Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ty Hodges on “Miles from Home”

What was your filmmaking background before making Miles From Home?

TY: Miles From Home was my first filmmaking experience. Before I was just witnessing productions from an Actor perspective but I was always fascinated by the art of filmmaking.

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

TY: It was inspired by the growing issues of teenage prostitution and young people that are being raised by society and finding their identity in it. I also felt like from an Actor perspective, roles are not reflecting what is going on in the world.
What's the secret to making a successful low-budget movie?

TY: I think patience and having a great team full of resources. When you don't have a huge budget you have to be supported by a greater purpose.

You wore a lot of hats on this production: writer, director, producer. How did you juggle all those balls at once?

TY: My Faith. It's important to me to be very clear when you're creating. I love being involved wearing all hats because I feel completely invested and selfless. It's a beautiful process.
What kind of camera did you use ... and what did you love about it and hate about it?

TY: DVX 100. I think as long as you have a great story and great DP, that’s what it's all about. Big ups to Todd Segal.

Did the movie change much during the editing process, and if so, how?

TY: It did but I think that’s true with every film. I think it was about managing the tone. With this film dealing with serious issues, we had to make sure there was a balance. You want to keep your audience in mind when editing. I want them to enjoy the experience but also to give them the respect of being an intelligent film viewer.
What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?

TY: The smartest thing was to hire a amazing cast and crew that was relentless. To be honest I don't believe in "the dumbest" things... I believe you learn from everything. Especially when making films, the more you experience the process the more you find your craft.

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

TY: Patience. And, making sure your team is about the project and never the ego.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson on "Small, Beautifully Moving Parts”

What was your filmmaking background before making Small, Beautifully Moving Parts?

We’ve both been filmmakers for a while now – about ten years. We’ve each made a number of short films that have played the festival circuit from Telluride to SXSW to Cannes to Newport.

A few years ago, we starting making a web series together – SPARKS – which has subsequently been licensed by The Sundance Channel.

In addition, we both work as screenwriters and film professors … and before that? We studied at NYU’s M.F.A. in Film program – that’s where we became friends.

Where did the idea come from and what was the writing process like -- how did you share the writing responsibilities?

A few years ago, we began a conversation about technology – and in particular the ways in which people have become attached to and have begun to treat small machines – their computers, phones, printers – with the same emotions reserved for human relationships, love, hatred, disgust.

We began to make our series, SPARKS, that explored both what was funny and poignant about the technological landscape, and created a protagonist who loved machines so much that she goes into business counseling clients on how to better relate to them. After we’d completed six episodes of the series, we wanted to go further with these ideas and characters, and spin something more complex emotionally. So we gave Sarah Sparks, the protagonist, a pregnancy – an unexpected pregnancy – within a happy relationship, but we also filled her with ambivalence about becoming a parent as her own mother had left her at a young age.

So she decides to hit the road and visit her family, looking for answers about parenthood; looking for her mom, who is now living off the grid. As far as writing responsibilities, we basically split the duties tag-team, wherein one person works on one section and then gives it to the other for comments and improvement, and vice versa.

How did you share directing duties and what's the plus side -- and the minus side -- to working that way?

We basically shared the directing in a way that was so free flowing we can barely analyze it. On the most basic level, we would trade off, one person being more or less on shot construction while the other worked with the actors. Sometimes we’d switch after a day, sometimes after a few hours. We would both be watching everything and check in constantly on all decisions.

The plus side is having two brains on every challenge.

The minus? That the crew and cast have to form two relationships instead of one. Sometimes that’s just more work.

What camera package did you use for production and what did you like -- and not like -- about it?

We used the Canon 7D – we’re part of the DSLR revolution. We had a great set of lenses and a great DP. We love the soft look, the way in which this camera makes everything look beautiful. We also loved that we did not draw much attention with this rig, which was very helpful for us as we have a documentary interview element in our film.

We didn’t like that it wasn’t exactly made for filmmaking – so for instance it constantly auto-power-saves after extended use, and did not have the greatest of monitoring options.

What's the secret to doing a "road picture" on a small budget?

Stay small! We fit everything into one van -- we were a “movie-in-a-van.” That vehicle also served as our picture car. We had all crew and equipment expertly packed inside, then in each city, we would add crew and actors to the equation. When we were done shooting in a given location, we’d hop back in the van, downsized to our original small family.

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

The smartest thing we did in production was surround ourselves with incredibly talented people. The dumbest thing was to leave a bottle of champagne in the bottom of the van in 110 degree heat. And … we didn’t take enough time off.

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

Well, we haven’t made any additional projects yet … but we imagine the following:

- Coverage is key – we were able to really shape character arcs due to having great coverage and a range of performances from the cast. This included getting a LOT of “b-roll” out the window … if you happen to be making a road movie.

- Location, location, location – our landscapes became a character. Write for location. It’s the key to enhancing drama.

- Keep everything light on set and at your film’s premiere. Focus on fun. Otherwise the entire enterprise is just too stressful.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Roland Tec on “All the Rage”

What was your filmmaking background before making All the Rage?

ROLAND: Before I made All the Rage I had made one short film called Hooking Up, which was a 13-min. riff on the language of the one-night stand. I was lucky in that I completed that short in 1995, which was a very good year for small indie gay film. Suddenly I was being invited to film festivals all over the world. By screening Hooking Up here and there, I came into contact with many of the people who would encourage me to make a feature film, some of whom actually put their money where their mouth was and invested. Cash. Something I still feel grateful for. It's always a huge risk putting money into a film of any kind. Putting money into one directed by a newbie, even more so.

Before making Hooking Up I'd gotten the film bug when I was invited by filmmaker Marian Chang to score her short operatic film, An Ego Floats in the Secretarial Pool, which was a wonderful experience for me. Marian was incredibly generous and I learned a lot from her on set.

The other major source of learning support for me when I was just starting out were two organizations that sadly no longer exist: BFVF (Boston Film & Video Foundation) and AIVF (The Association of Independent Video & Film in NYC). I took many workshops for very little money, got to volunteer on other folks' films and learned that way.

Those types of organizations served a vital purpose: providing training and artistic community for fledgling filmmakers who didn't have the money or the inclination to commit to film school. I went to graduate school for music composition and I never considered going to film school. By the time I started making films, I was a bit tired of formal graduate programs. I needed to be more independent.

I understand that you adapted the script from a play you had written. What was the adaptation process like and how did the story change from stage to screen?

ROLAND: I worked very, very hard to translate what had been a one-man two-act play into a fully-realized screenplay so I was especially gratified when Kevin Thomas acknowledged as much in his Los Angeles Times review, by remarking that one would never in a million years have guessed the film had been adapted from a play.

Beyond the obvious expected adjustments one might make in terms of "opening it up" to actually let us see the cast of characters that we had only heard about in the play, there was a major key difference between the two and that was in the ending. Part of the dynamic of the play is a relationship between the main character, Christopher Bedford, and the audience, in whom he confides his deepest darkest secrets... something he cannot seem to do with the actual people who populate his world.

This element couldn't really exist in the same way on film. And in the play, the end of the play has a lot to do with that relationship. With Christopher acknowledging some of his own flaws and yearning for growth and in a way (subtle, I hope) acknowledging the role the audience has played in getting him there. None of that would have worked on film. So I had to start from scratch and ask myself some tough questions about what the audience might want from this story as a satisfying ending.

It's funny to put it in those terms now because, of course, the ending I came up with was most controversial. In fact, without giving it away, I got a lot of flack from the gay community about the rage that appears (seemingly out of left field) in the final 6 minutes of screen time. But, honestly, I think if you go back and view the film carefully, the seeds of that anger are inside our main character from the very beginning. They just need the perfect catalyst to bring them out.

One more note on the end: I had more than one distributor pass on the film specifically because of the ending. It’s a brutal way to end an otherwise fun and sexy little film and most distributors were afraid of that. Keep in mind, this was 1998, when we were at the height of the Queer Indie Film Movement, when distributors had just discovered how hungry gay and lesbian audiences were for queer storytelling. Few suspected that the community was ready to embrace some darker stuff. Of course, that was not (as it rarely is) in fact true. Many dark films did succeed with the gay audiences, including All the Rage.

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

ROLAND: Why three? Hmm. Okay, let me see. Well, I think actually the first one that comes to mind is key to making any successful movie, regardless of budget. And that is: having a core producing team of smart people that you trust with your life. This is so crucial. Making a film is like running a marathon or climbing a mountain. There's a lot of stress. There are always bumps in the road. When you know that the 2 or 3 core producers have your back, it's a lot easier to focus on what needs to be done and to effectively problem-solve.

That's why I feel so lucky to have worked with wonderful producers like: Kelly Lawman, Catherine Burns, Darren Chilton, Chris Arruda... the list goes on and on. I think also, when I worked on Ed Zwick's film, Defiance, I was fortunate to learn a lot about producing just by watching Pieter Jan Brugge. The most impressive thing I observed was that the moment there was even a hint of something going wrong, Pieter Jan was right on top of the problem. Making sure it didn't get bigger. That's key.

Other things I think made the production of All the Rage possible was goodwill from the local community. We got so much stuff donated simply because the gay community and the local South End neighborhood businesses (where we largely shot) were proud that we were making a feature film about them. So, I guess that would be the second element I'd say is essential: connection to your community. It's just too hard to make a feature on a limited budget without strong community support. It makes such a huge difference.

The third thing I'd say is you need producers who are shameless about stretching the budget as far as it will go. By that I mean, people who enjoy the challenge of being told they only have $100 to pay for something that ordinarily would cost $1,000. People who love figuring out how to get stuff discounted and/or donated are essential.

Okay, I know you said three things but I have to add one more because it's probably the most important of all and I can't believe I didn't mention it first. You have to have a good script. Too many indie filmmakers I meet have not taken the time necessary to make sure the script is really working. Now what do I mean by that? Basically it comes down to a few basic things, but just because they're basic doesn't mean they're easy to achieve, by any means.

You have to have believable characters, characters written in a way that feels honest and doesn't feel "manufactured." And you need some coherent shape to the thing. A story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In essence, a journey. Obviously this can take myriad forms, but without those things, the whole project is doomed from the start and there's just too many dollars, days and lives at stake to not do the necessary homework refining the script. The script is the blueprint. If it's shoddy. The whole structure will collapse.

You and your team made a really professional-looking movie for a small budget -- how did you achieve that level of "gloss" for so little?

ROLAND: We had a wonderfully talented and resourceful team of designers. That's how. It really is as simple as that.

Our Production Designer, Louis Ashman, someone I'd known for years to be a brilliant interior decorator, but new to filmmaking, did a marvelous job of making every location look like a million bucks on a dime. And of course our Director of Photography, Gretchen Widmer did the same. I mean, she worked very well with our Gaffer, Evans Brown, to give the film a high-gloss look.

Actually there were three distinct looks they were going for depending on the scene. And they were sharply contrasting in terms of color palette, lighting style, camera movement, lens and angle, etc. etc. Our Costume Designer, Sarah Pfeiffer did the same. She went to designers and got unbelievable clothes on loan to the production in exchange for screen credit. So the boys looked stunning in their Hugo Boss suits and Merle Perkins was never seen on screen in the same outfit twice.

One final note on shooting on a shoestring. One area where you need to spend money up front and you cannot afford to cut corners: Sound. We hired the best Sound Mixer working in Boston at that time, a guy by the name of John Garrett. And he delivered 99% pristine sound. This made our Post-Production experience far easier. If you haven't captured good sound, i.e. where you can hear every line of dialogue clearly in order to tell your story in the editing room, you're in for a lot of headaches and a lot of unnecessary spending in Post.

Did the movie change much during the editing process, and if so, how?

ROLAND: Absolutely! And I believe every film does. Every film must. Because filmmaking... I mean the actual construction of it, really does take place in the editing room. Jon Altschuler, my editor, and I worked for weeks juggling scenes here and there. Cutting this, trimming that. Putting that back in.

There are a few cuts we made in the final weeks that I still regret, but I'm told by other filmmakers that I'm not alone in that. It's just so hard when you're so close to something to have a clear sense of what might be dull or tedious to someone watching the picture for the first time. That's why I am a strong believer in screening rough cuts for friends and colleagues early and often in your process, if you can. That can be a huge help.

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

ROLAND: The smartest thing I did was surround myself with people who knew a lot more about their various areas of expertise than I did.

Dumbest thing I did? Probably, allow the casting process to be rushed. There were a couple of choices that were made in haste and looking back I think if I had it to do again, I should have insisted on a few more weeks of casting in New York to get the perfect cast. But, again, this is not as simple as I make it sound. When you have investors committing large sums and schedules and locations are being hammered out, the possibility of delaying the start of Principal Photography has huge implications... most of which inevitably will end up costing the production extra money. And we certainly didn't have much of that.

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

ROLAND: The biggest lesson I learned on All the Rage was that of all the things a director does on set, the most important thing he or she should never forget, is to carve out a calm and quiet space in which the actors can do their work. In other words, everyone on a film set is rushing because time is money, right? Lighting team is rushing to put up the lights. Sound, to wire for sound. Art Director to dress the set. Etc. etc. A film shoot is really a race to the finish line. You've got a real tight schedule and you need to complete as many pages each day as possible so as not to go over budget.

However, the moment the actors walk onto the set and are ready to start shooting, the director must slow everyone down and insist that the entire crew take a deep breath and make a space. Without that, actors cannot breathe and cannot be creative in bringing their characters to life authentically.

This is something I learned DURING the shooting of All the Rage. So if you really pay close attention to the performances, and you have a bit of experience in this sort of thing, you can almost sort out which scenes were shot early in our schedule and which were shot later. Now that I've learned that, though, I'll never forget it. And it's something I'm most rigid about on set when I direct. I will not start shooting a scene until every actor is comfortable that he or she has had the needed time and space to get focused and centered.

The other big lesson I learned is that although we are directors and we do have to steer the ship, there is a certain degree to which a film will find itself in the process of its being made. In other words, the film you end up with cannot and should not be exactly the film you imagined on Day One.

Understanding that and paying attention to the little signs is essential to allowing the film to find its organic truth. This is something that seems to get easier the older I get. I'm less afraid of not knowing exactly how everything is going to sort itself out.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Roger Nygard on "Suckers"

What was going on with you before you started Suckers?

ROGER NYGARD: At that time I had made three movies. My first film was a one-man show, one-room comedy, written by and starring Steve Odenkirk. We made that film for about $350,000. Then my second film was a $2 million dollar action picture, for a company called Overseas Film Group. Their films are primarily foreign-sales driven.

I remember seeing that movie. There was a lot of action.

ROGER NYGARD: You've got to have five action set pieces, that's the rule for those sort of movies. That's what's expected from the foreign buyers to make their foreign sales. I know we had at least five; we might have had six. But five is the minimum requirement.

The third movie was Trekkies, my first documentary, about Star Trek fans.

In doing Suckers, I was coming off of those three films, which were all very different and driving my agents crazy, because they didn't know what I was. Was I the documentary guy, am I the action guy, am I the comedy guy? So Suckers was a new thing, a sort of grisly dramatic comedy, I guess, with some action.

I had been writing that script with my co-writer, Joe Yannetty, while shooting Trekkies, because you always have to be thinking three movies ahead and have several projects percolating.

Joe had written a one-man show about his experiences selling cars. I read portions of that and he told me some of the stories, and I said, "You've got to make a movie about this. These stories are incredible." So that's where it started.

Joe and I worked together writing the script, based on his experiences, which is a process for me as a screenwriting that I have works best. I almost always work with a writing partner, and the reason is that I grew up in Minnesota, pretty average background. Went to college. Moved to California to seek my fortune in the film business. I never got a job as a CIA agent, never went into the marines, never became a fireman or a cop, didn't go on the road and get arrested or sell cars. You can't write about life experiences that you haven't personally lived, unless you research them extensively or partner up with someone who has lived those experiences.

My writing style is that I tend to write with people who have had interesting life experiences, but don't necessarily have the desire or the fortitude or the persistence to bring it to the screen.

Most screenwriters hate it when someone comes up to them and says, "My life would make a great movie," but it sounds like, depending on the person, you might sit down and talk to them.

ROGER NYGARD: That's how I operate. I think everybody has one good screenplay in them, based on their own life. And that's often the first place to start and the best place to start for a screenwriter is your own life, because that's what you know -- as long as you're willing to rip open your soul. You have to bare yourself to the world in order to write something that other people will be interested in reading and perhaps making as a movie.

It's not easy. It's hard. You've got to write things that you wouldn't even tell your shrink. Those are the screenplays that really stand out.

So when I say that everybody has one good screenplay in them, it's if they're willing to bare their soul and write about those skeletons in the closet, those experiences.

How did you come up with the idea of setting the story on four consecutive Saturdays?

ROGER NYGARD: That was because that's how the car business runs. Every Saturday there's a sales meeting. It's an inspirational meeting, a motivational meeting. It's a time for everybody to gauge where they are against everyone else, because there's always that competitive aspect. So that's how we broke it down, because the industry that we were writing about breaks itself down monthly and weekly. Every month they start over, the cycle begins again. They zero out everybody's totals and start again on Monday at the beginning of every new month. The structure suggested itself to us because the arena we were writing about was based on a monthly structure.

How nervous were you about setting the whole first act in that first sales meeting?

ROGER NYGARD: You know, we broke a lot of structural rules with Suckers. And, in hindsight, there is a lot I would do differently, having learned what I've learned since then and having seen how that experiment worked, where it worked and where it failed.

Part of the excitement of filmmaking is taking chances sometimes. Sometimes you're going to fail spectacularly. And we took a big chance structuring the first act that way. But I don't think it was the biggest chance we took.

What was the biggest chance?

ROGER NYGARD: The biggest chance in the script was doing a genre shift from the second to the third act, which many people disconcerting. Audiences are not used to -- and don't like -- when you shift from one genre to another in a movie.

Quentin Tarantino did it also in From Dusk 'Til Dawn. It starts out as kind of a crime caper/road chase, and then shifts into a monster movie, which threw a lot of people. I think that film was less successful than it might have been also, because people just don't like genre shifts. They want to know what the genre is from the beginning of the movie, what's the level of reality of the story, and then you have to stick to it.

If you don't, then you're taking a chance or doing an art film.

Did you consider other possible climaxes and endings?

ROGER NYGARD: I wish we had considered more, but as soon as we unearthed that story, it felt right to us while we were writing the script. Again, looking back, yeah, I think we could have finished the movie just as engagingly and kept it in the car sales realm, without having to go into the crime and drug-trafficking realm.

But then you would have lost the opportunity to have many of the film's character all shoot each other simultaneously in a small room.

ROGER NYGARD: Yes, and we would have lost my favorite line of the movie: "You're so beyond fucked, you couldn't catch a bus back to fucked."

You kind of fall in love with some things, but in the editing room you spend time killing your babies, that's the term for it. Sometimes you have to cut out the things you're in love with for the good of the whole.

When you did your research at the car dealership, did they know what you were up to?

ROGER NYGARD: Oh, yeah, and they were excited to talk about what they do. I rarely find people unwilling to talk, whether I'm making documentaries or researching characters for a narrative screenplay. It's harder to get them to shut up, actually, then to get them started.

I went to several dealerships with my tape recorder and talked to people and asked them to tell me stories. People love to talk about themselves.

What was the biggest lesson you took away from Suckers?

ROGER NYGARD: The biggest one we already discussed, which is not to violate the rules so dramatically, which we did with the genre shift. That was my biggest lesson.

The corollary was to keep writing, always be writing. Like ABC from Glengarry Glen Ross-- ABC, Always Be Closing. ABW -- Always Be Writing.

The script I'm working on right now is something where I hatched the idea for it about three or four years ago, but I didn't know what to do with it. And it took three or four years of gestating within my brain before it started to form into a shape. It was an idea I told to one of my writing partners and he really sparked to it, and so it moved itself to the top of the pile.

That's why you need to have a lot of ideas and a lot of projects and a lot of things going, because I think your subconscious is working on these projects at different paces. The more you've got going, the more likely one of them is going to sprout.