Thursday, June 24, 2010

Nicholson Williams on "The Beatnicks"

What was your filmmaking background before making The Beatnicks?

NICHOLSON: I was in the College of Creative Studies at UCSB and majored in film. After graduating I came to L.A. and worked in an equipment rental house. I started working on productions as a driver, grip, electrician, bestboy, gradually working my way up to Gaffer and finally D.P. (Director of Photography). I was able to finance my short films by working on other people’s projects, but writing and directing was always the goal.

Where did the idea come from?

NICHOLSON: I’ve had this idea for a long time, to explore inner realities of characters living outside the norm and how they choose to express themselves. More importantly how they keep going, though never knowing why they do what they do. The Box symbolizes this, the unknown. Is it a blessing or a curse? I suppose it’s autobiographical in that sense.

What was the writing process like?

NICHOLSON: I was drawn to the films of Fellini, Bunuel, Tarkovsky, French New Wave, films that were philosophical by nature and big on character. Later I was inspired by Emir Kusterica and Jim Jarmusch. Their films have a great “vibe.” They’re ironic but point to something deeper. I wanted to write like that.

The Beatnicks actually started out like Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise in that I had made a 30-minute version of it in black & white that could have served as a first act. We decided to shoot the whole thing from scratch and in color when we made the decision to re-cast. It was a painful decision at first but it soon became clear it was the right thing to do. Though the film uses a surrealistic device (the Box) to move the story along, both of these guys had to feel real. They had to represent the predicament of striving for recognition in L.A. and trying to find a universe they could participate in as artists.

I was able to use much of what I had originally written for the short and added a brief back story for the box as well as developing the relationship of Nick Nero and Nica (Elodie Bouchez).The dark obsessive character of Mack Drake. (played by Eric Roberts), and Hank “the guru” (played by Patrick Bauchau), were created to show what Nick Nero (Norman) and Nick Beat (Boone) might become if they were to split up and follow their respective paths to their conclusion. Fortunately they don’t. Though their fate remains uncertain, they ultimately remain true to themselves and each other.

They say life imitates art. It took seven years from when the short was made to finally turn it into a feature, so Nina Jo Baker (Co-Writer) and my partner at the time had plenty of time to work things out. We were on a mission. Jason Cairns, who originally starred in the short also contributed to the story, and one of the producers, Paul Hahn helped with the final polish.

How did you fund the film?

NICHOLSON: Co-producer Stephanie Danan was good friends with Elodie Bouchez. Elodie had recently won the Cesar Award (The French Oscar) for Best Actress for her work in the Eric Zonka film The Secret Life of Angels. She came to L.A. for a visit. We were all living in an old Craftsman house in Silver Lake then and she loved it there. I think she liked the anonymity of L.A. and the creative spirit we had going.

I was writing music sketches for the film and I recorded her doing dialog over some of them. Her voice is magical. She was the perfect muse. In short we all bonded in a way and she liked the idea of doing something interesting in L.A. Once Elodie signed on things started to happen. There were a lot of actors that wanted to work with her. She brought up Norman’s name who she had met in Cannes. Instant chemistry. Stephanie and Paul got in touch with Garen Topalian who was a stockbroker on Wall St. at the time. The three of them were able to find private financing through their connections. It was shot on 35mm color negative over a 26-day schedule.

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

NICHOLSON: Smartest? Trusting the crew. D.P. Joe Montgomery and his Gaffer, Foster Danker were awesome. Production Designer Ted Burner and his crew, truly gifted. Everyone worked for small dollars and did a big dollar job. I never second guessed them. I just leaned on them a bit.

Dumbest? Caving in on certain things I thought important. There’s always that pressure, to make the day. Sometimes you have to let things go. Sometimes you wish you hadn’t. Postproduction sound is an example. On this film the dialog is very important and I think the mix got away from me at times. On the other hand sometimes things happen on set you could never have planned for that are really beautiful. Those are the magical moments.

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

NICHOLSON: Patience and perseverance, to push for what you want and still keep an open mind. No matter what the format is, or what the budget is, or what the odds are against you. It’s in there, waiting to be discovered.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Roger Nygard on "The Nature of Existence"

Roger Nygard is a filmmaker and television director and editor. His latest documentary, The Nature of Existence will be released theatrically beginning June 18 in New York, and July 2 in Los Angeles, followed by other cities across the US.

What inspired you to make this film?

ROGER: In short, there was a day, at about the age of seven, when I realized that I would die some day. You can imagine my shock, after taking life for granted until that point. A voracious reader, I discovered the medical descriptions in the family encyclopedia. As I chanced to read the symptoms of tuberculosis, the little hypochondriac in me began to realize I had the telltale signs. I thought, I often “get tired easily, feel slightly feverish or cough frequently.”

The realization hit me like a mack truck, “I’m dying!” It turned out I wasn’t dying, and I soon moved on to other concerns, like watching Land of the Giants on TV. Or rather, I pushed thoughts of mortality beneath my conscious awareness. Twenty-five years later, when the events of 9-11 forced the whole country (including me) to consider their own mortality--for about a week--I was unable to stop myself from badgering friends with questions: Why do we exist? What is our purpose here? If there’s an afterlife, where exactly is it located? What created the Universe? With billions of stars in billions of galaxies to be mindful of, why would a god get so apoplectic if you masturbate? I wrote the questions down, plus eighty other tough questions, picked up my camera and went on the road to get some answers.

Once you got the idea, how did you go about planning the execution?

ROGER: My plan was to travel to the source of all the world’s major belief systems, find the experts, and interrogate them until I had The Answer. In addition to the USA, I visited Israel, Italy, England, China, and India. I had to travel light and cheap, by myself or sometimes with one other person to shoot B camera. Part of the reason I kept it simple was to avoid official attention. In some countries if you apply for a filmmaker’s visa or press visa it is more expensive and of shorter duration, and they require that you hire a minder to be with you the whole time—to keep you from filming something the government might not want you to film. Mainly they do that because they want to know if 60 Minutes or Warner Bros. is there. So I traveled as a tourist.

Can you talk about how you funded the film?

ROGER: I flirted with a few investors on this project, but decided to self-finance. Investors can be skittish in general, but try telling them you’re making a documentary about the most esoteric concept there is: existentialism. Plus, I didn’t want to give up the ownership of the project. I launched forward, and in-between directing and editing television shows like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, I saved up some money and went on the road every few months. That’s one reason it took me four years to finish shooting and editing.

Did you edit as you shot .... or wait until you had all the pieces?

ROGER: I began editing after the first shoot and edited continuously throughout the process. Even though the film is done, I’m still editing bonus materials for the DVD. You can see excerpts and some of the outlandish outtakes on our website:

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

ROGER: Over the four-year process, I would finish a segment and put it on the shelf, then work on another segment and put it aside. Eventually, as the story started to take shape I began to tie the segments together. It wasn’t until the second year that I came to terms with the idea that I had to put myself in the movie, because it’s my journey. You learn what I learn as I learn it. It’s the first time I’ve subjected myself to my own directing. What a tyrant! I‘ll admit I now have a much greater appreciation for actors. I mean, it’s damn hard to remember lines while hitting marks and trying to be natural. It was a great learning experience.

What did your gear package consist of ... and what were the plusses and minuses of that package?

ROGER: I began shooting in October of 2005 with one of the cameras I had used on Trekkies 2, a Sony PD150. But that camera was stolen in Italy. Somebody picked up my pelican suitcase and walked off while I was distracted at the Rome train station. The lesson I learned was to put the camera in a backpack that didn’t advertise itself as “expensive camera suitcase.” And whenever the airlines made me check the backpack, I took the camera out and carried it by hand.

I replaced the PD150 with a Panasonic DVX100A digital video camera, two wireless mics (sennheiser ew 100, with Tram mic upgrades), and a tripod. I had no room to carry lights. The key to getting beautiful footage on the road is sunlight. Natural light makes people look the best. If indoors, I would sit them near a nice big window and let the ambient light key the subject from the side. Occasionally I had to make an exception. Magus Peter Gilmore, the head of the Satanists, preferred not to come outside into the sun for his interview, so it’s one of the few interviews where I brought lights.

If you light video like film, it will feel cinematic. Some countries are more conducive to getting beautiful images. It's hard to get an ugly shot in India--practically the whole country is a religious site--at dawn in Varanasi every direction you point the lens there is a tableau awaiting your composition. In China in November the lighting is similar to what the impressionists in Europe painted with, all day long your images have that gorgeous, warm, golden-hour quality. All because the people there are still burning coal to heat their homes, as they did in Europe in the 1800s.

How is the finished film different from your original inspiration?

ROGER: My original inspiration was so far reaching and impossible to achieve—how do you make a documentary on the nature of all that is??? But that was part of the attraction, the impossibility of the challenge. Eventually, as I collected footage and kept shaping it the project evolved into its final form. So the film is quite different from my first inspiration, but also it accomplishes everything I set out to accomplish. Every mystery of the Universe is revealed. I should warn you not to see the film though, because it will mess with your mind.

What did you learn along the way that you'll take to future projects?

ROGER: I learned that I’m incorrigible. With the paint still drying on The Nature of Existence, I have already started shooting my next documentary. My new film is another concept documentary. My proposal is written and the first footage is in the hopper. It’s almost like a cry for help, “Somebody stop me before I document again!”

More information at:

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Mardana Mayginnes on "The Loneliest Road in America"

What was your filmmaking background before making The Loneliest Road in America?

MARDANA: Before the film, I used to be a production assistant at a commercial production company in Hollywood, Believe Media. There, I spent most of my time grabbing lunch for the owner. Every once in a while, I would get to work on set. I had made shorts in college, but nothing of significance.

Where did the idea come from?

MARDANA: It came from the actual road. Highway 50 is literally called the loneliest road in America. I used to travel this road on my way to and from college. Every time was always a weird experience for me. The towns on this road were/are almost abandoned.

I’m a pretty avid mountain climber and one summer my father and I climbed Arc Dome in Nevada. Before the climb, we stopped at Tonopah for some supplies. It was a massive empty town. I spoke to a young girl my age at a hardware store. She told me that ten years ago, the population was 15,000. When I was there, it was around 1,000. At that moment, the image of the modern day ghost town was burned into my brain. This reminded me of the more recent corporations that had moved their factories down to Mexico: Payday, GM, etc. GM left Flynt, and we all know what happened to that town (thank you Mr. Moore).

What was the writing process like?

MARDANA: It started off like a lightning bolt. I was trying to sleep one night, and for some reason I couldn’t. I got out of bed at 3 am and did some laundry. My brain was shooting all over the place. So I went on a hike at about 4 am (My old house was at the base of the Hollywood hills). I put on a iPod and heard this song that I never heard before. It was Cat Power’s cover of “Yesterday is Here.” It was one of the best moments of my life. I came down the mountain feeling a little crazy. I went to a café and busted out the first fifteen pages of the script before going to work. From then on I would hike and write in the morning.

How did you fund the film?

MARDANA: Family, my mother and my lead actor’s parents. My mom considered it her grad school tuition. Colin Day’s parents took the executive producing role very naturally. They are in charge of selling the film.

What sort of camera did you use for production and what were the best and worst things about it?

MARDANA: We used the RED camera with Cooke s4 lenses. The camera is amazing during the day. It looks very similar to 35mm film. The best part about it is the ability to keep shooting without reloading the camera. Our opening scene was actually a 20 minute shot! We cut it to show the most beautiful parts of the jeep driving through Glenwood Canyon.

The camera is not so good at night. It introduces a lot of digital noise. But the good people at Red have fixed it with their new Mysterium X sensor. Now it shoots better at night than film.

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

MARDANA: That’s a hard question to answer. I might think that I have made a smart decision, but someone else might think that I was idiot. Personally I think the decisions should be made before production. Production is simply the execution of the grand plan. Whether the decisions are smart is up to the majority of viewers.

There was one really dumb thing that Tony, my DP, and I planned. We shot a night scene in the car while driving. And we lit the actors eyes up and strapped a camera in front of them. They could barely see anything. We were lucky to be alive, once that was over.

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

MARDANA: Do your own post if you don’t have much money. Nothing good is cheap in this town. Most good deals are not deals at all because you’ll end up re-doing everything yourself. I ended up coloring the film at the end of the day after we dumped thousands of dollars into a post house. It pays off now since I’m coloring commercials now.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Roger Corman and Barbara Steele on "Caged Heat"

How did you meet Jonathan Demme?

ROGER CORMAN: Jonathan was working out of England, writing publicity for United Artists. I did a film in Ireland for United Artists, and he came over on behalf of UA. It was clear he was a very intelligent young man. He said he was writing publicity but was interested in writing screenplays.

I told him a couple ideas I had and I said, 'If you're ever write anything on this, let me know.' He and his partner, Joe Viola, wrote a script and Jonathan produced and directed. They did one more for me, and then they did
Caged Heat, on which Jonathan made his debut as a director.

How did you know he'd be a good director?

ROGER CORMAN: He had been doing some second unit directing when Joe was the director. I've always liked the idea of a new director shooting some second unit. He gets a feel for what's going on, and I get a chance to judge what he can do.

You're legendary for taking new directors to lunch and sort of giving them a quick, one-hour course in filmmaking. What's are the key messages you impart?

ROGER CORMAN: The most important thing that I point out over and over is preparation. On a ten-day shoot, or a 20-day shoot, you don't have time to create from scratch on the set. As a matter of fact, I don't think you should do that anyway.

My number one rule is to work with your actors in advance, so you and the actors are agreed on at least the broad outline of the performance. Then to have sketched out, if not all of your shots, most of your shots, so you have a shot plan in advance.

So your planning for both working with the camera and working with the actors is worked out in advance, knowing that you will never shoot exactly according to the plan. Sometimes the plan doesn't work and you have to change it, and sometimes you get a better idea. There will always be shading and nuance with the actors, which will occur in rehearsal on the set before shooting, but you at least have the broad strokes worked out, so you're working on detail work on the set and you can come in and shoot, rather than come in and discuss what you're going to shoot.

Be flexible. Even though you've done all your preparation, don't stick absolutely to the preparation if it doesn't seem to be working. Know that you've got the preparation, but situations change, so be prepared to change with the situations.

How did you meet Jonathan Demme?

BARBARA STEELE: That was just an amazing, bizarre moment in time. I was walking down Sunset Boulevard. It was around Christmas time. Nobody walks in LA anyway, so it was kind of a feat to be walking anywhere.

This vast blue car with fins from another era pulled up and out jumps this guy with this really radiant smile and says, ''Barbara Steele! Barbara Steele.!'

And I say, 'Hello? Yes?' And he says, 'I'm about to make a movie, I've been looking for you everywhere, would you consider doing it? We start shooting in three days! Please say yes, please say yes!' And that was
Caged Heat.

Is there a difference between low-budget filmmaking in Europe and low-budget filmmaking in the U.S.?

BARBARA STEELE: It was slightly different doing low-budget movies in Italy as opposed to doing them here, because in Italy there is an attendant melodrama to everything. So the crew and everybody actually adores low-budget movies, on one level -- not in terms of their salaries but in terms of the drama of it all.

The downside is that you're having close-ups after 18 hours of work, and the lighting suffers because the lighting cameraman is doing a huge amount of set-ups in a very short amount of time.

Do you like working that way?

BARBARA STEELE: I actually like the condensed, slightly frantic energy that goes into a low-budget film, rather than something that is more elongated and slower.

Everybody is in it together, in a
Dog Day Afternoon kind of way. And I like that. You feel like a family in this rush, and you’ve got to get it done, and it's like you're all pushing at it together. You don't have time to worry about your make-up, you're just in there, and I like that. I think it's really great; I must sound demented, but I actually like it.

But, of course, it depends on the material. If you're making a film where the subject matter is extremely intimate and private, you need much more time. But the low-budget films that I have done were basically melodramas.

What was it like working with Demme?

BARBARA STEELE: I think that he was very smart and very hip and very attuned to that moment in time. He always wore these fantastic, fabulous shirts.

Demme was a very unthreatening, very charming, very upbeat person. I'm sure all actors have loved working with him.

I think the most important thing is that the actors feel really safe and comfortable. You can only be as good as you dare to be bad. And if the actor is spooked or apprehensive, they'll just freeze.

So the whole thing is for the actor to feel loved, really, and appreciated. Because it's a very vulnerable thing, to get into inside of somebody's face when it's blown up to the size of a vast fireplace or something.

You're pretty evil in the film. Do you enjoy playing evil characters?

BARBARA STEELE: I'm always invariably cast to play these villainesses. Unfortunately, I never got to play the great iconic villains, like Lady Macbeth or Medea. I would have loved to get my teeth into something really grand and deep.

I think certain actors have marquee value in certain films. With me, I got stuck in the whole horror genre, and so everyone needed to see me in that light, until I did these other little off-beat movies, which of course nobody ever sees. Like
Young Torless, a Volker Schlöndorff film, where I was not a villainess, and is actually one of my preferred movies.

I don't know, I appear to be an archetypal villainess.