Thursday, April 28, 2011

Robert Alaniz on “D.I.N.K.S.”

What was your filmmaking background before making D.I.N.K.S?

ROBERT: I wrote, directed and produced four feature films prior to D.I.N.K.s (Double Income No Kids). One of these films, Barrymore's Dream, won Best Feature at the Springfield, Illinois Route 66 Film Festival in 2007. I studied film in Chicago in the late 70's and early 80's, producing short films and a few feature length indie films until, due to financial reasons, I was forced to abandon my filmmaking ambitions. I returned to making feature films in 2002.

Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like?

ROBERT: My wife and I don't have children, never really wanted them and through the years have experienced a lot of discrimination from people with kids because of it. We live in a community that is dominated with parents and family values and we have never fit in. So, when it came time for me to write my next script, I decided to do a dark comedy on that subject. Being that most of the script is loosely based on personal experiences, it was a very enjoyable script to write.

What are the three key requirements -- in your mind -- for making a successful movie for a small budget?

ROBERT: First, know your audience. Make a film that will appeal to as many people as possible. Vanity projects are best left to successful Hollywood Directors with nothing to lose.

Second, never direct or write a film about a subject matter you know nothing about.

Third, keep your film within the limitations of your budget. Never include expensive elements that force you to go the cheap route to produce.

What's your advice for working with actors on a low-budget project?

ROBERT: Find actors that share your vision and understand the limitations of a low-budget and are willing to push those limits creatively to achieve big-budget results.

What kind of camera did you use and what are the pros -- and cons -- of using that system?

ROBERT: My more recent films were shot with the Canon XL2. I like the "vintage movie" feel of the picture. Not too sharp, not too dull. I don't mind shooting in HD as long as the picture doesn't resemble a live sports event. I think that takes away from the cinematic feel of a movie, which in itself depends on the subject matter and style of the film it's used in.

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

ROBERT: The smartest thing I have done, and try to do during a production, is always try to get spontaneous shots that aren't planned in the shoot but that I think might greatly benefit the film during the editing process. I learned this over the years and it has always proved to be rewarding. The dumbest thing: trusting the wrong people.

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

ROBERT: I learned that going with my gut feelings during a production usually pays off. Especially when it comes to comedy.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Ignatius Fischer on “Lisl and the Lorlok”

What was your filmmaking background before making Lisl and the Lorlok?

IGNATIUS: In 1995, I started working in the special effects industry, fabricating miniatures for movies like The Fifth Element, Dante's Peak, Titanic, HBO's From The Earth To The Moon, etc.

I was always a writer at heart, writing short stories, attempting a novel, etc. Once in the film industry, I began toying with screenplay format. I wrote and helped produce the indy sci-fi/horror feature The Men Who Fell in 2004. It was shot in Tucson utilizing miniatures, greenscreen and digital effects. It sold overseas and served as the best film school ever (I have no formal training in film production).

I got my first digital camera in 2004 as well and began taking pictures, which I liked, a LOT. So eventually it became a no-brainer that I'd want to write and direct my own film, which is what Lisl is, my directorial debut.

What was the inspiration for the script ... and what was the writing process like?

IGNATIUS: My grandmother-in-law passed away one year (Alzheimer's) and left her walled-in family estate empty. This location is twenty minutes from my house and we (my wife and daughter) used to sort of check up on the place, we'd use the pool in the summer, etc. I realized it was the perfect location to support a film, from both a logistical and creative point-of-view; the main house interior is completely wallpapered, which provided a ton of production design right up front. It has a unique layout, is two-story and has a guest house (which eventually housed cast and crew as well as served as an additional set piece). So with minimal decoration, the place could look great on-camera.

I have always read a lot, and I love suspense stories and fantasies and science fiction, etc. I used to read comic books (Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors in the graphic novel realm, at that time specifically Sandman was a huge title). I had written a hefty short story, almost a "novella", called Queen Of Heads (pub 1998 online in The Harrow) in which I explored this sort of twisted Alice-In-Wonderland nightmare space; one classic element was the monster that came out from under the bed and dragged people down to nightmare land. It was this particular scene - the monster under the bed - that intrigued me as far as making a small independent movie.

I knew it (the film) would have to be set almost entirely at this estate location and that the budget would be almost non-existent, so it had to be a "contained" story ... but the stories I'd like to tell on-screen are huge, always! Most of all, I wanted a unique story that hadn't necessarily been done to death before. So I went to my in-laws and asked if I could shoot a film on their property there in Hemet, CA.

I had recently met (on the set of his own short film) Brian Dillon, a local filmmaker that was primarily a writer. He was also assistant directing for other filmmakers I knew and he was extremely organized and driven. We worked on a couple of short films together and got to know each other a bit and when I'd read a couple of his screenplays, I asked him if he'd join me in writing a no-budget fantasy feature. I brought him to the estate and we walked around and began discussing what kind of a story I wanted to do and what kind of a story would fit in that location.

The classic "fairy tale" and the "monster under the bed" became the two themes powering the script ideas. We went through lots of ideas and eventually settled on a little girl stuck in a large house with a creature. We eventually went on to further stylize it as a fairy tale and created an allegory (addiction as seen through the eyes of a child).

Our writing process was interesting to develop because neither of us had collaborated as writers before (Brian is credited solely as screenwriter and we share story credit). So we drafted a treatment by hammering out rough points together and then Brian went off and wrote the first draft. I took that draft and wrote a new treatment that incorporated some of that first draft and a collage of ideas that came back from some of our previous notes.

Brian then wrote a second draft that was much closer to the final version, and from that point, we would literally email pages back and forth writing new stuff and re-writing each other until we had the script boiled down to what we felt was a tight, unique, not-seen-before story (which certainly has moments inspired by all kinds of literature and other films of course).

You wore a lot of hats on this project -- writer, producer, director, editor, etc. -- what's the upside and the downside to doing that?

IGNATIUS: There are three upsides to wearing all those hats:
1) You learn what it takes to do each different job on-set, so that in the future you can have conversations with the heads of all major departments in a real-world fashion.
2) Your aesthetic is guaranteed to get on-screen (for better or worse).
3) You are absolutely responsible for the life of the film (again, for better or worse).

The largest downside to wearing all the hats is the fractionation of your time and attention - none of the "hat" roles are actually performed at 100% potential when you have to do them simultaneously. I have a strong desire to be able to direct my next feature without having to line produce at the same time.

What type of camera did you use to shoot the film and what did you like about it .... and hate about it?

IGNATIUS: We shot on the Panasonic HPX500, shooting in DVCPROHD 720/24p. My camera operator had just purchased that camera, otherwise, we'd have been shooting on an HVX200 or something similar.

The 500 is a very nice camera; I was not (and still may not be) skilled enough to actually get out of the camera all it could do. We had very limited lighting resources and time, which continuously worked against us in creating our images. Currently I shoot with a Canon 7D and have some experience with the Red, both of which I really like and plan to shoot my next feature with - the only thing I didn't like about the 500 compared to the cams I was used to using (prosumer models like the DVX100) was the physical size of the thing. It's a broadcast form-factor camera, and I like to put cameras where human eyes don't comfortably fit, and that could be a tiny bit frustrating when you don't have fly-away walls to accommodate such particular camera angles.

What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to make this movie ... and how did you overcome it?

IGNATIUS: The largest obstacle was having hired a professional creature effects fabricator - whom I'd worked with on other professional productions - paying him to create a 1:1 scale puppet of the Lorlok (the titular creature) and then 10 days prior to our shoot date, having him vanish. He stopped returning phone calls and literally disappeared. So we were out the sum we'd paid (which was almost 20% of our budget) and we had no monster.

My plan, coming from a practical miniatures and fx background, was to shoot the creature in-camera with actors in real time because I specifically wanted to have the film "in-the-can" when we were done. At this point, I had already asked Brian if he'd co-produce with me, and now we had to make a pretty scary decision - do we scrap the shoot, all of our prep work, everything, to go find another creature fabricator and find the money to pay him, or do we smash ahead and shoot the movie with the hopes that we could somehow create a CG creature in post. We did the latter, of course, and it took a year to find an animator with chops that could afford to do the creature for points and experience.

A friend of mine, Sohail Wasif, designed and sculpted the Lorlok in a 3D software that I eventually discovered could be ported to Blender, an open-source (free) downloadable 3D animation package. So 18 months after filming, I was resolved to sit down and animate the creature myself in Blender. I went to the official Blender site and posted one question on there, something like "Hey, I need to animate a creature for my feature, I have the 3D model but no idea how to use Blender, could someone help me out with some pointers?" Immediately Roger Wickes responded, asking for the script and could he see other materials, etc. I sent him the script and he came back with, essentially, "I like this story! I'll do it for you." Holy cow, that was a pinnacle moment for sure! Turns out Roger does the tutorials on how to use Blender!

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

IGNATIUS: The smartest thing we did during production was give ourselves ample pre-production time - and use it, which we did. Brian and I dressed the location, walked through all the scenes with lighting tests, etc. for weeks before shooting. That is by far the most important part of any production - no prep, no flick.

I suppose the dumbest thing I did was pay that fx guy his budget entirely up front. Other than that, I think we were very responsible in making the film. I hit every one of our shooting days, we never went over budget or production time and I'm very proud of that.

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

IGNATIUS: I learned pretty much everything - it was an "all-hats" film school for sure. I will take the experience of making this film forever with me into larger budget productions.

I think the biggest, most important thing to realize is an actual philosophy, one that I tried to ingrain in my cast and crew: you have to be water, you have to flow around all obstacles. Because making a film is nothing more than solving a sequential stack of problems.

We just won Best Feature and Best Actor (Ivan Borntrager, Harrison) at the Idyllwild Independent Festival of Cinema! This was our first fest, and these awards are really incredible to have.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Christopher Olness on "Satin"

What was your filmmaking background before making Satin?

CHRIS: When I was in 7th grade I had the choice of either sitting silently in study hall or taking a super-8 filmmaking class. I took the class and made a film about a punk rocker with a Mohawk who’s eyeball falls out of his head, bounces down the street and eventually lands in a martini glass.

Later, I studied communications at UC Berkeley, filmmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute and directing at the American Film Institute (AFI). My first cinematic job was working for George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) in the editorial department. I actually got to suit up as a Stormtrooper.

Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like?

CHRIS: Satin began when actor/musician Hamilton von Watts approached me to develop a script about a down on his luck Vegas lounge singer. Hamilton was inspired by his friendship with west coast jazzman Teddy Edwards. I was drawn to the opportunity to tell the story of a struggling entertainer on the verge of slipping into obscurity - a cocky, smooth talking showman who had lost the joy of singing.

I was interested in exploring Satin’s world, the seedy side of Sin City most tourists to Vegas don’t see. But I also wanted to set up visual contrast by taking a hustler like Satin out of the bright lights and dropping him in the middle of the desert where plenty of “fish out of water” comedy could happen.

There’s just something about the desert that resonates with me. It could be from all those John Ford westerns or my own personal road trips through Nevada and Baja, Mexico. It could be the delight of departing from the cities many of us live in and entering a magical world where the sun sets a little slower and the drinks taste a little sweeter. What ever it was, the desert was calling.

Hamilton and I wrote the script together. Started with a strong outline and a binder full of notes, ideas and images. We’d meet in the morning for a few hours 4-5 days a week and bang out pages. I remember Hamilton pacing in character, full of energy. It was rewarding having an actor with his skills close by to improvise. We’d act out scenes and test dialogue. When the first draft was completed we took a breath and then jumped right in on another pass and then got the script in front of close advisors for feedback. With notes, we went back again, and again… until we felt we were there with it.

What are the three key requirements -- in your mind -- for making a successful movie for a small budget?

CHRIS: It depends on your definition of success. Because Satin was recently released, my mind right now is all about marketing and distribution. There’s success in reaching the audience and success in accomplishing what I set out to create. It is a goal of mine to make movies that are artistic and commercially successful - high quality movies that are both entertaining and thought provoking, for audiences around the world.

With that in mind, three key requirements are: 1) a solid script with a strong hook and universal themes that audiences can emotionally connect with; 2) casting talented and marketable actors; and 3) surrounding yourself with experienced and inspiring collaborators.

What's your advice for attracting well-respected, "name" actors to a low-budget project?

CHRIS: Unless you’re a big name director that actors are dying to work with, the script is what attracts talent. If you have a strong script the talent will come. Write characters that actors are dreaming to play - roles that test their chops, stretch their boundaries, win them awards… Write those roles and the actors will come.

You’re going to have to pay them, unless they’re in your family. But they might lower their fee for great material. The trick is getting to them, because they are busy, and some employ bouncers to deter offers that don’t pay for Bentleys. On Satin we worked with a highly-regarded casting director who agreed to help because of who we were and the material. I also had producers that were actors and they reached out to their friends.

I have this vision of a lonely actor sitting up in the Hollywood Hills looking out over the vast city. They have 4 weeks off between big studio pictures and they are growing restless. They want to come down and play. Make it easy for them to say, yes.

What kind of camera did you use and what are the pros -- and cons -- of using that system?

CHRIS: Satin was shot by D.P. Harris Charalambous on a Panavision camera, Super 35mm, 3 perf., Primo lenses.

The pros are it looks amazing - captures the fine details, rich color and handles shadows and highlights extremely well. The cost of film forces you to be well planned and very conscious about your coverage. On average, I did 3-4 takes only. Panavision Hollywood has always taken care of me - great customer service and support. Shooting 3 perf. was a way to burn a little less film and save some money.

Cons – In a low-budget situation the film costs don’t allow for much improvisation. The vibe on set is a little more serious, but that can be a good thing, makes people bring their A-game.

There are a lot of considerations that go into choosing camera package - the material, budget, mobility, desired feeling… Choose the best camera to serve the look of the story that fits within the budget. I generally rely on a strong D.P. like Charalambous, who is highly accomplished with both film and the latest digital cameras, to guide me. It is also important to think where will the life of the movie be -- Mann’s Chinese Theater - the Internet - or somewhere in between?

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

CHRIS: Besides getting a strong cast with recognizable faces that help sell the movie, one of the smartest things was taking a short break before heading to Vegas to shoot. We had shot for sixteen long days with only one day off and we were scheduled to drive from Los Angeles to the Mojave Desert and then to Las Vegas to finish. It was getting late, the crew was exhausted, and looking ahead not all the shooting logistics were nailed down.

But foremost, as Director, the crew’s well being is my responsibility, and I felt under the circumstances it was too dangerous to ask them to drive several hours in the dark. If someone fell asleep at the wheel it would be devastating... So I, with the backing of the other producers, decided to call it off. We regrouped fresh a couple weeks later, with a solid plan, skeleton crew, shot what we needed and it went smoothly. Can’t underestimate good moral and momentum.

The dumbest thing was not hiring a location scout. Inevitably on low budget movies everyone wears a lot of hats to save money, but finding and locking locations was harder and more time consuming than expected. In retrospect we should have hired a location scout. The money we saved was lost in valuable preproduction time.

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

CHRIS: I had previously directed shorts and commercials that only took a few days to shoot - you power through. A feature is a marathon. You have to pace yourself and keep the whole movie in sight while focusing on the moment-to-moment work. Here’s a thought, if I could get one more setup every day, at the end of an 18 day shoot I’d have 18 more looks -- 18 more pieces of gold.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Dan Futterman on "Capote"

Where did the idea to write Capote come from?

DAN FUTTERMAN: I got interested in Truman Capote in sort of an oblique way, and it was almost incidental that it ended up being specifically about Truman Capote.

There was a book that my Mom, who's a shrink, gave me called
The Journalist and The Murderer, by Janet Malcolm. It's about a case in California where a doctor named Jeffrey MacDonald was eventually convicted of killing his wife and children. Joe McGinniss was writing a book about him and eventually, when the book came out -- it was called Fatal Vision -- Jeffrey MacDonald sued Joe McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract.

Malcolm’s book is sort of a meditation on how could this happen. How could a convicted triple murderer sue the writer who's writing about his life? How could he convince himself that the writer was going to write something good about him? It dealt with the fact that the journalist is posing as a friend to get the subject to talk, and that the subject has hopes that he's going to be portrayed in a good light, and that the journalist is always playing off of that desire. The relationship is premised on a basic lie that's it's a natural relationship, and it's not, it's a transactional relationship.

That seemed interesting to me, and had there not been a TV movie made about that incident, I might have written about that.

Some years later I picked it up again and read it -- it's a pretty short book and I recommend it -- and just on the heals of reading that I read Gerald Clarke's biography of Capote, called
Capote, and there are two or three chapters that deal with the period in his life where he was writing In Cold Blood and his relationship with Perry Smith.

I wanted to write about that kind of relationship and deal with those kinds of questions. The fact that it was Truman Capote was an extremely lucky accident, because he's fascinating in so many ways and he's so verbal and also was a man who was struggling with some real demons, I think, and that made the work I was doing that much more interesting and deeper.

You had the distinct advantage, as a beginning writer, of being married to a working writer. How did she help you in this process?

DAN FUTTERMAN: Although it doesn't seem like there's a lot of plot in the movie -- it's about a guy writing a book about an event that already happened -- but it is quite plotty when you get down to it. And she was clear and strict with me, saying "If there are any scenes where people are just talking about something that you think is going to be interesting, cut it, because if it's not moving the plot forward it doesn't belong in the script." And that was important to learn. And it was something that I had never considered.

I did an outline, somewhere between twenty and twenty-five pages with a paragraph for each scene, with dialogue suggestions. And the script came out probably 80% tied to that outline.

Did you take any classes or read any books on screenwriting before you sat down and wrote the outline?

DAN FUTTERMAN: No, I didn't take any classes. I read the Robert McKee book (
Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting) that I guess everybody reads, and I found that pretty helpful --- his clarity about story. I think that was an important lesson for me to learn over and over again, that story is primary. Clever dialogue is not what it's about. It's got to ride on the story, and then you can hang stuff off of that.

And then it was just a matter of trial and error. And the lucky fact of having a subject who has been quoted as having said a lot of funny things, of which I put as many as possible into the screenplay.