Thursday, April 24, 2014

Robert Krakower on "Always Learning"

What was your filmmaking background before making Always Learning?

ROBERT: Prior to making Always Learning, I wrote and directed 6-7 award-winning short films, along with several commercials and PSA’s for corporations in the California Bay Area such as Hewlett Packard and Team San Jose.

Several short films that I directed and/or produced including Bobby’s House, Bus, Vigorade, and Elliot Kane won national awards several years in a row at the film festival ‘Campus MovieFest’ at San Jose State University and were official selections for Cinequest. All of these films collectively developed my ability to tell a proper and well-structured story and prepped me for the undertaking that Always Learning was.

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

ROBERT: The story of Always Learning came from my personal experience as a homeschooler and what I either experienced first hand or had learned through the experiences of others who had been homeschooled most of their lives.

Parents who 'homeschool' their children are not always overbearing individuals as portrayed in my film. However it does require someone who is an individualistic thinker to say “I do not want my child in the public/private school system, I can and will do a better job’ and that is the kind family dynamic I wanted to identify in my film: an overbearing, but caring mother who wants the best for her child but never considered developing her child’s freewill.

After outlining the entire film in a screenwriting class and writing the first 30 pages, I wrote (and re-wrote several times) the entire film over the course of roughly 4 months between January 2011-April 2011. 

I was very fortunate to have my producer, Jon Magram, a lifelong friend, filmmaker, and former homeschooler, nearby to keep me honest and help with script notes and story whenever I needed additional guidance.

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

ROBERT: Because the film was made through San Jose State University (SJSU), the film had a non-profit status, which benefited donors and also opened the door to reach out to numerous potential donors from the school. This is where we got the majority of the funding for the project. Beyond that, it was the kindness of family members and our own pockets.

On the topic of recouping costs, any return on investment will remain to be seen. Currently the film is in the final stages of having corrections made and will be sent to distributors soon.

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

ROBERT: The film was shot on the Sony F3L with the Aja Mini Pro. Overall, it was terrific for a post workflow, because the Aja Mini transcoded on the fly to ProRes 422 which, for our on-set post team who was on FCP7, was a dream come true.

The downside to the live transcoding was that the Aja Mini got hot enough to cook an egg and would stop recording without notice, which we sometimes would not realize until viewing dailies. Additionally, the internal fans would sometimes go on full blast during a take, which could ruin a shot.

What was your casting process like and how did that impact the production?

ROBERT: Our casting process was very straight forward. Because our production was facilitated through the University, we held student-only auditions first, then open auditions. 

Something I focused on was ensuring that all auditions were completed well in advanced of production, so we had ample time to rehearse scenes in the weeks prior to production and develop characters with the actors. I believe that rehearsals are tremendously important for actors to have before coming to set. It will save you a massive amount of time on set.

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

ROBERT: The smartest thing I did was likely doing as many rehearsals as I did, it saved us a massive amount of time on set.

The dumbest thing that I did on set was rush through things. I should have let scenes breathe more. Give more time after the scene ends before calling cut. On that same note, getting more coverage as well, you can never have too much coverage.

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

ROBERT: Definitely learning from my dumbest mistake, taking more time and allowing actors to feel through the scenes at the end of the take. Also looking for more coverage and not sticking to storyboards.

Storyboards are a great outline for before you arrive on set so you’re in the right headspace. However when you arrive on set, if you’re really alive and really living in the moment, you’re going to leave your boards behind and fly by the seat of your pants.

Official Always Learning Trailer from Robert Krakower on Vimeo.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Susan Seidelman on "Desperately Seeking Susan"

How did you get started in filmmaking?

SUSAN SEIDELMAN: When I started out, I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer. When I originally went to college, I went to a school in Philadelphia for design. Just on a whim I took a film appreciation course; this was in the mid-70s, and film schools were not nearly as popular as they are today. I liked watching movies and I got hooked on watching movies. And then I kept taking more and more film appreciation classes. They didn't have film equipment, and it was certainly before digital, so it wasn't like you could take your home video camera and make a movie. So I started to make radio plays, because they had a radio studio at the school.

Little by little I realized that one of the things that I liked about film was that it combined a lot of the things I was interested in, like design, storytelling, music. And then on a whim I decided to apply to NYU film school. It was not that hard to get into film school back then, and so without ever having made a film (I sent them a design portfolio with the radio drama tapes I'd made), somehow I got accepted.

But once I started film school and got the chance to make my own little films and work on crews and play with the equipment, I realized that was not only something that I loved, but it was something that I found I was kind of good at, on the student level. I was nominated for a student Academy Award, so I was getting positive feedback from the little student films I was making and I was able to win some grants to continue to make longer and longer short films.

How involved were you in the casting of Desperately Seeking Susan?

SUSAN SEIDELMAN: I was pretty involved in the casting, but I wasn't involved in Rosanna Arquette. When Midge and Sarah brought me the script, Rosanna was already attached. She was a given.

It took some time to get the movie financed, so we worked together on script revisions and meetings at studios trying to get it made for several months.

We had a casting office here in New York and because I'm a New Yorker I was somewhat familiar with the New York talent pool. I had heard of Madonna -- she actually lived a couple blocks from me in downtown Manhattan -- her career hadn't quite taken off yet, she had one single out that was getting some attention. So I knew of her as the up-and-coming singer who was a downtown New York personality.

Did you face any resistance to casting her?
SUSAN SEIDELMAN: No, because I was the one that brought them Madonna, they didn't bring me Madonna. They were the ones saying, 'I don't know if we can go with this person because I've never heard of her.' And I was the one saying, 'I think she's right for this character. Let me do a screen test.' And she was right for the character.

What did you learn doing Desperately Seeking Susan that you were able to take to future projects?

SUSAN SEIDELMAN: Learning how to work with a crew. One of the things I realized is that it's a collaborative art form, so you're dealing with so many different people, all of whom have their own artistic vision. The director's job is to maintain a single, artistic vision by coordinating everyone else's. Everyone wants to give as much as they can, but it can become a real hodgepodge if there's not one, unifying way of looking at the film -- one unifying vision.

I watched movies where I felt that things were out of control because all the actors were doing something different and all trying to do something to the max and it really needed someone to say, 'No, don't do that. Yes, do that.' Learning how to modulate things, whether it's the performances or learning when to be flashy with the camera and when to be subtle. When to not move the camera and when to move it.

It's all about trying to maintain this one vision and that's what I started to see in Desperately Seeking Susan. I'm still learning, it's an ongoing process. But that's the skill that I realized that good directors have, being able to get what they need and incorporate other people's ideas; knowing how to use the best and politely (without hurting people's feelings) not use the stuff that you don't think works.

Sometimes different directors find different ways of doing that. I've heard about or seen examples of male directors who seem to feel that they have to be like drill sergeants and Nazis to show that they're the boss. Scream and get into fistfights and do that macho tough thing.

Now, as a woman, that isn't a style that particularly works for me, and as a woman who's just a little over five feet, I knew that no one was going to be physically intimidated by me. So I had to find my own way and have found my own way over the years of getting what I needed in a different way.

So what still excites you about making movies?

SUSAN SEIDELMAN: Telling stories, that's what excites me. Telling stories. And that's what excited me in the beginning. To me, characters and stories are the heart of what makes a movie great. And although I'm always impressed when I see movies that have amazing technology and amazing special effects, it's the more human aspect of it that really grabs me.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Ralph Clemente on "My Fair Lidy"

What was your filmmaking background before making My Fair Lidy?

RALPH: I am fourth generation show business and have been active in the business all of my life.  I am a member of the Directors Guild of America and have been involved in the production of over 50 feature films, directing 5 of them.  I have been teaching film production for over 35 years.  Ten years at the University of Miami and twenty-five years at Valencia College in Orlando, FL.

How did you get connected to R.P. Simms' script and what was the process to get it ready to film? 

RALPH: My Fair Lidy came to me through its Producer, Sandi Bell.  She had bought the rights and brought it to me at the college to see if we would be interested in getting it produced.  

After reading the script and expressing my enthusiasm for it, Sandi asked me to direct the picture.  At first, I didn't think that I could direct it as a DGA member.  The budget being so small, etc.   But we were able to work that out and move forward with the project.  

When the script was first presented to me, it was 129 pages long.  About 30 pages longer than a small comedy should be.  I decided to send it to one of my main people in LA, an Emmy and Golden Globe award winning director, to see if I could get some coverage and advice.  A few days later, I received the best notes ever.  He thought that the piece was very funny, but way too long.  He told me to drop scenes 1 through 17 and scenes 43 to 49.  At first I was a little shocked.  So was Sandi.  But, once we printed out a new version the script started to flow much better.  I think that it improved it 50%.  

The first 17 scenes set up characters and situations that didn't warrant being set up.  That cut the script down to 100 pages.  After that I kept shaping it and tightening it until we ended up with about a 90-page script.

How did you cast the movie and did the script change much once you had your cast in place?

RALPH: Sandi Bell is a former casting director and knew a lot of actors working in this area.  I've been working here a long time and knew a lot of good actors as well.  Sandi also reached out to Brevard Talent and we started to hold auditions.  We were able to improve on a few things as early as that.  

Being a former actor myself, I like the whole auditioning process, working with the actors.  Getting into sub-text, etc.  For a lot of the smaller parts, that's the only time that you get to spend with the actors.  There is no budget for rehearsals.  The next day that you get with those actors is on the day of their scene(s).  

Also, I do get into a bit of improv during the casting process.  I don't want them to read their lines.  Occasionally you can pick up a funny line or two during this process.

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

RALPH: We shot the film on two Red One cameras with Zeiss Super Speed lenses, a set of Bausch & Lomb lenses and a couple of Cook zoom lenses.  These days we do shoot on the Red One a lot.  I still prefer 35MM film, but things are a changing and we'll change right along with them.  

My most recent picture, HeartBreak, was shot the same way, except we did use a couple of Canon cameras, using our Zeiss lenses with them as well.  I would love to use more cameras in the future.  The digital age has opened things up a lot for the independent filmmaker.  I love the prospects and look forward to the future.

Did the movie change much in the editing and, if so, why did you make those changes?

RALPH: I am a great believer that you should do most of your editing in the script. When you are dealing with tight schedules and limited budgets, that's really the way to go.  If you don't need it, don't shoot it.  Focus on the things that you do need to tell your story and make your picture.  

This film had a rough cut ready to screen the Wednesday following our Friday evening wrap.  We premiered it three months later at a film festival.  Of course, there is always some tightening and fixing in the editing.  But, there were no huge changes on this film.

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

RALPH: The smartest thing that we did was securing a couple of great locations.  The Parliament House in Orlando was a huge get for this picture.  This is a famous Gay Club in Orlando which provided us with a lot of different locations for the film.  They also have a theater in that facility which plays a pivotal role in the film.  We filmed there for about a week.  It would have been very hard to make this film without their participation. 

This location provided us with the perfect look for this film.  The theater had it's own lighting system, allowing our Director of Photography to really get the most out of that location.  We also got very lucky with our second main location, the Stetson Mansion in DeLand, FL.  The owners of that amazing place were very helpful as well and we were able to use this location as several different locations.   

The dumbest thing that we did was that we shot this film during the month of July in Central Florida.  High temperatures, high humidity and lots of thunderstorms.  Spring would have been an easier time to film.

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

RALPH: I did learn a few valuable lessons while making this film, as you do on all projects that you work on.   The biggest lesson being that there has to be enough money in the budget to be able to have more pre-production time with the Director of Photography and a few of the other department heads.   A few days of rehearsal would also be nice to have and to be budgeted for.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Chris Eska on "The Retrieval"

What was your filmmaking background before making The Retrieval?

CHRIS: My roommate and I took an “easy A” film class at Rice University while preparing for med school, and I just fell in love with the process of filmmaking.  I completely switched gears and went to the graduate film directing program at UCLA. 

After traveling in Asia for a year during a leave of absence, I shot my thesis film, Doki-Doki, in Japan and it premiered on the national PBS series Independent Lens.  After film school, I returned home to Texas to shoot my first feature, August Evening, which received a national theatrical release and won an Independent Spirit Award.

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

CHRIS: I think the seed of the idea for this film came a few years ago as we were approaching the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and especially the Emancipation Proclamation.  I had been reading about stories of tragedy and sacrifice and hard work that got us to that point as a nation, but then I thought about what happened the day after the Emancipation Proclamation, and the year after and all the many years of that sort-of gray period between slavery and true freedom and how that’s rarely shown in films.

Also, all my films originate from themes that are important in my life, and then I search for the setting and characters that will most highlight the emotions. I find that by writing characters who might not seem exactly like me on paper but who are facing similar emotions, I’m able to gain distance from the material in order to focus in on the aspects of the story that will resonate with the audience.  It might sound na├»ve, but I think film can demonstrate the universality of the human experience and connect us through a shared catharsis.

For example, my Japanese-language film Doki-Doki was about my own isolation in Los Angeles; my Spanish-language film August Evening was about changing families in Texas and Japan, etc. All my films explore the themes of surrogate families, finding ways to make connections in an increasingly isolated world, and the reexamination of our path in life.

With The Retrieval, I initially considered setting the story on the contemporary Texas border or in 1970’s southern India before realizing that this historical rural setting would best draw out the emotions.  War, slavery, desolate locations, and the lack of technology all combined to tear apart families and cause displacement and isolation that required difficult choices in order to find one’s place in the world.

For the nuts and bolts of writing the script, I first create a very detailed outline and treatment until I know every beat of the story.  Only then do I begin writing the script at five pages a day, strictly following the treatment.

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

CHRIS: Based on the reception of my first feature, we found a handful of local private investors to fund the majority of the production, then supplemented that with an Austin Film Society grant and additional support from several friends and family members.  These days it often makes more sense for indies to use semi-self distribution, so if we don’t receive the right offer then we’ll share revenue with theatrical and ancillary partners.

What was your casting process like and how did that impact the movie?

CHRIS: I feel I shouldn’t make the film until I find the perfect cast because they are crucial to bringing the screenplay to life.  So I'm very thorough. Very. I have a history of working with non-actors and first-timers, so my casting assistants and I went to every middle school within 200 miles of Austin and either held on-campus auditions or looked through yearbooks to send letters to the kids' parents to encourage them to come to our auditions. We saw hundreds if not thousands of non-actor boys.

But to my surprise, I found my perfect Will during an old-fashioned run-of-the-mill audition in Los Angeles. Still, it was the first time Ashton Sanders had been on film so it was very exciting to guide him through the process.

For the other lead, Nate, Tishuan Scott was one of the only main actors I found in Texas instead of Los Angeles.  It turned out he had actually attended UCLA graduate school at the same time as me, but our paths had never crossed.

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

CHRIS: We used the RED One with the Mysterium chip.  I loved the 4k resolution, the price, and the ease of editing native 4k R3D files.  I hated the latitude (which was still less than film) because we often had to choose between exposing for the sky or the skin tones, plus there was some firmware issue that made the camera freeze and reboot every thirty minutes!

What was your production design process and how did you achieve the look of the movie?

CHRIS: Of course it’s very difficult to create a period film with accurate uniforms, weapons, horses, saddles, buildings, etc. on such a limited budget, but my production designer and costumer did a tremendous amount of research and were incredibly resourceful. 

We discussed historical photos of clothing, then took video of the actors wearing rented examples that closely resembled the photos.  Then the design team created original costumes from scratch or distressed and altered modern clothing to appear period correct. We also designed the characters’ personal belongings and built wooden structures out of reclaimed antique wood. 

A huge amount of help also came from historical re-enactors who advised us and lent us weapons, saddles, uniforms, and other props because they care so much about seeing that time period represented correctly on film.

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

CHRIS: The smartest thing was surrounding myself with the most intelligent, sensitive, and hard-working cast and crew I could find, and relying on them instead of trying to do too much myself like usual. 

The dumbest thing was assuming the Texas winter would be as mild as it usually is--we actually captured snow on film in Texas, which is quite rare and painful if you aren’t prepared.

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

CHRIS: I actually haven’t moved on to other projects yet since I’m seeing this film through distribution!  But hopefully next time I’ll learn to finally accept that even when things are going rough on set or spiraling out of control, that it’s never as bad as it seemed once you get in the edit suite.  Just trust in your preparation and stay relaxed.