Thursday, May 27, 2010

Mark Stolaroff on The No Budget Film School

What is your background in film?

MARK: I'm 45 and my father was a shutter bug--he loved his Nikon still camera and Bell & Howell Super 8mm movie camera and I fell in love with film then. In high school, waaay before it was cool, I used to make films (on Super 8mm) instead of doing written book reports, and no matter how bad the film was, since you were the only kid doing one, you got an 'A.'

In college at The University of Texas in Austin I kind of chickened out on film at first, majoring in Business since it was so much more of job-oriented degree. Fortunately, UT had a tremendous undergraduate film program, one of the best in the country at that time (the mid-80's) and one of the only ones with enough money to accommodate 16mm projects in the first production classes. You were supposed to major in film to be able to take Film Production, but I took all the pre-requisite classes and snuck into it. I was in a program called Business Honors at the time, and I had flexibility in my schedule.

I made several films at UT, but after I graduated, chickened-out again, going to New York and doing two years in Investment Banking as a Financial Analyst. I eventually moved back to Houston and started a legit theater with an old friend, but won an internship to work on a film that was shooting in Houston. It was a made-for TNT MOW starring Treat Williams and Glen Ford.

After producing theater for four years, I quit to pursue film, working on a few local films before I realized I had to move to LA, which I did in the Fall of 1994. My first jobs were at Roger Corman's Concorde/New Horizons, where I quickly worked my way up (that's how it works there). On my first film (which starred Martin Sheen and F. Murray Abraham) I was a PA the first week, and then I was bumped up to Location Manager on week two!

I moved up the production chain of command and over the next couple of years AD'd several low-budget 16mm features, and UPM'd an AFI short film which eventually won the Academy Award for Best Short. In 1997 I was the first hired at Peter Broderick's new company Next Wave Films, a company of the Independent Film Channel that provided finishing funds to exceptional low-budget features, including the first films of Chris Nolan, Joe Carnahan, Amir Bar-Lev, and several other talented filmmakers. I worked there for 6 years until IFC pulled the plug.

This was a tremendous experience where I was able to see the entire scope of the filmmaking process, from script to collecting revenue checks from deadbeat foreign distributors. I probably watched some part of more than 2000 films submitted to us, and since we also produced 3 films from the beginning, read many scripts, too. I oversaw the company's investment in each film, many times becoming the postproduction producer once we got involved. We also repped all of our films, so I was involved in putting together festival strategy and selling the films to distributors. We took 7 films to Sundance, 5 to Toronto. Most of our 13 films were released theatrically. After Next Wave, I formed Antic Pictures with two partners, Ron Judkins and Molly Mayeux. Ron and I produced Henry Barrial's Sundance Screenwriter's Lab project True Love for $50,000, and while Henry and I were traveling to festivals with that film, he pitched me the idea of Pig, the film I am in post on now.

Why did you create the No Budget Film School?

MARK: NBFS was born out of a couple of experiences. While I was at Next Wave, Peter and I developed a presentation on digital filmmaking just as the first wave of films made with the new DV cameras were coming out. We put together clips from these films and were invited across the country and around the world to give this presentation. While at Next Wave I also taught digital or low-budget filmmaking classes at UCLA Extension, Maine Film Workshops, and The Learning Annex.

After shooting True Love, I was surprised by how many things--tricks and mistakes included--I learned making that film and was asked by Filmmakers Alliance to give a presentation on anything that I wanted. I put something together that took into account a number of these "lessons." I received some great feedback from that presentation and decided to put together a series of classes designed specifically around no-budget filmmaking--the idea that you are going to make a film with whatever money you have available to you, no matter how much (or how little) that was.

I wanted to stress the differences between successful no-budget films and other types of films, and point out the priorities--where filmmakers should spend the majority of their resources, money and time, since one has to make some pretty hard choices. I was amazed at how much filmmakers stressed over things that from my Next Wave experience, I felt were irrelevant, (things like camera format), and didn't put enough thought into things that were vitally important, (performances, story, uniqueness). NBFS is the culmination of my experience at the theater in Houston, my time at Next Wave, and my work producing, and I keep it current by continuing to be a student of the "art of no-budget filmmaking" as well as a teacher.

How important is it to have a 'name' talent in a low-budget movie these days?

MARK: I've always felt like it was irrelevant, at least when it comes to "no-budget" filmmaking. If you're spending $500k or more, (maybe even $200k or more), it becomes a lot more important, but if you are making your film for $5k, $20k, or $50k, and the goal is to launch your career as much as it is to get your money back, then I don't think names are important and they will probably make your experience much more difficult than it would be otherwise.

The history of successful no-budget filmmaking, and by that I mean films that were successful on their own and that also launched careers, is filled with films without names. It's easy to spit out a quick list just off the top of my head: Clerks, Brothers McMullen, El Mariachi, Following, Pi, George Washington, Footfist Way, Primer, and on and on. Look at all the low-budget NEXT films at this year's Sundance. With the exception of one or two, none of them had names. Look at Joe Swanberg, the Duplass Brothers. The great thing about most of these films is they launch their no-name actors' careers too. Those no-names become names! Ed Burns, Mark Duplass, Paul Schneider, Danny McBride, etc.

What's the biggest mistake that filmmakers make when making a No Budget Movie?

MARK: Maybe it's focus on things that don't really matter in the big picture, and for me the easiest one to pick on is the filmmaker's obsession with camera/format/production value (as it pertains to the look of the film).

For so long filmmakers would think they needed to shoot film, or they needed to shoot on an F900, or now that they need to shoot on a RED. None of that is really important, in and of itself. You'd think the success of Blair Witch 10 years ago would have closed the case on this thinking, but these misconceptions are still out there. Frankly, you can shoot on toilet paper if it matches the aesthetic of your project. The audience doesn't care. Paranormal Activity? $108 million domestic gross shot on a prosumer HDV camera.

Going along with this decision to shoot on the best format possible, rather than the one available to you, is that most filmmakers have to rent that equipment, which takes away one of their biggest advantages, the one studios would kill for--free time. If you own your camera and you have access to your locations and actors, you can design a project where you take your time making the film and getting it right. And I can assure you, if Woody Allen, one of the most prolific filmmakers working today needs to re-shoot a third of his film each time, you--the filmmaker who is just learning--will probably benefit from a little trial and error.

As for production value, so much more of it comes from things other than the camera/format choice--there's production sound, production design, make-up, wardrobe--and any one or more of these will be particularly important depending on the movie you're making. Good sound, of course, is important in any film. If you can't understand what a character is saying, who cares if they were shot in 4k?

What's the smartest thing a filmmaker can do before embarking on a No Budget Movie?

MARK: Prep. The old adage of Good, Fast, and Cheap--Pick Two is at play here. If we know we don't have any money and we want our films to be good, then we have to throw Fast out the window. The only way to get Good and Cheap is to spend the time prepping your film. You can find ANYTHING if you spend enough time looking for it. That might be a free piece of gear, a free location, a great crew member willing to work for nothing, anything.

No-budget filmmaking is about Beg, Borrowing and Stealing. It takes time to beg and borrow, (I won't comment on stealing!), and you can't be afraid to ask. You need to take the time to get your script as good as it can be, to find the best actors for the roles, and to put together the right team to help you. As far as production is concerned, probably the most important element to prep is Locations. You really can't do proper prep until you lock down your location and can scout it with your keys. Your location determines so many other things, and while you might be able to find a last minute 1st AC the night before you shoot, it's a disaster waiting to happen if you haven't nailed down a location right before you shoot. In LA finding a good location is particularly hard, since it's very difficult to get anything for free and because you need a permit (which can be expensive) to shoot in LA. (Well, if you take my class, I can show you how to get around that one!).

What lessons can a No Budget filmmaker take away from today's Hollywood?

MARK: Wow! That's a hard one. I spend a good deal of time teaching what I call The Alternate Universe of Filmmaking (coined by Peter Broderick), whereby the rules of Independent Low-Budget Filmmaking are exactly the opposite of studio filmmaking.

And as far as storytelling for independents, I'm a big believer in hitting them where they ain't. If you try to compete with Hollywood on their own turf, (like making a conventional romantic comedy), you're going to get clobbered. Hollywood seems to be teaching us that if you throw a lot of money at a problem, you'll succeed. That you don't need to be unique, you just need recognizable elements to sell a film.

I guess if I can come up with one thing, it would be that there's a core audience for every film. And the definition of a Core Audience is the audience who doesn't give a shit how good your film is. Studios have been making bad films that appeal to core audiences--large core audiences--for years. They may be 15-year-old boys or 15-year-old girls, but they can be very passionate, even about the worst films. Independents need to realize that there are core audiences for their films too.

And since making a good film is so damn hard--nearly impossible, especially on a no-budget--it is vital that filmmakers work hard to discover who that core audience is and figure out cost effective ways to reach them. And since these no-budget films won't have big stars in them or be based on comic book heroes, these core audiences will be small. They'll be niche audiences, not defined by demographics like "males 18-49". If a filmmaker can properly court the core audience for their film, they'll succeed even if they don't make a perfect film.

And finally, what's your favorite No Budget film ... and why?

MARK: Ok, this is an impossible question because there are so many. I could say Following, Chris Nolan's $12k masterpiece, which I worked on for 5 years and use as a case study in my classes.

But if I really had to think about it, I would have to say Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Not a no-budget film, per se, but definitely low-budget and considering they were trying to make an epic period piece, definitely not enough money to effectively pull that off. And one of the things that makes it so great as a no-budget film is they reveal that reality to you right off the bat. They enroll you in their impossible quest to make a big, studio movie with no money. The audience becomes a willing partner in the filmmakers' attempts at pulling off this feat. Right at the beginning, with Patsy rubbing coconuts together because they can't afford horses. HORSES! No horses, in a film about knights! Genius!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Sol Tryon on “The Living Wake”

What was your filmmaking background before making The Living Wake?

SOL: I received an associate of arts degree in directing from Rockport College in Maine. I then moved to NYC and began my career working as a PA on several indie features. Over my first couple of years in NYC I worked my way up the ladder in the production department as an Assistant Director.

I produced my first feature, Bomb The System, in 2002. During this time I also began to work closely with Shirin Neshat on her video art projects shooting in the US, Mexico and Morocco. From there I directed a couple of short films, continued to produce other features and began to develop The Living Wake. I love filmmaking for many reasons, but mostly because it gives me a chance to tell stories that can both entertain and educate.

What drew you to the project (i.e. why did you want to both produce and direct it)?

SOL: When I first heard about Mike O'Connell and The Living Wake it was a 20-page one man show. The combination of outrageous humor and incredible wit instantly got my attention. I had been looking for my first film to direct and knew that I wanted to do something that was funny, but also had real emotional content.

When I read the first draft of the script, I knew that this was the perfect project for me.
Knowing that it was going to be a low budget shoot, and with my experience producing indie films, it made sense for me to take on the producer responsibilities as well. I pride myself on being well rounded and having a solid understanding of all aspects of filmmaking.

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

SOL: Reflecting back on the production, I would have to say that one of the smartest things that I did was to have my wife, Rebecca, work with our locations manager in securing our locations. We shot the film in and around the town that both myself and my wife grew up in, and she was always the star singer in the area, so everyone knew her. When she would knock on a door and ask someone if we could use their land or their house for our film, they were always excited to help. We weren't just some film production coming into their town to be a nuisance, we were local kids making good and including the community in our project.

The dumbest thing I did was probably trying to do the most complicated camera shots in a scene with a baby. The concept was great and had we been able to pull it off, it would have been magical, but unfortunately reality caught up with us. We ended up having to change around the whole scene and reshoot it without the baby.

While I have no regrets and it works great the way it ended up in the film, that was valuable time wasted and I should have known better. I guess that is always one of the challenges for a first time director. You always think you can make the impossible work even when you know it shouldn't...

How did the film change while shooting ... and while editing?

SOL: During the shoot, we were able to stay very close to the script. Outside of the mishap with the baby scene that I described above, we didn't have to change much. There were some great improv sessions during rehearsals that would find their way into the film, but for the most part we really stuck to the script.

During the editing process it's another story. We took out a couple of whole story lines that, while great and entertaining, weren't necessary in the final film. It is always painful to cut scenes out of your film because you really love every frame you shot, but at some point you need to ask yourself if it's best for the film or not. If the scene is staying in because of an attachment to the scene and not because it's driving the story forward, it's got to go. In the end, the decisions we had to make were challenging, but they helped to keep the story focused and kept the sharp comedic tempo for the pace of the film.

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

SOL: I learned so many things during this whole process that I could go on for hours. Most importantly, I learned to treat every shot, interaction and moment working on the film as if it's the most important thing in the world. It is such an honor and privilege to be able to make a living creating art that if I take one bit of it for granted, I would not be doing justice to the gifts and opportunities that I have been provided.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Ian FitzGibbon on “A Film With Me In It”

Why did you decide to make the switch from acting to directing?

IAN: I decided to direct because I got bored as an actor. I had done ten years of TV mainly in Britain and I felt like I needed a new challenge. Also the thought of directing filled me with fear. You should always be slightly afraid of what you're doing.

How does your background in acting help you as a director?

IAN: I’m an actor so obviously I understand actors. I trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. I know how to relate how to actors. I know what their fears and insecurities are. But mainly I love actors. I get them.

How did you become involved in A Film With Me In It?

IAN: I became involved with A Film With Me In It because I cast the guy who wrote it in a TV thing I was doing. He had written a very successful play. I asked him had he any screenplays? He told me he had one that had been sitting in a drawer for a couple of years. His agent hated it.

What attracted you to the story?

IAN: The story was so breathtakingly bonkers I knew I had to do it. There’s loads of death in it. That has to be good, right?

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

IAN: The smartest thing I did was rehearse with the actors every spare minute I had.

The dumbest thing I did was to assume I knew how was it the film was going to turn out. It’s never what you think in your head before, it's something you discover as you shoot.

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

IAN: You can never over prepare.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

William Greaves and Steven Soderbergh on "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm"

What was your background before becoming a filmmaker?

WILLIAM GREAVES: I taught acting for quite a while in Canada, from the Actors Studio in New York. I went up to Canada and worked on the National Film Board of Canada, on the production staff. I also, concurrently, opened up a studio that was modeled on the New York Actor's Studio, and taught acting.

One of my actors became very wealthy in the real estate business in Miami, Florida. He said, 'Listen, you're a very talented fellow and you have a lot of ideas. You're just as good a director as anyone coming out of Hollywood. Why don't you do a feature?'

And I said, 'These things cost money.' And he said, 'What does it cost?' And I told him and he said, 'Do it. I'll back it.'

So I asked him what sort of subject he wanted me to concentrate on -- a whodunit or a romance, or what?

And he said, 'Anything you like. Whatever you want to do, Bill, you do.'

So, with that blank check I reflected on a lot of things that that I had been thinking about over the years. One of them is the creative process, as it relates to the actor and the director. Having been a product of the Actor's Studio and Lee Strasberg, Kazan, Stanislavsky and those people, as well as having been involved in psycho drama, by way of J.L. Moreno, who was the pioneer of psycho drama, it came to me that it would be interesting to shoot a film that had some of these elements.

I thought it would be interesting to do several screen tests and to look at the creative process that actors undergo, in conjunction with the director, to show their talents at the highest level.

That's how it all got started, initially, but then other elements came into play. For example, the Heisenberg Principal of Uncertainty, for which the analog to the electron microscope is the motion picture camera, which is looking down into the psyche and soul of the actor while the actor is performing, and often times it tends to stiffen and destroy the spontaneity and truthful feelings of the actor as the character they're trying to portray. I thought that would be an interesting element to think about, artistically, creatively.

One of the hallmarks of the Stanislavsky system is to try to be as honest in what you're doing, in performance, as possible. One of the things that kept bothering me about a lot Hollywood movies was that the acting was very stiff and lacking in spontaneity. Having challenged myself as an actor to be more realistic in my acting, and having looked at the work of people like Marlon Brando and Julie Harris -- people at the Actor's Studio who's work was very spontaneous.

It came to me that this was a wonderful opportunity to test the limits of my credibility as a person in front of a camera, pursuing this particular screen test with these actors, but trying to not act for the camera.

The director in the film is definitely a character -- a character that, at times, drives the crew and the cast a little crazy. Was that intentional?

WILLIAM GREAVES: One of the elements of my characterization was my inscrutability. Try and try as much as they could, they couldn't decode my motives. That was calculated to elicit a degree of tension and angry and anxiety in the crew. They couldn't decode my motives, and I didn't want them to decode my motives, because I wanted to see if it would be possible to generate as much conflict in front of the camera as possible. Conflict being the hallmark of a really good drama.

I was hoping to have any conflict to what I was doing played out in front of the camera by the crew challenging me in what I was doing or criticize me or whatever. But this did not happen until the last scene in the movie, of the crew on the grass, screaming and shouting and shrieking at me because I was doing a lot of what they considered to be bizarre and unorthodox things that were not in lock step with traditional Hollywood feature filmmaking.

I didn't think that they were challenging me enough during the course of the shooting, but then they gave me the footage that they shot on their own. I didn't know that they had done this palace revolt, it was something that they surreptitiously stole away and did at the end of a day of shooting after I went home.

They had this closet revolt and it was terribly exciting to me, because I was afraid that the film was not going to work out well, because it didn't have enough conflict.

But when I saw this material I was just elated and I knew that we had a very good film on our hands -- something that would be very fresh and delight audiences, particularly those who were reasonably conversant with the filmmaking process.

I was surprised that in the midst of all this chaos, the crew had the presence of mind to get a release form from the man who wanders into the shoot.

WILLIAM GREAVES: That's very conventional behavior. It was obvious that this was a very risqué situation, but we had to have this man sign on to what we were doing. We didn't know how conscious he was, or how inebriated he was, but we weren't taking any chances. We knew we had to have him give us the clearance.

He says, 'What is this, a movie? Who's moving who?'

That's the way life is. Life is full of a lot of lucky moment, as well as tragic moments. And our mission was to capture as many lucky moments as possible.

Can you explain the genesis of the title?

WILLIAM GREAVES: The title is, for me, a very attractive title. I tend to be in love with scientific thinking of one kind or another, and I came across a book called Inquiry Into Inquiries;: Essays In Social Theory, which was written by a very knowledgeable social scientist named Arthur Bentley.

He conceived of the milieu that human beings find themselves as the symbiotaxiplasm. And this symbiotaxiplasm represents those events that transpire in the course of anyone's life that have an impact on the consciousness and the psyche of the average human being, and how that human being also controls or effects changes or has an impact on the environment.

So there's a dialectic or a dialogue that goes on between the action and behavior and thinking of human beings as they move through the events in their lives.

I had the arrogance, the temerity, to introduce the term 'psycho' in the middle of symbiotaxiplasm, making symbiopsychotaxiplasm.

Symbio represents the existence of similarities of one kind or another. Psycho is the mind. Taxi is how the mind reacts and responds to arrangement of reality. And Plasm being the human being. I'm over-simplifying it; you'll have to read the book yourself.

How did Steven Soderbergh get involved in the project?

WILLIAM GREAVES: Steve Soderbergh came out of the blue to find me, because he had heard about Take One, and he was very curious about it and finally caught up with me. We would never had done Take 2 1/2 if it weren't for him.

Where did you first hear about Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One?

STEVEN SODERBERGH: I first heard about it through my colleague, Larry Blake, who does post-production sound on all of my films. He went to Sundance in 1992, and when he came back he said he saw this really crazy movie. In the middle of the movie screening, in Park City, the projector broke and the director walked up the front of the theater and said, 'This may or may not be part of the film.' Larry said, 'You have to se this movie, it's really amazing.'

I didn't see it until four years later, finally. I managed to track down the tape. As you can imagine, I just thought it was one of the most amazing things I'd ever seen. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe how great it was and that it wasn't famous, I mean really famous. Even then, almost ten years ago, I felt maybe it's still, even now, too far ahead of its time.

It's the ultimate "reality" piece.

The difference being, in this case, that nobody was in on the joke. And that's what makes it so brilliant. When you do a reality show on TV today, you know you're part of a show and that they're going to start creating obstacles for you or trying to complicate the situation purposefully and consciously. Here, you're just watching a situation where people are absolutely convinced that Bill is out of control, doesn't know what he's doing, and you're a fly on the wall. And then the ultimate mutiny takes place. It's really incredible.

I think when he was presented with that material, he must have felt like the cinema gods were smiling on him.

It's unprecedented nature is even evident when you see the second film. I found the second film really interesting for completely different reasons. In cultural terms, it's a very melancholy film to me, because something's been lost. There's a spirit that I think is gone and it's not just because you can't go home again; I think it's bigger than that.

I think we live in a time now where people don't feel as free with themselves and their ideas, at least in the context of film shoot, but also in general. We live in a culture now where people who dissent vocally are attacked. And that wasn't the case then. That was a time where you were attacked for not speaking up. I think when you watch the two films back-to-back you can feel it, you can feel it. There's a freedom and a looseness in the first one, just in the way people are behaving, that's not at all present in the second one.

It's also amazing to see the same actors, 25 years later.

STEVEN SODERBERGH: It's because we look in the mirror every morning and so we don't notice the changes as much as we do when we see these two films. There's something incredibly compelling about it. It's an undiluted dose of mortality.

The genie's out of the bottle now. It's beyond the fourth wall, it just took it to another level.

Why did the first film take so long to come to light?

STEVEN SODERBERGH: I don't know if there's a good explanation for it, other than bad fortune. Or, perhaps, good fortune now that people are starting to see it. It's conceivable the film might never have been noticed or remembered. But certainly, during that period, I mean people were going to see El Topo at midnight, this is a more accessible movie than that. I don't understand it.

I'm stunned that I'd never heard of it before Larry mentioned it to me. I scoured magazines and quarterlies and was certainly paying attention to alternative cinema and the history of alternative and independent cinema, and I'd never heard of it.

It's one of the pluses of being in this situation, is that every once in a while you can lend a hand to somebody who just needs a little sugar.