Thursday, January 19, 2017

Shawn Whitney on the MicroBudget Film Lab

What is the goal and mission of the MicroBudget Film Lab (MBFL)?

SHAWN: My goal when I started MBFL was to kind of "pay it forward" for other filmmakers who were trying to launch their careers by making microbudget feature films.

I had made two microbudget features and had to piece together all the elements myself from different sites, books, etc. and I wanted to bring that experience and information base together under one roof, so to speak, along with other resources. 

What was your filmmaking background before starting the Lab?

SHAWN: Besides the two microbudget features that I've made, I have also worked as a "development executive" in the film industry for the last 9 years.

My entry into the film world was primarily through being a screenwriter - that's what I went to school for and that's my touchstone for everything else. Even in my development role, while I do provide notes on cuts for films, my primary role is either in developing new content (ie. writing) or in providing story editing services to projects that come into the company where I work and which co-produces and finances films.

What's the biggest misconception that people might have about the micro-filmmaking process?

SHAWN: That the films are crap. lol.

But the reality is that some of the most important films that have ever been made would qualify as microbudgets, whether that's the films of the French New Wave or DOGME films or mumblecore films.

Access to few resources has a flip side, which is no pressure to conform to industrial, commercial standards. Filmmakers are free to experiment and that has produced some great cinema.

And also that it's just not possible to make a good film for next to no money. There's a lot of filmmakers out there - or people who want to make films - who think that there's a "proper way" to make movies. Whether that's chasing around financiers and rich dentists or trying to work their way up over decades through the commercial film industry.

What's the most common mistake made by first-time micro or low-budget filmmakers?

SHAWN: Bad scripts. Scripts are under-valued in the commercial industry. Screenwriters are undervalued. It's all about the stars first, the effects, then the director. Screenwriters are way down the list.

Besides the question of whether that's unfair or not, it means that filmmakers - including microbudget filmmakers - undervalue the importance of their script. They just want to get it done and get on to buying the flashiest new gear on the market.

The second biggest mistake, I think - and a related one - is that microbudget filmmakers try to make miniature versions of Hollywood films - action movies, thrillers, etc. that simply copy the model of H-wood movies. The result is films that have all the bad elements of Hollywood and none of the positives (like big bucks to blow shit up or make a car chase look exciting and not goofy and cheap).

Filmmakers should spend more time on their script than any other element of the process. It's the one part that is free and it's the one thing that, if you get it wrong, will ensure a bad movie.

I know there's some filmmakers out there shaking there heads and saying: "get good sound." Sure, yeah, you need good sound. But everybody has figured that out it's been repeated so many times - which is a good thing. I almost never see movies with bad sound anymore. But more than 90% of microbudget films I see have weak scripts.

Where do you see the future of distribution headed for non-Hollywood films?

SHAWN: I don't think that distribution mechanisms are a question anymore. It's cheap and easy to distribute now. The real question is where is marketing headed. It doesn't matter that you can rent or sell your movie to people in every country on the planet if nobody knows about your movie and even if they did they wouldn't watch it.

I think that filmmakers will have to collectively brand themselves - beyond just "we make movies cheap". What I mean is that groups of us will have to find other groups of filmmakers with similar aesthetic, political, social, etc. goals and create cinema movements. Movements in the arts are another form of branding - in the good sense (hopefully) - where you create a kind of avatar for a series of values, stories, looks, etc. Then people who are inclined towards those things - your niche - know where to find them.

And when they find them - "this is a DOGME film" or "These films are trying to update the principles of Neo Realism" or whatever - they know what to expect. They become a known quantity. In Hollywood films that is the role that stars and franchises perform: when you see a movie with Robert Downey Jr. playing Iron Man you know exactly what you're going to get.

Why is this a great time to get into micro-budget filmmaking?

SHAWN: There's the obvious reasons that people always talk about: gear is cheap, for instance. Or editing suites, etc.

But I think that there's a less talked about reason, related to what I said above regarding film movements and cinematic branding. We live in a time of great upheaval and that is leading millions of people to question their world, including representations of their world. A truly vital, independent cinema should be able to tap into that ferment of ideas and experiences and find a home amongst a much bigger audience than has been possible in the recent past.

But it will require filmmakers coming together consciously with that intention, to be part of that turbulent flow of change and desires. Too often we all get trapped in our own little bubbles, struggling to just get our films made. We're like the Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. We need to take a breath and collect our energies and ideas so that we can multiply their impact a hundredfold.

What's next for you as a filmmaker ... and how is your approach to this project informed by your work on the Lab?

SHAWN: I have a few things in the fire - some in the conventional, commercial industry and some in the microbudget sphere.

As far as microbudgets go I've started working on a project with a filmmaker here in Spain, where I'm currently living with my family. I'm hoping we can shoot that this year - it's still in the idea formation stages. And I have a microbudget scifi that I'd love to shoot in the next year or so as well. 

I'd also like to create a hub, a lab, for the formation of multiple microbudget movements. A place where people can gather internationally to gestate ideas, strategies, aesthetics, collaborations. The more the better because it generates the potential for more great work.

Within that I'd also like to gather with filmmakers whose ideas are simpatico with my own. I'm hoping to launch something to facilitate that in the coming months.

This latter project in particular is an outgrowth of what I've learned and seen through MBFL. I've been contacted by filmmakers from all over the world looking to find audiences and other filmmakers. It's been very fulfilling and inspired me to want to expand that.

I've already created a Microbudget Launchpad competition that provides coaching through the script development process (keeping in mind my views on the key weaknesses that I see in microbudgets) and then a competition for a $2500 production investment for the best script.

I'd love to be able to expand that into a stable fund over time that doles out three or four investments (repayable if the film ever makes money) per year and increases the value and number of the investments in each round. If MBFL could fund 12 or 24 feature films per year, I'd be pretty freaking ecstatic.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Christopher Boone on "Cents"

What was your filmmaking background before making Cents?

CHRISTOPHER: Before making Cents, I had made several short films and worn pretty much every hat in film production starting as a PA way back in my college days and producing friends’ short films as well.

For the past several years, I’ve been focused primarily on my screenwriting, and I think of myself as a writer first and a director second. Although when I put on my director’s hat, I have no problem tearing apart my own script to make the best movie possible.

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

CHRISTOPHER: The idea came from a number of different thoughts eventually colliding into one another.

First, I’m a father of two kids, a daughter and a son. When my daughter was about eight years old, I began to wonder what life would be like for her when she hit adolescence. I read several books and articles about life in middle school for girls, and I was both fascinated and at times horrified about how these girls use language, looks and social media to communicate with one another and tear each other down, usually without any adults even noticing. That was a world I wanted to explore in a story.

I’ve also always loved math and wanted into figure out a way to include math in a story. I started to imagine a twelve-year-old girl who was off-the-charts smart at math. How would she handle that? Would she show off her skills or hide her gifts? If she hid her talent, why would she do that? This led to the creation of Sammy Baca, the main character in Cents, and the relationships  she needs to navigate with the three girls, Katie, Hannah and Emily.

Finally, I needed a plot device to move the story forward, and that’s when I remembered the riddle my high school calculus teacher had taught me about the difference between $1 million and a penny a day on the first day of the month, doubled the next day, and doubling the previous day’s amount for the rest of the month. I thought it would be interesting if a character actually tried to put that into practice. And that’s how I figured out the penny drive and used math to structure the story.

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

CHRISTOPHER: I’m fortunate to live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where we have fantastic film tax incentives. As a result, we’ve built up an amazing crew and talent base right here.

For casting, we worked with local talent agencies to find our actresses. I actually discovered Julia Flores who plays our lead Sammy when we cast our teaser trailer prior to our Kickstarter campaign, and realized I needed to make this movie quickly before Julia aged out of the role because Julia immediately understood the core of Sammy’s character. I really felt like I could put the weight of the film on Julia’s shoulders and she would shine.

I feel incredibly lucky to have found such a phenomenal group of young actresses, including Lillie Kolich as Katie, Jy Prishkulnik as Hannah, and Claire Carter as Emily. Each of them brought so much to their respective characters and made them their own with such natural, honest performances.

Then, to work with seasoned actresses like Monique Candelaria as Angela, Esodie Geiger as Ms. Dyer, and Lora Martinez-Cunningham as Principal Martinez, all of whom have appeared in several films and television shows filmed here in New Mexico, was truly a gift. Monique, Esodie and Lora were so generous with our young actresses, which made for a really fun and inspiring set.

As for the script in relation to the cast, I didn’t make many major adjustments other than tweak some lines of dialogue to make them work for a particular actress. I’m also not precious about my words, so I told all of our cast members to adjust lines to make them easier for their performances. Some of my favorite scenes are ones where we did an extra take or two for talent to run with the dialogue, and their natural cadences lend so much more to the performances.

What were the challenges of finding and working with a largely young cast?

CHRISTOPHER: We were really lucky to find such a talented young cast right here in New Mexico. Honestly, that was one of my biggest concerns before making the film knowing our limited budget and time constraints, but again, living in New Mexico was the real advantage for casting.

I’d say what would typically be seen as a challenge shooting a film with a young cast — shorter shooting days because of labor laws — actually became a benefit. We worked 10-hour days from call to wrap because of the time limitations of our main talent, which meant our crew wasn’t overworked or dangerously driving home in the middle of the night while deprived of sleep. The mood on set was much happier than on sets where you grind through 14- or 16-hour days. Plus, a 10-hour day forced me and our entire crew to stay focused to get through our pages every day. In the future, I plan on sticking to 10-hour days regardless of the age of the talent on set after this experience.

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

CHRISTOPHER: To raise the funds, we put together a business plan to approach individual investors. I put my own money into the film up front to show people that I had skin in the game. We launched a Kickstarter campaign in January 2014 after extensive research on crowdfunding and raised over $60,000 in a month.

Even after the success of the Kickstarter campaign, my own money, and finding a few investors between friends and family, we were still short of the budget we needed to make the film. My wife Jennifer believes in me more than I believe in myself and told me we needed to finance the rest of the budget to make this film happen for all of the Kickstarter backers and the audience we believe needed to see this film. I could never have made this film if it wasn’t for my wife.

To attract distributors, we applied to a handful of major U.S. film festivals, knowing all along that getting into any of those festivals would be a stretch. Despite some interest from one festival, we weren’t accepted into any. That outcome was already baked into our business plan, so we took the film into our own hands and launched a series of one-time screenings of the film both here in New Mexico and in cities where we had partners and networks. We also started an outreach campaign for community screenings, working with Girl Scout councils around the country to screen the film and host workshops for middle school girls based on the themes in the film.

Finally, we joined forces with Hybrid Cinema to continue our outreach and marketing efforts and Big Time PR for our publicity campaign while we worked with Quiver Digital to release Cents on VOD and digital HD to iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo on Demand, VHX and over 130 cable/satellite providers, starting on November 15, 2016.

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

CHRISTOPHER: We shot Cents in the summer of 2014, and our DP Corey Weintraub used his Sony F3 as our main camera. Also, our Steadicam and B-camera operator Ariel Rakes brought his Sony FS700, and we occasionally used a Blackmagic Cinema Camera and a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera when necessary. We also had access to some great lenses through Corey’s kit and our community college partner, CNM.

Since I’m not a DP, my biggest concern wasn’t which camera we used, but rather whether we could get the images I wanted. I had a very specific vision of a natural look, mostly handheld, with a few key images that would be very composed later in the film.

I also wanted to shoot the first two-thirds of the film with a shallow depth of field to give the viewer that feeling of being inside the bubble of each of our young character’s minds because none of them truly can see too far beyond themselves. That is, until the consequences of Sammy’s actions circle back on her, and that’s when the world comes into starker focus and our frames get more expansive.

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

CHRISTOPHER: Editing is the final rewrite, and I was lucky to work closely with our editor Reuben Finkelstein, who has a great sense of story. We tightened the film up in several places and rearranged a few sequences along the way.

After we finished our rough cut, we were able to screen it for over 300 sixth and seventh graders to get their reactions and comments. Based on their feedback, we cut a scene or two and did some additional 2nd unit photography of key inserts to clarify some story points as well as exteriors to smooth out some transitions.

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

CHRISTOPHER: The smartest thing I did was work talented collaborators, starting with my fellow producer Ella Sitkin, who brought their passion and expertise to this project to bring it to life. For that, I’m grateful to each and every one of them.

The second smartest thing I did during production was actually in pre-production when I spent a week with Corey storyboarding the entire film. Because we had limited time on set every day, those storyboards were crucial for me to communicate with Corey to make sure we were both on the same page and got the shots we needed every day.

I also learned when to let go of those storyboards. For example, one day we had to evacuate our school building location for an hour after lunch because a brush fire in an arroyo nearby was sending smoke up through a school drain. After the fire engines left, we had less than one hour to set up and shoot a key scene in the cafeteria when Sammy gets pelted with pennies.

With only twenty minutes to shoot the scene after it was properly lit, I wasn’t sure we could get it done. Corey stepped up and quickly remapped our coverage, throwing three cameras at the scene at once and rotating those cameras to capture all of the action. Reuben pulled the scene together magically in the edit, our post sound supervisor Josh Reinhardt and our foley artist Lara Dale created a sound design to give the scene real impact, and our composer Kathryn Bostic laid down a music cue to underscore the raw emotions.

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

CHRISTOPHER: I learned several lessons from making this feature that I’ll use moving forward.

From a story perspective, I definitely want to jump into my next story even faster. Maybe that’s because I had to watch this film so many times in the edit and with audiences during our roadshow, but I want to pull audiences into the next film much faster. 

I know from talking to audiences that Cents intrigues them in the early scenes to pull them along, and Sammy is a compelling character that they want to follow, but I’m working on jumping into my next story when it is already underway and trusting my audience will catch up with me the next time around.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Kasi Lemmons on "Eve's Bayou"

What was going on in your life and your career before you came to write Eve's Bayou?

KASI LEMMONS: I had been an actor for a long time. I'd done a couple of plays with really good companies, Naked Angels and Steppenwolf, and then I went to film school. When I got out of film school I had a short film that was festivaling around, called Fall From Grace. And then I did Silence of the Lambs and moved to Los Angeles.

I'd written with other people, but Eve's Bayou was the first thing I wrote by myself. At that point in my life I was starting to think about the future. I'd been to film school, so it wasn't a completely foreign concept that I would start to marry all of these elements, the things that I'd been doing for years.

What I really wanted to do was to write the perfect role for myself. To write the perfect part. If you could write a perfect part for yourself, what would it be? So I wrote the character of Mozelle for me to play when I got a little bit older.

Also it was very much an experiment in a certain type of language and a certain type of writing style. It was very ambitious. I knew what I wanted to do, but it was more of an experiment. And then when I was finished with it, I showed it to Vondie Curtis-Hall, who was my boyfriend at the time, and he said, "You've got to show this to somebody else." He was the person who said, "You can't put it in a drawer. You have to show it to somebody."

Where did the idea for the story come from?

KASI LEMMONS: I remember the first time I told any story from Eve's Bayou was at an audition. The casting director didn't want to see a scene from the show. He wanted us to talk. So I started spinning Eve's Bayou stories. I talked about my aunt who had gotten married five times and all of her husbands had died. That was true. The more fantastical parts of the story are true.

I wrote it down as a short story and I wrote some other short stories. One was about two little kids, a brother and sister, who go and look in their grandmother's room and it talks about all of her medicines and the way in which her room was very evocative. And then another was about Eve and Jean Paul Batiste and how a bayou came to be named after this slave who saved her master's life with voodoo and witch-doctoring. So I had all these stories, but they weren't really connected. There was some connection in my mind, but I hadn't found it yet.

Then I invented the character of Louis Batiste for the stories to revolve around. Way before I wrote anything down I could tell you the entire story of Eve's Bayou, the entire thing complete with flashes of lightning. I could tell you the whole movie. I had it all in my head.

Where you thinking about budget at all while you wrote?

KASI LEMMONS: I wrote it as a literary experiment. So I wasn't thinking about anything other than wanting to get this story down on paper. As a matter of fact, when I first started writing it I thought it might be a book. And then I ended up writing it as a screenplay and I had the idea of the role of Mozelle, but I wasn't really sure if it was going to turn into a book or a screenplay or what was going to happen with it. I just let it come out.

I wasn't thinking about budget and I wasn't thinking about directing it at all. We took it to directors. So I really wasn't thinking about budget until I decided to direct it.

What was it that made you decide to direct it?

KASI LEMMONS: I took a bunch of meetings that were a little bit frightening to me and I started to realize that I'd written a very delicate piece of material that could be misinterpreted very easily. In fact, it was just as easy to misinterpret it as it was to interpret it the way I intended. I took some scary meetings where I thought, "Oh God, I'd rather keep it in the drawer than let people interpret it this way."

My producer kept saying, "What's a sexy idea of a director? Who's sexy?" And I was thinking, "Who's sexy? Who's sexy?" Literally I woke up on my birthday and it was an epiphany. I was like, "You know what? I'm going to direct it."

After that moment I never vacillated. I went to the producer and said, "I went to film school. My short film did really well and I've decided I'm going to direct this." He almost fell off his chair. But he was very supportive. The first thing he said when he recovered from shock was that he wanted to produce a short film for me to see what I could do. Something with a 35mm camera, real crew, the whole thing. And that's what he did. My agent put up half the money and he put up the other half. It was really amazing.

Once you decided to direct it, did you ever consider also acting in it?
KASI LEMMONS: No. I find directing to be a very, very voyeuristic art form. Almost a perversion. You're really watching other people's intimate moments and trying to get those moments out of them. But I don't think there was ever a question of me wanting to be in it once I decided to direct it.

Was it much of a struggle for you to get the tone you felt in the script up onto the screen?
KASI LEMMONS: Not really, once the actors nailed the language. The language to me, and I really haven't felt this way with other things that I've written, but that language in Eve's Bayou was like Shakespeare. That's because it started out as a language experiment, so I made them say it word for word. And the words were really important to me. So they had to say it as it was written.

Once they nailed the language, the language really helped them fall into the tone.

How tough was it for the actors to get that and make those speeches work? I'm thinking in particular of Mozelle's "Life is filled with good-byes, Eve" speech.

KASI LEMMONS: That's my favorite speech. Debbi Morgan's such a wonderful actress. She came in and her audition was wonderful. Wonderful. She really got it. And once she got the words exactly, like, "Well, you musta been thinking something right before you was thinking that, what led you to that particular thought?" Once you could nail the words and you're not improvising on the words, you're saying those exact words, the words help with the character. But she was so wonderful, she was wonderful from the beginning and she understood Mozelle. There was a part of her that was Mozelle.

Did you learn anything writing Eve's Bayou that you're still using today?

KASI LEMMONS: You know, there's an innocence when you write your first script. You don't know what the rules are. It's almost something that's really hard to reclaim. So that's what I'm always trying to get back to, the innocence, to try and be that pure. I don't know that I can ever do it again, but to try and remember to be that unleashed in a way.