Thursday, July 28, 2016

Malcolm Ellis on "Tripping Through"

What was your filmmaking background before making Tripping Through?

MALCOLM: I’ve had a long-standing interest in films and film-making before making this film. 

Apart from dabbling with home video editing, my first real experience was producing eight parody commercials for a show called CayTube Live.  It was a live sketch comedy show with a television theme, and we wanted to include some funny commercials projected onto a large screen at the back of the stage.  Each commercial was in effect a short movie, and involved all of the phases of production. 

I learned a lot about the process, and was hooked as a filmmaker.

How did you get connected to Michelle Morgan's script and what was your process for getting the script ready to shoot?

MALCOLM: Michelle was the head writer for CayTube Live, so I knew she could write funny material.  Shortly after that, she published her first novel, Tripping Through, loosely based on some funny anecdotes from her own life, as well as some fictional ones. 

I read the book and felt sure that we could make it into a film.  We worked together over a five month period to adapt the novel into a screenplay.  I acted as the editorial voice, and Michelle wrote and re-wrote until we had a 120-page screenplay that captured the essence of the novel, while maintaining the traditional story arc of a film.

What was your casting process like and did you adjust the script at all to fit the cast?

MALCOLM: When we broke down the script, we realized we had about 50 speaking roles, albeit some very small ones, and so the challenge was to find people to play all those characters. 

Fortunately, our background in the local community theatre helped a lot.  We held open screen-testing, but also directly approached people that we knew from the theatre to take on roles.  

We did come up short on male actors, so some of the characters were re-cast as female. 

Because the story was semi-autobiographical, I insisted on casting Michelle in the leading role, and we were fortunate to cast strong stage actors in the leading and supporting roles.

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

MALCOLM: This was very much a “zero budget” film, in that no one was paid for their involvement and all of the locations were provided at no charge.  Having said that, both Michelle and I reached for our credit cards when a specific prop was needed. 

Outside of film equipment, which I don’t consider part of the budget, we probably spent less than $500 making the film. 

Having said that, we did obtain some grant funding late in the day, from the Cayman National Cultural Foundation, and also from the Ministry of Culture.  We’re using that funding to help market the film and try to get it into as many film festivals as possible. 

There was never any expectation of a distribution deal, but we’ve had some interest, so who knows?

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

MALCOLM: Because I had limited funds for equipment, I purchased and shot the entire film on a Nikon D610. 

I was effectively a one-person crew, setting my own lights and sound, as well as directing and operating the camera, so I loved the portability of the camera. 

There was nothing that I hated about the equipment, but I do plan to upgrade my compact fluorescent lighting to LED for the efficiency of lighter and adjustable units.

Did the movie change much in the editing, and if so, why did you make the changes?

MALCOLM: We were aiming for a 100-minute film, being a light romantic comedy, and the first rough cut came in around 110 minutes.  I think that was actually a good thing, because it forced me to be as tight as possible with the editing throughout. 

A few short scenes got dropped, but with ruthless editing, I got it down to 103 minutes and the pace really moves along. 

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

MALCOLM: Because we had an all-volunteer cast (and locations), we decided to be extremely organized about the scheduling process.  We all have day jobs, so the film was shot on weekends only – 45 shooting days over 9 months. 

Michelle and I met weekly and maintained a 4-week rolling schedule, focusing on the elements needed for the coming weekend, while sketching in a plan for the following three. 

I prepared shot lists for every shooting day, and set a time budget that we stuck to.  I don’t think we could have achieved what we did without that level of planning.

I’m not sure if it’s the dumbest thing I did, but we did schedule a series of scenes involving a group of 8 characters in a “klutz study group” over a single weekend.  After 17 hours of shooting, people were getting punch-drunk and we had trouble getting the shots without people breaking into crazed laughter.

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

MALCOLM: First and foremost, I learned not to be afraid of tackling a big project.  A feature film is achievable if you pay close attention to the details and spend enough time on pre-production. 

Having said that, I’m actually planning to work on a couple of short dramatic films next, so that I can spend more time experimenting with lighting and camera movement.  I learned how much a movie can benefit from those elements.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

William DeVizia on "Let Me Down Hard"

What was your filmmaking background before making Let Me Down Hard?

BILL: Prior to making LMDH, I worked in the film business for 20 years.  My very first film exposure came as an intern for Tribeca Productions on the film, A Bronx Tale- it was an awesome experience.  

I have directed and produced feature narrative film, and several documentaries.  I’ve also directed and produced concerts for broadcast television. In that capacity, I had the opportunity to work with some incredible musicians (Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello, The Roots, Norah Jones, to name a few).

When I decided to make LMDH, I knew what the challenges were.  Feature films are a beast unto themselves, and getting a film financed is an incredibly fortunate opportunity.  I had a very hard time raising funding, so I decided to go it the guerrilla (micro budget) route.  

Where did the idea come from and what was your process for getting the script ready to shoot?

BILL: One of the concerts I shot and directed over the years was with a very talented singer songwriter, John Eddie.  John was a friend, and I was always impressed  by his songwriting and performing skills.  

Not unlike other stories, his was that of a “one hit wonder.”  He was signed to be the “next” Springsteen to come out of the Jersey shore music scene, he had one big hit “Jungle Boy” in the late ‘80s and a smash video on MTV to go along with it.  Then he was unceremoniously dropped by his label (before his follow up record was even released) when the music scene quickly turned to hair metal.  It wasn’t as if his talent went away, they just no longer had need for his style of music.  

His career hit the skids, and he had to re-invent himself musically, and face the hard facts in all the other aspects of his life.  What looked like a bankable success and stadium tours, had quickly turned into a hard existence from gig to gig.  

This was the inspiration for the story- but really, there have been many films like this.  I was more interested in the other areas of this kind of character’s life: family relationships, personal relationships, the things that suffer when life doesn’t turn out to be what you expected.  

In a small way, my professional career had some similarities as well.  I had made a feature film, and a documentary that got some notice (the feature is called Lesser Prophets and the doc is Naomi Conquers Africa).  It was funny because I had another feature ready to go immediately, and it was happening in fits and starts, cast contingent budgets, meetings, trips to LA,  more meetings, schedules. etc. I was literally going broke trying to make this project happen.  I’d see friends out and about and people thought (because they had heard of these earlier projects) my career was on fire, but in reality, I was hanging on by a thread. Still,  people are enamored by the perception of success.  

It's funny, but the more you think about it, everyone has these stories.  The dream job that didn’t pan out, the “sure thing” that went wrong.  So, I thought to create a story which was less about the music scene, per-se and more about the choices we make in life and where those choices take us.  

I outlined the story with Frank Harkins, who wrote the screenplay.  The goal was to be able to create a story that we could shoot with a minimal budget if we had to.

What was your casting process like and did you adjust the script at all to fit the cast?

BILL: At first, we went after some legit funding, so we were looking at bankable actors.  I’d been down this road before and I knew it was extremely rare to land an actor who meant anything to the banks, so I didn’t give it too much time before we moved on.  

I knew I needed flexible cast who would work in a guerrilla style- so I’d hired only local actors.  In fact, I just finished watching Soderbergh’s Bubble in which he used a non professional cast of all locals for the film, and I was really inspired by what he created.  

I made no budget deals with all the actors, and made them one promise:  I would finish the film. We ended up hiring all locals, and a large majority of the cast had never acted before, the others who did, had very little film experience.  

The main lead was designed to be a “roots rocker” type- sort of blue jeans, heart on the sleeve type guy.  I ended up finding a local musician (Keith Roth) to play the lead, and he was much more of  "post-punk,” New York guy- which in the end, lent itself well to the story.  Keith works locally as a musician, and had contacts with other acts, as well as good relationships with venues.  

We adjusted the script for him, in the sense that doing line reads really wasn’t his thing- so we sort of “outlined” scenes and let him work within those outlines- improvisational, where we could.  Keith was also a generation after the hair metal scene, so we changed the transition in the music business--which was scripted as the “denim -to- hair metal” vibe, to the “hair metal -to- grunge” vibe--not that big a deal, and maybe even works better.

The one thing I would say that stands out about it all, is that my initial approach was to shoot the film in masters, and let the scenes play out- almost theatrically.  

This would accomplish several things in my mind:
1) We wouldn’t have to go in for coverage, so we could move faster on set, and  
2) Post production could then conceivably go much faster.  

It turns out that none of this was remotely possible.  We didn’t really have time to rehearse, lots of times the actors were coming to set fresh from work, or between their kid’s ballgames- so we had to go for it.  Remembering lines became a challenge, and so we ended up breaking the scenes down into small sections.

In the end, it worked, but I’d be lying if said it was easy.  It was painstaking work- especially because we were in live rooms lots of times, so we had many factors (including environmental) working against us. In the end - we got it done, and I think the performances are exceptional, especially given the level of experience the actors came in with.

It was a learning process for everyone involved, every step of the way.

What was your process for sourcing or creating music for the movie and what did you learn while going through that process?

BILL: This was by far, the most rewarding part of this project.  I LOVE music, really-all kinds of music.  

Keith Roth (the lead) is a musician and fronts a local rock band, he also works as a DJ on Sirius, and has his own show locally.  He is a pop -rock music encyclopedia- and we would talk for hours discussing music in general, and the music for the film.  He actually wrote the song that opens the film (Revolution) after his first read through of the script!  

The one thing I knew I wanted to do was to use local musical acts for the score- it just lent itself to the nature of this project.  So much of this film is shot on location at the legendary Rock and Roll clubs on the Jersey Shore- specifically in Asbury Park- The Stone Pony, The Wonder Bar, The Saint and the legendary Brighton Bar in Long Branch are a few examples. Asbury Park has an incredibly rich musical history that even pre-dates the famed Springsteen and Bon Jovi days.  There are so many cool bands working this circuit still today, it just felt right. 

What I learned is that musicians are SUPER supportive of filmmaking, and partnering in the process if you have the courage to ask in advance.  We got some incredible talent on our soundtrack, and all on future deals (no money out of pocket).  Film and music are necessary partners- if you consider music as an afterthought, you’re toast- especially on smaller budget films. Get out in front when it comes to music- don’t wait!

From a creative aspect, the other thing I really had to consider was keeping the music and score in the same genre and context as the film itself.  What I mean to say is that the overall quality of the visual image, and the sets (shooting mostly with available light), in an almost cinema verite documentary style  didn’t lend itself to having a lush score running behind it.  

I had originally felt for a sparse piano score with simple themes supported by beautiful strings.  Something simple and classical to juxtapose the other loud and disruptive rock and roll music that is featured in performance.  We tried this, and really- it just didn’t work.  The music felt like we were pushing too hard, like we were trying to make people feel something about the music other than just letting the scenes play out.  

So, I let go of that plan and replaced it with score that is more in line with where our characters really are (in a physical and emotional sense)- its still simple, but its guitar driven, with clean lines.  The score was done by Marc Ribler, another very accomplished and talented local musician- and he did an outstanding job.

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

BILL: Perhaps the most liberating elements for this film is that we had no budget- so we didn’t have the stress of having to answer to any financing parties.  

The thing is, I had enough gear to support the work I was doing outside the film, so I didn’t need to rent or purchase gear. I also really didn’t think about distribution. I think its important to have a goal for the project, but for me, I never thought about how it could or would be distributed, I just did the best with what I had on any given day.  

I was unsure about crowd source funding, I really didn’t know too much about it, and what I did was that it took a lot of time and effort to make it work, and I didn’t have that time.  

Making this film  was really an exercise in collaborating for the sake of collaborating.  Believe me- there were tons of stresses that could have been easily avoided if we were properly funded, but looking back now, I wouldn’t trade them for any other outcome.  In our case, even a little bit of money might have screwed things up.  

The one thing we had going for us was that no one got paid (locations, actors, crew, etc) so it was like a favored nations deal.   I had no problem asking people to partner with us without getting paid, because that was the same deal everyone had.  If people weren’t agreeable, I didn’t twist their arm, I just moved on.

You wore a lot of hats on this production (writer, director, producer, DP). What's the upside and the downside of taking on that many roles?

BILL: It's never easy to be responsible for everything- it can really be a detriment, so I tried to look only at what I was doing that day, or even that minute.  

I was literally everything on this film (from producer / director to at times, the driver and caterer) on occasion, it was nauseating. But if you keep it simple and look at the task in front of you, somehow it just works.

I really believe that during their construction, film projects exist in some sort of vacuum anyway. I think of it as three distinct (and exclusive) lives- First, the script, then production, then editing & post. So, when you are writing a script (I co-wrote the story for this, the screenplay was by Frank Harkins); you think of it as a film for certain- but it gets treated as a literary device.  A screenplay is a literary device, and sometimes we even specifically tailor them for the reading experience.  

Once you get into production, it brings on a whole new interpretation- its literally survival mode on a film like this. Actors bring their talents to roles, the locations where you end up shooting sometimes dictate the dialogue and even plot points.  You just have to learn to go with it.  

In the end, most of it is just people management.  Once we were ready to go, when I looked through the camera and shot the scenes, that stress would go away, and I really enjoyed myself shooting.  The truth is, having people on set costs -even if you’re not paying them, you have to manage them, move them around and you have to feed them.  For me, it just felt easier to do whatever I possibly could on my own.  

The downside of doing all this, is that you inevitably miss something- there’s just no way to be in a live environment, and see everything. I recently screened the film on a large multiplex screen for the first time, and I couldn’t believe the things I saw!  Shots that I thought were fully in focus were actually a little soft in areas- even things in the background I hadn’t noticed before!  

I tell people this is the reason why you see a major film’s credits are as long as they are, you really need an army!  

In the end I learned its totally possible to make a feature with a skeletal crew, but you need to be realistic  about the story you are going to tell. I think when you make a film, you have to ask yourself how you can serve your team, as opposed to how they can serve you.  It makes the process -no matter how difficult- that much more enjoyable.

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

BILL: The DSLR explosion was the thing that inspired me to give this a go.  I started out on the 5D Mark II- and the very last thing was shot on a Sony FS7-which says a lot about how far camera tech has come in 5 years!    

For my day job, I had video cameras, and while they work well for what they do, I've never got a narrative feeling from them. A good friend turned me on to the 5D early, and like many, I was hooked.  Still, I didn’t love the way the Canon lenses looked- they were just too sharp, and too “digital”.  

I knew I was going to shoot with available light, so I wanted fast lenses. There was no way to get hold of Zeiss primes, so I started testing some vintage Nikon lenses from the ’70’s and I LOVED them!!   They just looked really cool, and again- lent themselves to the narrative.  I would never use them for work, but for this film they looked great.  I had a 50mm, and 85mm (both 1.8) and a 28mm 2.8.  The 28mm ended up not being sharp enough, so I mostly lived with the 50mm- pretty much shot the whole film with that lens!

What I loved was that it looked great right out of the camera.  I ended up ditching the “rig” and the follow focus, and all the “stuff” that people put on these cameras- mostly because I want to keep a low profile, and also because it took more time to deal with it, so I ended up with a small hand-held rig.   

The downside of these cameras is that when you shoot opened up, you’re obviously dealing with focus issues- and unless you have a crew (camera assistants, focus pullers, big monitors) you’re going to run into problems.  

I just played into it.  The danger involved for films like this is that on some level, they actually look like you’ve spent money on them, and they’ve been “professionally” made.  People watch it and start out without expectations, and then begin buying into the production level and the good qualities of performances, and forget that they are watching a film that was made for nothing- its almost like you’re cursed by what you can deliver- you almost raise the bar for yourself, so you need to be careful that you deliver on all fronts.  

The one area people leave under the table is production audio, and I cant stress enough how important good production audio is!  I was acutely sensitive to this, and even I dropped the ball several times.  Its just so easy to say, “We’ll get this in ADR”, and its not at all easy.  

If you can't afford a decent sound operator, find someone you know and like, and train them to be a passable sound person.  Its as important as anything else you’ll capture, and in the DSLR world of filmmaking it can easily take second fiddle.

Did the movie change much in the editing, and if so, why did you make the changes?

BILL: Going to the earlier response- I believe films have 3 “lives”  (screenplay, production and post) and they are not always related in the way people think they would be.  

I am a firm believer that once you get into the edit, all prior bets are off the table.  As soon as I find myself saying something like “well, we wrote it like this…”, or “when we shot it, we went for this,” I know I’m telling myself some serious BS.

Yes, this film changed in the edit- sometimes entire scenes didn’t work for technical reasons, or the performances weren’t as strong, so I scrapped them.  I think in some ways the “spirit” of those scenes that got cut out still live in the fabric of the story, but I just felt the film would play better with the weakest material cut out of it.

I miss them being there in the form of the narrative, but when I tell people about a missing scene they’re surprised and say it would make difference in how they interpret the film. In some ways I think in low-to-no budget filmmaking (and probably in all films, really) its important to make sure that major plot points not get buried in a narrative exposition- because there are too many potential disasters that can get in the way.  

We went into this with that in mind, so all of our major plot points, and really important scenes were protected from technical problems, or a questionable performance. 

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

BILL: The smartest thing I did was to make the film.  Regardless of how good, or bad it is- it was really important for me that it get made.  It's so much more fun to talk about how it went, then to talk about what it could have been, or to regret not making it.  

Outside of that, I was really happy that we all agreed up front that no one would get paid.  Once you start spending some money, you really have to start making value decisions, and there are just too many of those calls to make.  Everyone was treated equally, all the crew, the actors, the locations.  It was easy for me to ask for help because I knew we were all in the trenches together.  I think it made the people involved invested in the process and not just in the outcome.

Also, on a technical level, I asked my sister (Josie Gallo) to get on board as a hair and makeup person. She was so important to the film that she ended up as an Executive Producer!  She kept the continuity, and she made sure people looked camera ready.  There is really no way the film would have worked without someone as talented as her looking and making sure the actors looked great -and in our case- had correct continuity.  She’s an incredible talent in this area, and I was SO lucky to have her “in the family” as it were.  I’ll never do anything like this again without her, or someone as competent as she is in this area. Make sure you have good hair and makeup!  

The dumbest thing would have to be my expectations on the schedule.  I really thought we would get this shot out in one summer, and it ended up taking four. Most of the time people were really cool about it- sometimes, I felt bad about going out to dinner and running into people, or posting photos of a family vacation on social media while the movie was unfinished.  

It’s really important that everyone on the team understand how much work and time goes into making a film, even a crappy one takes a lot of effort!  At the same time, I had to work and earn a living, take care of my wife and daughter, and do the everyday things that life offers.  I was really focused on the film, but sometimes my schedule, and the actor’s schedules and availability of locations meant we had to be patient.  

From a flat out safety standpoint, I would question the vehicle we used in the film.  We needed a “home” for our lead in the film, and he was meant to be in an old tour bus.  I bought a bus for $400 off of a church in Atlantic City.  We used the bus as a character in the film, and also as production vehicle.  It was in pretty rough shape- it ran great (most of the time) but had been in an accident which caused its roof to leak- which meant it was moldy. When we shot scenes in the bus, I would try to bleach it out so we didn’t get sick, but the bleach was also pretty bad to work with!  

One night the bus was broken down and wouldn’t start- I’m sort a shade tree mechanic and noticed a wire coming from the battery going the starter which had come loose.  It was cold, and rainy, and I was under the bus holding this wire up against the starter while Keith turned the key.  I talked to myself in that minute, and noted that I could possibly be killed by a $400 bus while making a no budget film!  I held my breath- and went for it, I did get a little shock, but the bus started!  

That had to be the dumbest thing I’ve done, at least while making this film.

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

BILL: Make the film, and move on.  Don’t stop and think about what could have, or should have been.  Don’t have any regrets.  

When you are working like this, its best to honor the fact that you are actually working, doing something you love, and collaborating with like minded people.  

I know there will be technical things I’ll approach in a different manner here or there, but each film, and even each scene presents its own challenges, and these are the same challenges people have when making big films.  

It's easy to think that big budget films are all smooth sailing, and issues are easily overcome, but in fact its not the case.  You’ve got the idea, you’ve got enough skills, just go do it.  

I’ve learned on this film that I really do like making films, and I can't wait to get started on my next!