Thursday, September 26, 2013

Fred Terling on “Croaker”

What was your filmmaking background before making Croaker?  

FRED: I've done several shorts, participated in the 48-hour Film Festival and worked on a couple of projects for friends, both editing and acting.  For the past 16 months, I've produced and hosted an online international independent film showcase, Barnabus Bailey and the Greatest Show Unearthed. Think Vampira or Zacherly, but screening Indy's instead of the old public domain films.  I've written forever.

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

FRED: I wanted to do something that was personal.  I went back to my hometown and visited all of the locations of my youth.  There was something that happened with the emotions and the memories that sort of coalesced this story.  

In my mancave, there is a pretty substantial folklore and monster library that served as a reference to pick just the right creature that fit the very ethnic diversity of my hometown.  
I've been writing since fourth grade, I love it.  Ernest Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit." That quote is my guidepost.  I look more at a script as something that is alive, gestated through the process of the film.  Actors get into their roles and the more they become that character, they breathe life into the words and often go off script.  As a Director, I know I am doing my job when this happens.

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

FRED: I have a background in political fundraising and one thing I learned early on from my mentors, NEVER put you eggs in one basket.  It was a multi-tiered approach based on an analysis of potential donors, fence sitters and unknowns.  

By targeting specific groups with specific offerings, I developed an investment package that I could present to very specific donors, the kinds of people who wouldn't jump at a larger number.  The fence sitters always need a little coaxing, so a lower offering was made to that group.  Advertisers and product placement, since we shot locally, was also effective.

One of the questions that came up early on in the process was, "I can't afford the investor amount, but would like to help out, where can I donate?”  That's where crowd funding came in.  We used Indiegogo and I was pleasantly surprised with how many people came through that channel.

The film will use Distribber as initial distribution through iTunes, Amazon, Hulu Plus and Netflix.  That was one of the initial steps I took in pre-production, ensuring the film didn't just end up on a dusty shelf for my ego to dust off occasionally. 

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

FRED: Old reliable, Sony HDR FX1, a Nikon D3200 and Panasonic HVX 200.  What I loved is the video quality, even at night and of course the ease of using filters as we have a TON of exterior - natural lighting shots.  

Didn't hate anything really.  Audio is always a concern running three different cameras  Converting the MXF files on the HV is a pain, but not a big deal.

You wore a lot of hats on this project -- director, writer, producer, editor.  What's the upside and the downside of working that way?  

FRED: Great question.  The upside is, when doing a personal story that I created from images and emotions, the creative process of directing, writing and editing keeps the story continuity intact.  The story is kind of complex, as we have a curse, a monster, very developed characters, humor, a love story and at the center of it all, a longing for connection between two brothers that was cut short by an incident twenty years prior.  To put that in anyone else's hands and maintain the integrity of the film, I think is impossible.

The downside, of course, is that one additional hat - Production.  Handling all the administrative tasks can be simply overwhelming.  Trying to summon energy to step on the set after spending the day talking to an investor, securing a location and talking to the attorney, it was a challenge at times shifting gears.

With that being said, from the ashes spawned the phoenix.  Somewhere Hitch smiled on me and I was blessed with the greatest AD, Jennifer Obed and best production staff, Marty Patterson, Lori Terling, Jimmy Star, Jordan Strope, Tara Patterson and Pam Bolger, that a first time feature filmmaker could possibly have.  They are the best - PERIOD.  They turned any downside into an express elevator going up.

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

FRED: Smartest thing - the team.  No matter how personal a project is to you, it's essential to get everyone on board to more than just see the vision, but to make it their own.  

We have professionals on both sides of the camera and they understand what it takes to get the shot.  We worked so in concert together, a lot of the crew direction faded and we sort of were on mind share.  I am an incredibly patient person and I think that trickled down as all of the actors were very patient with each other.  

The dumbest?  Simple...time management - that and trusting my battery indicator!  

Between call time and shoot time, well, as an ex-Marine I'm sure one of my past commanders would have had me doing push-ups until I crashed!  It was probably the greatest significant thing I learned on this film.  Take how long you "think" something will take and triple it!

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

FRED: Locations are fun to shoot in, but time is limited.  Sets are more relaxed and there is no time pressure. We had a ton of location shoots in Croaker and for the next film, Meals and Wills, we are definitely going to rent space long term and build our sets.  

The creativity level and energy goes WAY up with the actors when we have no rush to shoot and get out, there are facilities and electricity is close at hand.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Donna McRae on “Johnny Ghost”

What was your filmmaking background before making Johnny Ghost?

DONNA: I trained as an actor for three years. After I graduated I had a couple of good years then the work was harder to come by. Naively I thought that I would ‘write something that I could be in’ but found that I enjoyed writing just as much as acting. I started working with two directors (I had worked on their short films) developing screenplays. One by one they moved interstate and overseas, so I was writing by myself again. I was  accepted into a screenwriting residency and the mentors there encouraged me to direct my own work and finally I did – via film school.  I made quite a few shorts there and after, and then thought I was ready for a longer length film. 

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

DONNA: The idea came from experience, I suppose. Even though it is not autobiographical, I did live through the post punk years in Melbourne (Australia) as a young girl and was fascinated and intimidated by all the great music, people and lifestyle. It was a very short time however, and quite a few casualties were claimed by that hedonistic lifestyle of drugs and rebellious behavior. 

I had started a screenplay a few years earlier about a woman who was in a punk band with her boyfriend – so years later I got to thinking about that character and wondered what she may be like 25 years on! That was the basis of Johnny Ghost. It came together very quickly after that.

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

DONNA: I was doing a Masters of Fine Art at Monash University and was really enjoying investigating storytelling through images. The thought of going further into postgraduate study also interested me and I knew that they offered scholarships for some PhD candidates. So, I thought to myself, why not try to get a scholarship and spend it on making a feature film!!! Crazy? Yes, but it worked.

The area of ghosts – cinematic and beyond – really interested me and I knew I wanted to make work in this area. So I got a doctorate and a feature film out of the process. It was 4 years but I really loved it and feel like I have only scratched the surface of all things ghostly.

My film cost $30,000 to make and I have probably spent an extra $10,000 on it if you count marketing and trips to film festivals. I don’t have much of a plan to recoup that money – it was a scholarship in the first place – but I now have distribution in North America, Canada and Mexico and working on local (Australian) distro too, so you never know, I may get something back !

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

DONNA: At the time, all I could afford was the Panasonic P2.  The Red camera was out of reach and the Alexa was about to be launched.  I had already shot a short on it and was pleased with the results, so had no problem with using it again. It was robust and portable enough to not need a huge crew supporting it.

My DOP Laszlo Baranyai liked it and really pushed it for a good result. Obviously, if I had more money I would have used something better but I am very pleased with what we got.

What drove your decision to shoot in black and white ... and what are the pros and cons of that decision?

DONNA: One of the reasons I shot in black and white was the P2 – I thought it could handle the blacks quite well. Also I wanted to give the film that netherworldly, classic ghost story feel – a nod to The Innocents and Rebecca – all those old ghosts films that play to the shadows.  I thought that going that way wouldn’t date the film as much as colour would.

It was a bigger job for the Production Designer (visual artist Michael Vale) but much more satisfying.  It has been interesting in the market place though. There have been some distributors that wouldn’t even look at it when they knew it was black and white – they said it would be too much of a hard sell. One even said to turn it back to color!
I can’t imagine it in color now – but I wonder if I would do another one in black and white…maybe…maybe not.

You wore a lot of hats on this project -- director, writer, producer, editor. What's the upside and the downside of working that way?

DONNA: Even looking at all those hats in your question I feel tired!!!

The upside was that it was good to keep control on all those departments as it was such a small project. Also, because I had the university scholarship I had to run things past my supervisors, which made it easier. And I could do all those roles for free!

The downside was that the buck stopped with me, so I was responsible for everything. It was ok in pre production and post because I didn’t really have to liase with many people -- and post I just had to edit it myself (with the help of grading from my DOP and a sound mix from a post house).

But the production of the film was hard. It would have been nice to just concentrate on just one role but I never could. I am an organized person, so everything was drilled beforehand, but even so I was always watching out for another department.  Our next project ( that we have just shot a trailer for we had more people and it was amazing! (Even though I kept cross checking as if it was just me – lucky I had an understanding producer).

You also didn’t mention catering, which I did a number of times. I will know that I have ‘made it’ as a director when a catering truck pulls up on set!!!  J

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

DONNA: The smartest thing I did on production was casting the best actor for the role. The main role of Millicent is played by Anni Finsterer, who gives an amazing performance. I felt that I didn’t have to do much at all – just tweak for the camera – and she really carries the whole film. I didn’t have to worry about it one bit.

The dumbest thing I did was not checking whether the fake tattoo transfer actually did work.  Of course it didn’t!!!!  The production designer Michael Vale had designed it but someone else had taken care of the transfer. Luckily Michael was with us everyday, so everyday he had to draw it on Anni. Both troopers !

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

DONNA: I have learnt so much from that project and others along the way.

Firstly, organization. Everything needs to be so organized, because then and only then can it allow time for experimentation – things that aren’t scripted.

Secondly, marketing. Knowing what kind of film you are making and who your audience is. Setting up social media before you shoot is vital in this climate.

Thirdly, making sure you have a good time and treat people well. I have always strived to do this and because of it I have a great team that work together all the time. Filmmaking can be so stressful that you need to have lots of laughs along the way.

Fourth – be in love with the project. You are stuck with it and it deserves your time to really push it once it’s done.

Also, probably the most important one – collaborate! Your team can make it much better than you can imagine! 

One more – try not to do the catering…

Johnny Ghost official trailer 2013 from Donna McRae on Vimeo.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Andrew Sayre on "Whatever Makes You Happy"

What was your filmmaking background before making Whatever Makes You Happy?

ANDREW: I have always had a strong connection to films.  One of my earliest memories was watching 2001: A Space Odyssey as a five year-old, lying on the floor at my parent's feet.  Honestly I didn't have much of an idea what was going on at the time, but I knew I liked it.  It'd be nice to say I knew that film is what I wanted do from then on, but I was five, and filmmaker really didn't compete with astronaut or second baseman for the Red Sox.  But at some level it has always been there.

I went to college in Keene, NH and got my BA film production.  After college I moved to Boston and became involved in the film scene.  I worked on projects in various capacities, wrote screenplays on my own, and did a few short films.  After many years of this I got to a point where I decided that I was ready to take the next step into making my first feature.  

Where did the idea come to do this adaptation from and what was the writing process like?

ANDREW: This is always a difficult question. 

Truthfully I never know where an idea comes from.  I mean I can talk about the day I first started typing something out or what have you, but that's not really what people are asking; they want to know about the deep down moment of inspiration and where I came by it.  And that I never know.  One day its just there.  If I knew how it got there this whole writing thing wouldn't be so damn hard. 

But this one--I of course was reading Anna Karenina.  While I was reading the novel I was picturing how it could be made into a film.  I kind of do that with everything I read, and of course there's a new Karenina version made every decade or so, so it was more of just a thing my head does than any actual intention.  But, somewhere along the line I started seeing this as something more, something I could do with the resources I had, which I think I had been passively looking for some time.  And that there were things I wanted to explore with the story.  Again, how exactly and when this all started to come together in my head I couldn't say.  It was just sort of there one day.

I started out on in November of '09 scribbling out a very vague outline on scraps of paper.  About the first third I did that way.  Then I moved on to write out a basic outline in an open Office doc in prose form.  Just the basic scene structure and key things I wanted to happen in each scene.  Very informal, somewhat messy, with random notes in it that I don't think I even know what they mean anymore.  But it helped create the basic structure and shape of the story, which was important. 

After that was done, I pasted that right into a scriptwriting program and tackled the formal script from there.  Then after a few edit sessions and some minor adjustments, I had what ended up being the script we shot with.  All told from start to finish it took me about four or five months to go from nothing to a shooting script.  Which is incredible, really, I don't think I've ever had anything I've written in any medium happen so fast or so easily in my entire life.     

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

ANDREW: This movie was all self financed.  All from hoarded tax returns and shall we say 'frugal living.'  I didn't want to spend my time trying to network the project, schmooze various people, try to find that one 'producer' who could go more than five minutes without lying about who they know and what pipe dream they have in the works.   I'd kind of had my fill of all that.  I wanted to get shooting and right away.  Better doing it on a no budget set up than chasing money dragons for the next decade or so.

So the movie was a no budget, or as I prefer to describe it,  the movie was made with 'spit and bullshit.'  Everyone worked deferred and on the weekends.  We never at any time had a full crew.  Or the ideal equipment.  Most people handled several different roles at one time, and anytime we needed extras everyone besides KJ (the DP) jumped in the scene to fill out the background.  One of my PAs (who shall remain nameless) is in something like six different scenes.  It’s the way it works down at the bottom of the ladder.

As far as recouping my money, well, that was too far away a consideration at the time for me.  I first had to make sure I managed to finish the film before worrying about how it was going to make me oodles and oodles of cash.  Right now I am working diligently to get as much media attention as I can, reviews and interviews such as this and the like, and getting the film up on as many platforms as I can.  Right now its available streaming online at four sites: Amazon streaming, Vimeo on Demand,, and onlinemoviesbox. 

The DVD is available for sale at both Amazon and createspace as well.  I have a distributor who is hopefully going to get it on even more platforms that are beyond my reach, not to mention acquire some foreign markets sales as well.  With all of this, there is still the 'screaming into the wind' problem of trying to get attention and thus sales, but I haven't completely given up hope yet.

And in a lot of ways that was never the point anyway.  I mean, of course I'm doing everything I can to make a profit, but the point of the film from this vantage point was more to have something tangible I can point to, to show people that I am in fact capable of making a film.  Its one thing to run around town talking about films and what your gonna do if someone just give you the chance.  It’s more worthwhile to go out and prove it.  Now it’s not me saying 'hey, I'm a good filmmaker.  I can't prove it, but trust me,' it’s me saying 'watch my film; you'll see I'm good at this.'

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

ANDREW: We shot with the HVX200.  It’s a good little camera.  We used primes lens with a lens adapter.  KJ really got some great images out of it even with the incredibly limited resources we were working with.  I mean we didn't have anything you would call a proper light kit--we used existent lighting mostly with a few high watt light bulbs in photo flash cans for some fill.  And even with such limited versatility he did a pretty amazing job.

How did the movie change in the editing and why did you feel those changes were important?

ANDREW: Not very much, honestly.  There were points here and there that came together differently than I had intended, a scene or two I cut out entirely.  But for the most part the movie is as I scripted it.

That's probably because I edited it myself.  That is not an ideal way of doing things, as it’s always better to get another set of eyes on a film, someone who is a bit more removed from the project, someone who might spot problems with a shot that someone who was on set might not see.  But, it was kind of the reality of the no-budget film.  I didn't have any money left to hire an editor. 

And while I could have gotten someone deferred to do it like everyone else in the project, I felt I could do the work just fine.  Besides, asking people to work a few weekends in a row on something is one thing, but an editor has to live and breathe for nearly half a year to do it right.  That's a little more than I can expect someone to do for no money.  And I am a good editor. 

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

ANDREW: The smartest thing I did for the production was the extensive and detailed planning and scheduling.  I knew that if this project was to come off, I couldn't leave even the slightest thing up to chance.  And I had to plan and know what I would do in the event of just about every mishap or problem that I could conceive of happening.  Some of those contingencies I had to use, most I thankfully did not.  But just the mere fact that I felt I was prepared for everything short of a meteor strike helped keep my stress for getting unbearable.

The dumbest?  Well, if you had to hold a gun to my head and demand an honest answer, I think I would have to say insisting on the lens adapter.  Using prime lenses always looks infinitely better, but the adapter kills the light, you lose about one stop or so, and we were already dealing with pretty low levels to start with.  And it compromised far too much of the images.  But I was insistent on using them, and I shouldn't have been.  I should have accepted that it was just not practical for us.  But I was stubborn.  Thankfully I don't think it harmed the film.

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

ANDREW: You always learn something from every project.  From the big lesson to the subtle one.  Every time out you know more, have more experience, feel you can do things much more smoothly than the last time. 

This one was my first feature, so I feel I learned so many things in doing it that I don't know where I could really begin.   Just about everything about making this was new.  No matter how much I understood the process of making a feature in the hypothetical, the practical knowledge is far more valuable. 

'Whatever Makes You Happy' Feature Film Trailer from Andrew Sayre on Vimeo.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Matthew G. Anderson on the "Theater People" web series

What was your filmmaking background before making Theater People?

MATTHEW: I’d made a few short films and a feature when I was in my late teens/early 20s – about 15 years or so ago.  Film was always my passion and so I threw myself into it as early as I could.  Unfortunately, back then, that necessarily meant spending a ton of money.  After breaking the bank on my first projects, I realized I just couldn’t afford to continue pouring my own money into the camera and I turned my focus to writing, which is free.

I spent a few years trying to put together financing for one ultra-low budget, two-characters-in-one-location kind of script after another, but there was just no money to be found.  Or at least I couldn’t find it.  I’d had an idea for a much bigger script – a Hollywood action film – and decided to try writing it just to see if I could.  That script got me some attention out west and led to me spending about 10 years writing for the studios (on spec, of course, so still no money).

Where did you get the idea to create the web series?

MATTHEW: Last year, pretty crispy from the studio spec thing, I moved back to the Twin Cities and knew that I needed to reconnect with what I’d loved about writing and filmmaking in the first place.

My dream (ugh – here’s where he starts talking about his dreams) has always been to develop and produce actor-driven independent films in the Cities with this crazy deep pool of talent that’s been fostered by the huge local theater scene.  Even going out to L.A. was a means to that end – the thought being that if I could get a script sold, I’d have the resources to come back here and make the stuff I wanted to be making.  So, upon coming back, I knew I needed to do something that was in line with that goal, even if only on a small scale.

I’d attended a symposium in which a panel of short film makers from way back talked about the benefits of making original content for the web rather than following the traditional “indie short” paradigm of making a standalone piece and scrambling for festival slots or cable airtime, so I felt like that format was a real possibility.  I also felt like it would be a comparatively low-impact way – in terms of cost, time and effort – to get back behind the camera after 15 years, as opposed to making a feature.  (This belief was just incredibly wrong, by the way.)

I’d spent about 10 years acting in the Cities before turning my attention exclusively to writing, so I knew the world and knew that it held endless comedic and dramatic potential.  And since part of my goal was to reconnect with as many of the local actors I wanted to work with as possible, what better milieu than theater?

What was the writing process like?

MATTHEW: Not nearly as ahead of the game as I’d hoped.

We started shooting in September with the scripts for the first two episodes more or less finalized.  I had a rough outline of all 10 eps that we used to plan the shoots and schedule the actors, but the actual shooting scripts tended to get delayed by all the other day-to-day responsibilities of production and life.

When we started planning “Theater People,” I sampled a bunch of web series to get familiar with the form.  Things I learned:

-There are a billion web series out there.
-There are a few good web series out there.
-The key to the good web series is the writing.

It’s amazing how much original, serialized, narrative content is available online.  I think most people are completely unaware of how much there is.  I know I was.  You surf around online or check out dedicated channels via YouTube or Hulu or Crackle or a bunch of other places I’d never heard of and you’ll find more web shows than you could ever watch.

There’s big, glossy, clearly high-budget Hollywood stuff starring name actors, Oscar-nominated actors… there’s little stuff shot by a dude with a flip phone… and there’s everything in between.  And across the spectrum, you can find really good stuff at every level but the vast majority is pretty bad.  What distinguishes the good stuff is the caliber of the writing.  I was watching some series that clearly cost a million dollars that distinctly felt like they’d been written on set the day of the shoot.

So my goal for Theater People was to have the pages for every shoot in the actors’ hands a full week before the shoot date.  That was a good goal.

The way it actually worked out, I think I did always manage to get pages to people prior to the shoot date.  Usually it was about a week.  Sometimes it was only a day or two.  But having that priority in place was essential both to the quality of the dialogue, the quality of the performances and the efficiency of the shoot.  I found that if the actors were prepped on their scenes before getting to the set, we were usually able to grab great stuff in 3-4 takes.  If they weren’t… well, the number “17” popped up occasionally.

What was the thinking behind the Theater People Minute segments?

MATTHEW: During production, we knew it was going to be a long time before anybody would see the show itself.  I didn’t want to start releasing episodes until everything was in the can and we could guarantee a regular weekly launch for every episode – 10 eps over 10 weeks.  It’s hard enough to build an audience; we didn’t want people to have to wonder when (or even if) the next episode would be released.

But that meant we were looking at shooting for almost a year before anybody would see what we were working on.  We knew that we had good material, were getting good footage, etc. and we were confident the final product would be something people would enjoy, but asking people to work for free for months on end without having some sense of the quality of the production was asking for quite a leap of faith.

So about six months before the launch, we released a more or less completed cut of Ep1 for just 48 hours as a sneak peak.  The episode was funny and looked professional and the performances were great… it built some confidence for the project as we moved forward.  We also cut together a TRAILER with the footage we’d gotten by that point and that served as a nice promo tool as well.

What we still needed, though, was something to raise awareness of the series beyond our friends and family before we launched it – we didn’t want to premiere to empty theaters, so to speak – and Facebook seemed like our best bet.

Facebook’s a tricky little organism.  It’s obviously a great tool for connecting both within a local community and across community borders, but it does have some challenging, semi-obscure rules that take some figuring out. 

When you start up a Facebook page for an organization – say, for example, – you try to drum up as much visibility and as many Likes as possible to build your audience.  But if someone visits your page, or even Likes your page, and then doesn’t visit again for a while, you lose your visibility.  They don’t get your status updates anymore.  They probably forget about you entirely.  So unless you’re posting content regularly and giving your community something with which to engage, you’re losing those viewers.

The “Theater People Minutes” were a way for us to generate content in the months before we launched so that we could build that Facebook audience as well as our website mailing list.  The fact that the Minutes were short and silent meant that each could be shot in a few hours, edited quickly and then released once a week leading up to the series launch.

Originally, they were going to be unconnected spots built around little theater-y slogans – “Theater People: Backrubs Are Our Business”, etc.  However, after we put together the first spot (“Hugs, Not Handshakes”), we found that we really loved the character played by Grant Henderson.  His deadpan performance was perfectly suited for the silent comedy mode – he made a great, wry, uncomfortable everyman in the Buster Keaton tradition – and, as a non-theater person surrounded by theater people, he gave us a fun perspective on some of the theatrical eccentricities we were showcasing.

As a bonus, having a recurring character provided a through line that encouraged people to watch for the next Minute to find out what happened to him next.  It became a little mini-series of its own, very much in the spirit of the actual series.

What camera package did you use and what did you love/hate about it?

MATTHEW: We shot everything on the mighty Canon Rebel t3i – a little $800 DSLR camera that I picked up in L.A. before I moved back.  I road tripped from California to Minnesota with my friend Jen Rand and the two of us shot a little narrative short film along the way called "Recovery."  Sort of part improvised art film/part camera test.

Like I say, I hadn’t been behind a camera in 15 years and I wanted something that wasn’t a huge financial investment just to get my feet wet again.  Making Recovery, it was stunning to realize exactly how much the technology had changed in my years away from indie film production.  When I’d been making films, it was still incredibly expensive to make anything that looked even remotely professional.  Video looked awful – my first feature was shot on then-cutting edge 30fps high-def video and looked uncomfortably like a soap opera – and film required camera rentals, film stock, processing, etc., that quickly ran the budget up to five digits even for a small short project.  Now here was this little, unassuming DSLR that captured beautiful, 24fps high-def footage and could be bought outright for under a grand.

If you asked a knowledgeable cameraman, they’d be able to explain its limitations as a professional camera far better than I could.  It is still an entry-level, consumer grade piece of equipment.  But I felt from that first experiment that it was 100% sufficient for shooting a series that would primarily be viewed on computer screens and none of my experience making Theater People disabused me of that belief.  In fact, we rented out a local independent theater for a cast and crew screening a few weeks ago and projected the episodes onto a 20-foot screen and they still looked really good.

Put it this way: Theater People was shot by a first-time cinematographer (me) with two lights on a ridiculously minimal production schedule and it looks legit.  I can’t think of a better endorsement for a camera than that.

How did you schedule production — one episode at a time, or all scenes for each location?

MATTHEW: Our first scheduling priority was actually the actors.  We were making a show that had a 20-person principal cast, all of whom were unpaid and had jobs and plays they were doing and lives and all of that.  If you’re not paying people, you can’t tell them they need to be in town on this date or they can’t accept that show because it’ll completely wreak havoc with your shoot schedule.  So we just kept current with their availability and planned the production accordingly.  When we’d sit down to plan a shoot, the first question was always, “Okay, who’s available this weekend?”

Lydia Bolder, my co-producer, was the real hero on this front.  She was the one who tracked all of our actor needs, location needs, script needs, etc. over the course of an 11-month production.  She’d figure out who we had available and which scenes we could shoot.  Then she’d break out the locations we needed and we’d go a-scouting.

Without money, finding locations is a big challenge, particularly for a project with so many locations and such specific requirements.  (Here’s the thing about theaters: they usually have plays in them.)  We were incredibly blessed to have found so many cool, supportive people who were willing to donate their spaces to an amateur-looking outfit for something called a “web series.”  We paid a few nominal location fees for places that we absolutely needed and couldn’t find elsewhere, but I think the entire location budget for the series probably came to about $500.  
Considering that Ep1 alone needed 10 locations including an office, a restaurant and five different theaters, that’s pretty amazing.  God bless the good people of the Twin Cities.  This would literally have been an impossible undertaking without them.

Once we had a location, we’d shoot everything we needed in that space with those actors.  For example, we lived over at Gremlin Theatre for four nights and shot all of the Crowley play stuff for Episodes 5, 6, 7 and 8, which comprised the vast majority of the scenes for that cast.  If something came up that required us to reschedule a shoot – say, for example, not one but *two* blizzards during those four nights at Gremlin – we just did what we could and relied on the commitment and flexibility of our actors, who came through for us every time.

Did the episodes change much in the editing process?

MATTHEW: Very little.  Despite the writing process sometimes taking longer than I’d hoped, the resulting shooting scripts were actually pretty tight.  They were all 10 pages long with the idea that they’d result in episodes of 10 minutes or less.  That’s on the long side for a comedic web series, but since this one had an A story and a B story running concurrently and a continuous narrative, I felt like it could sustain 7-10 minutes.

Due to the nature of the production, we shot very little extra material.  Aside from a few impromptu dialogue improvements that were decided upon on the set before we started rolling, there was no improvisation, so we got what was in the script and moved on to the next setup.

The only real differences between the episodes as written and the finished episodes were the few occasions where something just didn’t work.  There were a couple occasions where the tone of a scene didn’t jibe with the rest of the episode.  There were a couple occasions where technical difficulties, particularly with sound, meant that we didn’t get the footage we needed and the scene had to be cut outright.  (Thanks, flight paths.)  Considering the quick and dirty nature of the production, though, there were surprisingly few instances of this kind of thing.

One error I did make with the construction of the scripts is that I wrote Theater People more like a feature film than as a series of 10 episodes that people would be watching over a long period of time.  As such, there are some jokes that I’m sure don’t connect because I didn’t build in the repetition necessary to make them play. 

As an example: in Ep2, Jamy casts a homeless man, Burt, in the Crowley play.  Then, in Ep7, another guy shows up out of nowhere and explains that he’s taking over Burt’s role because Burt got a better offer.  So this guy takes over and opens the show.  Then in Ep10, another guy shows up out of nowhere and explains that he’s “Gus.  I’m taking over for Bill.”  Kinda funny… as long as you know who Bill is.  But if you watched that episode three weeks earlier and don’t remember the one scene where we even hear Bill’s name… that joke’s probably not gonna land as solidly as I’d have liked.  That’s just bad writing.  Or, as I like to think of it, a great opportunity for growth.

Moral of the story: binge watch Theater People!

What was the smartest thing you did?

MATTHEW: Cast really good actors, then direct them.

I continue to believe that the local theater community is the greatest resource we have when it comes to film production in the Twin Cities.  We have hundreds of experienced actors with amazing skill sets and incredible devotion to their craft.  The most wrongheaded thing I’ve heard some people say about stage actors is that they “can’t do film” because theater acting is such a different beast.  It is a different beast, but what makes theater actors great is that they’ve got these tools that have been honed for years that allow them to act anywhere.  They’re able to take direction, make adjustments, and deliver the performance that’s right for the medium, whether that’s stage, tv, web or the big screen.

Of course, you have to direct them to that performance.  That’s your job as a director – it’s right there in the job title.  You’re the one who knows how the final product is supposed to turn out, so it’s your responsibility to make sure the actors have the information they need to give the best performance they can give.  If you put your time in guiding the performances, if you’re able to articulate what you want, there’s very little that actors in this town can’t deliver.  I really believe that.

(Second smartest thing: bring on a good composer.  Our guy, Mike Hallenbeck, delivered like crazy on this thing and it’s truly astonishing how good music bumps everything up to a different level.)

The dumbest?

MATTHEW: Honestly – thinking that making a web series was gonna be way easier than making a feature film.  That was pretty dumb.  You could make a reasonably ambitious no-budget indie feature with… what?  5-10 principal roles, 10 or so locations and a dozen shoot days?  By the time we finished this season of Theater People we had 20+ principal roles (plus dozens of featured roles and extras), 20-30 locations and 32 shoot days over 11 months.
I remember telling people we’d shoot in September and October and have the whole thing done by the end of 2012.  Oops.

What's your plan to promote (and monetize) the series?

MATTHEW: That’s a great question.  We’re still exploring our options.  The great challenge once you’ve made something like this is to get some eyes on it.  Theater People isn’t the kind of thing that’s gonna go viral – it’s just not built like that.  Our hope is just to get it on as many radars as possible: theater communities, comedy communities, independent filmmaking communities, the world at large.  We need to check in with the channels that exist specifically for this kind of programming.  Based on the feedback we’ve gotten, we’ve got a show here that people really enjoy.  Both theater and non-theater people are finding it really entertaining; now we just have to get it to them.

As for monetizing… that’s even trickier, as there’s not really a system in place for that yet.  We’ve got a DONATE PAGE on our website and we’ve received some donations through that, which has really meant a lot to us.  As “no budget” as it was, the production still cost money and that money came out of our pockets.  If we could find a way to break even on it or even turn a small profit so we could pay something to the people who worked on it, that’d be amazing.

At the heart of it, though, Theater People wasn’t made to make money.  It’s why we purposely didn’t solicit investment money or start a Kickstarter campaign or any of that.  This was our “getting started” project.  This was to make something that proved the viability of this kind of enterprise – to show that entertaining, professional material could be successfully developed and produced in the Twin Cities with local talent. 

That Theater People was shot primarily by a three-person crew with consumer-grade equipment and no money and turned out as well as it did feels like a success to me.  It says, “Think of what we could do with a budget.”  The next step is to prove that a project like this can be financially successful and is, therefore, a worthy prospect for investment.  That will absolutely be one of the goals moving forward.

What's the future plan for Theater People -- are you planning a second series?

MATTHEW: We definitely aren’t ruling it out.  There’s still plenty of material out there and it was a blast to make.  I have some ideas for storylines.  So, yeah, I’d love to do another season somewhere down the road.  I think it’ll be a while, though.

Like I said above, we want to put ourselves in a position to make projects that are creatively successful but also financially successful and self-sustaining.  We’ve got a feature that we want to be shooting this time next year – a change of pace in that it’s sort of a classical/Gothic suspense piece (though still with a lot of wit) – so the intervening time is going to be all about positioning ourselves to do that project right. 

We have a couple short films that will hopefully pave the way and help us assemble a crew and production team that we want to work with… and then comes the big hurdle of raising the money.  We don’t need a big budget to do it well, but we do need more than we can self-finance.  So that’ll be when we find out how well these initial projects have set us up as a viable investment option.

Those are the priorities for now.  Once the feature’s done, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I felt like returning to the world of Theater People.

Finally, what did you learn from this production that you'll take to future projects?

MATTHEW: So much.  Unbelievable amounts of much.

Probably the biggest thing I discovered was that, as a writer, it’s vital to be unrealistic.
There were so many moments all through the process of producing Theater People when I found myself laughing because we were shooting something that I absolutely thought wouldn’t be logistically feasible.  I wrote the whole thing with the gloves off, not letting the scripts be bound by production considerations, just following what I thought would be funny.  I was sure we’d have to make changes and cut things and simplify things, but I didn’t let it impede the writing… and damn if we didn’t get everything after all.

It’s a huge testament to the talents of my co-producers, Lydia Bolder and Crist Ballas, that we were able to successfully problem-solve every production challenge we ran into.  Whether it was something as simple as a backstage flash paper explosion or as comparatively complex as an FBI raid or a song and dance routine from a prison musical, we were able to achieve everything that was on the page. 

If I’d been more realistic while writing, Theater People would be missing an awful lot of what I love most about it.

Theater People Episode 1 - "Day Jobs" from Theater People on Vimeo.