Thursday, April 28, 2016

Jay Lender and Micah Wright on "They're Watching"

What was your filmmaking background before making They're Watching?

MICAH: I worked on a bunch of movie sets in college, and we've both worked in animation and videogames for years as writers and designers. Jay worked for years as a storyboarder and director on SpongeBob SquarePants and Phineas and Ferb

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

MICAH: My wife watches a ton of reality TV and I watch with her. We were watching House Hunters International one day and it suddenly struck me as a terrible idea for an American to just pick up and move to a place where she didn't speak the language and wasn't familiar with the customs, and then be expected to completely renovate a house in 6 months--something which is almost impossible here in the USA, where Americans understand what's going on. Yet, there's always a happy ending. 

So I wondered, what if there weren't a happy ending? What if when the crew came back to film the follow-up sequence 6 months later the locals hated the American interloper? That was the genesis of the story.

JAY: Micah called me up and we got started right away. We spent a week watching relevant movies like the original versions of The Wicker Man and Straw Dogs... also Deliverance, and any John Carpenter movies we could get our hands on. We let those ideas percolate while we discussed characters, major story beats. Then we started outlining. 

We generally make a really tight outline first to nail down the story before we start falling in love with dialog. That involves a lot of back and forth, then multiple passes at the document, combing through to make sure that all our big moments were set up properly, that our characters had solid arcs, and that we were supporting our themes of Ugly Americanism, Narcissistic Selfie Culture and Voyeurism. 

Then we break the outline up into assignments and each of us goes into his corner to write. When we're done, we give each other notes, combine the documents, and go through it line by line over and over again until it feels like a single piece.

We read everything aloud as we work to make sure it flows properly, and that the dialog sounds right coming out of a human mouth.


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

JAY: Simply put, we used talent and an idea to attract money, and then used that money to attract more money. Micah had met our producer, Mark Lágrimas, at a Writers Guild event, and the two of them had been talking for years about getting a project off the ground. 

When the idea for They're Watching came up, Mark was able to get Micah into the room with our (now) Executive Producer, Rico Garcia. The idea, and our passion for it, got Rico to commit a portion of the budget--and Rico's involvement gave others the confidence to get on board.

Most of our investors had never been involved in an entertainment industry business, so we had more than a few meetings to explain how the business worked. We made charts to explain the investment/return cycle. It was an education for everybody. And the facts were changing day to day, and have continued to change since we entered principal photography, particularly where Video On Demand is concerned.

MICAH: We would have loved studio distribution, but that's extremely difficult to get, especially with no big names, either in front of or behind the camera, so we eventually went with Amplify/GoDigital, a boutique distributor.

For a fee they handled PR and distribution. They placed us in select theaters across the country to help us secure the top pricing tier for the various digital distribution outlets--iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay, YouTube and VoD from every cable and satellite outlet in the country. We'll be at the top tier for 3 months at least, before moving down the ladder to a lower price, to DVD and BluRay distribution, and Netflix.

There are a lot of opportunities for us to make money, and because the movie will always be available, we'll always be making a little money somewhere...


What was your process for casting the film?

MICAH: Casting was 100% traditional. We had no studio to demand a major star, and no particular interest in getting one, since it would interfere with the conceit that this was all “real." We were free to simply choose the best people for the roles and we did exactly that in every case.

Carrie Genzel came in and wowed us with the deep humanity behind her character, which could have easily come across as a one-note foil. Mia Faith was literally the only person we saw among dozens who intuited the naïve quality we wanted from Sarah. Dave Alpay had a room full of cynical Hollywood types in actual tears, behind their little bowls of M&Ms and cheetos, with his Afghanistan monologue--by far the most emotionally demanding moment in the movie. And Dimitri Diatchenko brought an charming kind of desperation to his Vladimir, seeing past the easy used car salesman smarm.

JAY: The best part of the process was allowing ourselves to be surprised. We used Shaggy from Scooby Doo as the template for our joker, because it's an easy go-to character. You always know what Shaggy would say in any given situation. And we saw a dozen excellent Shaggys... but then Kris Lemche came in and did a completely unexpected "annoying motormouth" take on the character, and highly improvisational. It wasn't at all what we were envisioning, but every second of it worked, and we knew it would keep us on our toes. 

After that, there was no other way to see the character. It was a great early reminder that the actors are your collaborators, not your tools, and you'd be crazy to not to let them bring everything they've got to the party.


How did you find your locations and how much did you have to create?

MICAH: Our amazing production company in Romania, Alien Film, started scouting locations long before we arrived for pre-production. They sent us several rounds of photos, which we would review, and use to point them in the right direction.

When we got to Romania, we spent a week or so driving around Romania, choosing from the remaining locations to get everything planned down to the camera angles. We filmed in Bucharest, in a gorgeous medieval fortress city in Transylvania called Sibiu, and in a former Soviet era resort which provided us with the "house" (an abandoned restaurant), and all our forest locations. 

We built a barn and the "kiln hut" from scratch on location. The barn was weathered for the "before" sequence, then painted for the "after".

JAY: The "before" version of the house was pretty much as we found it, with a some new window treatments and some vines thrown over the roof. The place was abandoned, like the house it portrayed, and it was in such terrible shape that we actually had to remove some garbage from it before we started filming. 

The "after" house was the same building, 6 days later. We had completely repainted it, inside and out, added windows, shutters, furniture, tiles, and created a 10" platform to raise the "bedroom" high enough that we could add a cellar door and pretend there was a basement. Our actors had to crouch down as they walked "down" the stairs. 

The basement itself was an unfinished apartment in Bucharest, dressed up... with a duplicate of the bedroom set at the top of the existing stairway to cover any camera angles that might catch it.


What type of camera did you use and what did you love (and hate) about it?

MICAH: We used the 5K Red Epic. Our DP, Tudor Mircea, was an Arri Alexa fan--but we thought it was important to future-proof our movie for 4K, and we also knew we'd need the extra resolution for the digital effects work we were going to do. 

In order to film some of the more complex shots without having to do very time-consuming and expensive motion tracking we needed needed total camera lockdown. We filmed those shots a touch wider, and that gave us the extra room to add a touch of camera shake and match the professional handheld look of the rest of the film.


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

JAY: Because re-shoots were not an option we made sure our story really worked before we ever shot a frame. As such, the overall story didn't change at all in the editing process. As with any movie, we discovered that some of our scenes were extraneous, and many of them were longer than necessary. But too much footage is a better problem than too little!

MICAH: We did discover a few scenes that worked better in different locations than we had expected--one of them literally being moved to a different day of the story continuity to build the sense of dread... and maybe even indicate a suicidal tendency on the part of one of our characters. 

In another instance we were able to crop a character out of one shot (5K saves the day!) and use it before that character is even introduced. And because our film is shot in first person perspective, we were able (on two different occasions!) to change the character who was "filming” behind the camera to incredible effect. In one case we created a friendly one-on-one conversation between one character and that character's own eventual murderer! Editing is definitely where the film is made.


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

JAY: There's only one smart thing anyone needs to do during production, and that's recognize a good idea when you see one. A lot of directors think they need to be autocrats and tyrants on the set, but making the shots as good as possible is more important than feeling like a king. 

We recognized early on that everyone we worked with, on both sides of the camera, was a professional, and they were really good at their jobs--better than we would be in their place--so we solicited their ideas and listened. 

Because Micah and I are two people who work as one in the writing room, we already know how to spot a better idea when it comes up, and how to back down when we're wrong.

MICAH:  The worst mistake we made was not fully vetting our food service team. Luckily it never came to violence. 

Actually, the worst mistake we made was not planning to have more cameras at play in the context of the story. We specifically chose the first-person format--and, in fact, the entire conceit of the movie--to save ourselves the trouble of having to shoot coverage, and to thereby keep the cost of production within reach. So we had a hard and fast rule that we would never cut to an angle that couldn't be explained by the presence of a camera in the context of the story. 

But it was a double-edged sword, because, with no alternate angles, we had to use scenes as they were performed, with only the ability to cut heads and tails. There were plenty of times when having a second angle would have allowed us to cut some fat from the middle of a scene, and improve the pacing of the film. If we do a sequel, we'll definitely keep that in mind, and have two or more characters in each scene toting a camera.


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

JAY: Almost every person on your crew has the ability to make or break what you're trying to accomplish at any given moment. So use every tool at your disposal to help you choose your work partners wisely. We didn't have a lot of contacts in the live-action film world, so we didn't always have reliable recommendations, and we definitely got burnt once or twice along the way.

MICAH: Luckily we have tons of contacts now, and we'll bring as much of our old gang along as possible when we launch a new project. 


A first film is a trial by fire. If you can survive, the next one should be easier.

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