Thursday, July 20, 2017

Cat Hostick on "The Meaning of Life"

What was your filmmaking background before making "The Meaning of Life"?

CAT: I grew up in the arts. I was a painter from a young age, and studied art in Amsterdam, Berlin and Spain throughout high school. At this time, I was also acting and pursued that once I moved to Toronto, Canada.

I was always interested in storytelling – directing, acting, writing and so I began dabbling behind the camera. In University, I got lucky with a part time job at Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Canada as a publicity assistant, working on all of the Marvel movies. Shortly after this, I began working more and more behind the camera, joined the Director’s Guild of Canada and started directing professionally as a full time job a year or two later.

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

CAT: The movie originated from two things -- One is the title of the movie. What is the meaning of life? I feel like we all question it and there are only metaphysical answers in my opinion. I wanted to explore why some people get a short life, why some get a long life, and what do we make of the time we have here?

The second inspiration is music and art as a therapy to heal. Music therapy is an integrative therapy used with medical treatment that has great results, backed by science. In the movie, Finn is a musician who gets a temporary job as a therapeutic clown at a hospital playing music for sick kids, and primarily for a 9-year old leukemia patient named Sophia. Also drawing from personal experiences, I struggle with an autoimmune disease, and I haven’t had any luck with medical treatments, but arts therapy has actually helped the most.

As you know, the process is long and complex, but first and foremost, we needed a hospital to shoot in or this movie wasn’t going to happen. We ended up getting very lucky with our associate producer that made this happen. We got to use a shut down hospital for a very reasonable price. I can’t tell you how lucky this was. You can’t get a hospital set for less than $3000 per day. 

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

CAT: I wanted a musician to play this role, since the lead character was one. I was aware of the risk, in that I may get a good musician, but a bad actor and it’s a lead character that has to carry the entire movie. 

My partner and life and in biz, Russ De Jong (Director of Photography/ Executive Producer) had worked with tons of artist, everyone from Shawn Mendez to the Weeknd. We started thinking of who would fit the role best. We landed on Sony-signed, Juno nominated pop singer Tyler Shaw.  Tyler was about to go on tour with Selena Gomez and was very busy, but we got lucky and had him for 10 short days of filming a feature film. We actually did not even get to audition Tyler, I did a Skype read with him while in New York. I was freaking out, but deep down believed he was capable.

For the rest of the casting, we needed a strong cast around Tyler since he was not primarily an actor. We had one of the best child actors around – Sadie Munroe who plays 9-year old leukemia patient Sophia Hill, and we also had Sergio Di Zio (Flashpoint) who plays her father. These two actors are just brilliant. Our company North Film Co. casted half our the characters, while a well respected Canadian Casting Agency called Parasyn Casting did the other half which includes Sergio and Sadie.

Sadie wasn’t the original look I was going for. She is an adorable red haired girl with freckles, but I pictured someone else. However, Sadie’s audition was so emotional and compelling that I cast a different mom to make Sadie work.

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

CAT: We used the Red Dragon 6k with ultra prime lenses.  I love the cinematography. My partner/DP Russ De Jong is brilliant and I have no complaints. Lots of people love Alexa, we love Red.

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

CAT: Funny story, it was originally a short film that was 20 minutes. In the editing room, due to my directing, we had a lot of drawn out moments and it ended up being a 40 minute film! I brought up the idea of a feature and Russ turned it down, but then changed his mind.

We decided to go back to filming to finish it as a feature, but due to Tyler’s schedule among other actors, we had to finish on a certain date and I basically had to write the feature portion over a weekend. The entire movie was shot in 10 days on 10 hour days.

Can you talk about your distribution plan for recouping costs?

CAT: We have had quite a few offers in Los Angeles and here in Canada. We have not signed anything, as we are deciding the best deal for us.

This was a low budget movie, and more than making money back, we just want a picture deal for another movie if we sign any agreements.  However, I will say I’ve learned that this movie has a big audience and it is easier to sell than a thriller per say.

What was the smartest thing you did during production?

CAT: The smartest decision was to make the decision to finish it as a feature film. As well, make a movie with a positive message – these movies have a big audience.

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

CAT: I learnt that anything is possible; you just need to discover how to use your resources properly. 

Another major lesson I learnt as a first time feature director is that there were moments that were pivotal in the movie that I could have made stronger.

We shot this move in 10 days, on 10 hour days, and most people after watching this movie are shocked at that fact in terms of the quality overall… Because we move at such a fast pace, and I wasn’t allowed to do any reshoots, it was a challenge for me. But when you have limited time and a limited budget, you don’t have these luxuries, and they are good habits to have.

You need to do as much prep work as possible, and in the moment, know exactly what you need to cover to get your story and don’t waste time on shots or takes that you don’t really need.  This just comes with experience.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

George Romero on "Martin"

With the recent passing of George Romero, I thought it was appropriate to re-run this interview from the archives. It's still one of the favorite interviews I've ever conducted. I was able to track down his home number and called him out of the blue, asking if we could set up a time to talk about "Martin."

"Hang on," he said. "Let me just fix myself a drink."

About a minute later we were chatting away about this truly original vampire movie...

Where did the idea for the story come from?

GEORGE ROMERO: Initially I was thinking of doing a comedy. I just got one of those ideas that comes to you in the shower: If there really were vampires, they'd have problems living hundreds of years. They'd have to keep changing their passport photos, they'd have all these practical problems. So I wanted to do a comedy about the practical problems of a vampire in today's age.

I had started to keep a notebook on it. One day it just occurred to me that I could do this a lot straighter and I could do a thing about somebody who's not a vampire at all.

I just thought that that would be more -- not romantic -- but it would be, in a way, more of a tender story and a whole new spin that was not comedic. I wanted to just spin a vampire yarn a bit differently and leave the door open as to whether he is or is not a vampire.

You left it open for the audience, but did you decide going in that he wasn't actually a vampire?

GEORGE ROMERO: The decision that I made was that he was not. In my mind, Martin is not a vampire, he's a kid that's been fucked up by family and mythology and movies and whatever else has influenced him. You just have to make that decision in the dark room somewhere and keep both doors open.

Like your other films,
Martin isn't really about what it appears to be about on the surface. It's not really a vampire movie, just like Night of the Living Dead is more than just a zombie movie. They're really more reflections on the times we're living in.

GEORGE ROMERO: That's what I try to do. I try to use the framework and use the genre, because first of all it's the easiest way for me to get financing. Really all my films are people stories. Even at the heart of
Night of the Living Dead, it's really about the people and how they screw themselves over and can't get it together.

I like that theme tremendously, the lack of communication, the idea that people are still working their own fiddles and have their own agendas even faced with sea changes in the world.

I also like that "monster within" thing, which is in the zombie films and in
Martin to some extent. Even in a couple of the things I've done that Steve King has written. The ones that I'm drawn to are those, like The Dark Half.

Martin is even sympathetic in the sequence where he goes to kill a woman and is surprised that her lover is there, which is a remarkable scene.

GEORGE ROMERO: That's my favorite sequence. I think it's the most successful sequence I've ever done.

I like its complexity. It's a very complex situation and you have to be watching the movie closely to get everything that happens in it. But what I like the most about it is the execution of it. It's very close to what I had on the page and I was able -- again, because of the small, dedicated crew and all their cooperation -- to do it, make all the shots. There are a hell of a lot of shots in that sequence. And the geography is clear, you don't get lost.

You can't do that sequence without a lot of shots and these guys moved fast and we got it. It was great. I still think it's maybe the best-executed thing that I've ever done.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Carol Littleton on "The Big Chill"

I love this movie and I think the first reel of The Big Chill is one of the best first reels in movie history. Everything is set up so nicely.

CAROL LITTLETON: Right. All the characters are introduced.

Let me ask -- and this is just because I've always been curious about this -- William Hurt walks into the church in that reel just at the Minister is saying, ".... a man like Alex." Was that juxtaposition in the script or was it found in the editing?

CAROL LITTLETON: That was found in the editing. We could have had those entrances anywhere, in any order. Obviously he was the last one to arrive. We did cut the minister's speech down some, it was a little bit rambling. And it was just more salient to have the line over the Bill Hurt character, Nick, as he sits down.

Was that film similar to Body Heat, in that you found a lot of it in the editing room?

CAROL LITTLETON: It stayed closer to the script than Body Heat, because it was not a thriller. So we didn't have to deal with elements of timing that are alive on film but on the page are sometimes hard to judge.

But we had other things that were equally difficult, and that was how to integrate the music into the scenes and have it make sense. We discovered right away that we would not have a score, that it would be just the music from Motown stuff and things that were popular in 1968-69.

There were only two tunes that were in the script that we did to playback. For the rest of them, I cut the music and then cut the picture to the music. That was, essentially, doing it backwards. Those were not needle drops that we did after the picture was done and we just added it. It was all integrated as we were going.

I had probably 150 tunes that were in my editing room, on a rack. I would try a lot of different things until we found the right tempo and the right piece. Of course, Larry (Kasdan) is very knowledgeable about rock and roll and that era, because he was in college then.

So most of our editorial time went into the stylistic elements of making the film. Making the music choices seem seamless and making it flow from one song to the next, so that the lyrics and the tempo and the musicality of the scene matched. Like I said, they weren't needle drops; everything was cut to the tempo of the music and re-arranged in such a way that the lyrics fell at certain moments that were salient moments in the film.

So you're kind of doing it backwards; you're literally laying the track out and putting the picture to it, rather than cutting the picture and just dropping the music in. It makes a very big difference in the flow of the film, the musicality of the film, the style of it. The style of the picture is, in fact, very musical. So those were the challenges, editorially; it was really questions of style more than anything else.

Do you have a favorite moment, where it all came together?

CAROL LITTLETON: Yes, I think the episode that was very, very difficult was with the character of Meg (Mary Kay Place) who wants to have a baby. And when Glenn Close figures out that she could put her husband with her best friend, well, it's a little preposterous. This was before artificial insemination, so if you were going to have a baby, you actually had to have a partner. We knew that it was a little far-fetched and if the audience lost it in the movie it would probably be with that episode. The humor had to play a large part in allowing the audience to feel that it was appropriate and slightly goofy and also believable and tasteful.

So I think that whole section, with Aretha Franklin's "A Natural Woman," that whole section into the next morning, I felt really worked well for me. The night before, during the night and the next morning.

Let's talk about one of the most famous scenes in the movie -- the ending flashback, with Kevin Costner as Alex, that was shot but then cut from the movie. How did that come about?

CAROL LITTLETON: You could talk to five or six different people who worked on the movie and you'd get several different opinions. But being on the inside of that, the ending that Larry and Barbara Benedek wrote was to have a large flashback at the very end of how all these people were -- the roots of their personalities, the roots of who they were going to be -- were actually evident when they were students.

After I first read the script, we sat down and I said, "I feel very uneasy about this flashback. I just don't think you need it." And Larry with his nasal, West Virginia voice, said, "Carol, I can't believe you said that. You are so wrong. I can't believe it. You are so wrong." So I dropped it. When somebody says you're wrong, you drop it.

When we were shooting it I said, "This looks like a masquerade, with everybody in long hair and beads." And Larry said, "Carol, you are so wrong. The reason I wanted to write this script was because of this idea." And I said, "Yes, Larry, you're absolutely right. It's a wonderful idea. You may have needed that scene to write the script, but you don't need the scene for the movie. At all." "You are so wrong, if you mention this one more time!"

Well, in the editing, we put that flashback everywhere. We took it out of the ending, we put it up front, we put it in the middle, we put it in pieces, we spent a lot of time trying to get the flashback to work.

We showed it to the studio with the flashback and the suits came in -- Larry and I were the only people from our end -- and the guy who was in charge said, "This is not funny. Take it back, re-do it. I don't know what you guys are thinking, this is a comedy? This is bullshit. Start over again."

Well, we were devastated. Devastated. We knew it was funny, we knew it was engaging, we knew it was emotional.

And then he said, "While you're at it, that flashback is a stinko scene."

So we showed it to them the next time with an audience and the movie still did not work as well as it should. So I said, "Larry, why don't we devise an ending, drop the flashback, have two screenings -- one with the flashback and one without -- and let the audience tell us which one is more effective?"

Well, at the screenings, it was clear that the version without the flashback was better. And the next day, when Larry came into the cutting room, he said, "God dammit, Carol, I wanted you to take that thing out from the beginning! How many times do I have to tell you I'm right?"

That's how funny he is. He's wonderful.