Thursday, December 15, 2016

Nick Westfall on "Finding Home"

What was your filmmaking background before making Finding Home?

NICK: I went to Full Sail University for an MFA in screenwriting so I’ve had the experience of class work – which consisted of a lot of writing and reading about writing. There’s a big difference in school and education – and of course writing is only a fraction of filmmaking albeit an important one.

My experience behind the camera happened when I was an elementary PE teacher. I made a few bully PSA films with my fifth grade students – and that was the extent of my knowledge in filmmaking going into Finding Home.

The cool part of directing is not knowing what you’re doing and hiring people that know exactly what they’re doing.

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

NICK: I get my ideas from a lifetime subscription to PEOPLE magazine. J.

I wanted to make a movie about values because I think post modern writing has exhausted a few ways of living (irony, sarcasm, and meta-narrative have had their place for awhile, but there are more areas to conquer).

I have this theory that people are now more interested in subtlety and value driven narratives. For Finding Home, the first idea I had was a big hug. Then I worked backwards and sideways from there. The plot forced my two characters into a direction (Finding a home for Oskar). Then story came into the design. Then themes – I think there’s something charming about truly loving someone and wanting them to be happy for no other reason than you just value them as a human being. No agenda. No ulterior. You just want them to be happy and in a way their happiness becomes your own.

I looked deep into myself and really considered the idea of why I’m always willing to do a favor for anyone. Somewhere in there is a nugget of truth to this life and one day I’ll find the words to describe it and they will be simple. For now, Finding Home is my experiment into that territory.

Getting the script ready to shoot for us meant rearranging everything the way we needed them to be for our shooting schedule. No real secret other than making sure you plan it all out. I value my frugality – in a very neurotic way – so I had a lot of fun searching for ways to make one location fit like four or five different scenes in the movie.

*Footnote – Remember screenplays aren’t meant to be read, they’re meant to be shot – when it came to shooting and thinking about shooting I realized how much of my scene descriptions and actions were really unnecessary and nonvisual. Blocking is done on set. No need to bore your script readers with nonvisual actions and descriptions (unless they’re the art department but that should be separate document).

What was your casting process and did you change the script to match your final cast?

NICK: The casting process was an interesting experience because it felt like I was an executioner and people lined up to nakedly plead their dreams – in guillotine fashion. It’s actually quite depressing to watch the actors who don’t get the part leave the room. Similar to the way an interviewee looks at the interviewer one last time before they exit (to gauge their likelihood). So that part sucks because I end up committing to giving this falsely encouraging smile, which is sort of cowardly.

I really wish actors would ask why they didn’t get the part in an email afterwards. I feel like auditioning should be a learning process so if they don’t get the part they walk away with knowing why – with some ego repair mechanisms on the side.  

I wrote 108 drafts of Finding Home, which involved a lot of exposition execution (or camouflage) and setups and pay offs. The biggest secret to writing is rewarding the audience’s intelligence. People love feeling smart. Handling exposition properly and setting up running gags that pay off over and over aids this affair.

This movie makes an argument that audiences pay more attention to things the main characters hate more than what they love. I used this tool a lot in Finding Home. The movie is about finding which home aligns with Oskar’s values best. So when that same character hates the phoniness of people pinching his cheeks, who trade his name with adjectives like “precious,” well later on you’re definitely going to have someone call him precious. He says that he hates playing the piano well there’s another device I will tap into over and over again. Audiences love this because it rewards them for paying attention.

I broke this question into three parts and will now focus (hopefully) on matching the script to your final cast. And the answer is I had to fire the writer in me and become the director. Stuff that was precious in the script has to have a purpose. Why is it there? My cast took the script and made it their own – which sounds like abstract nonsense but stated as an English sentence – it means that if someone can answer “why” they’re doing something different from what was planned then I feel good about giving it a go.

There’s a scene in Finding Home that was completely adlibbed for two minutes. Meaning I cut out all of what I wrote and allowed the actors to do their thing and because they all read the whole script they knew where they could take it.

I think it’s important to avoid micromanaging people in any aspect of life. People are much better and more interesting than words written on a piece of paper and don’t call “cut” until they start making farting noises. Allow your actors to be free inside the character, otherwise you’ll just have actors acting and no one wants to see that.

Usually after we’ve got the scene fully covered we’ll do one more wide shot and this is the ‘jazz’ take where anything and everything can happen.

Can you talk about your distribution plan for recouping costs?

NICK: We had a Kickstarter campaign for our movie so our distribution deals are pure profit.

I will say this about production, SHOW PEOPLE YOU VALUE THEIR TIME: pay them what you can, give them breaks, talk to them politely, help pack up equipment, and have good food. Most of the people working with you on a movie do it because they have dreams of their own and want to learn or get to know people.

We have sold the EDU rights to Finding Home and are in discussion for VOD.

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

NICK: You should keep this question in because I think it’s a good one only because people get caught up in it. A pretty movie with no story is not worth watching. Put more effort into your story and what you want to say about the world – not the camera package. We shot the movie with a DP and camera operator that had their own equipment, which cut costs and aided my frugal tendencies. Remember, money makes people cautious, so use it like it was your own.

Sony F5.

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

NICK: Lots of things change in editing, but I assume you mean story changes. We cut out a scene at the beginning with Courtland and his ex wife. We didn’t need it and the problem with writing all those setups and payoffs is that the script becomes sort of like a sweater and when you pull one thread there are some consequences to deal with later on – although, of course, there are ways to fix this as well.

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

NICK: Other than allowing actors to do their thing on set, valuing everyone’s time – and tending to their needs – I think the smartest thing I did was hire a great cast and crew.

Before this movie I’d never been on anyone else’s set – all dreary entendres aside – so I didn’t know what it was supposed to be like. I know that I absolutely loved the entire process and even if everyone hated the end product I don’t think I would’ve been devastated.

There’s a certain romance to the level of fatigue associated with working really hard on something – which is of course another chance for me to sneak in another pretentious, but true food pellet – happiness is in the doing not getting what you want.

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

NICK: During this entire interview I don’t think I had an unexpressed thought.

All the problems you have on set are problems you wished you were having when you weren’t shooting anything. The world doesn’t really want you to make a movie – there’s too many of them, no more original ideas, and who would care what you have to say anyways. So make something you really believe in. Make something that gets you excited.

And to once again pretentiously quote the Finding Home movie “find something you’d do if money were no object.” But don’t miss the present moment by worrying about all the “problems” you’re having. Come up with creative solutions. Surround yourself with positive people. Be an optimist – it’s the only way to live your life and feel like you’re not wasting your time.

Get all your directing done in rehearsal. Don’t waste valuable set time on the character philosophy and being artistic – whatever that means. Another capital T truth is don’t ever tell anyone you don’t know what you’re doing – or even worse pretend like you know – just ask why someone wants to do the thing they’re asking about (or even better, ask them what they would do)

*Footnote – hire people who know what they’re doing.

I wrote these answers under the impression that the readers were interested in not being someone else's audience their whole life. It's been a pleasure giving you my thoughts about this cool thing called filmmaking, but the only way to truly learn something is to do it.

*Footnote – there may be something profound in the famous Nike slogan after all.

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