Thursday, October 22, 2015

Christopher Kelley on “Full Frame”

What was your filmmaking background before making Full Frame?

CHRIS: Filmmaking infected me in college & has been gestating ever since.  There was no film program at Quincy University, so I convinced professors to give me course & independent study credits in classes that hadn't existed since the '70s.  My filmmaking process was clumsy; I was like a newborn discovering how my own fingers worked.  But there was something there and I knew I wanted to keep exploring until it killed me.

From there, I graduated, shot news & commercials for WGEM - a local TV station, watched tons of movies, wasted a LOT of time, met my wife, started my own production business, and constantly talked about how someday I was going to make a living through motion pictures.

Then, one fateful evening, I was having a conversation with actor/filmmaker Greg Ellery (who played the sudden character Steven in Tommy Wiseau's classic The Room) when my genius, talented, beautiful wife Victoria said, "Why are we talking about making a movie?  Why don't we just make one?"  Thus began our foray into the world of practically-almost-no-budget feature filmmaking.  

We had been urged not to do it: "You can't make a movie this way.  Go to LA, go through the right channels, raise X amount of money, hire a proper crew."  But we weren't proper filmmakers and I had no interest in doing it somebody else's way.  We wanted to make a movie, we figured out a way to do we did it.  

We made two features before Full Frame.

Our first was Hampshire: A Ghost Story - shot in 2008, released in 2009/10 on VOD & Netflix - the worst, yet most successful of our pictures!  Financed by a small loan from a local bank, we bought HD gear, cast some locals, and shot it almost entirely in a restaurant owned by a friend.  The HD gear paid for itself through hired work and VOD sales took care of the rest.

Our second feature was Villainy for the Lonely - shot in 2011, released in 2013/14 on Indieflix, Vimeo-On-Demand, &  It was more ambitious, very kinetic, and ultimately cheaper than Hampshire, but not as successful.  Because of its bizarre hybrid of genres and wacky style, the distributors who were interested in looking at it had no idea how to market it.  From that production, our "Villainy Family" - a collection of dedicated filmmakers - was born and continued to grow as we made Full Frame.

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

CHRIS: I remember being on a paid gig and wondering what would happen if I walked into the next room and found a dead body.  Would I scream and run away?  Would I be the next target?  Could I overcome adversity or would I take hush money?   My brain is always coming up with random, morbid thoughts like that.  The other thing that happened was that I spent a lot of nights watching the early, less famous Hitchcock pictures and decided to write something...not a Hitchcock movie, but maybe a movie that inhabits the slums of his universe.

I started writing the script as a simple story of an everyman (or woman) who sees something he shouldn't have and spends much of the picture in a game of cat-and-mouse.  My dark & absurd sense of humor took over and, what slowly emerged, were these wild & slightly twisted scenes that I couldn't wait to shoot.  The script was written in little pockets of time that were stolen between paid creative jobs through parts of 2013 and early 2014.

My wife & producing partner, Victoria, would give me feedback as I described scenes to her during the writing process, but she waited until the first draft was done to read it from start to finish.  Victoria hated the main character, at first.  I wrote him as much more weak and arrogant in the first draft because I wanted a dramatic transformation over the course of the movie.  Once Frankie came on board as the Photographer, he was able to put a likable spin on the character's flaws through his performance and ended up changing Victoria's opinion.

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

CHRIS: Half of our whopping $8,000 budget was financed directly from mine and Victoria's bank account.  Since we mostly shot the movie on weekends around our actors' lives and schedules, we were constantly working hired gigs throughout the week to pay our own bills AND pay for the movie. 

The other half came from our executive producers - Michael & Kathy Bayles, Bill & Kathleen Birsic, and Chris & LeAnn Zwick - all of whom are extremely generous and want the picture to succeed almost as much as we do!  Money was spent on meals for cast & crew, props, wardrobe, music licensing, the first round of festival submissions, and other cocaine.

We're pushing hard to build an audience with this's our best one, yet, and we're already getting attention with just one screening so far.  So, we have a self-distribution plan ready to fire as soon as our festival circuit ends, but we're keeping our options open.  The business of film is something I'm constantly learning more and more about, which is another way of saying I don't know much of anything.  But, luckily, I have people close to me who do and I'm at least smart enough to ask for help.

I remember with our first movie, Hampshire, we got a few distribution offers that were basically: "Sign this; we'll own your movie forever and give you nothing" but in fancy legal-speak.  A friend in the business translated the contract and we, thankfully, went in a different direction.

What drove your choice to shoot in black and white and impact did that have on production and your plans for distribution?

CHRIS: In our pre-production conversations about Full Frame, we talked a lot about thrillers and film noir from the '30s & '40s - everything from the exaggerated style of acting, to the tendency towards a long setup before the plot takes off, to the black and white look with hard shadows and heavy contrast.  We were looking to blend a lot of those classic elements with modern movie elements.  The black and white was a natural fit, though we DO have pops of color - not as intense as Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller's Sin City.

The benefit during production was that we could get away with using lighting kits with different color temperatures.  We mixed tungsten, LED, compact fluorescent, and available light - many times in the same shot.  You can imagine what a sloppy mess that looks like in color!  But after our color grade, which consisted of two different passes using FilmConvert, the mix worked to achieve the look we were after...a slightly tinted B&W.

There were feelings expressed how a younger audience might be turned off by the black and white...also by the way certain characters speak & behave, as well as the fact that we spend the first 20 or so minutes setting the stage.  Some people don't have the patience; they want immediate action.  We want the action and plot to hook you, so that when it finally takes off, you're invested.

But, anyway, regarding how all that will impact plans for distribution...we're not yet playing with serious money, so what the fuck; let's try it out!

You wore a lot -- a lot! -- of hats on this project (writer, director, DP, producer, editor). What's the upside and the downside to doing that?

CHRIS: It started out as necessity and just stuck.  When John Carpenter was asked why he scores his own films, he said, "I'm fast and I'm cheap."  Exactly the same reasons, as well as the primary upside, to why I wear so many hats.  I don't pay myself for doing any of it and, because I AM multiple departments, there are no additional meetings or conferences and each of those departments are on the same theory.  

Everything moves fast, which is crucial because some days we only have a few hours to work and other days I've ambitiously scheduled 30+ setups on my shot list.  

Decisions are made quickly, especially when problems arise.  In both Full Frame and our previous movie, Villany, there were major issues that suddenly popped up leading towards complete shutdown, indefinite hiatus, or script rewrites.  In both cases, we quickly made the decision to move forward, I spent a brief hiatus rewriting scenes and structure, and we were back at it. 

But the upside can be as equally a downside.  Instead of fine-tuning performances on set, I'm busy with the lights.  If everything moves as quickly as it does, we're not giving everything the amount of scrutiny we should from shot-to-shot, line-to-line.  In the end, I suffer through my mistakes in the editing room...but at least it's me and not someone else who has to deal with it!

I love directing, operating the camera, and editing.  I hate producing; I just want to show up and create with the actors and not worry about HOW everything I need to create got there.  I would also like to partner up with a writer & turn over DP duties to a pro (as long as I get the chance to operate from time-to-time).

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

CHRIS: We shot on the Canon 5DmkIII.  The primary lens was a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8.  We also used a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 (for crop sensors, so we kept it at 16mm for the full frame 5D), a Canon 50mm f/1.2, a Canon 100mm Macro f/2.8, and a Canon 17-40mm f/4.

Like a lot of filmmakers, I fell in love with DSLRs.  We spent so long trying to replicate the look of film with cheaper, digital tools - added film grain, filmstock color curves, 24-frames-per-second motion - that, when I bought the 7D in 2010, I thought I had found my soul mate.  Little did I know that my obsession with cameras would only grow from there.  We used the 5D2 for Villainy and bought the 5D3 the day it was released.

The 5D3 is great for how we make movies: lightweight, a complement to the speed we were working at, small enough to fit almost anywhere without tearing things apart, and it looks terrific.  No camera is perfect, though; however, the issues we had were fairly minor.  The internal codec is one.  I like to push the footage hard in post-production - it doesn't take much before the 5D3's image starts to crumble.  Also, the HDMI out is delicate.  Mine was damaged with a slight bit of use.  So, when the camera's positioned in such a way that you desperately need an external monitor to frame and focus, we had to get creative to make sure everything was correct.

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

CHRIS: Luckily, the story didn't change much in editing.  Our biggest change came midway through the shoot when an actor's family tragedy prompted a minor rewrite.  Beyond that, a few scenes were cut from the script before we shot them for reasons of time (meaning we just ran out) and pre-editorial decisions...where I just knew I was going to cut it anyway.  

Editing shaped certain scenes, gave them more life, or cut them completely.  I have never been more liberal with my proverbial scissors than this picture.  Does the shot or scene work, look good, further the story or develop the characters?  Even more so: Can the story live without this shot or scene?  If so, cut it.  Cut-cut-cut.  Get on with it.  

There was one scene where the main character shows a sign of strength when he's harassed by the big baddie's muscle. It was too early in his arc.  I needed him to hit the bottom before he rises back up.  So I chucked the whole scene.

There were others where chunks of dialogue were tossed.  Let's keep it economical and get to the good stuff.  Cut it!

After being away from the picture for a time and seeing it again with an audience, I could have cut so much more.  In fact, after saying that, I started considering it.  But, no.  Director David Fincher said movies "aren't finished; they're abandoned."  I'd like to say I've finally abandoned Full Frame!

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

CHRIS: The smartest thing I did was casting.  For being non-professionals who squeezed in the time between their normal lives, they really embodied their characters in a way I never expected.  We found a trust in each other that will only grow as we move forward with the next project; I have high expectations for the results!  Part of that has to do with creating a family environment with out cast & crew.

The dumbest thing I did was worry too much about people's interest.  Because everyone was a volunteer, we pushed very hard to keep things moving.  My assumption was that the cast and crew were only present because I asked them to be.  That was a stupid way to look at the situation.  Yes, everyone had lives and families and other responsibilities, but they were really into it.  Rushing things because I was worried the cast would walk if things didn't pick up tended to hurt the shot.  Finally one actor, Justin Goodwin grabbed me and said "Relax and take your time; we all want to be here, so don't worry if we're having fun every single minute...because we love this."  

And, finally, what did you learn from making this feature that you will take to other projects?

CHRIS: Every project is a learning experience.  With every project comes another tiny lesson relating to one thing: Do More Preparation. 

Watching our previous pictures is an act of masochism for me...and this may just be wishful thinking on my part...but every shot I got wrong or scene that didn't work or story issue that didn't quite make sense WOULD NOT have happened had I just prepared more.  

In the next project, I'll tell myself: "Just when you think you've got it all planned out & rehearsed, plan & rehearse some more."  

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