Thursday, September 29, 2016

Aaron Keene on "Panopticon"

What was your filmmaking background before making Panopticon?

AARON: I've been a cinephile ever since I was a kid growing up in Minnesota. I wanted to be an actor when I was younger – was in a bunch of plays, commercials, and industrial films, but never got my so-called big break.

I ended up giving up on that to move to Lake Tahoe when I was 15 to be a pro-snowboarder. I had a small amount of success with that for a few years, but never stopped loving film. I was in a bunch of snowboard videos and was always interested in what cameras the guys were using, would grab one every now and then and shoot some snowboarding, and would always sit in on the edits.

I woke up one day and decided to move to San Francisco to go to the Academy of Art. It literally happened that quick. I didn't tell anybody I was leaving because I didn't want anybody to convince me to stay. My board sponsor at the time, Santa Cruz, even printed stickers that said "Seen Keene?"

I worked a ton of odd jobs, thought film school was a waste of money, and made an hour long film that all took place in a motel room when I was 23. It was called Bastard and was about two sisters confronting their estranged father about molestation the night before he gets re-married. It was beautifully acted and shot brilliantly. I submitted it to Cannes and Sundance, and figured that since it wasn't accepted it wasn't any good. Obviously, that doesn't make any sense and I should've submitted to others. I revisited it recently and was really pleasantly surprised at how good it is. I had it in my head that it sucked for the last ten years.

Anyways, I've been writing screenplays for over ten years now. I've written about 20 features and made a web-series that I'm in called Death Will Tremble. I made the first episode of that just because I wanted to make something I'd written instead of it just sitting on the shelf like all the others. I wrote a few pages, set up my camera on a tripod, and shot the myself reading the dialogue and it's actually pretty twisted and cool.

After I did the second episode like that, my good friend and talented filmmaker Hassan Said got involved and started shooting and directing the episodes. It was great because I knew I couldn't continue doing everything myself. It really opened up the potential of the series. Because I wrote one at a time, it's a little disjointed and schizophrenic – but I've taken the ideas I like from it and crafted a feature film with those elements that we're going to be producing soon.

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

AARON: I was randomly working as a Private Investigator when I wrote Panopticon. I wrote most of it while I was sitting in the back of a surveillance van, waiting for suspects to leave their homes. I did the pre-production in the back of the surveillance van, too. I worked a lot of long hours, and although I had a great girlfriend and a lot of close friends, it was a lonely time working alone so much and not interacting with people.

Panopticon is about a guy with a sunlight allergy who is isolated from the outside world – has to black out his windows, completely cover himself up when he goes outside. He starts to hack into peoples' webcams to take part in the lives of others.

When I was working as a PI, I sat in a blacked out surveillance van, would try to be invisible when I'd follow people, was spying on and stalking people professionally.  There are a lot of parallels between that PI job and the experience of Alex, the main character in that movie. It's not one-for-one, and I'd like to think I'm better adjusted than Alex, but it's what I tapped into to get to that dark place.

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

AARON: With a film of this budget you have to be open to adapting to different circumstances. Not just with casting, but throughout production. It's important to think on your toes and adjust things according to the situation.

Both of our main characters have accents which wasn't written into the script, but they were by far the best actors in the auditions. They truly embodied the characters and changed my minds about who the characters were. That's something you want with all people on set. People who will not just do what you want, but will elevate the project and bring new shades of color to it that you never expected.

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

AARON: I wrote this with budget in mind and knew I could make it for about 10k. We started an indiegogo campaign with 10k as the goal. I had done a crowdfunding campaign before for another script I had written that was unsuccessful and I didn't get any of the money, so this time we chose flexible funding so we could keep anything we rose no matter what. It was a good thing because we raised just under 5k. I ended up using all of my savings and credit cards for the rest.

Plan to recoup cost? Maybe we should've thought about that. No – we just wanted to make a movie we're proud of to open opportunities in the future. I do, however, have a call with a distribution company this afternoon. Wish me luck.

What drove your decision to go with black and white? What were the pros and cons of that decision?

AARON: It's a dark gritty story about loneliness and isolation. Black and white serves those themes well. I also find that movies made for low budgets that try to look like a Hollywood studio production always fail. It's best to find a unique look that fits your story and not try to look like the millions of dollars you don't have.

Budgetarily it helped because it's easier than painstaking color correction. I wrote, produced, directed, and edited this thing. I don't think I could've given color correction it deserved after all that. But I would've if color was best for the story.

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

AARON: We shot on a 7D and it got exactly what we needed. When we premiered at the Portland Film Festival, I was nervous about how it would look on the big screen. I had no way to test it before the premiere. It looked gorgeous.

When I was looking for a DP, there were a lot of people who submitted with fancy gear, but not a lot of people that had the kind of eye I wanted. Our DP, Thomas, had a 7D and was an all around creative dude. He read the script and when I asked how he saw it, it was the same way I did.

The DP is more important than what they shoot on.

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

AARON: I cut some pretty big scenes. There were some scenes I really loved, were beautifully shot and acted, but they didn’t move the story forward. The movie is a lot tighter without them, but I still think about them often. Perhaps we’ll include them on the DVD extras.

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

AARON: The smartest thing I did was to pick the right people and to trust them. Collaboration is key and if you don't pick the right people to collaborate with that can destroy the momentum. Also, using what little budget we had to pay people and to feed them. I can't believe it when people rent fancy equipment but don't take care of the people on their project. You can have the best equipment and the fanciest effects in the world, but if the talent sucks or even if they're great and don't feel appreciated, it comes through on screen.

The dumbest thing I did? I do a lot of dumb things all the time and I try to learn from them, but that's for me and my girlfriend Sara (also co-producer) to know. Maybe she'll tell you if you ask her.

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

AARON: As I said, I wrote this with the budget in mind. I also wrote the movie I made when I was 23 with that in mind. Every project I do, I realize I can get away with more and more for the same budget if I just ask for things. When you ask enough times in enough places, someone will eventually say yes. In the future I may write without restraint, beg, borrow, and steal whatever I can – and re-write what doesn't work out.

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