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.

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