Thursday, August 27, 2015

Teach Grant on "Down Here"

What was your filmmaking background before making Down Here?

TEACH: I've been a working actor in Vancouver since ’96, however during this time I tried on a few different film-related hats, from various roles in art and construction departments to operating a teleprompter on a TV show.

Back in the late nineties I had directed some theatre, back when I still performed on stage -I always had plans of writing / directing in film and these service roles gave me an opportunity to get into some rooms, on scouts and surveys and see how experienced directors, writers and producers went about it, how they prepared. During that time I worked on my own micro budget shorts and spec spots until directing a rather silly and expensive short on 35mm just prior to the digital revolution. I wish I had waited, although looking back, I think I outgrew that project before I even finished it, so something else would have taken it’s place.

With that being said, these early attempts were pivotal for me as an artist, it’s where I learned to edit myself, shed preciousness and become more efficient as both writer and director. These are important learning experiences--to get to a point where you begin to understand what you don’t need to write or shoot, to let the pictures do the talking and respect the intelligence of an audience.

Those first few edits before Down Here were a real eye opener that way, not that I have learned to perfection--when I look at how much I left on the floor with Down Here, I can help but lament the time lost because I would surely have put the energy into other areas. As always in the edit, things change, you are constantly learning from the story as it seems to tell you who it wants to be right to the end, in fact it was the film itself that coached the edit, which naturally re-structured the writing and our ending.

I think that is what happens when you have a solid sense of ‘tone’ from everyone involved. Unwanted strangers in the film go ‘clunk’ and it’s easy to weed them out…Then it’s done and all you see are the mistakes you made and so you try and put that out of your head and look to use that learning experience on the next one.

How did you get connected to Dean Wray's script and what was the process for getting it ready for production? 

TEACH: Dean and I were co-starring on a TV show in northern Canada and he had a script in his back pocket called Nailer. He had me in mind for a character in it, another actor turned director was taking it on but eventually dropped out so I decided to put my hat in the ring to direct, but, before committing I wanted to take a pass on the script.

This isn’t an easy thing to do, to hand your work away and have someone re-construct it, and for this I have a great deal of respect for Dean. Most people would have been too precious to allow that to happen. Long story short, I was more interested in blending genres, not just shooting a dark cop thriller, but getting deeper into the social drama, exploring the original setting and flushing out the characters, their personal and personal issues in more depth. 

I guess he liked it or it would have ended when I came back to him with the pages, we still had the element of ‘thriller,’ but we collectively managed to bring more gravity to the film and to me, it’s that gravity that enabled me to put my heart into it. I wanted to tackle some issues and for me personally,  I have to find something about it that is important, a way to use my voice, otherwise, I don’t think I would be very effective.

I guess that’s a part of owning it, in the end, I think a good collaboration between both Dean and I and things started taking shape as we shared the pages. A few months later we had Down Here and Dean and I set foot toward Downtown East Side and started walking the streets and before we knew it we were in pre-production.  –And I had my first feature. It’s here where we began to feel the movie, where the community itself became a character in the film. This was our source material, our guide, if our story didn’t feel right in the streets, then it didn’t belong on screen, and so it morphed a little here and there, became more grounded and authentic, less and less sensationalized.

Dean and I used in the word respect a lot in those preliminary sortis and I think it was that ‘respect’ for the D.T.E.S that attracted people to us, whether it be some of our talented cast and crew, or people from the community who helped us with locations. It’s an important part of Vancouver, of Canada, there is a slice of the D.T.E.S country wide, internationally for that matter, and people were really excited to provide a forum where the D.T.E.S could play itself, share its own voice, and not be used as a dark back drop in a foreign production looking for street cred.

This is a film about missing young women and an imperfect cop who finds redemption from the very community he is trying to help, where the characters from the community play far more than one note junkies and hookers, they are the humans in our world--and in kind we were graciously embraced by everyone we met down there. And so with each trip, more re-writes, more discoveries and connections.

It’s funny when I look back on it, I think it’s because we were doing something for the right reason that things kind of just fell onto our laps, even our DOP Adam Myhill came from a chance meeting in a Main St. Café, happened to overhear our conversation and before we knew it…It just kept happening like that, it was weird…or it was Dean’s big old shit eating grin…or both.

I guess my most honest preliminary draw to the project was that I liked Dean, I thought he was funny and I think it was that original connection that brought us through the finish line still in-tact. With everything that goes down from beginning to end, that’s an accomplishment. But that could only get us so far, we knew eventually our limited capacity as producers would catch up to us. In order to get legit, we had to go looking for a legitimate producer.

Dean knew Crystal Braunwarth from an earlier project and she agreed to come on board. I could creatively produce another movie, but I couldn’t produce one. That’s on Crystal, she carried the Lion’s share on the ‘producing’ end. Dean and I took orders. In many ways, the smartest things we did on Down Here was to identify our weakness, to accept what we could and could not do, and to do these little things as best we could. Not having all the bells and whistles probably saved this film. I would have way over complicated it, as Adam liked to say, ‘our limitations will set us free’, and it did -it kept me simple.

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

TEACH: We offered out the majority of the roles to actors that we knew, journey men and women from Vancouver with the addition of Tantoo Cardinal STELLA who had moved to Toronto. I had no idea when I reached out to her agent that she had moved so that was a bit of a surprise expense, but we wanted her, the re-writes were done with her in mind and I am glad that Shawna Wray, our executive producer bit the bullet once again and gave us our first choice. Tantoo was perfect.

Some were friends we had worked with and others respected talents that we admired, and the city is full of that, lots of great actors on the periphery of the mainstream, great faces and characters, maybe not getting their licks on pretty network shows, but ‘real’ solid actors, and that’s what Down Here needed--to be as real as possible. We wanted a documentarian like narrative to unfold, less performed and more captured. I couldn’t have directed these performances to be better if I tried, we had the right people for the job and everyone felt the tone right off of the hop and that made my job really easy, especially given that it was a 13 day shoot and we had little time to waste.

What I didn’t have access to was the cast of younger females, I don’t know the next generation what so ever,  so we had friends and agents pull together a list and we found some really good up and coming young women. This is also where Dean and I took our greatest risk in casting Rebecca Campbell. It was her first audition I think and she was really nervous, but she was perfect, I knew the audience would feel what we were feeling the first time we lay eyes on her, but we weren’t sure that she was ready. We gambled and went for it and as they say, with great risks come great rewards, she was brilliant.

Another such risk was casting myself as a transgendered prostitute. It was odd, leading up to the shoot I had great confidence in everyone we hired, but for my part, I hadn’t ‘owned’ it yet, hadn’t found the trust you need to have, faith, what have you. It wasn’t until I went through the wig fitting and make up test that I found her. Yvonne needed to be done with care, if there was anywhere that we might have a misstep it was with that character, she couldn’t be a caricature and that is why I wanted to take her on…not to mention the challenge. Directing in her clothes was also challenging, but that is another story altogether.

I’m glad I did it, this film was kind of an opportunity for Dean and I to do characters we would probably get overlooked for in the real world.

The read through was humbling, as soon as it was done, I got out the black sharpie and began to eliminate everything that we had over written, it’s amazing how good the keyboard sounds in your head sometimes, not always so good coming out of a trained actors mouth, especially when they trip on your abundant use of adjectives.

And those weren’t the only changes, when you bring in actors like Tantoo Cardinal and Martin Cummins, they will have questions, suggestions, ideas, from the work that they have done on the character, the script, and from this ‘work’ were able to add another layer, clean some things up, truncate and evolve the story with things we hadn’t even considered…and it kept getting more organic.

We hadn’t written the Bible, we knew that, we were open to ‘change’ and I think that openness improved greatly upon what we had written. 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Alexander Baack on "Hollywood Musical!"

What was your filmmaking background before making Hollywood Musical!?

ALEX: I started as a New York stage actor, but didn’t get on stage very much, so I started writing a lot as a creative outlet. After several years of that, I finally decided to direct.

So without ever having taken a class or set foot on a film set of any kind, I wrote and directed a no-budget feature with dozens of actors and locations and even some early digital effects. The results were mixed, but I loved it like a fish loves water.

I spent many years after that trying to get many scripts produced while editing here and there and directing a couple of shorts. Finally I was going to quit the whole thing but ended up making Hollywood Musical! instead. 

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

ALEX: The idea came from frustration with trying to break into show business as well as my admiration for the hundreds of people I’ve know through the years who can’t catch a break despite being among the most talented artists you’ll ever see--people well into their 40s and 50s who still haven’t been able to even begin a career but who manage to keep going anyway, out of pure love for the doing of it.

Every character and their circumstances were based on many friends and two characters were based on two sides of myself. I wrote it in a week and showed it to my friend Stefan and my wife, both who are in the movie, as well as my composer and friend, D.D. Jackson.

I had written it in a kind of resigned depression but they all surprised me by saying they thought it was one of the funniest things I’d ever written.

What was your process for integrating the songs into the story?

ALEX: I love musicals for their inherent cinematic-ness (is that a word?) so I just felt an instinct for where to place the songs. They just came out of the characters at the moments where they needed to express their most passionate responses to their current fates.

I’d come up with a title for each song (McCartney and Lennon said a good title is half the song) and went to New York to write them with D.D. For each one I’d play him a couple of other songs to express the feeling or style I wanted for each song, though sometimes they were a combination of things. Like for Give ‘Em What They Want, I said I wanted a cross between Les Mis and Elton John (ie. Levon).

And D.D. is so brilliant at integrating feeling, style, form, character, story and music history while producing something totally original. I’d write some of the lyrics beforehand, some during, and many after we had the melody. And all very, very quickly since we work in such similar ways. We had a blast creating those songs. 

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

ALEX: I didn’t raise my budget. I’ve always sucked at that. It’s a talent and a gift. If you know anyone who has that touch, send them my way.

A friend of my mom loaned me some money that I still owe her. And I called in lots of favors (I’m lucky to know hundreds of brilliant actors), hustled for free locations and shot fast (8 days) with a crew of 5. And I always cut my own movies so there’s that.

I had no distribution plan since all I cared about was just making something I’d be happy with come what may. Now it’s out on iTunes and all that so we’ll see how it does. 

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

ALEX: As I said, my greatest resource, besides D.D., who is my secret weapon, is the actors I know. I studied and worked for many years at The Barrow Group in New York which is, in my opinion, the greatest source of acting in the U.S. Most of my friends in L.A. are former Barrow Groupers like me so all I have to do is write down a friend’s name next to a character and then make a phone call.

There are 50 speaking parts in Hollywood Musical! and almost all of them are friends from The Barrow Group. So casting took me about 15 minutes. After that the script didn’t change at all, except for little changes the actors made on set in the process of playing, which I love.

What filming problems are unique to producing a musical and how did you face them?

ALEX: I don’t know if there were problems, really. It was a joy and very freeing. I absolutely loved shooting the musical numbers. I’d have a specific visual plan for each one, based on a combination of things, from whatever the characters were saying to the style and rhythm of the music to what sort of movie tradition was being referenced.

For example Here I Am is very much a Broadway song. It’s written to be the ultimate audition song so I shot it in a theatrical way, very old school. Something’s Gotta Give was inspired in its cutting style by Tonight from West Side Story but visually by the Wise Up scene in PT Anderson’s Magnolia.

The last number, It’s Not The End of the World, is shot and cut like a Beatles movie. So all that was fun.

The most challenging thing for me was in editing because you’re more locked in to what you’ve shot and can’t change it as much because the performances are so synced and locked into the music track and you can’t change it anymore. At least how I do it because I’m a bit of a classicist. I don’t like chaotic, random editing. And I mostly have to stick to the editing plan I had when I shot, so I better have been right to begin with.

Maybe next time I’ll know how to work around that better but I was mostly happy with how they cut together here. 

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

ALEX: We used the Canon 7D, which was kind of new at the time. I was naive about it. I’m not technical and have so much to learn about photography. So my mistake was seeing this great, unlit footage from it and thinking it was going to make things look good on its own. But, of course, it doesn’t. It still has to come from the people using it. So there are some scenes we underlit and things like that. 

What was your process for directing yourself?

ALEX: The Barrow Group is great for learning how to self diagnose and prescribe your own adjustments as an actor. You really learn to take care of yourself. So I enjoy acting, both for myself and for others. I don’t think much about it and as a director it’s easier for me because it’s one less actor to explain things to!

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

ALEX: The smartest thing I did was to be honest with myself when something wasn’t working and change the shooting plan very quickly, which was more tricky for musical numbers because I had to rethink how I was going to cut it in under 2 minutes. So thank God for those times when I could recognize that I’d been wrong.

The dumbest were the few scenes where I didn’t have a strong shooting plan and just put my trust in capturing something spontaneous that I’d create more in editing. Big mistake. Always have a strong plan because even the plan never goes according to plan.

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

ALEX: Well besides the aforementioned dumb thing I’ll never repeat, I think I’m always learning more about listening to that inner voice that knows if something’s working or not. And to throw that brilliant idea out of my head and quickly come up with something that actually works in the real world.

But I haven’t started my next project yet so hopefully you can ask me in a few months how I’m doing with that. :)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Sonny Priest on "Hollis"

What was your filmmaking background before making Hollis?

SONNY: I've been making films with my cousin Adam (producer on Hollis) since I was 8 years old.  Started out with terrible Play-Doh-mation and blowing up plastic army men, moved on to videos for school and youth group.  

I received a degree in Film and Video Studies from the University of Oklahoma in 2008 and promptly moved to Dallas to work as a screenwriter for a production company.  Soon after I found myself unemployed when the company I worked for folded due to economic strain from the housing crash.  (Yeah Economy!)  I moved back to Oklahoma City a year later for a non industry job and have since written fourteen feature scripts and am currently working on scripts for a half hour sitcom series.

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

SONNY: The idea came from two major places.  After freshman year of college, I interned in a place down in southwestern Oklahoma and while I was down there, I had a roommate with cerebral palsy.  He needed me to help him with things from time to time in a way that I hadn't experienced before.  I left at the end of that summer and a narrative of two brothers began to brew.  

The second event came in the happenstance of driving through the town of Hollis.  Its small town architecture, the great plains, and the feel of the town melded with an idea like a lighting strike.  I got to my destination and ended up outlining the whole story that night.  I wrote the actual screenplay later that summer.  

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

SONNY: We tried raising funds the Indiegogo/Kickstarter way, but that didn't work the way we wanted.  So we ended up setting up investor meetings with people we knew, and giving them a script.  We didn't receive a single "no" and threw a pitch dinner where investors could bring other possible investors and ended up raising the other half of our budget.  

Our self distribution plan is to show the film around small towns in Oklahoma while working toward endorsements of several regional and national special interest groups and then end up on VOD platforms.  

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

SONNY: We cast the film through relationships we had maintained over years of working around Oklahoma.  The cast was phenomenal and all Oklahoma-tied people.  

We were blessed to have worked with Ty Fanning on my cousin's senior thesis film at OCU.  Matt Altobelli and Steven Walton were in an acting class that I assisted in college with the great Darryl Cox (associate producer) so I had a good feel for their strengths as actors.  We practically dragged Terry Masters out of his film sabbatical (he is a PhD in psychology who works with at-risk youth).  

Lance Reese is an old pro from the Guthrie theater scene and needs to be in more roles ASAP.  Rob Gallavan is a local cop who moved back from the NYC acting circuit to raise his family.  Cassidee Vandalia is our youngest cast member and has some of the biggest credits.  Dylan Shelby (a Hollis native) and Kody Walker had great chemistry on screen.  Rounding out the cast were scene stealers like Mark Hinkle, Brad Clay, David Cricklin, and Michael Scott Gordon.  

There were really too many good actors and not enough screen time.  The script stayed relatively the same throughout, I believe we switched the order of two scenes and added one scene for pacing/clarity at the beginning of the third act.  

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

SONNY: We shot on the Red Epic with mostly Red Prime lenses.  It was a fantastic camera experience... one might even say it was Epic (looks around... backs out of room slowly).  I really didn't have any major complaints.  Maybe a few more stops of dynamic range (haha).  

How much did the movie change in the editing process and why did you make the changes you did?

SONNY: That's an interesting question.  A film takes on life in editing.  Due to some rainout/reshoot days, we had to eat into our post budget.  That meant a much longer post schedule and having to do more ourselves than we intended.  

A few of the actual changes we made were do to pacing.  Our movie starts slow, for effect, with a steadily building pace, but the first couple of cuts were too slow and too long.  The first complete assembly with everything in it (and I mean everything) played around 2 hours and 20 minutes (with an hour long first act... sheesh).   The final film is around 95 minutes with credits.  

Overall, it's the little changes that speed the whole film up.  The cutting a few frames off a reaction shot or losing an angle or cutting a set piece shot that took a half day to shoot that you love are all parts of melting down that raw film material to find the real precious metals.  

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

SONNY: The smartest and dumbest things we did were taking chances on new people.  The dumbest had to do with taking a chance on a newbie sound mixer.  Our original mixer got hired out from under us three weeks before production and that sent us into a frenzy.  All of our other sound contacts were booked and we ended up getting a guy who had worked on some short films.  It wasn't necessarily his fault as much as it was just asking him to do something he wasn't ready for and that mistake cost us almost a year in post.  

The best decision was hiring our composer Dustin Ragland, because  that guy's score takes the film to a new level.  He had a great ear and a superb talent in giving us what we asked for and hints of things we didn't even know we wanted.  

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

SONNY: Finish.  There are a thousand little depressing moments where you want to quit on a film.  Sometimes it feels too big and too hard for any one person to handle, especially during the moments when you feel like your passion is the only thing keeping the film going.  Not many people talk about those moments of filmmaking because they aren't sexy.  They are dark and they suck.  But those moments pass.  

To help you survive those moments:  Make sure you have a great support system and make good relationships inside your film community.  And finish, always finish.