Thursday, September 7, 2017

Michael Williams on "The Atoning"

From time to time, I re-visit with filmmakers I've interviewed before, to see how their early experiences have had an impact on their new work. Today we talk with "Ozland" director Michael Williams.

What was the key thing you took from Ozland that helped you create The Atoning?

MICHAEL: OzLand was such a long, magical experience. However, I learned a lot about everything from writing, production, editing, and ultimately distribution. I was able to see what worked, what didn’t, and what should be done differently with The Atoning.

With OzLand I learned that it was better to seek distribution before you begin your festival tours and screenings if possible. Many distributors want to pick up films as soon as they’re finished.

Plus, I realized that festivals and awards were great to get a distributors attention, however, they’re even better to help build your audience once you already have a distribution deal. This allows you to use that time leading up to the release to really promote the film and have a release that is not too distant in the future. I realized that the turnaround time for a film between production, to completion, to distribution should be more streamlined. 

Additionally, I learned about how to better market a film and how to make a more marketable film. While OzLand was successful enough, I realized what held it back from wider appeal and success. I made sure to keep those things in mind while my team and me were making creative decisions on The Atoning.

Where did the idea for the story come from?

MICHAEL: I can’t recall when the idea first came to me.

After OzLand, I had several concepts floating in my head. I wrote/developed a couple of them, however, they weren’t going to be made in the near future. I kept trying to think of a simple but compelling horror film. At some point, I had a revelation and had what I thought was the perfect concept for a horror film. I can’t say what the premise is since it is a huge spoiler in the film, however, I knew it would be a unique way to explore the horror genre. However, it wasn’t until just a few months before we went into production that I had to turn that premise into script and begin the pre-production process. 

What was your process for getting the script ready to shoot?

MICHAEL: I write best when I can gather my ideas over a long gestation period, then dive right into the script, and complete the first draft in a short amount of time. I like to feel fully dedicated to a script until the first draft is finished. Then, it is much easier for me to be able to see the film and know what needs to be changed.

Much like with OzLand, I wrote The Atoning quite fast. I believe the first draft was finished somewhere between a week or two. It was such a swift process that I can’t recall the details clearly.

Michael LaCour, our executive producer, came to me wanting to make a film and asked what ideas I had for a “simple” horror film. I pitched him the premise in May of 2016, I think. That lead to us seeing the opportunity to shoot the film and set a deadline to shoot by August 2016. 

What was your casting process and did that have any impact on the final shooting script?

MICHAEL: We cast the film through Actor’s Access. After a round of video auditions, we narrowed down our selections and held live auditions in West Point, MS. The casting process was quite difficult because of the amazing submissions we had. The talent from the region is quite impressive, and we had amazing talent from which to choose. While a few of the casting choices were obvious for us, it was down to several options for many of the key roles. Ultimately, we had to go with our gut. 

How did you handle the movie’s special effects?

MICHAEL: From the onset, we intended to do everything practically. I love practical effects. They're more efficient and better suited for the style of films that I make.

I wanted the film and its effects/scares to be grounded in reality in order to match the aesthetic of the film even when the story goes into unreal directions. Grounding the film in practical effects makes the experience more believable and compelling.

We used a mixture of FX Makeup (lead by Casey Heflin), camera tricks, on-set movie magic, and complex sound design to bring the various elements in the film to life. It wasn’t until post-production that we had the opportunity to add in a few digital effects. These were mostly used to clean up shots or add a few accents to our fully practical creatures/demons. 

How much (if at all) did the movie change in the editing? 

MICHAEL: Going into the film, I wanted to make a steady paced, 90-minute feature. I wrote the film that way and hoped it would retain the same pace and length after production. Luckily, the film came in at 89 minutes.

Our shooting script went through more changes during production than it did during editing. Since the film was written and being tweaked right up until production, we kept the script a bit fluid and made changes when needed on set. Some scenes were scaled down and refined quite a bit on the fly during production.

In post production, a few scenes were trimmed and altered to better serve the story, however, the film’s vision and core story stayed the same from script to final cut. Everything we changed was done to refine and better sell the core vision. 

What was your key take away from making The Atoning?

MICHAEL: I learned so much from making The Atoning. It is crazy how much you grow as a filmmaker from project to project. However, the major take away from this film was that six months from starting the script to final cut is way too fast with the amount of resources we had. Also, one year from production to release is also a bit too swift.

Everyone on the team could’ve used a bit more time, however, I am proud of what everyone accomplished in that short amount of time. In a way, it was exciting, and scary, to just go with your gut in order to meet the deadlines.

In the end, it all worked out beautifully for The Atoning, but for my next film, I plan to make it a bit more comfortable of a process by budgeting in more time for every aspect of the process. 

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