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.

Use this google form to be notified of Panopticon's release.


Thursday, September 22, 2016

Neal McLaughlin on "I Was a Teenage Wereskunk"

What was your filmmaking background before making I Was a Teenage Wereskunk?

NEAL: Minimal. I went through a phase when I was about 19 where I fancied myself a "director." I made a few short movies with a crappy VHS camcorder, edited by connecting two VCRs. But those were more for myself and my friends.

When I moved to LA my focus was on screenwriting. But it's ridiculously hard to break in, so I decided to go around the system and just make my own movie. I made a short to get a bit of experience and then was just like, "Okay, I'm ready. Time to make a feature." In retrospect it was pretty foolish and arrogant. 

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

NEAL: I love Leave it to Beaver. I also love slasher movies. I thought, "Wow, how cool would it be to set a slasher in wholesome, goody-goody 1950s suburbia?!" What an idea! Unfortunately, I couldn't get it to work. The juxtaposition that originally drew me to the idea just seemed weird in practice. But I liked working in that world with that type of dialogue. So I changed the serial killer to a monster and that made all the difference. I toyed with all kinds of were-things: weremole, weresquirrel, weresloth, etc. until settling on a wereskunk. That seemed to have the most comic potential. 

As for getting it ready to shoot, just constant tinkering. Going over it again and again and again trying to make sure every single word is the best possible word.

And once I knew what my actual budget was going to be, I had to go back through and adjust for that. There were certain things I just couldn't afford, so I had to go back and rewrite them in a way that I could (reducing characters, changing locations, scaling down fight sequences, etc.).

What was your Kickstarter experience like and what would you recommend that other filmmakers do (or don't do) if they are going down that funding path?

NEAL: That's too big a question to answer here. Suffice to say it was the worst month of my life. Begging for money is just a gross experience. And you don't just set up the campaign and sit back and watch the money pour in. You have to work super hard. It's called a "campaign" for a reason. I hated it. 

Would I recommend other filmmakers do it? Tough to say. It depends on what type of person you are and what kind of network you have. I also worry crowdfunding might be becoming overcrowded (pardon the pun). When I did it there were still a lot of people who hadn't even heard of Kickstarter. Nowadays I feel like I'm asked to donate to something every other week. 

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

NEAL: Most of my cast were offered their roles without even an audition. I knew a lot of people and - being in LA - a ton of actors. Most of casting was simply, "Okay, let's see, Officer Maggie?... Hmm, Officer Maggie... Ooh! Amy Heidt would be PERFECT to play that part!"

Can you talk about your distribution plan for recouping costs?

NEAL: I intend to self distribute. I think the whole business of distribution right now is in major flux, especially for tiny indies like mine. I'd rather keep total control and do it my way rather than sign my movie over to some little distro company that might be irrelevant next year.

The internet makes it possible for anybody anywhere in the world to access the movie either directly from me or through Amazon, iTunes, etc. Plus, with social media, blogs, websites, podcasts, etc. I can do all my own advertising as well. So why do I even need a distribution company? Maybe it'll prove to be a mistake down the road, I don't know, but this has been a grassroots project all along and I intend to keep it that way.

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

NEAL: I can't speak much to that. We used two Black Magics, a go-pro, and - no kidding - iPhones. The monitor on the Black Magic was impossible to see outside in the sunlight, so a lot of the stuff we were just shooting blind and hoping for the best. But to really answer this question you'd have to ask my DP Craig. I'm camera illiterate. 

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

NEAL: Absolutely. I'd always heard that the movie really finds itself in editing but I never quite understood how that worked. Write a good script, shoot it, cut it together. Done. Right?

I didn't realize just how much happens in editing. A joke that worked great in the script might not be working on film. But just add one single extra frame of a character's reaction and all of a sudden it's the funniest joke in the movie. Universes open up at the editing deck.

Eventually I just had to say to my editor, "Okay, that's it! This cut is the final cut." Otherwise we might still be tweaking it.

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

NEAL: The smartest and dumbest might actually be the same thing. And that was taking the blind leap to make the movie in the first place.

I had very little experience. I had to start a company. Employ people. I was in charge of a large chunk of money (by my humble financial standards), much of which was generously donated by family and friends. I was asking people to dedicate weeks of their time and energy for free - or at least far less than what they were worth.

There were thousands of details that needed to be tended to, all of which were on my shoulders. On top of that, I had to quit my day job - and live on my meager savings and two high-interest credit cards - in order to free up the time to do it. It was an insane decision and quite frankly very stupid and irresponsible.

But I was extremely fortunate. No disasters occurred and the movie actually got completed. But any number of things could have derailed this thing. I shudder to think where that would have left me. Not in a good place.

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

NEAL: Everything. I knew nothing going in. This was my entire filmmaking education. Every second of the Wereskunk experience was a lesson I will bring to the next one.

Where can people go to learn more about the film?

NEAL: A simple Google search for "teenage wereskunk" should send you in the right direction. There's not a lot of other "werskunk" material out there (although surprisingly there are a few things). 

But specifically, if you go to all the relevant links are there. There's a Facebook page. iMDB page. Twitter is wereskunk1. Instagram is teenagewereskunk. 

Or if anybody would like to contact me directly they're welcome to do so at I think that about covers it.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Debra Eisenstadt on"Before the Sun Explodes"

Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process with Zeke Farrow like?

DEBRA: The idea for Before The Sun Explodes came out of necessity for me. After spending more than a year trying to get another film made that I had written  (this was a project that was at the mercy of other people) I was beyond frustrated.

Finally, I decided to take control and make something independently. I was looking for a small world story that I could produce and direct for very little money. I approached my friend Zeke Farrow, who gave me a script he’d written many years ago to read. It wasn’t what I was looking for, but a conversation sparked between us that lead to us writing a new script together.

From the beginning our goal was to make what we were writing- I would direct and we would produce this project together. I knew I wanted this to be a drama about a stand up comedian that involved a stalker. Our conversation started with these two elements in mind, as well as what locations we had available to us. This set the writing process in motion.

After many long conversations, we outlined our ideas. To begin our process, we’d each take on different scenes from our outline and then we’d swap scenes and edit each other’s work.

This continued (talking, writing, editing) until we had our first draft.

What was it about these characters that made you want to make this movie?

DEBRA: When I try to sum this movie up into a word, what comes to mind is “longing”… every character in this film is longing for something they don’t have and desperately think they need to be happy.

No matter who you are, or how successful you become, it is only natural to yearn for the things you don’t have; success, connection, autonomy, understanding, respect, love, etc. Every character in this film wants at least one of these things and how they each go about getting what they want, although well-intentioned- leads them into chaos. Each character (except the children) are deeply flawed, so ultimately relatable.

So, what really made me want to make this film was getting inside these complicated characters and trying to understand them and the world they all come together and clash in. There’s also nothing better than collaborating with a group of people who are all talented and focused on accomplishing the same goal and who are all willing to do whatever it takes to get there.

At what point were the actors involved and did they have an impact on the final script?

DEBRA: As soon as we had our first draft, Zeke and I had a reading of the script. We had thought of the comedian Bill Dawes for the lead role while we were writing the script (Bill didn’t know this)…  he happened to be in town when we were doing this reading so it was a great opportunity to see if he fit the role the way we hoped he would.

This first reading was pretty magical and we ended up casting many of the actors. The notes we took from this initial reading and just hearing the script out loud helped our rewrites immensely. We were really very lucky to have this opportunity… So yes, actors were involved early on.

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

DEBRA: We had investors who loved the script, and more investors came on when we had a first cut to show them. We hope to recoup our costs with some distribution.

What are the positives and negatives of shooting a low-budget movie in the Los Angeles area?

DEBRA: The positives- getting great talent who want to work locally and not having to relocate. The LA setting was integral to the script. Shooting in LA made things authentic and kept the stakes high. Getting an iconic location like The Laugh Factory was amazing.

All these positives outweighed any of the negatives we faced, which aren’t necessarily exclusive to LA anyway…

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

DEBRA: We used a version of The Red camera that our DP owned. There are much newer and more technically advanced cameras that I wished we could have used…  but given our budget, we made the best of what we had- there’s no hate, only love.

What was the visual plan that you worked out with DP Sean Webley?

DEBRA: I wanted a gritty, natural feel for this film. For each of the worlds our main character is straddling, I wanted there to be a stark contrast.

Sean and I came up with a visual plan for both of these “worlds”; looks, colors, overall “feel”… I sent Sean many images from many different sources. We discussed each set up, selected our palettes and found inspiration from films like Dallas Buyers Club, Biutiful and Blue Valentine.

We used as much natural light as we could, but most of this film takes place at night- so we had to be crafty. I wanted a spontaneous feel and I wanted to give the actors a lot of freedom, so the majority of the film is shot hand held.

Did the movie change much in the editing and what drove those changes?

DEBRA: There are always changes made when I’m editing, it’s part of the writing process for me and why I’ve edited the films I’ve made. It’s a great opportunity to keep improving the story. It’s important to create a pace and tell the story as concisely and as visually as possible. The scripts I write and/or co-write are purposely overwritten. Having more footage gives you more options.

Once I’m editing my mantra is Less is More.

What was your process for working with your composers?

DEBRA: I found some music in the Public Domain by Erik Satie that worked perfectly as well as a couple of songs from this really talented musician and comedian J Chris Newberg who was kind enough to let use a couple of his songs.

I worked with Mel Elias on the rest. By the time I started working with Mel, I’d already laid in an entire temp track. He watched the rough cut and seemed to understand exactly what I was going for. He was incredibly flexible and just gave me really great options to choose from. Thankfully, Mel understood exactly what I wanted and he was really easy to collaborate with.

What was the smartest thing you did during production? The least smart?

DEBRA: I think the “smartest thing” was to cast the film the way we did… Especially our leads- veteran comedian (Bill Dawes) plays a veteran comedian. He brought the authenticity of the comedy world to the film. He used many of his connections to help produce the film with us.

After an exhaustive and failed search to find a female comedienne to play the role of a female comedienne- I ended up casting a scream queen (Sarah Butler) as a our female comedienne- this was an unpredictable and ultimately really smart choice for the film.

The “least smart” has more to do with the limitations I was faced given our budget.

And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?

DEBRA: Many things I’m sure- but it’s too soon to properly respond to this question (sorry)…. Hopefully I’ve learned more than I even realize I’ve learned.