Thursday, October 27, 2011

Travis Mills on “The Big Something”

What was your filmmaking background before making The Big Something?

TRAVIS: I went to film school at ASU and made a few shorts but things didn't really take out till I started Running Wild Films with Gus Edwards in 2010. We threw out tradition and rejected the culture around us. Filmmakers like Godard, Herzog, and Cassavetes were our models, in terms of their passion and their urge to make films without the restrictions of Hollywood structures and techniques. We made shorts fast and cheap, exploring genres and styles.

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

TRAVIS: The idea came from my days working in a record store in Tempe, Arizona. The employees and the customers were bizarre people who left lasting impressions and they had to be fictionalized somehow. With the help of a sketch comedy writer Ryan Gaumont, these characters made their way into a mystery plot.

The writing process went slower than I hoped. I think the best way to write screenplays is very fast, the way I've read the old Studio pros worked back in the 30s and 40s. We worked out the problems and finished but I learned not to over-think a first draft.

Can you talk about how you made the movie for $2,000 -- where did you cut corners and what did you spend the $2,000 on?

TRAVIS: I have to say that everyone I talked to thought I was crazy to make a feature for $2,000. But it had been done before and I knew there were clever ways to get around spending money. I found locations with co-operative owners, restaurants to give us food for free, and actors/crew hungry and passionate enough to work for the experience. You can't go into one of these projects asking how much it's going to cost; you have to think, "how am I going to get it for nothing?" You never know what you'll get as long as you have the guts to ask.

I spent most of the budget we had on our record store location (a beautiful place of the past essential to the movie) and picking up some extra equipment. If I hadn't produced the movie myself, if I'd had some help, we could have done it for cheaper.

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

TRAVIS: We used a Canon T3i. We'd worked with that one once before and others like it a few times. I'm not very technical; I suspend that side of production to my DP and crew so I can focus on story and performance. To be honest, how it looks is the least of my concerns and I think that modern film is dominated by great-looking images and poor stories.

However, I enjoy the size of the camera and how easy it is to use. On the bad side, I think the DSLRs can easily seduce you into focus and depth of field issues that will trap your movie in a visual box.

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

TRAVIS: The smartest: to trust my instincts and not over-analyze my decisions. Often times, we were faced with the possibility of doing something ridiculous in a scene (mostly concerning performance). Some of us might have felt scared because this style of acting was unordinary or outlandish. But my gut said, "go with it." It was instinct filmmaking, not an intellectual process, and that's how I like it.

The dumbest: I scheduled the fourteen days of production pretty well. One of my mistakes came as quite a surprise. I purposely made the last four days of production light and easy on cast and crew. This move produced the opposite effect than I hoped. Instead of appreciation for time to rest, it was greeted with laziness. The set turned lethargic and I struggled to bring the energy back up. I learned not to make things easy; people don't respect easy.

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

TRAVIS: We're just now starting work on our next feature, The Detective's Lover. Like I said before, I've learned to trust my instincts completely, however outlandish the ideas may be. Only this way can we learn to make original movies.

Beyond that, I feel that I don't know my characters well enough and that maybe I haven't pushed my actors to also know them as well as they should. I'm going challenge myself and them to the limit.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Joe Infantolino on “Helena From The Wedding”

What prompted you to make the switch from producing to directing?

JOE: I didn't really make a conscious switch. I just started writing and directing. I will say that part of the motivation was that producing is a lot about finding money and I'm more interested in films and story and execution. That said, I like helping other writers and directors make films and am always open to projects that need producing.

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

JOE: The seed of the idea came from the location which is a cabin in the mountains of upstate New York that has been in my family for a long time and which is not used for months at a time. I decided to make a film there and then needed a story. My only rule was that it needed to take place only at and around the cabin.

As I got into it, it turned into a working out of what was on my mind at the time. Having recently gotten married, I was thinking a lot about what it meant to be married. Approaching forty I was thinking about what it meant to no longer be "young." And so on. At some point I got an image in my head of the last shot in the film: a man and a woman standing and facing each other and just looking at each other. Then I worked backward to come up with a story to get to that image.

It was not the typical "what if..." process but more of an investigation, a "who are these people and how did they come to be standing in front of each other just looking at each other and what are they thinking about?" process. Once the main action started to center around two newlyweds, I thought it would be interesting to set the story over the course of a New Year's weekend celebration.

The writing process started with me walking around for a few months thinking and then took about a year from sitting down to write to the actual shooting. I started with the last scene and then went to the first scene and wrote it forward. The first draft took a few months and then I re-wrote it up until shooting but it didn't change fundamentally. The re-writing was a process of making a lot of small changes which cumulatively made a big difference.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?

JOE: I was never going to raise a budget. I was just going to pay for it as I went along. Initially I set out to create a film with three characters and the crew was going to be me, a DP and a sound guy and we were all going to live in the cabin. As I got into the writing, more and more characters started showing up to the party and it became clear that I would need a bit more crew to deal with them and we were all not going to be able to live in the cabin.

When I budgeted the first draft of the script, the rough cost came out to be about $100,000, an amount I didn't have lying around. And then an interesting thing happened. I found out I was going to be a father. Not only did this news reverberate somewhat in subsequent drafts of the script, it forced me to sell my apartment, and I potentially had my budget. A few friends wound up putting in five or ten thousand dollars which, given the budget, was significant.

As far as recouping costs go, I sold the film to a small distributor called Film Movement. The initial advance covered 20-30% of the budget, but the deal was only for North America and it contained a small theatrical release, which was important for me. We'll see if there are any overages. I have a company called Forward Entertainment brokering foreign rights and we'll see how that goes. So far I think we've sold television in Spain and Portugal for 10-15% of the budget. I think if it recoups it will be through additional foreign television sales.

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

JOE: We used the Sony EX-3. I loved that it was very small so we could shoot the entire film, except for the last shot, handheld. I also loved that it was able to capture a great looking image in natural and practical light. Those two things sped things up enough to be able to shoot the film in 12 days and also allowed me to keep the focus on working with the actors. I like digital because I like to shoot long takes, usually at least the entire scene, and also I like to shoot a lot both before and after the actual scene on the page.

How did you cast your ensemble and what advice would you offer to someone trying to cast a movie with multiple characters all around the same age?

JOE: I worked with two great casting directors, Suzanne Smith Crowley and Jessica Kelly at Christie Street Casting. We held many rounds of auditions. They sent the entire script out to prospective cast so everybody came in knowing the whole as well as their piece of it. Through this process I found everyone but Alice and Alex, the main newlywed couple at the center of the film.

One of the producers, Alexa Fogel, is a casting director and had done OZ and suggested Lee Tergesen for the husband, who I have known for a long time but for whatever reason didn't think of him for the role. We met once and it was obvious he was Alex. He didn't even read. About the same time, Suzanne and Jessica met Melanie Lynskey, who was in town for a day from LA auditioning on another project. They put Melanie on tape in the morning and met her in the afternoon and cast her as Alice I think on the spot.

I would advise anyone casting any film to do a lot of auditions. If you can afford a great casting director, hire one. Not just for handling logistics and to give you credibility within the actor community, but for their opinions. Also, auditions are a great way to learn about your characters and story.

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

JOE: The structure of the film and the story didn't change. It is as it was on the page, except we cut one or two scenes that felt redundant. Some things about the characters changed and some things about their attitudes towards one another changed. We didn't do very many takes, maybe 2 or 3 on average but I usually went out of my way to adjust the actors wildly from take to take and in addition to coverage, that gave me some interesting options to mix and match and create some moments and shape the characters in ways that I didn't completely envision at the script stage.

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

JOE: The smartest was to conceive a film that could be done well for the budget I had and also to hire great actors and crew and then to trust those actors and crew. The dumbest was to write a climactic scene that would be lit only with exploding fireworks, and then schedule it for the final night of shooting and not check and make sure we had enough fireworks to do more than one take.

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

JOE: Prepare and don't panic.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Tara Miele on "The Lake Effect"

What was your filmmaking background before making The Lake Effect?

TARA: I had directed a couple of short films that did the festival circuit, Miss Gentilbelle, based on a short story by Charles Beaumont, and Smackers a minute and a half long parable about the downfall of Junior High royalty. I started writing features in the hopes of convincing someone to let me direct one -- I sold Cougars to Gold Circle, Tits to Silverwood Films, and Cover Your Assets to Lionsgate before meeting up with Jennifer Westin and writing The Lake Effect.

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

TARA: The idea came in the middle of the night several years back - I was desperate to get pregnant and my husband wasn't ready - and I thought there was something interesting about a guy who wasn't ready to have kids but maybe already had one... and maybe his daughter was about to have one herself...

I wanted to write it then but my reps said it was too small so I put it on the shelf. I didn't really think about it again until two years later - I was 4 1/2 months pregnant and I got an email from a friend who knew a producer who was looking for a script/director to shoot a micro budget movie in Michigan.

I pitched the idea to Jennifer Westin and she really responded to it... so I lied and told her I had a treatment on it! I told her I could adjust it to be set in a lake house in Michigan and send it to her in the morning... I went home that night and wrote a 7-page treatment.

The whole writing process was lightning fast because I was pregnant and had to fly back to LA before I hit 37 weeks... so we planned everything around my due date. I wrote the first draft in about 5 days, got notes and a week later did the second draft in about five more days... It wasn't ideal but I was still writing through pre-production, while I scouted Michigan. That turned out to be a blessing - I really had an opportunity to develop the project for where we were shooting - South Haven and Michigan and the lake house just naturally became characters in the film.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?

TARA: Jennifer structured the film like an arts project. We were sponsored by the Kalamazoo Arts Council and received donations from dozens of generous donors. Because of that, we have very little to recoup. It's the only way that making a movie this small was financially feasible.

What kind of camera did you use to shoot the movie -- and what did you love about it and hate about it?

TARA: We shot on the Sony EX-1. I loved that it was small and fast and easy to go guerilla with. I hated that we didn't have the look of lenses but at the end of the day, my cinematographer (also my husband Brett Juskalian) made the film look stunning. I swear, we could shoot on a Fischer Price camera and make things pretty. Also, it was frustrating when we got into editing (on a Mac) and there were some problems between Sony and Mac...

How did you and Brett, your DP achieve the look of the movie?

TARA: Because the DP is my husband, we have a good short hand and we had plenty of time to find the look, which was dictated partly by our surroundings and partly from the limitations of our shoot schedule.

We shot handheld because we needed to move quickly and because I wanted there to be a looseness and naturalness to the movie. We also wanted to make sure that the camera's movement reflected the intensity of the scenes, so every scene had a number -- "camera shaky 1-5" -- so we could easily be on the same page about what the movement should be like. Because we barely had lights to use, we played with natural light as much as possible - as the character's get closer, the movie literally gets warmer - a good example is the great sunset light during the birth scene at the end.

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

TARA: The smartest thing I did during production was re-write and re-shoot the end of the movie. After we shot the original ending, I watched dailies and I knew it wasn't working. Our shoot schedule was so tight, I had to sacrifice time on other scenes. Our longest day after that was 8 7/8 pages... but now I love the end of the movie.

The dumbest thing I did was shoot endless hours of footage around the house the day after we wrapped. I had first time director disease. Everyone had gone home and I couldn't stop shooting. I was dragging Brett around, making him shoot close-ups of fruit bowls. To be fair, SOME of that stuff made it in... like 1%.

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

TARA: I learned that you don't have to abuse your crew to get your movie made. I learned that next time, I want more than 15 shoot days.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Wayne Kramer on "The Cooler"

What was the genesis of the script for The Cooler?

WAYNE KRAMER: My good friend,, Frank Hannah is a fountain of great ideas and he used to bounce stuff off of me all the time. I had only sold one project to Hollywood at the time (Mindhunters, which was in the process of being rewritten by the umpteenth writer) and had had a couple of scripts optioned, but nothing was really happening with them. My original goal was always to write and direct, but nobody was interested in letting me direct anything at the time since I had zero track record.

When Frank pitched me the core idea for The Cooler (a guy with contagious bad luck being used by a casino, who falls in love and gets lady luck which backfires on the casino), I instantly responded to it. I told him that's the idea he should be working on and that he should start writing it immediately. At the same time, I was looking to direct my first "real" feature and I had interest from a producer (Michael Pierce) about financing something at a real low budget. I just couldn't let the idea go and a few days later I called up Frank and asked him if he would be interested in writing The Cooler with me -- but only on the condition that I get to direct it -- and, thankfully, he was amenable to that.

So we sat down (fairly quickly) and worked out most of the story beats. We both blurted out Bill Macy's name as the perfect guy for the role right at the start. We wrote it with him in mind -- to this day, I don't think that another actor could ever do justice to that part. There was a time when Bill wasn't going to do the movie and another actor was being considered for it -- and I think it would have never been the movie I wanted it to be without Bill.

Since Frank has the gambling gene and I don't, when we were ready to write the actual script, I broke it down so that I would write the more character focused stuff and Frank would concentrate on more of the casino action and then I blended the scenes together into a singular work.

Were you concerned about budget at all while writing --- that is to say, did you write with keeping the budget low in mind?

WAYNE KRAMER: Absolutely. First and foremost in my mind was that I needed to deliver a script that could be shot for about a million dollars or less. One of the things that attracted me to the idea at the time was that it could be made for very little money. Most of it was set on a casino floor and in Shelly's office and a motel room.

Our biggest challenge initially was that it was written to be a period piece and that would have been cost prohibitive. By giving it a contemporary setting, I was still able to retain somewhat of a period vibe by keeping the Shangri-la casino in a "time warp." I don't think the film would have been as interesting if it was set in the 70's as we originally envisioned. This was a case of budget constraints on us making the material even better.

Even though the original was always about the changing face of Vegas, it just became more "relevant" in 2002 because Vegas was really exploding into this amusement park behemoth at the time.

If one breaks the script down, it's all set within the casino and hotel, other than two or three other locations. And that's the way we approached production, to try and shoot everything in one location - which is what we ended up doing. We must have shot about 90 percent of the film at what was known as the Golden Phoenix at the time (formerly the Flamingo in Reno). Even luckier for us, the casino/hotel was going through renovations, so it was closed to the public. They were literally tearing up the casino floor while we were shooting.

Can you think of one or two money-saving tricks you did while shooting that other low-budget filmmakers could learn from?

WAYNE KRAMER: Well, the more prepared you are, the more you're going to save money on what's important. This probably relates to the next question as well, but I knew every shot I wanted to film and where the camera was going to be looking. I had spent the previous six months up until the day of shooting storyboarding every frame of the film -- I was determined to leave nothing to chance. Of course, you make changes to your boards, but you have a strong blueprint for what you want the film to be and everyone can refer to it when they have questions.

Besides storyboarding, you want to limit your company moves while shooting, which means finding locations that are really close to one another, or even better, within the same structure.

We were amazingly lucky on The Cooler, because we shot in an existing hotel/casino and were able to not only use the casino floor (which we did significant production design work to), but their theater, including the backstage area, where we built the interior of Bernie's motel room, their employment office (doubling for a hospital), their hotel rooms, an upstairs restaurant was turned into Shelly's office and so on.

When we did venture outside of the casino, we probably only traveled a block or two, so we never had to wrap our main location. We also housed and fed the crew in the hotel, so we could just walk away from the equipment at night without having to worry about wrap time or travel eating into our budget and schedule. It was a truly miraculous scenario, but borne out of solid planning and scouting.

Is there a key lesson you took away from your experience on The Cooler?

WAYNE KRAMER: For me, I learned it was all about collaboration.

Surround yourself with talented people who understand your vision for the film and let them bring their best to the table. If your ego gets in the way, you'll only end up hurting yourself.

At the same time, you cannot allow your vision for the film to be usurped by cast or crew. You have to follow your gut and it's a difficult balance to maintain.

Directing is a tough job and everyone around you on the set seems to be having more fun - because you're too busy stressing about the next setup or an actor that you haven't cast yet, or a million different things. You have to stay focused at all times and be able to think quickly on your feet.

You also have to KNOW your film. If you know your film, you'll be up to the challenge. It's also about keeping the film tonally consistent.

Preparation and collaboration is everything. And CONFIDENCE. Even if it's an act. Never let them see you sweat.

Most important is that you work with good people. Trustworthy people. If you don't have a final cut contract, pray that your producers and financiers are behind you.

The biggest battles I've ever fought are in the editing room - or after test screenings. This is where I find a filmmaker is at his/her most vulnerable.

You can shoot a great movie, but the money guys have to be willing to let you release the best version of the film and not just the most commercial version. I thank Ed Pressman for having the balls to back me artistically on The Cooler, because it could have been a far different movie if someone like Harvey Weinstein had gotten his hands on it.