Thursday, February 25, 2016

Matthew Wade on "How the Sky Will Melt"

What was your filmmaking background before making How the Sky Will Melt?

MATTHEW:  The short version is that I was an actor in high school, performing in every play, as well as acting in other students’ video projects (always playing the villain for some reason). I also did some sketch comedy, which I loved more than anything else at the time, and kind of learned how to shoot and edit to make these little comedy videos with my friends, who, since we happened to be skater kids at the height of Jackass’s popularity, was often mixed with stunts, skate culture stuff, and the like.

Someone invited us to show the videos at a now-long-gone Boise-based amateur screening night called Small Pond Films. It was a place where anyone could show anything they had made (mostly from a variety of different tapes all connected to a single office-style projector) so long as it wasn’t illegal or pornographic.

Pretty quickly I met Nathan Synder, this guy who would bring Super 8mm and 16mm films, mostly experimental, to the screenings and project them from film projectors. That is the first stuff I saw, shot by a local filmmaker, that I instantly recognized as looking like a “film” and not a “video.”

I remember that he showed some Kodak Ektachrome of stuff shot around his house, like this colorful finch in a bird cage. The jazzy color, frame rate, grain, stuff I knew nothing about at the time, were really wonderful and I became a film format lover right then and there. That vibrant, grainy bird flapping its wings on a Super 8 projector kind of locked something into my mind. It was an aesthetic that I instantly recognized I wanted to work with.

I started learning everything I could about shooting film stock, specially small gauge, bought a Bauer C 107 XL on eBay, and shot some little films on it. Within a couple of years I’d shot a short on 16mm, titled Soop for Brains, and then my second short on Super 8mm, titled It Shines and Shakes and Laughs, which got accepted into Slamdance and a bunch of other festivals in ‘09.

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

MATTHEW:  I’m not sure where the embryonic ideas came from; it was an abstraction that existed in one form or another for some years between living in Vancouver, Canada, and then Los Angeles. It changed in each place.

The first notebook of ideas revolved around this alien being who appears from the sky and has a singular goal; no clear purpose from our perspective what that goal is. The alien doesn’t have any way to impart its needs to humans, other than through casual violence, but it wasn’t malicious. It wasn’t bloodthirsty, it just killed to get what it needed and moved on. That character became The Man from the Sky in How the Sky Will Melt. A singular goal and the execution of that goal through violence until he is satisfied the goal has been achieved.

At the same time I had this idea of a girl in something like a dark John Hughes movie, drifting apart from familiarity, from friends she once had, and presenting her feelings (which would traditionally lend themselves to a coming-of-age film) as a horror from her perception. So the girl and the alien were the earliest parts that just came together for me at some point. I liked the possibilities of that story.

When I felt ready I wrote the first draft really fast, in a couple days. But that was after sketching concepts and jotting down scenes and characters for a couple of years in notebooks.

What drove your decision to shoot in Super 8mm ... and what do you see as the pros and cons of that decision?

MATTHEW:  The long answer can be read in a piece I wrote for Filmmaker Magazine, but the short answer is that I love small film gauge movie-making and that was the look that this idea needed to be expressed through. I most adore those images.

Because of how I wanted the audience to experience watching the movie, I needed to create images true to that time in low budget movie-making. It’s supposed to be this lost late night cable discovery, lacking any context, that you stumble onto randomly. That illusion does not work with polished production in 4K. We kind of needed to hold back; tie our hands to make this thing feel like I needed it to. Super 8mm has large, wonderful grains and tremendous color capability for being so small.

So I guess the pros were the look and character it added to the story, but the cons were the cost (buying the film, processing it, and getting it scanned to digital, and the digital storage itself, all very expensive), the time it takes to get your shots back to see if you screwed anything up (too late if you did anyway), the very short takes you have (2.5 minutes, maximum, before changing rolls), and the fact that Super 8 cameras are very old and were never built to shoot anything the length of a feature film in such a short time frame. If you’re interested, hit up the Filmmaker Magazine article to hear me praise and bitch about shooting Super 8. It’s mostly all there.

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

MATTHEW:  I’ll say first off that I never expected to recoup my costs on this project. It was never a thought. I went into it knowing it was not marketable and would be nothing but a headache to try and stress about a financial return. It’s not a movie I could have executed worrying about sales or distribution, because that affects so much in the planning process.

The majority of the budget came from my wife and I, our families, and my close friends, who all pitched in just to see the movie get made, and a lot of haggling with labs and post houses. No investors or anything like that. The finishing funds, to get the film transferred to digital for post, were mostly paid for by a successful Kickstarter campaign for a little over $5,000. Again, we filled in the remaining out of pocket.

You wore a lot of hats on this production (Director, Writer, Editor, Composer, etc.). What's the upside and downside of doing that?

MATTHEW:  Upside is that I’m a control freak, so doing everything myself just makes sense to achieve what I’m going for. I can explain, to a point, what I want the music to sound like, but it’s much easier for me to just learn to do it myself exactly how I want it.

To be fair, I’ve never made a film with a large crew. I’ve been on those film sets, and it’s great to have those resources at your disposal (like people other than you and your actors to move your lights and c-stands), but I have yet to head a project that size. Everything I make is pretty intimate in that I have no resources and like to keep everything really small. Downside is that the ship moves much slower, but then again, that is not necessarily a bad thing. It is what it is.

I’m not really interested in directing other people’s scripts or stories, because the visual elements, score, soundscape, and story form simultaneously for me. Everything informs everything from inception, and those are the kinds of ideas I’m drawn to. So unless I connect with someone who has money and doesn’t care about making a conventional film, I’ll probably be working this way for a while. Which is fine.

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

MATTHEW:  It really stayed pretty true to the script throughout, even though I didn’t care if it did or not. I told the actors they could play around with dialogue if they wanted. I wasn’t married to any of it but they kept it pretty close, if not exact. That is probably because it is written to not really sound the way normal people talk. We intentionally steered from having “naturalistic” dialogue because I felt that hurt the kind of movie experience we were trying to create. The dialogue, as written, had a weird kind of rhythm and intention to it, so deviating from it kind of felt odd for them.

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

MATTHEW:  The smartest thing was picking actors and a crew who trusted me and didn’t worry about the large picture, but just their part in it. It helped me shape the thing without having to fight the support system. I can work with people who know me and my way of thinking, even if they don’t entirely understand why I’m doing X or Y at the time.

All of the actors were wonderful to work with, most being aspiring filmmakers themselves who were interested in the process of seeing the parts of the engine in action. My two closest collaborators have been my wife, producer and actress Sara Lynch, and my best friend, sound designer Jacob Kinch. From the get-go on any project, they are first I bounce my thoughts off of, and who read anything I write, since they are crucial parts of the projects anyway. Essentially I keep a small, but loyal and focused, group of people at my side from day one.

The dumbest thing was to shoot on Super 8mm, but it had to be done.

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

MATTHEW:  The shooting schedule for How the Sky Will Melt was insane. Time was never on our side. Always really rushed from location to location and with actor’s schedules. I hate working that way, even though I think it added a great deal of tension to the actors’ performances in the film that help it. There was real, tangible stress surrounding the shoot and while it was effective here for this story, it is not the ideal environment for me to create in.

The next film I am gearing up to do is much slower and more methodical. I’m shooting that one digitally, which is the biggest difference for me, but one I’ve finally embraced, thanks mostly to the advancements in digital cinema cameras in the last couple years.

So much of my experience shooting on film cameras (I’ve shot on 35mm, 16mm, and obviously Super 8mm) has translated over to these new cinema cameras really organically. I’ve found some combinations of things I am really looking forward to experimenting with.

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