt like a motel room, that he was going to be able to capture a cinematic way of telling the story. So, very briefly only did we talk about doing some exterior stuff, which made me delighted, because I was worried that they were going to ask me to write stuff that didn't fit this play.

What I love about the movie is that it raises more questions than it answers, and most movies aren't willing to do that.

Well, that's the golden rule is to tie it up and provide those answers. And even in playwriting, I think, it's a very fine line. Audiences will feel ripped off if you're intentionally ambiguous for the sake of it. If ambiguity serves a purpose, at the risk of sounding pretentious, it's to turn it around and challenge them to ask themselves, 'What would I do in that situation? What have I done in past situations? And what have I done about those things?' That does seem to serve a purpose, and if nothing else the movie does poke it back at you, and it's so pointed at a particular generation were the words date rape just became a phrase.

My wife translated it into French and there is no expression for date rape there in that country yet. And it's relatively new to America. So I think the people who respond to this movie are people who have grown up with those words.

So, in terms of adaptation, it sounds like you basically handed Linklater the script to the play and said 'Have at it.'

Yeah, he was great that way. It was the opposite of what you expect the Hollywood machine to do to your work. Basically, the put it in Final Draft form. Robert Sean Leonard's character was originally Jewish; he makes a crack about himself being Jewish, but we didn't think we could pass off him as that. We also changed his name. There were also one or two cultural references which we thought would potentially date the film, so we cut a couple lines, one about David Hasselhoff.

Do you ever put a script in a drawer for a while?

Oh, absolutely. I have about twenty-five things in a drawer right now.

I think if I had put Tape in a drawer at that point I would never have gone back, because it's not the heftiest play. But I know that it hit a chord with people, because it was compact. I always complain when I see plays that are successful that they aren't as deep and profound as they should be, but that's not what audiences necessarily want or connect to. It has a tightness that is very satisfying and a compactness, and at an hour twenty, it definitely had that.

Did you learn anything from this process that you've taken to other projects?

Yes. I think letting a degree of spontaneity into my writing, which was something that I had excised at Julliard. Learning to let that back in. And knowing that that makes for better writing.

I learned that there is a market and an audience out there for dialogue-heavy films and character-driven films, and that this fast give-and-take actually can work. Everyone says it's so theatrical that it doesn't work, but if you put it out there, an audience will follow it. It's not particularly complex, it's not Tom Stoppard. But we're used to it and we can be conditioned, as filmgoers, to follow and like it.

And that drama doesn't come from just visuals. Drama comes from classic dramatic structure and shifts in emotions.

Dialogue that's fun and appropriate to the contemporary world is something that audiences will respond to.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Tom DiCillo on "Living in Oblivion"

What was going on before you made Living In Oblivion?

TOM DICILLO: My first feature was film called Johnny Suede, starring Brad Pitt. I busted my ass on that one for at least four years to get it made. Although the film reached a certain sort of audience, it never quite found an audience, and the distribution of it was, frankly, really disappointing. It made making my second film really, really difficult.

I had written a screenplay called Box of Moonlight, and could not get the money for it. Years and years went by, two, three, four, five, and I just reached a point of such maniacal desperation that I said, "I have to do something, no matter what." It was out of that intense frustration that Living in Oblivion was born.

It wasn't born out of, "Hey, let me make a funny movie." It really came out of one of the most intense periods of anger and frustration in my career. And, ironically, it turned out to be the funniest movie I've ever made. I think in some way that is part of what makes my humor my humor. It is humor based upon real, human intensity, desperation, foolishness.

One of the things that makes the script so strong is that all the obstacles that you put in Nick's way are real obstacles that you've experienced in that position.

TOM DICILLO: Whatever you write, you have to tap into something personal for yourself. I used to have an acting teacher who said to me, "If it ain't personal, it ain't no good." There's something to be said for that. Even if you're talking about a character, someone who's not you, you have to find something that is you that you really do believe and that you've really experienced and you have real feelings about, and put it in that character's mouth and in their hearts and minds.

But at the same time, I don't want to ever make it seem like when I write that it's just me. I'm not interested in that. Even with my first film, Johnny Suede -- sure, I put a lot of myself into that character -- but I also was very clearly trying to find a way to make it more objective, more universal, something that other people could relate to.

I absolutely believe that if you can find a way to tap into something that's very personal, and then make a creative leap from there, that's the best way to do it. Anger by itself is not enough. You have to have the creative imagination coming into play as well.

How much rehearsal did you have?

TOM DICILLO: None. Absolutely none.

I don't like to rehearse, anyway. My style of working is to just talk to people, get the costumes correct, talk a little bit about the character, and then just find it as the camera is rolling. What was so fascinating to me was that none of these actors auditioned and they were almost instantaneously their parts. But everyone knew the lines, I'm very disciplined in terms of that.

Most people think Living In Oblivion is completely improvised, but there's only one scene that was improvised, and that's the scene where Steve erupts at the crew at the end of Part One. Everything else was completely scripted.

Were there any things you learned writing that script that you still use today?

TOM DICILLO: Yeah. I have a tendency, if I'm going to write a joke, I set it up with a one, two, three punch. But I realized that most of the time, when I get in the editing room, I usually only end up using the one or the two, never the one, two, three. That's kind of an interesting lesson to learn: if you're going to tell a joke, just tell the joke. Don't do three jokes.

I also learned the idea of setting in motion something that, once it's in motion has a life of its own and people are really are almost instantaneously eager to find out what's going to happen. That's a crucial thing. Many screenwriting teachers will talk to you about a screenplay and say that it's all about tension and conflict. And, in some ways, that absolutely true.

But if that tension and conflict doesn't arouse enough interest to have people really want to know what's going to happen next, then you're screwed. I think Johnny Suede suffered from that a bit. It was my first screenplay and there's very little real dramatic tension in it.

I like the idea of setting something in motion -- like a cart rolling down a hill -- that once it's going, you can't stop it.

What's your favorite memory of working on Living In Oblivion?

TOM DICILLO: Oh, man, there are millions. I think I would have to say that it was the look on people's faces the first time Peter Dinklage, who plays Tito, erupted into his tirade against the director. Most of the crew that we had hired had not read the script, because we weren't paying anybody. And so we were getting people working for free, and they might work one or two days a week.

And so this crew was just standing by the lights, doing whatever they were doing, and all of a sudden Peter Dinklage, during a take, says, "I'm sick of this crap." He just erupted and everybody just turned and looked with their jaws open. They really thought he was saying it.

Then the laughter that erupted when they realized that it was just part of the movie, it was a fantastic feeling. It made me really feel that I had stumbled upon something and it was working.