Thursday, January 30, 2014

James Christopher on “3 References”

What was your filmmaking background before making 3 References?  

JAMES: 3 References is the 9th feature film we went into production on.  After I graduated from film school at the University of Texas, my business partners and I formed Twitchy Dolphin Flix to focus on true indie, micro budget films. So we started with a movie called Funny Books and have worked steady since.  

Most of our films have some form of distribution and all of them have had pretty good festival runs.  3 References was fun because it was the first of our films to crack a top ten festival with the Austin Film Festival. 

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

JAMES: The idea wasn't mine.  My partner sorta of jokingly gave me an idea for a rom com.  "Hey, you should do a movie about a guy who has to get 3 letters of recommendation from exes."  So it started there.  

As I wrote it, it kind of turned into this story about this guy who THOUGHT he was a nice guy, but really had left a path of broken hearts along the way.  I think all scripts should have some kind of underlying message.  And this one is about how we treat people.  And how messages are sent, but might be received differently.  

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

JAMES: We've had a lot of success on indiegogo.  And everyone works deferred, so it makes getting the movie made easier.  And Austin is a very film friendly town.  A lot of businesses are willing to open up their place to let us shoot.  So recouping becomes that much easier.  So we have the film heavy into its festival run in 2014 and are looking at different distribution possibilities.  

What was your process for capturing sound while shooting and how did you do your final mix?  

JAMES: Now, this will sound crazy, but we decided to ADR 80% of the movie. Basically, the hard thing about true indie films and sound is, anytime you shoot in public its hard to control the sound.  I can't shoot in a guy’s bar and ask him to shut everything down to get good sound.  But I also don't have the expertise to blend production and some ADR as well as we need too.  So I felt like the thing to do was take it all out and ADR.  

Honestly, all the flexibility it gave us in post is a reason we're likely to take that route again.   

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

JAMES: The smartest thing was the casting.  We had some new blood on set and it mixed well with our regulars.  And the dumbest was the casting.  We were caught short by a cast member who pulled out very last minute.  It led to Harper Graham in the role and I honestly couldn't have been happier with that, but it led to me to take another look at how I cast a film.  

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

JAMES: We always try to a very honest after action review of how our productions went.  So besides the casting, we looked at some other things to make things just run smoother.  We applied a lot of those concepts, including scheduling, to the Quad X Saga, a couple of mockumentaries shot concurrently poking fun at the adult film industry and our reaction to it.  

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Carol Littleton on "Body Heat"

Back when I taught screenwriting, in order to help demystify the screenwriting process, I would have students read along with the script for Body Heat while we watched the movie.

CAROL LITTLETON: Did you work from the shooting script?

Well, that's the crux of my question. I got the shooting script and in order to make it match the finished movie, I had to tear it apart and literally cut and paste it back together.

CAROL LITTLETON: Well, that's what editing is. If all we had to do is follow the script, it would be very easy. It would be like a dress pattern; you lay the pattern down on the table and you pin it against the material and you just cut along the lines. If that's what film editing is, then everybody could do it.

As editors, we're given the pattern -- which is the script -- and then we make a movie out of it. And in Body Heat, you saw exactly what we did. We changed the structure, we dropped a lot of stuff.

What was the process of finding that movie?

CAROL LITTLETON: It was like any movie. The routine for us, those of us who work on Hollywood films, is that we start cutting when they start shooting. In this particular case, Larry (Kasdan) wanted me to be involved early on. I went to rehearsals.

He felt, and I think it's one of the smartest ideas going for a director, if you can get all the people together, even just to read through the script and discuss the script before you start shooting, then everybody knows what his intent is from the beginning.

So if I'm there in the rehearsals, I know the direction of the scenes, what would be ideal for those scenes: where the emphasis is, how the humor plays out, all the different values in the scene. I can get an idea of that in rehearsal. So I sat there and took little notes for myself about choices that were being made in rehearsal and how to look for them when the footage would come in.

We start from the beginning. If it's not rehearsals, then it's day one. We're putting the film together, out of sequence -- in shooting sequence -- and we're revising as we get big blocks. We look at those big blocks another one once all the material comes in.

A week or so after they've finished shooting, we have a film that represents the script. Every scene is in. Everything they shot is there. And we sit down and look at it.

In the case of Body Heat we took it to a screening room and looked at it with no interruptions. And then we said, "Well, we have a lot of work to do."

All of the things that the script had were not in the film at that point. It wasn't suspenseful enough -- it was suspenseful, but not enough. The humor was not as funny as it should be. The characters were not as clear as they could be. It was too -- I don't want to say pornographic -- but it was not suggestive enough as a sexy movie. It needed to be more erotic and less specific, less obvious. And in too many scenes, things were revealed literally too soon for them to be erotic (from my point of view). I think things are erotic when they're suggestive and indirect. Eroticism is not just showing a naked body; it has to have a certain amount of romance as well.

We had some problems and that's where we started. We just said, "Well ... let's start." Larry saw the problems as well as I did, it wasn't a one-way street. And we sat down and literally collaborated.

The pictures I've done with Larry have been the best, from the standpoint of collaboration. I really respect him as a writer, he's a fabulous writer. He's a wonderful director. He's an extraordinary person, very humane, very kind, very gentle. We just have a very good working relationship.

We experimented a lot, because you don't know the 'how.' You know 'what' needs to be done, but the editing process really is discovering how to do it the best way. When I'm working on a film -- every film -- we will have screenings and people feel that they have to tell you what's wrong with the movie and how to fix it. I never listen to how to fix it; I only listen to what they perceive the problem to be. They aren't editors and they don't know what the footage is, they're not inside the process at all.

I could drive your car around the block and say, "You know, it's riding kind of rough and I think you just need to take the engine out and put a new one in." And all it really needs is a spark plug. So that's how I listen to people's comments at screenings; they are utterly worthless to me, unless they just say, "I didn't like that moment and I didn't get it -- it wasn't clear to me." That's helpful.

But to come to me, or to Larry, or to any director for that matter, and say "I think you ought to move this scene forward and that scene back," how would they even know how to say that? Producers today think they can do that, and I can tell you there's only one producer I've worked with who knows the process as well or better than I do, and he's phenomenal, and that's Scott Rudin. But he's an old pro and he knows to let the creative team figure it out.

How long did it take to edit Body Heat?

CAROL LITTLETON: I think we worked in editorial -- apart from the time that I worked while they were shooting, which was about three months -- I think Larry had ten weeks for his director's cut. We looked at it again, then took it up for George Lucas to see. George was the Executive Producer, although he did not take a screen credit. We took it up to Skywalker to show it to him about ten or eleven weeks after. We talked about it. We had a few little pick-ups to do, one day I think, and a couple of inserts.

And then we had another couple of months of revisions, so that would have put us at 18 weeks of post. Then, in those days, you mixed it, cut the negative, had an answer print and previewed the film at that point.

In our case, we had two previews after we mixed it and before we cut the negative. We had one in San Jose and then in Seattle. Then we finished the movie. So that would have been 22 to 24 weeks of post. It's not too little or too much. It's about what it takes to do a film.

Editing a film is not about speed. It's about thinking about it long enough and trying things. It's as though a writer takes yet another version of his script and does a huge re-write. You have to figure out new ways of solving problems.

So it's really just a re-write. That's what editing is -- the final re-write.

It was really funny, when we were doing E.T., which of course had a lot of changes and a lot of stuff that we did. I remember one day Steven (Spielberg) said, "You know, what we're doing is we're actually making the movie here in the editing room." He would always say funny, obvious things like that.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Will Slocombe on “Cold Turkey”

What was your filmmaking background before making Cold Turkey?

WILL: Well, I didn’t go to film school.  I went to the University of Chicago, where we spend 4 months reading Ulysses, then 6 more months talking about it.  I think film school is so expensive – just spend that money on your first movie; you’ll learn so much more.

I’d made a bunch of short films and commercials, and written a few scripts.  And this is actually the third feature I’ve directed (although the first one both I’ve written and directed).  My big thing has always been to just MAKE stuff.   I don’t care how cheap it is (which can sometimes work against me!); I just think the actual process of creating stuff is the most important thing.

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

WILL: The short answer is the idea came from my own family.  The long answer is that I was deeply inspired by two things: the honesty of Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, and the explosive dinner scene midway through Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County (which I saw at the Kennedy Center about 3 years ago [actually on Thanksgiving – with my parents].  I thought if I could inject the honesty of Tiny Furniture into a family saga like August: Osage County, that might wok well for an indie movie, all in one location, with no money.

The writing process was terrible!  Like it always is.  Directing is SO much more fun.  You actually get to talk to people.  Be social.  You’re the leader of your own little gang of misfits.  Which is fantastic.  But writing’s the WORST.  Just so much self-loathing and terror.  For Cold Turkey  – I wrote the first draft in like 2 weeks (which is obviously fast – I must have had to get something off my chest!), but then spent like a year actually making it good, and not just Dear Diary.

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

WILL: We raised some initial seed money from friends and family, a buddy from Birthright here, a supportive uncle-in-law there; but about 2 weeks out from production, after we had already attached Peter Bogdanovich and Cheryl Hines, we were in SERIOUS financial trouble.  That’s when a company called Cinetic Media got us in touch with a company called Burn Later Production, and saved the movie from a horrible, premature death.  Our company, Midway Films, will always be grateful to them.

Well, from what my distributor FilmBuff tells me, you make about 80% to 85% of your revenue from iTunes.  So, tons of stuff is contingent on good iTunes placement.  Other than that, we’re definitely looking into media buys with cable and other digital platforms.  DirectTV has actually been super supportive of the film already, so we hope that works out.  And obviously, we’re looking into foreign distribution.  I’m sure your readers know this, but for indie movies (and movies in general), you don’t make ANY money in theaters.  Theatrical releases (on the whole) are advertisements for digital releases, just because the advertising costs are so astronomical.  Movie theaters are in the $7 popcorn business, not the movie business. 

Having said that, I am EXTREMELY grateful that we got a theatrical release in LA, New York, and other cities.  It helped build the profile of the movie (again, an ad for digital).  But I’m under no illusions about the financial viability of said theatrical release.

What was your casting process and where did you get the great idea to cast Peter Bogdanovich?

WILL: Casting was far and away the most successful part of the movie, taken objectively.  And we owe it all to a genius Casting Director named Paul Ruddy.  Paul read the script, loved it, and had the savvy and connections to get me into meetings with agents, who similarly loved the script.

In terms of Peter, I had seen him on a bunch of talk shows (notably Charlie Rose), and he just had this…presence.  A real command of the room.  The three things I wanted for the Poppy character were: (1) an authority (because the movie is basically about that authority crumbling) (2) an intellectual heft (we had to believe he was a Stanford professor) (3) a complicated history with women (haha).  Peter fit the bill! 

I will also give full credit to my producer Graham Ballou, who was always very supportive of the Peter idea and thought it would be really interesting.  We were just never sure if Peter Bogdanovich was the sort of man who cried (as he had to late in the film).  But thank god he secretly is.  (With a little help from an old Frank Sinatra record he put on right before we shot his breakdown scene.)

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

WILL: My DP Lucas Lee Graham shot the movie on a Canon 5D Mark III.  Lucas claims the movie was the very first feature shot on that camera (we shot in May 2012).  And I wont disagree with him.

A few things I love about the camera (which I’ve also shot a bunch of short-form stuff on myself): (1) the cost.  DSLR cameras in general have lowered the barrier to entry in really exciting ways. (2) the size.  It’s tiny (it’s really a still camera) which makes it very quick on its feet, very nimble.  (3) the look.  I legitimately think it creates beautiful, rich images.  DSLRs are famous for their shallow depth of field, which gives you an intimate, “cinematic” look, but, beyond that, I just love the color temperature on them.  I actually learned to make movies on a Canon XL1, so maybe I’m just partial to Canons in general.

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

WILL: Hm.  Good question!  First time anyone’s ever asked that. 

Smartest: casting Peter Bogdanovich.

Dumbest: well, it’s not production, but if I had to re-write the script again, I would DEFINITELY start it with more of a bang.  A visual, explosive hook.  I re-watched PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE last night.  One forgets this, but that movie begins with a crazy car crash.  I think there’s a reason for that: PTA wants to get your attention IMMEDIATELY.  And also maybe threaten that you better stay on your toes, cause that sort of thing could happen again, at any time, without warning.

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

WILL: That the script and the casting are the absolute number one most important things. 

Would I make another feature film with actors who weren’t folks like Peter Bogdanovich and Cheryl Hines?  Sure.  I love movies, I’ll make anything.  But it probably wouldn’t be the smartest thing in the world.  Having actors like them on board has just meant so much for the movie, and for me personally.  I would be crazy not to learn from that.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Sarah Knight on "Vino Veritas"

What was your filmmaking background before making Vino Veritas?

SARAH:  Vino Veritas is my narrative feature debut.  My last two films were documentaries -- Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend, a portrait of Nicole Sherry, Head Groundskeeper for the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards and one of only two women in that position in Major League Baseball; and Hot Flash about Saffire-The Uppity Blues Women.  I have also directed theatre and narrative shorts. 

Prior to that, I assisted directors Taylor Hackford & Mikael Salomon and producers Robert Shapiro & Peter MacGregor-Scott.

How did you work with writer David MacGregor on the adaptation of his play?

SARAH:  David wrote the screenplay and much of his original stage play was kept intact.  The changes mostly involved cutting dialogue which would seem excessive on film (including one long monologue).  We also worked to tweak some of the more wildly divergent theatrical tones of comedy and drama to make them subtle enough to be plausible on screen.

How did you go about casting the movie? 

SARAH: I knew I only wanted actors with theatre backgrounds as this film was going to live and die on the performances.  And I would require the cast to memorize the entire script prior to shooting. 

I had seen Heather Raffo in her extremely successful one woman show, Nine Parts of Desire, about nine Iraqi women, which she also penned. Bernard White first caught my eye as the charismatic lead in an off-Broadway play in 2004. Carrie Preston had just wowed me in Duplicity and That Evening Sun.  A casting director helped me to find Brian Hutchison.

What was your visual plan for the movie (particularly with the very limited number of locations you were working on) and how did you and your DP achieve it?

SARAH:  One of my main goals was to move the actors around the house so there were several different backgrounds.  This helps to provide the illusion our story isn’t really unfolding in just in one space (where the stage play takes place entirely in the living room).

I wanted the beginning of the film - the pre-wine drinking section - to have a slightly muted, de-saturated look and we dressed the actors accordingly.  I also wanted the camera to hang back and only frame the characters from behind, in profile or in ‘dirty’ close-ups (where the subject is partially eclipsed by something in the foreground).

Once the truth serum is imbibed, there is about an eight-minute color bump where the full saturation comes in which reflects the true colors and excitement that is about to come that night.  Nothing as overt as say, Pleasantville, more of a slow seeping but hopefully it affects the audience subconsciously.  The camera also starts to move in closer and closer and head on to each actor.

What was your rehearsal process like and how did that impact the moviemaking process?

SARAH: The two couples needed to be believable as longtime best friends and neighbors, which would be difficult to achieve on a typical film shoot, where the cast often meets for the first time moments before shooting.

To give the actors a chance to bond, I held a cast dinner (Peruvian, of course) and we had two days of table reads, by the end of which they had started to seem very comfortable with one another. A great deal of rehearsal would also be required and I pushed hard for that, ultimately getting six days with the entire cast, four of which were at the actual shooting location. The actors were so prepared by the final rehearsal day we just ran the show in its entirety like a play!

Since our story at its heart is about revelations and reactions, I told the actors during rehearsal I would shoot coverage of each them at all times, so to be aware that non-verbal moments would make up a great deal of their final performances. And while I required the cast to say the dialogue exactly as written, I gave them the freedom to ad lib and improvise in between lines. A great deal of that material made the final cut and really complements David’s original work.

What was the smartest thing you did during production?

SARAH:  Shooting in Lincoln, NE.  It is my hometown and there is a beautiful house which I had driven by almost every day of my childhood.  It turned out to be the perfect location which almost serves as a fifth character in the film.  In addition, the homeowner led us to the man, Mike Murman, who provided roughly three quarters of the funding. 

My folks catered and did craft service so we were fed better than I have been on any big budget studio film, which helped to make up for the cast and crew’s low pay.  And there was a church right across the street, which generously provided a space for our holding and crew meals. 

Finally, graduate students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln served as our production design team and did a spectacular job on the set dressing.

The dumbest?

SARAH: Shooting in Lincoln, NE, in July.  It is always extremely hot in Lincoln at that time but that year there was a freak heat wave which lasted exactly as long as we rehearsed and shot.  It was about 110 degrees in the main location, which had no air conditioning.  So the poor actors huddled around one single silver snake coming from a portable AC unit in between takes.  

To top that off, Carrie was wearing a 30-pound Queen Elizabeth costume and Brian was in a flannel shirt and chaps.  And we had a gas fireplace going much of the time.  I was so focused on making our days I honestly didn’t really notice but the actors and the crew suffered quite a bit but thankfully remained troopers.

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

SARAH: Simply by default of time, we shot very long takes, occasionally filming entire fifteen-minute scenes at a clip.  While this is quite an unusual way to film, it is something I will certainly use in my future work, as it created a wonderfully dynamic and real energy for the actors, which you see reflected in their terrific performances.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Neal Israel on "Tunnelvision"

Where did the idea for Tunnelvision come from?

NEAL ISRAEL: The idea for Tunnelvision came from my job.

I was the head of on air advertising at a television network in LA. This was when there were only three networks, of course. I had to come up with ways to make people watch TV.

I watched hours and hours of shows. At one point I wondered what network TV would be like in the future. How would they get people to keep watching?

So I came up with a network in the future where they would stop at nothing to get an audience. I pretty much predicted Fox, cable and every other edgy type show that we have today.

What barriers did you have to overcome to get the movie made?

NEAL ISRAEL: No one would give me money to make a film like this. So I mortgaged some property I had and some of my friends and employees helped. Also we were able to use some of the editing rooms at the network at night.

When it was all done, no one would buy it. We finally got a company that distributed pornos to take it on. The film open at Filmex (a forerunner to the LA film festival) and got a huge response.

By this time I had been fired from the network when they found out I was making a movie satirizing them on their time.