Thursday, December 31, 2009

Carl Bessai on “Cole”

What was your filmmaking background before you made Cole?

CARL: Cole is my 8th feature film, so my filmmaking background has been pretty varied to date. Highlights of my previous films include Emile starring Sir Ian McKellen, and Normal with Carrie Anne Moss - both films got some Genie Nominations.

How did you become involved in the project?

CARL: My producing partner Jason James invited me to participate based on an earlier draft of the script, and we sat down along with two other producers, the writer and the cast and did some workshops, which helped us develop the shooting draft. It all happened very quickly for me...

How did you fund the film?

CARL: 100% private equity.

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

CARL: Smartest:In pre-production, I encouraged the lead actor Richard de Klerk to spend time bonding with Jack Forrester who played Rocket. Their relationship was built before we started shooting and it helped us navigate quite easily with improvisation when young Jack struggled with dialogue in the script.

Dumbest: Took the crew to a location where there was no cell phone service... actually it turned out to be a blessing but it seemed pretty dumb at first.

What are the advantages -- as a director -- of being your own DP? Disadvantages?

CARL: The advantages is I don't have to wait for the camera crew to get ready, and I can speak to the actors from behind the lens which is very close to the action. It makes everything a lot closer and more personal.

The disadvantage is that sometimes my back gets tired, as I love to shoot handheld.

How did the movie change during the editing process?

CARL: The biggest change to the film that came out of editing was the ending. It was scripted that Cole would end the film in the arms of Sarafina, but we felt that his relationship with the town had started to outweigh the significance of his relationship with Sarafina, so it just seemed right that the film should end with the town.

And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you can take to other projects?

CARL: I learned the beauty of the linear narrative: A story that works in an accessible way for the audience - a person can become engaged by the journey of the main character and stay with him from the beginning to the end.

I learned the importance of the specificity of place: By setting the film in a real town in a real place - instead of a fictional town - we brought an enormous amount of authenticity to the story.

I learned the importance of wind and backlight and the mood it can create for the cinematographer.

I learned the beauty of combining improvisation with scripted scenes.

I learned the simplicity of recording images onto a hardrive - there is no limit to the amount of footage you can shoot!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Joe Anderson on “Albino Farm”

What was your filmmaking background before you made Albino Farm?

JOE: The “film bug” got me when I was young kid in the mid-1960s. I “practiced” on Regular 8 and Super-8 film until the mechanics of editing in that medium failed me. I did some 16mm shooting in high school but again the editing was prohibitive and a bit expensive for a teenager. I then did movies in my head and of course watched a ton of movies.

Though I have no formal training, I have read nearly every book there is on the subject. My “library” is insane (thanks to Cinema Books in Seattle) and this became my defacto “film school.” After high school I was lured into the family manufacturing business but got extremely anxiety ridden and fearful I would never be able to pursue filmmaking. I could write a book about that ordeal but I eventually got the nerve up and started helping local indie shoots and met a lot of Hollywood filmmakers along the way (Coppola, Louis Malle, Stanley Kramer).

With some personal funds I got a bit higher on the food-chain and helped producer friends with startup capital on a few 35mm features. The business of filmmaking got more interesting after that and I started to tinker far more and this eventually lead me to initiating projects of my own at an aimed market.

Where did the idea come from?

JOE: Sean McEwen (co-writer, co-director) and I spit-balled about ten stories – one of which was a name of a place he had heard of from his college days in Springfield, MO. The title Albino Farm smelled pretty weird and nasty to me – as did the stories surrounding it – and it was clearly ripe for a horror/thriller. We then mish-mashed various aspects of these stories, did an outline and wrote the screenplay over the course of a year, via travel from LA to Seattle and passing the thing back and forth over email.

What was the writing process like?

JOE: Okay, this is for real… I love it and I totally hate it!

It is not easy for me at all. Left on my own, I tend to think about scenes well before I ever get to the page and then want to do the writing myself. I’m also more into the visuals and like doing descriptions versus dialog. Alas, my own perfectionism eventually gets the best of me, so I have more than a few scripts and ideas hiding in dark places.

As Sean and I were writing Albino Farm together, I had to get into “partner mode” and that proved to be an easy dynamic where I thought it wouldn’t. Let’s be honest, we were writing a genre picture so it wasn’t rocket science. It was more about plot points and getting from scene to scene and hopefully having those scenes be a bit different than the norm, even though you do want to get your own “art” in the thing. Not sure if we achieved that on the whole, it does seem a bit too derivative, but there are some crazy scenes in the movie.

How did you fund the film?

JOE: Oh, I love this part! Movies should be made about this subject alone! Too bad most books about it totally suck!!! Maybe I’ll have to write the definitive tome?

Reality is that it’s mostly “friends and family” and rich people looking for a cocktail conversation starter, but it can also be done by some skilled business people who know the market and can partner with you (though times are tough for that at the moment). With that as the smart method for recouping an investment, I’ve seen low-budget indie movies financed by pot growers, dares from “bucket shop” owners in NYC and trust fund kids blowing cash.

On the other hand, I have seen a really nice person involved in a film whose father was later found out to be a billionaire six times over! It can really be a mind-blower and a downright miracle how it all gets done, but our project’s initial funding was pretty simple compared to those. We tossed ongoing seed money into having our lawyer work up agreements and a legal entity for investment and along with our producing partner, Rachelle Ryan, we found several equity investors willing to give it a spin. One of those investors also went a bit further and loaned us funds against a film incentive program from Missouri that allowed a 50% tax credit for every dime we spent in their State. It worked out quite well and I would love to do that again! Felt like winning the lottery!

What sort of camera did you use? What was good about it? What was not so good?

JOE: We shot with two Sony CineAlta HDCAM rigs with some fancy Zeiss lenses and a whole host of “techie toys.” Our DP, Rene Jung, supplied these from his production firm, JuriFilm in LA, and we lucked out in getting a kickass Steadicam operator, Dave Rutherford, out of St. Louis to work some magic for us.

The use of two cameras was a must! We would have been screwed if we didn’t do that. Rene and Dave, along with gaffer Hanuman Brown-Eagle shared duties on both “A” and “B” cameras and we were able to do multiple setups to save time. When “A” camera was with Dave on Steadicam or we were on a dolly, Rene or Hanuman could be on sticks and pop off shots easily from complimentary angles.

Though I like the look of film, HD has a place and it served us well. I like the ability to dump into Final Cut Pro with the HD tapes at the end of the day or have the ability to look at an HD monitor while shooting, but there are a few things about HD that require knowledgeable people to work the system. I can sometimes see the video a bit too much in some scenes whereas it has a film look in others. The motion of a subject has something to do with it but overall I would certainly shoot HD again just due to the immediacy of the image.

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

JOE: We hired some great people in LA and Missouri that made the difference in getting the movie in the can. Without them, we would have been hurting along the way. We hired an experienced Line Producer and that was golden.

The dumbest? There were some lame things that happened on the shoot that were out of our control but next time I would allow far more prep time to help in that. We had a hard date to hit due to the Missouri incentive program, so things got a bit rushed at the last minute. Making a movie is a bitch in a lot of ways. Sometimes you get to the set and everything you planned gets shot the hell. There were some disappointments in that regard but more than a few were saved by the smart crew and craftspeople.

How long did it take you to post the movie and how did it change during the editing process?

JOE: We had a really long post-production process. I think it was a tad over one year. This was due mainly to availability of certain people we wanted to work with. We had a great editor in Dan O’Brien, colorist in Jeff Skinner, VFX supervisor Brett Bolton, sound designer Jamey Scott, composer Scott Rockenfield and many others who were bounced around in a nonlinear process that came about.

The editing started off with Dan O’Brien doing a decent rough cut and then we got involved in seeing where it went from there. I am a firm believer that a new set of eyes is needed as this notion that you (as a director) are infallible is pretty ridiculous. There is a certain ego to be stroked when you bully your way through and you cannot allow that to happen. I prefer to work with smart people – hopefully smarter than I am – and therefore achieve something extra. From this, we had some scenes tweaked into a different direction and broke the story down into a basis that we had not planned, but it worked for us in the final analysis. You also have to take a step away from a cut and take a fresh look later. The learning curve is pretty damn gnarly in any case, but I always love the editing process much more than the shoot.

And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you can take to other projects?

JOE: I see this a lot and it’s worth mentioning… forgo any idea that you have an ego to be fed. If you are of that kind, your crew can smell that a million miles away and you will look like a supreme dumbass! That doesn’t mean you can’t be firm or even pitch a fit once in awhile, but don’t do it with an air of entitlement. There are people that you work with that are so astounding in what they do that you should hug them at the end of each day and thank them for making you look so good. This is what gets the best stuff on the screen.

Other than that bit of advice, my biggest discovery was in how the smallest thing can become the best or worst moment in a scene. Pay serious attention when you are watching the monitor. In fact, next time I will plant myself next to camera and let others watch the monitor. The immediacy of “being there” can be more important than sitting in video village eating Pop Tarts. All-in-all, hope everyone finds a way to go forth and create!!!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Matthew Osterman on “Phasma Ex Machina”

What was your filmmaking background before you made Phasma Ex Machina?

MATT: I come from a very small town in the Midwest, so filmmaking seemed like such a distant and unchartered career path. It wasn’t until I moved away to college that I discovered my passion for storytelling and soon thereafter the impossible option became the inevitable one. After writing a bunch of bad scripts, I began directing a handful of bad shorts. This was my film school.

Eventually, through a somewhat circuitous path, I helped produce a documentary that had the distinction of being executive produced by Jon Stewart. That experience really gave me the confidence and credibility that I could build a feature from the ground up.

Where did the idea come from?

MATT: I’ve always been keenly interested in both science and the supernatural, so actual supernatural science didn’t seem like a big stretch to explore. I also came across a true story about Thomas Edison and how he had tried to build a real device to communicate with the dead. It was near the end of his life, so we’re not really sure if he was losing his marbles or if he was actually onto something, but his machine is now relegated to myth and history. I thought it would be fun to dust off Mr. Edison’s old idea and give it a run.

The ghost and the sci-fi aspects of the film are incredibly intriguing to me, but it was my number one priority to make sure I had complex believable characters and a story that kept you interested.

What was the writing process like?

MATT: I love writing and it was helpful that I was passionate about the story, but to do it right you really have to put a ton of time into it. Having a 9-5 and finding the energy to be creative was a constant struggle. I’m not sure how many drafts I went through, but it was a good two years of writing and re-writing right up until principal photography started. Then, of course, we kept it loose on set and would change lines or improvise. I also edited the film, which is where a ton of writing actually takes place. I learned firsthand that good editors don’t get enough credit in terms of their contributions to overall story.

How did you fund the film?

MATT: We passed the hat and also found a few brave souls to invest. My producer, Jennifer Kramer, really hit the pavement and turned over every stone. We were really smart about how we spent our money, so I’m very pleased with what were able to accomplish with our budget.

What sort of camera did you use? What was good about it? What was not so good?

MATT: We used the Panasonic HPX-500. It worked great for us because it had everything we needed within our budget range. Big chips, nice lenses, cheap storage, etc. I think my DP Adam Honzl, could make any camera image look great, but he pulled out some stunning stuff with this. We also used the HVX-200 for some additional stuff, but there wasn’t a huge difference in quality for us.

How did you find your crew?

MATT: The Twin Cities has a really amazing production community so it wasn’t really hard to find talented people. The trick for us, however, was finding the right crew before they got too experienced and thus expensive. This means hiring younger folks who don’t have the demands (money, family, etc) that someone twice their age might. Everybody wants to work on cool feature films, so we were just honest with people regarding expectations and strategy.

How long did it take you to post the movie and how did it change during the editing process?

MATT: Post-production took about a year. I was editing on nights and weekends, so speed was certainly sacrificed, but I learned that taking your time and occasionally finding some aesthetic distance is totally in the best interest of the movie. I had a good rough cut after three months, but really worked with it until I couldn’t take it any further.

The difference between the first rough cut and finished cut is simultaneously huge and minor. It’s still the same movie with the same scenes and shots, but the details are all polished and much more well developed. My co-producer, Jon Thomas, came onboard after principal was finished and really was able to view the movie with a critical and unbiased eye. Finding creative people willing to give you honest an opinion is absolutely the best decision a filmmaker can make – especially when the writer/director is also the editor.

And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you can take to other projects?

MATT: I learned so much it’s hard to even know where to begin. The first obvious couple that come to mind are: always treat everyone with respect and honesty, embrace collaboration/don’t do everything yourself, keep the set fun, try to hire a good lawyer right away, keep good books, stay true to your vision at all times, a high-concept idea makes your job easier, and take all the time you need to get it right.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Phillip Hullquist on "The Hitchhiking Movie"

What was your filmmaking background before you made The Hitchhiking Movie?

PHILLIP: The Hitchhiking Movie is my first feature-length film project. I graduated with a degree in Communications from Southern Adventist University, but had always wanted to work on a large project of my own instead of just doing smaller commercial video production. An amateur filmmaker from New York reminded me the best way to learn is to go out there and make something.

Where did the idea come from?

PHILLIP: I met Ryan Jeanes in Texas who is the host & main protagonist for this real-life adventure. We were talking at a bar in South Padre Island and began swapping stories about some personal hitchhiking experiences.

Ryan was the first to vocalize the idea for the hitchhiking storyline, and it was a great match because I had the necessary video knowledge and he had on-camera experience from acting and television commercial work. It also seemed like a great first project because it's the kind of story that wouldn't be too expensive to personally finance. Just three months later, we met up again and hit the road to begin shooting.

How did you think the trip would go compared to how it actually went?

PHILLIP: Hitchhiking is an inherently unpredictable form of travel but in order to make a stronger plot for the story, we created an artificial deadline of just seven days to complete the trip by purchasing two return plane tickets from Los Angeles.

I had previously hitchhiked from Little Rock to Los Angeles in the fall of 2006, and Ryan had several shorter hitchhiking trips of his own. We were not positive how long it would take to travel the nearly 2300-mile route, but seven days seemed short enough to give us a real challenge.

I originally suspected we might have some serious police encounters or even possibly be arrested during the trip due to the dubious legal status of hitchhiking in several states. However, in general the police didn't bother us much and there was only one who suggested he would arrest us. Near the end, there were some genuine doubts as to whether we would make it to Los Angeles or end up stuck in the desert without a ride home. You'll see which of those happens when you watch the movie.

What sort of camera did you use? What was good about it? What was not so good?

PHILLIP: Originally, we were going to use my Sony HC1 camcorder, which was then stolen prior to the journey. A second JVC DV failed the night before we were to leave from New York City and therefore we ended up with an inexpensive Canon DV camera purchased on-location at B&H's New York superstore.

The decision to use a cheaper camera was made in order to save on initial cost while also reducing our loses should we experience another theft during the journey.

Fortunately, we didn't experience any situation where our gear was in any danger. The cheap Canon camera turned out to work well for our purposes and was unobtrusive enough as to not distract our subjects while taping. Some people freeze up when they are too conscious of a camera in their face, so its small size helped us get material we would probably not have gotten with a larger camera. Its primary downsides were a complete lack of manual controls, which is common for video equipment at this price point.

How long did it take you to edit the movie and how did it change during the editing process?

PHILLIP: Because we didn't start with a script, the creation of the story took place in the editing room.

Ryan and I sat down and watched the nearly 15 hours of raw footage and discussed what parts would be most interesting. We worked together for several weeks to create the initial rough cut before he returned to Texas.

Some of the characters initially had much more screen time in the early cuts of the film. One in particular was a Native American truck driver who had some very interesting perspectives about the world. We initially included nearly 15 minutes of him in the film only to cut most of it out later as it wasn't necessary to really capture the essence of who he was.

Like many video projects, the editing process took far longer than expected. The original estimate of six months turned into 18 months with much of the delay due to having other full-time work. The final six months was mostly delays in getting proper licensing for all the music we had used. Originally, we had temporary scored scenes to popular music, which couldn't be used in the final DVD so all of had to be replaced with other songs, which required some scenes to be slightly re-edited. A few artists, however, did allow us to use their original songs in the final cut so there is some really quality music included as well.

And, finally, what did you learn from making the film that you can take to other projects?

PHILLIP: This entire project was a learning experience being that it was my first film. The biggest learning experiences were in the storytelling element of it.

Because I was present when all the material was originally taped, early on I made some assumptions that the audience would understand certain things I believed were implied. However, after several test screenings of the movie, we had to simplify elements of the story so there wouldn't be any future confusion. With the character of Sarah, for example, we originally had a long explanation of the death of her first husband. It turned out to be too difficult of a story to communicate in the short amount of time we had; so, though it was compelling, we had to drop it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Amy Holden Jones on "Slumber Party Massacre"

How did Slumber Party Massacre come about?

AMY HOLDEN JONES: Well that was kind of interesting. I had come out of documentary films and couldn't make a living in them. In those days, it was not the big scene it is now. I had won the AFI student film festival with a documentary. Martin Scorsese was one of the judges of that festival, and he used me as his assistant on Taxi Driver and then introduced me to Corman.

I had no money and I had to make a living, so I became a film editor. I worked for a while as a film editor and was beginning to get successful at it. I realized that if I keep this up, I'm going to be typed as a film editor. I did several smaller movies, one for MGM and a small Hal Ashby movie, and I was going to do E.T. for Spielberg. I thought, 'I'll be a film editor unless I make a movie,' so I went back to Roger Corman, who I had edited a film for when I was 22 years old.

So I went back and said, “What would I have to do to be a director?” And Roger looked at the documentary, and it didn't show him enough about what he wanted, because it was an art documentary in a way. He said, “You have to show me that you can do what I do.”

I had never written anything, so I was looking for an existing script. I went into his library of scripts, scripts that he hadn't made, and I took several of them. I read one called Don't Open the Door, by Rita Mae Brown. And it had a prologue that was about eight pages long. It had a dialogue scene, a suspense scene and an action scene.

I rewrote the scenes somewhat to make it better, and then I got short ends from shooting projects -- my husband was a cinematographer. My neighbor was a soundman. We borrowed some lights, used our own house. I did the special effects, and I got UCLA theater students to act in it.

We spent three days and shot those first eight pages. Then I put them together at night on Joe Dante's system -- he was doing The Howling. I would work at night, after hours, on his Movieola and he gave me some temp music cues.

Then I dropped off this nine-minute reel for Roger that had a dialogue scene, a suspense scene and an action/horror scene, to show him that I could do those three different kinds of things which make up an exploitation movie.

He called me up and had me come in and asked me how much it had cost me to do it. And I said it cost about $2,000, which is what it had cost. He said, “You have a future in the business,” and asked me how much I would need to direct the rest of the script. The truth was, I had never read the rest of the script, all I had read was the first eight pages. So I just, out of the air, said “$200,000.” And he said, “Let's do it, you're directing this movie.”

I then finished reading the script and it was a complete mess.

I just took a leap. I called Spielberg and told him the situation and he was kind enough to release me fro editing E.T. I rewrote Slumber Party Massacre in about four weeks as I cast it. And, indeed, we made if for $200,000.

What steps did you take to re-write it?

AMY HOLDEN JONES: I rewrote it to be makeable. Once I knew how little money we had, and what the situation was before re-writing it, that focuses your mind -- a lot. You don't go writing scenes at a football game with thousands of extras.

You start to think very logically -- when you know you're going to be going out there and doing those scenes -- about what you can do and what amount of time you can do it in. And my background as a film editor and a documentary filmmaker certainly helped.

Did you end up using any of the prologue that you shot on your own?

AMY HOLDEN JONES: No, we never did, because none of the actors were SAG, and in the end we had to have SAG actors, so we had to toss it, which was too bad. But we didn't really need it, as it turned out.

Any advice to writers who are working in the low-budget universe?

AMY HOLDEN JONES: Well, it's a different market in this day and age. It's a good era, in a way, for writers starting out on a low-budget project, because you can actually make a movie for almost nothing.

I wish that I'd had the technology that young writers have now, because you can take all kinds of risks without risking all that money, if you are bold enough to write and start shooting.

I think the main thing that is still true today that was true then is that as you write you have to both tap into your heart but you also have to be aware of the very practical side of what it all costs and also what sells. It's an interesting mix.

The world is full of festival movies that never get out or go anywhere. If people are trying to break into Hollywood movies and bigger movies, not make something personal that they're going to put up on the Internet, they have to look at the commerciality of their subject matter and they have to fit what they're trying to say into a framework that is in some form entertaining for people. It has to be meaningful or moving or exciting or funny or dramatic. It can't just be what you'd tell your shrink, you know what I mean?

If they're trying to break into Hollywood, they have to be aware of something commercial in the project. Take a look at some of the things that have sold out of festivals. For example, Hustle & Flow. It's about a pimp. It's about sex. And money. That’s an easy sell.