Thursday, December 22, 2016

Johnathan Brownlee on "Three Days in August"

How did the film get off the ground? What was the process of getting the film made?

JOHNATHAN: This is NOT your usual story of how a film gets made...and released.

In 2015, I met Shannon Kincaid during the shooting the film, Occupy, Texas, (Lorelei Linklater, Janine Turner, Peri Gilpin) which I produced. Occupy, Texas was partially shot in Shannon’s home.

After we wrapped on that project, Shannon, who was adopted, approached me and we began discussing some of the challenges with which adopted people struggle. I thought it would be interesting to explore how adoptees define who they are, where they come from, how they deal with the constant fear of abandonment and finding one’s place in the world and of course, like all of us, the need to feel wanted.

At this point we still had NO script. I put together an idea of building the business and creative plans at the same time and contacted my friends at the Dallas International Film Festival (DIFF) about partnering on a screen writing competition. I then called my friends and supporters at Studio Movie Grill (SMG) about theatrical distribution. Shannon Kincaid, her husband, Allan Stringer and David Kiger came on board to executive produce and funded the project. DIFF and I agreed we would world premiere the film at their 10th Annual Film Festival. Studio Movie Grill agreed to distribute the film. Incredibly, all agreed to come on board without having a script or a film.

Now that I had the business and launch strategy put together...we still had NO script.

Shannon and I sat down and agreed on ten universal thematic elements for the story. In April 2015, DIFF announced the screenwriting competition at their 2015 festival. The winner would receive a $10,000 cash prize, guaranteed production of their script, a world premiere 365 days later and a limited national theatrical release through SMG. Withoutabox.com sponsored the online submission portal and we received 200 submissions from 26 countries around the world. We narrowed it down to 20, and then five, and ultimately we chose a script from two Texas writers, Chad Barry and David Langlinais.

In August, I sat down with Chad and David and we wrote the final screenplay that was ready to cast and shoot.

I called my buddy at Sony Artisan, Jeff Berlin, to see if Sony would come on board and provide cameras for the film. We discovered that Sony was about to launch a new camera and I agreed to be the first to use the Sony a7rII to shoot a feature film. There were only three of these in the world and we had all three.

This snowballed into partnerships with Leica, who provided the Summicron C lenses, Lite Panels, Wooden Camera, O’Connor  and others partners providing support and equipment for the film. Dallas-based Lucky Post offered to support the post production of the film as did other local artists, including Breed Music and rerecording mixer Johnny Marshall.

As an example of one of the many crazy kismet occurrences that happened or we made happen on this film...I had just locked picture on the film and had almost all the post production elements except someone to color the film...which I saw as extremely important as I wanted the film to have a very specific look, based on the subject matter and the metaphor of the painting.

Dallas has limited opportunities for long-form film color grading services and I had been reading reviews and industry publications on the best color grading and color artists in the world...and dreaming big... on vacation in Mexico and literally met Greg Edgar, owner of Alter Ego Post, at the swimming pool bar at a resort in Playa de Mujeres. Literally in the pool...he is wearing a Toronto Blue Jays hat...and we discovered we grew up a few blocks from each other....

Long story short, by the time we had drained the bar dry, Greg had offered to color our film. Alter Ego Post just worked on a small film called Mad Max, Fury Road...which won six Academy Awards.


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

JOHNATHAN: I only had September to prep and cast the film. With my LA casting director, James Tumminia, I put together a list of my target “dream” cast...which included, Barry Bostwick, Mariette Hartley and Meg Foster.

I met both Meg and Mariette in LA and they both agreed to do the film. Mariette called Barry and told/ordered him to do the film....and he agreed.

I was also able to hire veteran actor, Cal Bartlett and several extremely talented Texas-based actors, including Mollie Milligan to play the very difficult and emotionally challenging lead role, Shannon.

The film is shot almost entirely on the thirteen acre, Double J Ranch in Mineral Wells, Texas. It is the most amazing, romantic location on the Brazos River. I had been to that ranch many years before; I knew that some day I would shoot a film there.

Like so many of the other lucky happenstances, the owners of the ranch also owned the post production facility that we were working in and they just gave us the ranch. The ranch adds so much production value that I cannot imagine having to shoot it anywhere else....I had no backup plan...I wanted to shoot it there...and only there.

The whole town of Mineral Wells was completely supportive of the film. The other two locations in the town...the Irish bar and the church...both opened their doors to us gratis...as did the extras who came out to provide the much needed scale in certain scenes.

I did not change the script for casting purposes…thank goodness.


Can you talk about your distribution plan for recouping costs?

JOHNATHAN: Film launches in Theaters nationwide Dec 2…in 11 cities. Itunes Dec 20. Video on Demand Feb 3. Netflix March 3


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

JOHNATHAN: This is the first feature film to be shot on the Sony Alpha a7rII camera. My DP, Bongani Mlambo, did a stellar job of mixing handheld, stedicam and tripod work to help me balance the emotional journey though shot selection.

The pictorial structure starts with the audience observing and then ultimately they are placed “inside” the action. The Leica Summicron C lenses make the whole package truly sing and all the footage was recorded into the Atomos Shogun recorders in 4K.

Love this camera and lens package.


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

JOHNATHAN: Good films always change in editing. There are 3 films in every film that you make…
The Film your write.
The Film you shoot.
The Film you edit.

My job as a Director and Producer is to bring the best creative minds to my project and let them work….let them help me make the best film that we can.


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

JOHNATHAN: We had all our crew embedded at our location which felt like summer camp and really helped build great relationships in a short amount of time.  Dumbest thing….shoot the film in 15 days….but that is how we had to do it.


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

JOHNATHAN: My feeling that creating an on-set environment where everyone feels like they are contributing transforms the narrative on and off set.

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.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Christian Nicolson on "This Giant Papier Mache Boulder Is Actually Really Heavy"


What was your filmmaking background before making This Giant Papier Mache Boulder Is Actually Really Heavy

CHRISTIAN: I was and still am a fulltime artist. I paint and do sculpture etc. That’s how I make a living and that is essentially how I funded this movie. It kind of meant that I could work on the film fulltime and still earn money selling art at the same time. I have work in the gallery and it sells when it sells. Sometimes I have to stop to make more art but generally I spent every second spare making this movie for 5 years.

I started off as a designer and worked in advertising for about 12 years. During this time I got interested in film both with my job and also through my band called Goon. I started making music videos for my band which all got played on TV. I also began to make 48-hour films. This annual competition is huge in New Zealand and the whole country seems to down tools and participates for one weekend.

Then one day a new competition came up... Make my movie. This was open to anyone who wanted to make a movie regardless of experience. There were 750 entries; it was a massive deal with a lot of publicity. We ended up coming second. That’s how this got started.


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

CHRISTIAN: My brother-in-law Andrew and I had talked about writing a B-grade space movie a while before the competition. So when it did I just sat down and tried to figure out how I could get it to work.

I didn't just want to have a B-grade movie. I wanted a real nice movie but with b-grade effects. That’s when it struck me. Put a couple of normal guys into a b-grade parallel universe. Make it real and they can make fun of it just like we would. From there we could take it anywhere.

After that Andrew and I got together and started jamming our ideas. Oh we gotta have a space battle, hey how about a giant lizard and so forth. Once we both agreed on what we wanted we started writing. We had become a finalist in the competition that now required us to write the whole screenplay in 6 weeks. We cancelled our summer holidays and got to work. It was exhausting, stressful and also magical.

The end result was some kind of an epic. Not just a comedy but an adventure that got everything we could onto the page. This was something I was convinced could be achieved. But the competition thought maybe it was a bit too epic on the $100,000 prize money and 3 month completion deadline. But we did come second.

After that I tried to get funding from the Government who turned me down so I just decided I would make it anyway.  I had an art sale and managed to raise some cash. I bought a red camera and then got on with the job. But boy what a big job it turned out to be. 


Did you write to effects you knew you could handle or write without constraints and deal with it in production?

CHRISTIAN: It was a bit of both. I definitely wrote with things in mind but realistically I didn't know much about sfx. There was plenty of dealing with it afterwards too... haha


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

CHRISTIAN: I treated my film like a big budget film. I didn't want to hold back on anything. If I needed big sets I built them, if I needed a waterfall I found one. I didn't see why a low budget movie had to restrict itself when all it really took was a bit of creative thinking.

I went through a rigorous casting process which took 8 months. I made them read heaps of lines and would not decide until I was sure they were right for the job. I never really adjusted the script for them. But sometimes minor changes develop when you find out if it’s working or not. But generally those guys ended up knowing the character so well that they understood what to do and why.

But that was in the end.. not always in the beginning haha. The filming took two years. Not the 2 months I had promised them at the beginning.


How did you handle both directing and acting in the movie?

CHRISTIAN: I had never acted before. The original actor for Tom dropped out after three days of filming because of other commitments. I needed to keep the shoot going so left with no alternatives (after some auditions) I decided to do it myself. 

I really didn't want to let the others down though. It was important that we all at a similar level on screen for it to work. I tried hard to ensure I held up my end of the bargain. I did find it hard at first to remember my lines.  The others seemed to be so good at that.
There was just too much going on in my head.

When we filmed I was watching the shots back after takes, but time restraints meant there were times that I couldn't. I generally did twice as many takes for myself just to be on the safe side. But it was a struggle at times. Sez mentioned in a Q and A - sometimes she would see me change mid scene from actor into director, as a slightly glazed look come over my eyes. She knew I was thinking and a change was coming. I was acting but watching as well. It was definitely easier when I wasn't on camera. I did a lot of pickups for my scenes haha.


Can you talk about your distribution plan for recouping costs?

CHRISTIAN: If only I had one. I have just completed a tour of New Zealand doing Q and As in the independent cinemas. This went well but it;s only a drop in the ocean compared to what it could be with some money behind me. 

But I have done what I could. We stood in the streets dressed in outfits from the movie handing out flyers in every town. We put up billboards and signs in strategic but free places. I have tried to get as many interviews as possible and have managed to get on TV and radio a couple of times. But it's so hard at this stage without the funds to promote it.

I now have a sales agent over in LA and maybe we can sell it to the world. I have a dream that this could be a success. Right now I am in LA for the American FilmMarket (AFM) so that’s part of it. But just making a film is an amazing feeling. However I would love the world to see it. 


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

CHRISTIAN: I bought a secondhand Red One MX on ebay. As soon as that happened people suddenly took me seriously and became interested in helping. It really made a big difference. Especially 4 years ago when I bought it. It meant a lot to everyone involved that the image quality was not just a DSLR. For some they could learn how to use it.

Boy that Red was a beast though. It’s heavy and required so much accessories to go with it. The files were massive too. I didn't learn how to use it. I thought it was safer that way. Otherwise I would only break it or start filming myself so that’s one job I opted out of thankfully.

It took a bit of training for people to get used to the rig. So sometimes it was hard finding a camera op on the day. I had to use about 7 different DOPs in the end. But the end result was surprisingly coherent and the quality was awesome. I really love my red.


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

CHRISTIAN: The movie definitely got better in the edit suite. I pretty much stuck to the script but felt by moving things around it added more dynamics. I made lots of visual additions to the movie in the edit stage.

Sam my vfx guy was ever helpful and happy to satisfy my whims as they arose. Consequently there ended up a lot of things floating past the windows. For example a pig.


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

CHRISTIAN: Now that may take some thought. One of the best things I did was to buy the Red Camera. It made a huge difference to all of us. Acting myself although hard probably was logistically a good idea also. Just one less person I had to worry about... or was it. I am really glad I went with all my cast. They are fantastic.

There were no things I regret that much. There was plenty of hard stuff, but life’s a journey. It wouldn't be the same otherwise. I learned so much doing this that even the mistakes are valuable. Especially them.


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

CHRISTIAN: You can achieve anything if you use creative thinking. But it's a whole lot easier (or quicker) with a bit of money.