Thursday, July 29, 2010

Daryl Wein on “Breaking Upwards”

What was your filmmaking background before making Breaking Upwards?

DARYL: I never went to film school. I learned everything about filmmaking by trial and error on my own. After I graduated from NYU, I directed a short film, entitled Unlocked, starring Olivia Thirlby that played in the Tribeca Film Festival. You can view the film on I also directed a feature length documentary, entitled Sex Positive, that Regent distributed about a gay S&M sex worker from the 1980s who helped invent the concept of "safe sex" at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

What was the writing process like and how did you work with your co-writers?

DARYL: The writing process took about a year. At first, Zoe wasn't involved, it was only Peter and myself, and then eventually Zoe warmed more to the idea and helped develop it with us.

In terms of how we worked, I would say we would each write separately and then show each other the material and talk about it. Sometimes we sat together and worked on things, other times we didn't, it was a mixture of the two.

What are the benefits -- and the drawbacks -- of shooting on such a small budget?

DARYL: The benefits are you can basically do whatever you want. The drawbacks are you wear many hats that can detract focus from the more important jobs.

At the end of the day, we made the exact film we set out to make but there was a tremendous strain on all of us to get it done because we didn't have a lot of help. We couldn't pay a full crew, a lot of favors were pulled, and passion only lasts for so long. Ultimately, we are very proud and happy of how it went.

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

DARYL: Smartest thing may have been hiring Alex Bergman, our amazing DP, because he is very talented and also happened to own all of the equipment. The dumbest thing may have been shooting in a 5th floor walk up brownstone with no air conditioning in the middle of summer in New York.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Steven Rumbelow on “Autumn”

What was your filmmaking background before making Autumn?

STEVEN: I was in a gifted artist program from age 5 and moved from painting to sculpture to theatre as a natural progression from painting. By 18 I was England's youngest professional theatre director, having worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company and became known for edgy versions of Shakespeare and Marlowe. One production of King Lear was doing very well in the early ‘70's and the head guy from The British Film Institute saw it and said he felt it should be made into a film. There was no way that he could have known about my ultimate agenda to move from theatre to film directing, as I saw film as the ultimate painting medium. Between ‘75 and ‘81 I made three films, with each one winning Outstanding Film of the Year at London Film Festival plus several awards in Europe. The films were King Lear in 1975, St. Joan in 1977 and Dr. Faustus in 1981.

Over the years I found it really useful to sort of synergize the positive processes of different media and it became a goal of mine to become a sort of renaissance director with cross over knowledge of all media. Now my directing career boasts 9 feature films, 65 episodes of television, 3 docs, 1 radio drama, 1 opera, 1 dance, 84 music videos, 17 commercials and 46 stage productions. I'm committed to eight very exciting films over the next three years or so that range in budget from $1m to $15m each.

I've also 100 plus produced works as a writer, but don't really view myself as a writer. I just felt that I wanted to be able to write in order to be able to rewrite other people's work on set.

What was the writing process like on Autumn?

STEVEN: It was nerve-wracking. I let David Moody present his version of the script, which was about 200 pages of the book. It would have been 5 hours long, but I got what he felt was the most important aspects of the book to go to film.

I sat down to write it and something happened that had never happened to me before. I had the haters of the book (the "don't mess with the zombie genre" people), the fans of the book all saying "don't screw it up" and "oh no, it's not set in England" and David Moody, in my mind’s eye, saying "oh no, what are you doing to my baby?" So my process was very, very careful, cautious and respectful.

The final script was 115 pages long which is par for most scripts. I managed to keep my main goals in perspective... the notion that, like the aftershock of 9/11, man does not respond by becoming Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger, but is more prone to sit in corners and experience the shock to the system.

What was the smartest thing you did during production?

STEVEN: Casting Dexter for Michael, Dickon for Carl and David Carradine for Philip.

The dumbest?

STEVEN: See next question. Smile. Really.

What camera system did you use to shoot it and what did you like and hate about it?

STEVEN: The Panasonic DVCPRO HD Varicam. I loved the high picture quality, use of darks and blacks... the options for speeds and the whole cine look bias to the camera! The Sony HD doesn't come close.

However, I hated the fact that in order to preserve the 24 frames per second that we shot the picture in meant that it had to go through a special process called "unwrapping" if you use Final Cut pro. There were no manuals at that time that we could find that tell you this, however, so our work in post was automatically re-conformed with extra frames to 30 fps and screwed up time code on all video and digital masters. Everything needed to be redone. That was the dumbest mistake I made on the film.

Over the Edge, my next film, is to be shot on a RED, so plenty of research on RED and FCP has been done to ensure this never happens again.

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

STEVEN: It suddenly dumped a pile of snow uncharacteristically early that fall and it carried on snowing and snowing... sometimes with blizzards so bad we had to call off shooting because no one could get to set. Lots of rewriting to avoid exterior scenes and to allow for the first snowfall during the shoot so that we could get through at least half of the film before saying "Oh, look it's snowing." I really like the look of zombies in snow, though.

When we got into the cutting room, it seemed that the Bergman-esque style I used to tell the story as a psychological observation of human society in stress was working really nicely. The problem was that the first edit, which looked really good, was 3 hours long, so we had to compress many of the longer Bergman styled moments to shave off the 70 excess minutes.

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

STEVEN: 1) I learned a lot from working with David Carradine. I wanted it to be like nothing he had ever done before. That meant he had to take some risks and I had to take some directing risks. The risk was worth it because so many were pleased with the outcome.

2) I learned that you need to be strong to work against type in a genre and that when you do, the people that you really want to reach DO actually get it. Tossing away the senselessly ravenous dead zombie prototype can be scary. It forces one to create a different way of delivering horror.

3) NEVER, NEVER EVER! issue a copy of an unfinished cut, with scratch sound and effects, to your interested distributors without a watermark on every frame. Our film was pirated through Asia to bitTorrent and eventually everywhere. So far we are told about 12 million rips of that edit have been and are still being made. On many of the leading rip sites, that unfinished version that was passed around in June is still being downloaded and ranked in the top 20 horror films. The film wasn't finished until October and the work in post was 12 hours a day from June through September so you can imagine how unfinished the June rip was.

However, there is an upside and the fact is that even in that state the film still got a 30+% approval, which means that over four million people around the world were giving it good word of mouth. That would have cost us millions to achieve through traditional advertising means and accounts, in part, for why the film has sold so amazingly well throughout the world and the USA.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Wayne Johnson on “The Nihilist”

What brought the three of you together?

WAYNE: Nick and I met a long time ago and had actually written a couple things together, including the short film, Breakables. Brendan Eddy and I met at The Minnesota School of Business when he hired me as an instructor there. After working together for a couple years we decided to make our first feature film, Ultro-Pep The Movie.

We all hung out together and when the time came for the next big project after Breakables, I suggested to Nick that we needed Brendan’s expertise to handle the major visual effects for The Nihilist and his creative input. So Brendan and I teamed up for the second time as co-directors on the film with nick as producer. Nick and I co-wrote the Script but all three of us had a hand in the final version.

What was the starting point for The Nihilist and how did you develop it?

WAYNE: I had actually had the idea for the story about 2002. I had initially decided to do it as a comic book story and had written a script and had laid out all the panels to be drawn. I just never moved on with it. The basic story was all there as far as events.

When I was talking to Nick about our next project we had both thought it would be cool to do that story and Brendan had liked the idea too, so we took the plot of my original story and fleshed it out. My goal of the story was to make a direct response to the end of Full Metal Jacket, where they state that the world is shit. So in response I wanted to put a person in one of the most horrible places in history and seeing no hope for himself or the world and have him find it in the most unlikely place, a World War I battlefield. I specifically called it The Nihilist to emphasis the worldview of the character.

What was the writing process like?

WAYNE: Nick, Brendan and I took my basic plot outline and wrote out a list of beats that we wanted to happen and what order we wanted them to happen in, about 22 beats, then I wrote a draft and Nick rewrote it and then we worked out about 10 versions.

Brendan re-worked the dialogue, which is good, because it’s not my strong suit. Then when Brendan storyboarded the film, he reworked it a bit more and as we shot it we tweaked it and of course the editing process is a final draft too.

What camera did you use to shoot the film and what did you like and hate about that format?

WAYNE: Panasonic SDX 900, DVCPRO 50 with HD lenses. The best thing about the camera and format was it’s low light capability. We could shoot at night in the dark with very little light and get a nice clean picture. The format is only SD but that camera makes the image quality look like HD.

I think the hate came from Brendan when he had to do color keys for the opening shot. I wish we could have done it in HD but the cost was out of range for that.

Your production design was awesome. What advice do you have for someone setting out to make a period piece like The Nihilist?

WAYNE: You must use reference! Brendan, Nick and I watched footage from the war. I have always been a history buff and loved WWI stuff, so it was very important that we got the feel right. There was some consideration for historical accuracy, but we defiantly found ways to get the right look.

World War I stuff is super rare and expensive, so we only had a few things, like the British coats, those are replicas made in India. The Machine Gun was a real one, that we rented in town. Also the British rifles are the correct type but newer models. Also building a real trench helped immensely. We used similar materials, as far as wood and the metal sheets.

What was the biggest lesson you took away from shooting the movie?

WAYNE: Fog, fog was a nightmare. We had to have a lot of it and in an open field that is hard. We lucked out and didn’t have much wind until the last night. Also having enough power for the fog machines was a big deal. With too much drain they would not heat up enough to work. We used 3 Industrial fog machines, a party fog machine and finally a Bug Smoker from Wal-Mart, that worked the best and kept the bugs off of us!

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

WAYNE: Time management. We shot 90% of the film in 4 nights and a Saturday morning. We had a few pick up shots for the opening scene and to rework a scene that didn’t work on set. But I have heard from most of the people on cast and crew that they had never worked on such an efficient shoot before in town. I think that is a huge achievement. Proper scheduling, proper time management, and have a plan for every scene. Organization is a must especially on a location shoot.

See the trailer to Wayne's new film:

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Brad Hansen on “Driver’s Ed Mutiny”

What was your filmmaking background before making Driver's Ed Mutiny?

BRAD: I've been making short films ever since high school, and I graduated with honors from the University of Iowa film program. I got started professionally as a Production Assistant in TV shows and movies, such as Batman Begins. I then began working on higher-up positions like script supervisor or assistant director for independent features.

For the past four years I have worked as a professional editor and animator for corporate videos. That allowed me to save up enough money, contacts, and experience to make Driver's Ed Mutiny, my first feature. I was also very fortunate to have key production positions filled with the experienced team of Collateral Damage Productions, which helped guide me through the process and make sure every dollar we spent was up on the screen.

Where did you get the idea and what was the writing process like?

BRAD: I wrote a five-minute musical skit that was performed on stage when I was in college. It was about three kids who take over their driver's ed car and then promptly crash the vehicle. I always liked the concept and wondered what would happen if the kids kept on going (and if there wasn't all that fruity singing!).

So I took the concept more seriously and thought about what would motivate real characters to take on such a risky adventure. My writing style is to start with a good plot structure first and then fill in the rest, so over the ten drafts I wrote over the course of about five months there weren't too many huge changes. It was mostly smoothing out dialogue and refining things, particularly once the actors were onboard and we went through read-throughs and rehearsals. Scenes that work well on paper might not come off so well when put on their feet, so we adapted as we went along.

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

BRAD: The smartest thing we did was having extensive rehearsals of every scene before we shot a single frame. With just myself, the actors, and the car, we were able to smooth out the "stage directions" over the course of three full days’ work. That's about 36 hours that we didn't have to spend on location with a full production crew standing around waiting us to get through the creative aspects of staging. Of course things can and should be modified once you get to location, but it gave us a great head start.

The single dumbest thing I did was to not specifically ask an actress if she was in the Screen Actors Guild or not. The climax of the film featured a one-day-only shoot with an actress on an expensive location in Los Angeles. We were not a union film (it was simply too expensive) and we therefore could not use a SAG actress. It wasn't until the night before where she asked about her SAG payments that I realized we couldn't use her. This was after months of preparation with her, and the posting for the part spelled out that the part was unpaid and that our film was non-union. We basically had eight hours to recast this important part. By sheer luck, the police officer who was overseeing our location that day knew of an actress who worked perfectly for the part. But it was a very close call. Now I make sure to expressly ask any actor or actress I want to work with- "Are you SAG?" Actors can get excited for the right role and sometimes might miss the fact that they might not contractually fit within your film.

What camera system did you use to shoot it and what did you like and hate about it?

BRAD: We used the Panasonic HVX200 P2 camera system shooting in 720p24. There are of course nicer HD cameras out there but none that were within our price range, particularly in case our camera was damaged in some fashion, a high probability given the tough shooting conditions we had. The HVX turned out to be a tough as nails platform thankfully. Even under harsh elements such as rain, sun, and being bolted to the side of a car at highway speeds, it never faltered. So it was a great workhorse camera.

What was nerve-racking was shooting on digital cards and not tape. There were a few close calls where data was almost deleted forever. If you're shooting without tapes make sure you have a foolproof system of double backing-up your footage. Remember, drives go bad much more often than tapes, so be certain you're covered.

One thing I'd like to add is how important camera movement is to audiences. If there's one thing that subconsciously cues an audience into thinking that your movie is big and expensive, it's using sweeping camera movements, be it on a dolly or with a crane. They're complicated to pull off, but if you sprinkle them through your film, it will give the whole movie a very slick and professional feel. The equipment and time is worth the investment.

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

BRAD: The film was carefully thought out and storyboarded before we shot, so there weren't too many radical changes. Being a road-trip movie, I wanted to be open to stop and grab shots of anything that looked good or useful, so there are a lot of "stolen" shots in the film that I really like that obviously weren't planned.

The editing process was pretty typical in that we started with a much longer cut and gradually pared it down, trimming or deleting scenes and doing away with a few tiny subplots that, when viewing the entire picture, no longer seemed important. No one ever complains that a movie is too short, but overstaying your welcome with a needlessly long runtime can be the kiss of death.

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

BRAD: There were so many lessons learned on this film that it's hard to think of just a few. It's for this reason that I recommend anyone who seriously wants to make movies to skip graduate school and spend the money on going out and making one, as there are so many lessons that can't be learned in the classroom and could only be learned on set or in the studio.

I suppose the biggest single lesson I learned from this film is that if you want people to sit through an entire feature, you have to have characters people will care about. Obviously no movie is going to be perfect, but if you're engaged with the characters and hope that they succeed in their quest, the audience will forgive a lot of flaws.

Luckily audiences seem to be connecting with our characters and their adventure. Through every screening I've been to of the film they laugh, gasp, and even cry in all the right places. I don't think any of that would happen if they didn't feel like they knew the characters and were along for the ride with them on their journey.

Seeing and hearing an audience react positively to something you've put years of work into is simply the most rewarding experience a director can have.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Whit Stillman on "Metropolitan"

On the surface, the idea doesn’t really lend itself to a low-budget treatment: a lot of characters, a lot of short scenes, a lot of locations -- some of them high-end -- and plus it's a quasi-period piece. Did you consider any of those issues while you were writing?

WHIT STILLMAN: Well, I remembered how cheap it was for me to go to those parties. It didn't cost me a dime, it was the least expensive part of my life. And so I thought, in a way, the film could be done the same way. If people donated tuxedos and a location, it would look rich but it's not.

I knew that for a very minimal amount of money you could get permits to shoot on the streets of New York, so you had a beautiful set for free. And moving around doesn't really cost that much. In a way, it's more expensive to stay in one place, because you really need to lock down the location and not have a chance of losing it.

One of our rules was that we wouldn't shoot in any apartment where we couldn't finish the scene in that day, because we assumed we'd be kicked out of the place. The lengthier apartment sequences were actually done in townhouses faked to look like apartment buildings.

One of the eureka moments for deciding to do the project, if I can use that term, was the director of one of the Spanish films I sold was talking about the actual cash budget for the film he had done was $50,000. And at that time I knew that -- if we bought our rental apartment at an insider price, held it for a year and later resold it -- theoretically we could make $50,000 on our apartment. That number encouraged me, because I knew I could write a script for that money. To finish it, I'd need other people's money, but I could start it with my own.

What was your writing process like on Metropolitan?

WHIT STILLMAN: I actually dreaded the thought of writing alone. I had written short stories and gotten some good reaction; I'd been commissioned by Harpers to write a story and people like them. Tom Wolfe was quoted as liking one of the stories. But I hated the solitary writing process.

So I actually started writing Metropolitan with a college friend -- not exactly a college friend, a fellow who hung around college without actually going there. We sat around, talking about ideas, for about three hours and I realized that wasn't going to work. And so I went and wrote the script.

It was good because I had this interesting job that was sort of challenging, representing artists, and I liked the vicarious work of being an agent for people whose work I liked. It was a social job, where you had lunch with people and saw a lot of people and it was a good day job while I was writing the script. It meant that I could take two weeks without writing anything and then I'd get in an intense mode, then I'd have vacation where I'd expect to write all the time but instead I'd get excited about another topic and write a stupid article for a newspaper. It allowed time to pass and let me reconsider what I was doing.

At a certain point I decided that the Tom Townsend character really wasn't sympathetic, because he was in love with the girl he shouldn't have been in love with and he ignored the girl he should have liked, and that really the sympathetic character was the Audrey Rouget character and the film should be about her. I tried to make the film about her, but I realized that too much is involved in the Tom Townsend character, I'd done too much of that and was too attached to it. So I gave up making it explicitly Audrey's film, but a lot of what remains having tried to make it Audrey's film is still in the movie.

And then I thought the important thing in film is how you end it. So the challenging thing was where was all of this going to go? And so I started writing the end of the movie. I had a process where I had the first three-fifths of the movie and the last fifth of the movie and I had to attach them at some point. For me, it was like the transcontinental railway and finding where would the golden spike be to attach these two ends of the narrative.

Did you do any readings of the script before you finished it?

WHIT STILLMAN: There was a casting reading of it -- after we had done most of the casting we had a read-through.

It was odd, because I had had the Charlie character have something of a stutter in the script. And then I thought, "This is too hard. We've got so many hard things to do, let's not have another hard thing with a guy stuttering through all this dialogue." And I thought it might sound fake, someone acting a stutter.

And then, in the read through, Taylor stuttered a couple of times, and there was one moment when it was a little bit too much. And I stopped the reading and said, "Actually, the idea of this character is he should stutter, so if you can do that, it's great." Taylor completely dominates his stammer, he can do a flawless performance. But he did have a stammer in childhood, and he brought it out for that part. I found it fantastic; somehow a stammer is like when an actor eats. Eating and food and business of that kind in a film is usually wonderful, people are relaxed. And the stammer was kind of the same, it made things really real and unrehearsed.

Did you use any tools to get yourself up to speed as a screenwriter?

WHIT STILLMAN: It was terribly helpful that I found a version of The Big Chill screenplay, in screenplay format. One publisher had the wise idea of issuing a screenplay-size edition of various screenplays, including The Big Chill. I used that to crib format from, to try to get close to film format. And it was actually a good script to have around, because it's an ensemble piece. And the She's Gotta Have It production book that Spike Lee did was very helpful.

And there's a book called The Craft of the Screenwriter by John Brady which has interviews with people like Ernest Lehman and Paul Shrader. I found that a very helpful book. I thought it was terrific.