Thursday, December 17, 2015

Bank Tangjaitrong on "Till We Meet Again"

What was your filmmaking background before making Till We Meet Again?

BANK: I went to film school and received my Bachelor’s degree at Full Sail University in Orlando, Florida. At the time I was mainly interested in production design and art direction, so a lot of the projects I worked on were mainly from a design perspective. During this time, a lot of our projects were shot on 16mm or 35mm film.

After that, I moved to New York to attend the New York Film Academy and had the opportunity to direct my own short films. The first short I directed That Girl, That Time (2011) went onto screen at San Antonio Film Festival. My next short Night Porter (2013) went onto screen at Massachusetts Independent Film Festival where it won the award for Best Actor including nominations for Best Short, Best Director, Best Writing and more.

Most of my film education was not actually through film school but just through watching films on my own time and having the curiosity to look up older films and study other director’s filmographies for inspiration. I worshipped the films of John Cassavetes, Woody Allen, Francois Truffaut, Mike Nichols, Hal Ashby, Richard Linklater and many more so these guys ultimately became my film professors at home.

How did you get connected to the script by John Matton and Alix Purcell and what was the process for getting it ready to shoot?

BANK: I had met John while going to film school at the New York Film Academy. He was studying in the acting department while I was in the filmmaking department. I worked on a shoot where he was an actor and at the time I was on the camera team. During breaks we would bond about our love for Thailand and talk about our travels. Since then I’ve casted John as an actor in many of my projects and we ultimately became fast friends.

A few years ago John approached me with a script he had. It intrigued me because it was a travel film that had a realistic portrayal of an ailing relationship at its core. Over the years while the script was in
development, I would talk with John about how we could turn this feature film dream of ours to a reality and the changes that needed to be made in order to accommodate our minimal resources and the realistic approaches that was needed for the picture.

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

BANK: One of the things we agreed on was that John would play the lead role of Erik. After creating the character and knowing Erik so well, I knew he could do it. So we didn’t have to cast that role. He turned out to be a good fit for the role and I couldn’t see anyone else playing that part.

As for the female lead, we had an open casting call and looked everywhere for the character of Joanna. Finally, we decided to audition Linnea Larsdotter who was John’s girlfriend. Linnea is an incredible actress and knew Joanna in and out after living with the script for years. Us three would ultimately become the foundation of Till We Meet Again. As for the rest of the cast, we did online auditions and received several hundred submissions.

After months of watching tapes, we finally found everyone we needed: Emrhys Cooper, Astrea Campbell-Cobb, Timothy Hickernell and Elly Han. These four actors brought in a breath of fresh
air to the picture. Some of the finest actors I’ve had the pleasure of working with. They brought so much of themselves into the film and I couldn’t be more grateful for their contributions.

Finding the right cast for any film is difficult. There are a lot of people out there acting for all the wrong reasons and with false intentions. Promises of fame and fortune cloud their minds, which inherently affects the work. This cast was different. I’ve never met actors more dedicated to their craft, more pure in their intentions of performing and simply being. As directors, we owe so much of our craft to actors, so to be able to land this cast was just a joy.

The script naturally changed with the casting process as the dialogue and material were ultimately catered to each individual actor and what they would bring onto the project. Our actors would give suggestions and we would always try everything out.

I’m a big fan of improvisation so we would always try the material many different ways. We’d tweak the script on the go and adjust lines as we went along. I find this to be an incredible way to work as it keeps everyone on their toes knowing that any idea they may have could make it into the final cut. Everyone’s brain was always working thinking about that “what if?” moment. I live for those moments. It’s the sign that everyone understands the material but wants to make it better.

This working style became the truest form of collaboration as ideas were coming from left and right. However with a lot of ideas, not all of them will work and will fit the mood and tone of the picture, so everything had to be filtered through me. It’s important to hear out ideas, but it’s most important to know whether it fits that singular voice of yours or not.

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

BANK: We shot the majority of the film on two Red Scarlets. The reason we had two cameras was due to the heavy improv nature of the shoots and also the time constraints we had.

The two cameras were used on almost all dialogue scenes, as I wanted to capture the most authentic reactions to the improv as much as humanly possible. Also, because of our low budget, we weren’t able to stay in a location as long as I would’ve liked to, so having two cameras was very handy in speeding up the process. One camera would capture the main chunk of the scenes while B camera would pop out to get some B-roll of the space, cutaways, inserts, etc. Because of this we were able to shoot an insane amount of scenes in a day.

The Red Scarlet was a great camera for the project, it was able to handle everything we were doing out in Thailand including the extreme heat and torrential downpours. I would say the only downside of the Scarlet was the size. When you work with a low budget you’re not able to get permits to shoot in every single location so some of the locations called for us to be a little bit more discreet and the Scarlet at its smallest form is still a relatively large camera so that created some minor issues for us. But for the quality it’s able to produce, the size of the camera is hardly a worrying issue.

At the end of the day the camera is only as good as the people behind it. Our cinematographers Lance Kuhns and Travis Bleen were just a thrill to collaborate with. They were able to capture the heart and soul of the film and much more. I’ll forever be grateful for their hard work and what they’ve accomplished. Lance and Travis happened to be my close friends from Full Sail University so it’s such a pleasure to be able to collaborate with them years later on our first feature film. Keep your friends close but your film school friends closer as these are the people you’ll end up working with in the future.

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

BANK: The story changed a bit mainly in structure and dialogue but the core and heart of the film remained intact from script to screen. A lot of scenes were cut due to time. Our initially rough assembly clocked in at almost 3 hours, so naturally we looked back in our timeline and weighed the pros and cons of each scenes and whether they were truly moving the narrative forward or they were just “fillers.”

During the editing process my editor Max Tersch (who was one of the veterans of our team, thanks for taking a chance on us!) and I would sit and experiment with sequence and scene orders. While cutting we would also find scenes that didn’t translate well onto screen from paper. A scene that looked good on paper but then when finally shot and edited didn’t seem to fit would ultimately be left on the floor.

On the other hand there were also scenes that needed to be added that weren't in the original script. So we would schedule additional days to add in scenes that would gel the lengthier sequences together or fill in missing exposition from the original screenplay. Also, due to the heavy use of flashbacks, we needed to present them in the right order at the exact time to achieve the highest emotional impact, so I experimented a lot with flashback orders.

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

BANK: In my opinion the smartest thing we did during production was to shoot a majority of our Thailand shoots in the city of Pattaya. Due to our extremely low budget, we weren’t able to have a road trip movie that would require the cast and crew to move along to various locations that were far apart from each other because that would prove way too costly.

So we chose to film in a city called Pattaya, which was about an hour or so outside of Bangkok. Pattaya is a city that has everything from city life to beaches and mountains to jungles, so we were able to take advantage of those landscapes without having lengthy and expensive company moves. The film itself is set in a fictionalized part of Thailand and where they’re going is never really mentioned in great detail.

The most important thing is we know that Erik and Joanna are separated spatially and they need to work their way back to each other but with that geographical gap there’s also an emotional one. This geographical barrier became a metaphor that represented their deteriorating relationship that’s constantly riddled with miscommunication and misunderstandings.

The dumbest thing we did was leaving crucial crew positions empty because we couldn’t afford to hire them. We weren’t able to hire a production designer, a script supervisor, a wardrobe department, a full camera team and many other key positions for this film. This led to a lot of people wearing many different hats and created additional stress overall.

Linnea Larsdotter ultimately offered to help out with wardrobe and coordinated with the cast and myself to figure out what everyone needed to wear. Towards the end of the shoot when most of her scenes were finished and she wasn’t scheduled to act, she would also come to set and take on the role of a script supervisor. She’s a champion.

I’d also like to give a shout out to our 1st Assistant Camera in Thailand, Tom McNamara. During principal photography in Thailand, Tom was our one-man camera team, manning a two-camera shoot. Yes, you heard that right. He was responsible for a two-camera package and also 2nd AC duties such as clapping the slate. Our days consisted of him switching out lenses for both cameras and then running into the shot to clap the slate and then running back to camera to pull focus. He did this for one month and didn’t complain once. Tom you’re the real MVP.

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

BANK: I’ve learnt more from this film than any amount of years in film school could ever teach me. This film was a trial and error process for a lot of people as this was literally our first time making a feature. Everything from making sure the script was ready to getting the proper funding for it.

One of the most important things I learned is to just simply hire talented people to help you achieve your goals. I owe so much of this film to the people who made it from above the line to below the line. Hire them because of their skills and then let them do their job and then marvel at the results.

If there were one particular thing I can elaborate on, it would be budgeting. Make sure you have enough funding to do the best work possible and get the best results. A lot of the struggles I had with TWMA were due to not having enough money to shoot longer, to add more scenes or to get a particular scenic location that would enhance the material. I’m not sure which filmmaker said this but this quote has stuck
with me. “ Why would you spend years and years planning a film, but when it comes time to starting, you shoot it as fast as possible?”

Patience is key in prepping for a movie. A lot of people say just go out and make the film. It’s true that you should just go for it if you have the opportunity but it’s also good to be wise and look around at all your resources to make sure everything is in place. There’s nothing worse than being naive and diving right into it and then realizing some of the pieces were missing later on. It’s important to remember that you only have one shot at it. You can’t go back and make the same movie again so whatever story you’re trying to tell at the time, make sure you have every single tool you need to tell it.

Also, have enough money towards song licensing. This will end up costing much more than you think as the numbers are solely up to the artist, labels and publishers. It’s hard to budget properly for that ahead of time when there aren’t finite numbers in play.

Don’t get me wrong, working with a micro budget is rewarding in its own right. You naturally become more creative in how to solve problems without just closing your eyes, signing a check and hoping that problem goes away. But, there are a lot of downsides to it. To have more time is a luxury but budgeting for wiggle room towards the end of the film is a necessity.

To end on a positive note, there is nothing like making your first feature film. You’ll always remember it for the rest of your life because it was your first love. Make as many mistakes as possible because you’ll learn from it and you’ll make sure it won’t happen again. But even if it does, it’s ok. It’s only a movie.

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