Thursday, April 20, 2017

Russ Emanuel on "Occupants"

What was your filmmaking background before making Occupants?

RUSS: Occupants is my fourth feature film.  I started making films in 2002 with Her Knight and Girl with Gun after studying cinema at the University of Southern California and taking UCLA Extension courses.  There, I met my filmmaking partner Emile Haris whom we have worked on all my films since then.  

Because of the success of Girl with Gun, which got into numerous festivals including San Diego Comic-con, it got the attention of my future producer Howard Nash who had put together a feature film script called P.J. which had John Heard and Robert Picardo already attached.

Since then, we worked on the features Chasing the Green starring Jeremy London, Ryan Hurst, William Devane, Robert Picardo, The Legends of Nethiah starring Robert Picardo, Jeremiah Sayys, Jared Young, Occupants starring Briana White, Michael Pugliese, and Robert Picardo, and most recently The Assassin’s Apprentice starring Tarah Paige, Marina Sirtis, and Robert Picardo, which we shot in early December 2016.


How did you get connected to Julia Camara's script and what was the process for getting the script ready to shoot?

RUSS: It was the producer Howard Nash who optioned her script in February 2014.  He then showed me the script and I was immediately hooked. 

The process involved getting the funds which we successfully raised on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo (106% raised).  Once that happened, we cast the film and hired the crew and turned Julia’s wonderful script into a shooting script based on the location we found.


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

RUSS: The casting process involved holding auditions for the main role of Annie Curtis – we had 24 actresses whom we auditioned alongside our lead actor Michael Pugliese (who played Neil Curtis, the husband of Annie). 

Also, there was our Director of Photography, the aforementioned Emile Haris.  Once Michael and Emile and I discussed whom we liked, we called back five actresses and picked Briana White who was a perfect fit for the role.

And yes one role we changed to reflect the actual cast – that was the role of Dr. Alan Peterson of the Peterson Research Institute, played by Robert Picardo (the role was originally for a woman, but was changed because of Julia’s love of Star Trek and the fact that Howard and I have worked with Robert before on four projects).


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

RUSS: We used the Canon 7D and HVX200 cameras.  I loved how they were able to get us the vibrant colors we needed in the film.  I really enjoyed shooting with these cameras, even though it was 2K and not 4K.


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

RUSS: The movie did change during the editing and that was to reflect some videos that Robert Picardo’s character sent to Annie and Neil Curtis to show they aren’t the only ones experiencing the parallel universe phenomena that was seen in the film. 

Originally in the script, it just mentioned “some video.”. So during post-production, we actually created an official Peterson Research Institute video with actor Chris Winters as the representative and shooting various people around the world who recorded their sightings.  You can actually see them at this site: http://www.pri-research.info/


Can you talk about your distribution plan for recouping costs?

RUSS: We got distribution through ITN Distribution headed by Stuart Alson who is busy going to various markets including Berlinale and selling the film.  In order for him to be able to do that, we got the film into thirty-plus film festivals all over the United States, Canada, and Russia. 

We also won awards such as the “Best Sci-Fi Feature” award at Shriekfest, one of the top horror festivals in the United States, seven awards at the Dazed 4 Horror Film Festival, and just last week the “Best Director” and “Audience Choice” award at the SoCal Film Festival  To date, we won 19 awards and have been nominated for 12 more.


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

RUSS: The smartest thing we did during production was finding our location through Air Bnb.  This was a suggestion by the producer Howard Nash and I was so relieved when we found the house we shot at. 

Since we technically “owned” the place for 12 days, I was able to stay there for the duration of the shoot.  We were also able to leave the equipment there for each of the days, which helped with set-up times.  It made for an efficient 10-day shoot.

The dumbest thing was not getting a professional hair-dye job for our lead actress Briana White when she transformed from real Annie Curtis to parallel Annie Curtis on Day 8.  It took our makeup artist Alisha Baijounas 3 tries because the over-the-counter hair dye job turned our actresses’ hair from blonde to gray (and not brunette as we wanted).  We ended up using a permanent dye and paying for her to turn it back to blonde after production wrapped.  Basically, we tried to save money but ended up spending way more.


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

RUSS: Always have a preparation day that helps with setting up equipment and production design and giving the actors a chance to see the set during pre-production so they can prepare for their roles.  I was glad we were able to do this and it helped tremendously.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Dean Peterson on "What Children Do"

What was your filmmaking background before making What Children Do?

DEAN: I went to film school at Columbia College in Chicago and barely graduated. After school I spent months spinning my wheels and bagging groceries at Whole Foods before realizing that a big check wasn't going to fall from the sky to shoot a movie and fueled by absolute desperation, decided to lift myself up by my bootstraps and make a feature film by any means necessary.

Which ended up meaning moving back in with my Mom in Minnesota, working part time at a liquor store, and doing a Kickstarter to raise the very meager budget for my first feature Incredibly Small. We shot the film in 14 days, premiered it at Raindance in London and went on to play it at a bunch of festivals and put it online where it got some attention and a Vimeo Staff Pick.

In the intervening years I made a bunch of shorts, moved to New York, and shot my second feature film What Children Do in April of last year.


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

DEAN: The idea was loosely inspired by the death of my grandfather in 2014. His funeral was the first time my entire family had been back in the same place in many years and I was fascinated by seeing how all of the conflicts, rumors, and tensions that had laid dormant for so long were reignited the instant we were all back together.

I also wanted to explore the relationship between sisters which I had never seen done in a really satisfactory way in movies before. I have two sisters, and even though the characters in my film aren't based on them, I find that basic dynamic utterly fascinating. 

I wish that I could say that I had an elegant and thoughtful process for writing but I would be lying. I was working awful 9 to 5 time jobs while I wrote the script, so my process was to force myself to come home from work and write for 1-2 hours as often as I could muster.

The first few drafts were utterly appalling, but with each successive draft it got better and better (I hope???) as I tried to hone in on the voices of the sisters as well as work out the kinks with the plot.

My sense of humor is really random and often nonsensical, so many passes on the script were just trying to solve problems like "which scene can I work this Applebee's joke into?"


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

DEAN: The two sisters were difficult to cast because they're such dynamic roles. I needed to find actors that were able to pull of really big jokes but were also capable of incredible emotional honesty, often within the same scene.

I saw Nicole Rodenburg in Annie Baker's play The Flick and was floored by her performance. I looked her up online the next day, and I'm still not sure why, but chose to DM her on Twitter. Within a minute of our first meeting she mentioned that she had a frozen Cornish game hen in her purse AND applied drops of oregano oil on my tongue after finding out I had a cold and I decided to cast her on the spot.

I had originally seen Grace Rex in her short film This Is She and was taken by her look and the way she commanded your attention on screen, without even saying anything. I also found a bunch of comedic short films she had done online and after meeting with her knew immediately that her voice and instinct as an actor were exactly what I wanted. She was so talented and her filmography is so intimidatingly impressive, I never thought in a million years she'd want to do the movie but I was able to somehow trick her into signing on.

I'm always completely open to script suggestions from actors, and we made a few changes here and there to personalize the characters, but I would say the script remained about 95% the same. A lot of the details about the characters like their wardrobe or choices they make inside of scenes were from the actors though.

I cherish these kinds of contributions and try to continually encourage people I work with to bring these ideas to the table. 


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

DEAN: We shot on the Canon C300. I love the image quality and versatility of it. You can have a really small rig and easily sneak into places and steal shots which we did a lot of.

It's also really good in low light so you can shoot out in the real world with a small crew and move from scene to scene quickly, which is fantastic because I hate standing around on set.


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

DEAN: The movie changed a lot in really subtle ways. I cut lines that would change the tone of the scene, extend pauses to increase tension within a moment, and I actually ended up cutting 8 minutes off the very end of the movie which totally re-contexualized how the story ends (spell check is telling me that "re-contexualized" is not a real word).

My editing process is wholly instinctual and I'm never able to intellectualize why I do anything. Something just does or does not feel right and luckily I edit my own films because I doubt I would be able to intelligibly convey any information to an editor.


Can you talk about your distribution plan for recouping costs?

DEAN: With my past two features and all my shorts I purposely worked using really small budgets which offers me the freedom to be adventurous in distribution as well as not being excessively beholden to financiers.

I gave my first film away online for free and am interested in pursuing similarly unusual modes of distribution with this film. That said, we haven't even started playing festivals yet so it will be hard to say what it's life will end up looking like.


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

DEAN: The smartest thing that we did was have everybody stay in the house that we shot in. The cast and crew were always 15 seconds from set so nobody was ever late to call time, it also freed you up in the event you finished early and wanted to shoot something that wasn't on the schedule because everyone was just in the next room. It also created a really fun, communal, family-like atmosphere on the shoot. Every day after we wrapped we would eat dinner together, have some drinks, and listen to music. 

The dumbest thing I did was try to cast a micro-budget feature during pilot season. You're literally at the bottom of every agent's priority list. 


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

DEAN: Shoot your goddamn movie.

Don't wait around for years and years trying to raise a budget that may never come in. Set a date, tell lots of people what you're doing so you'll be thoroughly humiliated if you back out, and then press forward every single day, ignoring anyone who is doing anything other than enabling you to get your movie made.

I learned that if you can shoot movies for very little money nobody can stop you.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Joan Micklin Silver on "Hester Street"


How did you find Abraham Cahan’s novella (which was the basis for the screenplay) and what attracted you to it?


JOAN MICKLIN SILVER: One of the films that I made for the educational film company was on immigration. I read just about everything I could find on immigration and one of the things that I read was the novella by Abraham Cahan called
Yekl.



I was really floundering around and wanting very much to make my own films. My husband, Ray, who was a real estate developer, told me that if I could do a film that would not cost very much, that he would try to raise money from some of the investors that he'd been going to for real estate deals. And that was how we did it.



Frankly I didn't think I'd ever get to make another film. I was pretty discouraged about it all. My family were immigrants and I wanted to make a movie that would count for them.


Was the story in the public domain at that point?



JOAN MICKLIN SILVER: Yes. And that was one of its attractions.


What challenges did you face in the adaptation?



JOAN MICKLIN SILVER: Well, the story itself is more the husband's story. I think what grabbed me about it was what happened to the wife. So it was really just telling the story from the point of view that interested me. The challenge of it, of course, was to try to make it authentic.



I felt that because my father had told me so many stories about his life as an immigrant boy from Russia, I knew that language was a huge factor in getting along or not getting along. He told me stories of not quite knowing English and once leaving some money on a bus; he was a paperboy and he had made some collections and left the money by accident on the bus. He thinks people were trying to tell him and he didn't understand what they were saying. He got off the bus and then realized it -- things like that. Knowing the English language was extremely difficult.



And also both my parents were Yiddish speaking and I can remember dinners at our house with all sorts of relatives and wonderful stories being told and then punch lines coming out in Yiddish and my mother turning to us and saying, "You know, it doesn't quite translate." She would try to translate it, but never could quite do it. And I associated that language with something very rich and interesting and enjoyable.


Were you worried about breaking some of the cardinal rules of low-budget filmmaking: You don't do period pieces, you don't do something that's half in English and half in Yiddish?



JOAN MICKLIN SILVER: I didn't know enough to know that I was breaking cardinal rules and that's the truth. I had to tell this story and I had to do what I could to tell it.


Did the fact that you knew you wouldn't have much money to shoot this movie have any impact on you while you were writing the script?



JOAN MICKLIN SILVER: Constantly. I was constantly thinking, for example, about how I could do Ellis Island, things like that. It was one thing after another, just constantly trying to figure out how I could tell the story without having a budget that would have allowed me to tell the full story, where you could recreate the Lower East Side, like they did in Godfather II.



We used one street, Morton Street, and we could only shoot in one direction, because that direction faced Bleecker, where the streets formed a "T," so that you only had to create the look on Morton up toward Bleecker.



If we faced the other way, it was Seventh Avenue and obviously we couldn't close Seventh Avenue, we didn't have that ability. In Godfather II, they had street after street, traveling shots that were gorgeous. So we just did what we could and everything was written and organized with that in mind.



My own experience in writing low-budget films is that you often have to do a part of something; a part has to stand for something larger.