Thursday, May 29, 2014

Dan Steadman on "Belleville"

What was your filmmaking background before making Belleville?

DAN: I grew up in Michigan, writing and directing local TV shows since the age of 14. When I moved to Los Angeles as an adult, I initially focused on TV comedy pilots. The highlight was a pilot called The Captain, starring Melissa McCarthy, Jennifer Coolidge, and Cheryl Hines. But then I moved on to film.

The first film I wrote and produced, Jesus People, just released in ten theaters on April 11 and everywhere on itunes, amazon, and video on demand platforms. It has Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer and Bridesmaids star Wendi McLendon-Covey in it, as well as many brilliant improvisational actors from Second City and the Groundlings.

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

DAN: In the last two years, I've become passionate about shooting micro budgeted indie films in different parts of the country. Some of them are self-financed, such as my first film Red Lodge, shot in Red Lodge. Some are funded by Ted Trent Studios, a company I partner with. We recoup the costs if the local community - first and foremost - comes out and supports the theatrical run. That really determines whether or not we can continue. Right now, with Belleville, we are very enthusiastic about the response. 

Of course we plan to do our best to take movies as wide as possible, but without name actors, you really have to rely on getting great actors in an engaging story -- and depend on word of mouth. 

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

DAN: Ted Trent (the producer and star) was obviously playing one of the two leads, from the beginning. I then cast Los Angeles based actor Tim O'Leary, who had just starred in another project of mine.

Everyone else was auditioned and found in the St. Louis and Southern Illinois area. In fact, I started auditioning local actors during my story outline and location scout phase. I didn't even have a script yet. But seeing the talented actors I had to work with actually helped shape the story I was telling. I decided to make the feature a faux documentary, just so I could work in all these great people.

Where did you shoot and how did your location help and hinder your process?

DAN: Ted grew up in the area, so we shot on his family's property. Our location only helped the film, by leaps and bounds. The location would have cost a studio picture millions of dollars... the fall leaves, the heavy rain on day one, the broken down farm house with real, legitimate spiders etc... that's all free production design!

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

DAN: We used Canon 5ds. Two of them running at the same time to capture different angles. I love the picture quality and the lenses my DP Brett Frager selected. Most of our film was outdoors, using natural light. The photography is just gorgeous. It was about finding great landscapes and balancing beauty shots with realism and grit shots. Also, I had those great Midwestern faces to film. I grew up in Michigan, so this was a fantastic experience, getting to shoot back in that part of the country. 

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

DAN: The smartest thing I did was shoot with two cameras. We did most scenes in 3-5 takes, getting double the coverage because of our two camera set up. That's harder to do indoors, with lighting set ups, but very easy to do in a murky swamp.

The dumbest thing I did? Allow blankets to be put nearby a generator to muffle the sound of the engine. Yes, we had a fire on set. Fortunately, no damage occurred, other than the generator. But it was a scary moment.

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

DAN: I learned about the great talent pool in the St. Louis area and I definitely took that to the next film.

We are gearing up to shoot a Christmas film, Expect Delays, in two weeks in the same area. This time, local actors that appear in Belleville have been written large, leading roles. I'm so excited to go back and work with them again. There's a real team spirit going on with what we're doing at and Ted Trent Studios. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Karl Lentini on "Cleaver's Destiny"

What was your filmmaking background before making Cleaver's Destiny?

KARL: I began making films with my Dad's Super 8 movie camera, which had sync sound, back in 1983. One day my friend across the street, Tim Maloney (now a filmmaker and film professor), said he got hold of some Super 8 film and asked if I wanted to make a movie. I said yes of course! Tim and I made two films together, then I went on to make films of my own in high school.

After graduating from Boston University’s film school, I moved to Los Angeles where I continued to make short films and write screenplays. Cleaver's Destiny is my first feature.

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

KARL: I made a short film comedy in 1993 called Homeless Bill, where I played an eccentric homeless man named Bill. Over the years, I kept thinking about the character -- that he had a daughter he lost track of, that he was in the military, that he had mental problems.

I wish I could say the story came to me all at once, but it came to me in pieces. At one point it was a musical about the Bill character searching for his daughter. Then I realized the story should be about the daughter looking for him, and that's when I knew I had the foundation for a movie. 

I worked on the script for six months in 2004, then stopped to work on a horror script with a friend. In 2007 I returned to the script, working on it all the way up until shooting the film in August 2008. Some scenes I rewrote 25 times.

The original title was Captain of the Snapple Command, in reference to Bill and his collection of Snapple bottles. While the Snapple company would let me show bottles in the movie, they wouldn't let me use Snapple in the title. So Joe di Gennaro (Director of Photography/associate producer/co-editor) and I came up with the current title, Cleaver's Destiny.

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

KARL: I financed the movie myself by working lots of overtime hours at my job at NT Audio, a post-production house in Santa Monica. I only put $5,000 on credit cards, an amount I knew I could pay off within a few months. I didn't necessarily make the film in order to turn a profit, but I do hope the film earns revenue by way of online distribution and DVD sales. 

You wore a lot of hats on this project -- writer, director, actor, composer. What's the upside and the downside to doing that?

KARL: The upside of wearing all those hats is I could greenlight my own film. I wasn't waiting for anyone else to approve or disapprove of what I was doing. I could go full steam ahead when I felt ready to do so. Wearing all those hats means you have to be willing to take the blame when things go wrong or when people criticize the movie. But you also get the most credit when and if it succeeds.

The downside is having to deal with more stress, exhaustion, frustration, and financial loss for a longer period of time than anyone else involved with the production. If you can survive all that, then you got yourself a movie.

What was your process for directing yourself?

KARL: I knew what I wanted from my character in each scene I was in. I mapped out my acting plans in my head, then shared my ideas with the DP Joe di Gennaro. Once we knew what the plan was, I could slip into character and do the scene.

I didn't watch playback all that much on camera, which can waste a lot of time on the set. I had to have an internal sensor that told me whether I nailed the scene or needed to do it again. 

I purposely didn't rehearse much with the other actors so they wouldn't quite know what I was going to do. I was playing a mentally ill homeless man and was also the director, so I was able to indulge in the character, which made for some great moments of spontaneity between me and the other actors. 

Joe the DP has years of experience shooting documentaries, and was incredibly adept at adapting to whatever was happening on set and getting the best shot possible.

Also, playing a character disconnected from reality allowed me to temporarily forget my worries as producer and director, which was very freeing. 

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

KARL: We used the Panasonic HVX200, per Joe the DP's recommendation. It was great in allowing us to shoot under the radar on the streets, parks, and beaches of Los Angeles. However, I noticed in the editing that sometimes the camera focused on objects in the background more than the actor in a shot.

You composed the score for you movie. Any tips to others who are thinking of tackling that challenge along with directing?

KARL: Objectively judge your own music, just as you would your own writing, editing, or anything else. Be ready to chuck your own material if you feel it's not right for the scene, or if enough people tell you it isn't working. 

I've always tried to work with musicians who know more than I do, to raise my own level of performance. So, as with everything else, work with the best people you can find.

And give yourself as much time as you can because you're always going to wish you had more time.

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

KARL: The smartest thing I did during production was use one location, a house in Redondo Beach, as five different locations in the script. The smartest thing I did in pre-production was cast Jenny Leona di Gennaro as the lead, who was only 17 at the time but turned in a wonderful performance.

By the way, Jenny is the daughter of Joe di Gennaro, the DP, who I hired first. He asked if his daughter could read for the lead role, and I thought, "Yeah whatever, everyone thinks their kid is brilliant." But she ended up impressing the hell out of me, especially when I read her with Alexis Corey, the actress who plays her mother in the film. Jenny went on to attend Juilliard Drama School and is now building a career as a stage actress on the East Coast.

The dumbest thing I did during production was fail to budget enough money to hire someone competent for a crucial position on the crew. I had to deal with this weak link in the chain all throughout the production, in addition to everything else I was doing. Paying people less can save you money, but then you don't always get the most qualified people.

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

KARL: The most important thing I learned as a filmmaker is to make the decision to make the movie. Everything else stems from that.

As a producer, the most important thing is to feed the crew well. If nothing else, keep people well fed and hydrated. Avoid working in extreme heat if you can, and be nice to everyone and respect their talent.

Don't even think about making a movie unless you believe the script is as good as it can be, and you believe in it with all your heart.

Be willing to listen to other people's opinions, but don't be afraid to cast those opinions aside and make your own decision.

And be willing to search for answers to questions you don't even know how to ask yet.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Jon Lindstrom on "How We Got Away With It"

What was your filmmaking background before making How We Got Away With It?

JON: I’ve spent my adult professional life as an actor, 25+ years now. But it was films that really drew me to acting in the first place. I started watching films seriously in high school, all the great ones of the ’70’s, The Godfather I & II, Clockwork Orange, Network, et al, and then took some basic filmmaking classes in college.

After I had moved to LA, and VHS took hold, my friends and I would clown around with camcorders and rudimentary editing equipment. Actors were then having to make demo reels, so to save money I started doing it at home by connecting two VHS players together and editing by hitting “play” on one and “record" on the other.

Thankfully, Final Cup Pro 1 came out, and I was more than ready to jump into digital. I bought a nice (at the time) 3 chip digi-camcorder and started making short films. FCP opened a whole world of experimentation to me. Things I never even thought could be done, or even realized before that this is how it’s done. 

Where did you get the idea and what was the writing process like?

JON: McCaleb Burnett came to me with an earlier version of the script that had gone through a couple of rewrites. He and Jeff Barry (who’s also a co-producer) had done the first draft, which I never saw. It was really Jeff and Mac’s idea to begin with, but what they gave me was more like a “thrill kill” movie, which I don’t relate to. But I loved the basic idea and the setting.

I had gotten my first script (The Hard Easywith Bruce Dern, Vera Farmiga and Peter Weller) made, so I think they saw an opportunity to work with someone who had already been down this road. McCaleb and I were both living in LA at the time, and I pitched the idea of making something more of a revenge film, but not revealing that until later in the story.

I came up with a couple new characters, gave the “Henry” character (played by Burnett in the film) a new motivation, and we went from there. When I wrote Hard Easy (with actor Tom Schanley), we came up with an approach that we would each take one side of the story, write those scenes with certain beats in mind, then blend it together. It worked well, and that’s what Mac and I did.

Then, fortuitously, about a year later, we were all living in New York. The three of us (Mac, Jeff and I) would get together weekly or bi-monthly to work out more tweaks with the goal of actually producing the film in New England. 

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

JON: Jeff and McCaleb wrote the first draft with certain actor friends of theirs in mind. Cassandra Freeman, Jacob H Knoll and Luke Robertson are among those friends that would up doing the film. Jeff and I held a casting session to fill the other roles, and that’s how Mikal Evans, Brianne Moncrief and Richard Bekins came into it.

The script did not change at all. Everyone had strong theater backgrounds and training, and were all game for anything. They were also all well suited to their characters, so there was no reason to switch up the dialogue. I got lucky. 

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

JON: Not much to say. There were two outside investors who put up a portion of the budget, but frankly, the lion’s share came from me. Our recoupment will depend on how widely seen the movie is, and what’s left after the distributors, unions and sales agents take their cuts. Pretty typical.

I didn’t make the movie to make money, but I will say this notion that indie filmmakers make movies only to have everyone who showed up late in the game take all the dough is ludicrous. Another reason I love digital is because it’s the great democratizer. Thankfully, our distributor, Devolver, has been great. Very transparent and supportive. That’s why we signed with them. 

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

JON: Red One MX. Loved it. Mostly its durability. August tends to be very hot and muggy in Rochester, NY, where we shot, and that year was no exception. But on our budget, it allowed us to get the shot when we needed it, and do fairly long retakes of scenes without stopping the roll. It even let us know the one time it jammed so we could do it again. Once we got to color correction we had a vast amount of information to work with. Not a bad thing I can say about it. 

What was your process for directing yourself?

JON: Strangely, it wasn’t difficult. I wasn’t even going to be in it, but the actor we had suddenly needed to drop out. It happens. It was my soon-to-be-wife, Cady McClain, who suggested I play the role myself. It made sense, I was right for it and it’s not like I would drop out for any reason. I had done it in some shorts, so it wasn’t entirely new.

Our method was for me to decide where the camera would go and what coverage we would get for my scenes. Then Jeff Barry, who’s also a filmmaker, would step into the director’s spot. We’d go until he felt we had it. Then I’d do a Woody Allen and watch the playback. I don’t remember thinking we had to do it again once that was done. And I’ve done a fair amount of acting in TV, which is also very fast, but you develop this instinct that lets you know when you’ve got the shot or performance you need.

It was fun. I’d do it again. 

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

JON: Yes! I’ve been told to expect three stages of the film, and each has it’s own creative life: 1. The Script is one stage and from it you know what you’re going for. 2. The Shoot, when the creative energy of so many people inform the material in new ways, is another stage. 3. The Edit, when you really learn if you got what you intended and if it’s working.

In each stage I learned that the piece will “talk” to you. It will let you know what it wants to be in addition to what you set out to do. And you have to let it communicate to you, just like you would an actor or the DP when they have an idea. So that guided us (me and editor, Tony Randel) as we assembled the rough cut, and in Tony’s case, the rough is just about the final. He’s that good.

But we also realized that our story would stop for periods of time, and that’s just boring. The actors were all terrific, the scenes cut together nicely, but it didn’t feel like it had momentum and tension was being lost. We had already played around with jump cuts very early in the film, like when “Henry” comes home and swims in Lake Ontario, so we knew we could play with time.

Then we decided to cut about 25 minutes out, and things really got interesting. We jumped past character intros, and then, per Tony’s idea, we moved the biggest scene from two-thirds in, to almost the end. Suddenly, the movie worked. 

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

JON: The smartest? Believing I could do it. The dumbest? Believing I could do it. 

Seriously, I don’t know if I can pat my own back that way. But I am proud of taking something I learned from directing multi-camera TV: A few times in the film I brought characters together by using a wide shot and bringing it to a 2-shot, and then I could move in for CU’s having gotten wide and medium shots in one go. Saved a lot of time and made it interesting for the camera crew since they have to hold focus through it all. I also used it to end one scene and get us into another. It’s not new, but it’s useful, it looks good and is the kind of thing you can do on the fly. 

As for the dumbest, that was trying to shoot the most important scene of the movie on the beach of Lake Ontario on a Saturday night in August. Parties were going on up and down the beach, then it started raining on and off and we have to shoot between that and the music coming from all those parties. Oh, and the bystanders who want to cat-call through takes. It made for a very frustrating night, and for a real editing challenge because I didn’t get everything I really wanted. At least it wasn’t me that made up the shooting schedule, but I should’ve seen that coming. Now I know.  

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

JON: That you may be the director and have the final say, but the experience has to be a communal one. It’s important to get together beforehand and at times during the production to eat together like a family and have some laughs. That’s something we should all learn from Coppola. He does it right.

And I wish I had more money to pay people. I will on the next one. 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Jocelyn Kelvin on "Your Friends Close"

What was your filmmaking background before making Your Friends Close?

JOCELYN: I only began pursuing film after graduating from Northwestern University, where I majored in Theatre and minored in Creative Writing with an emphasis on poetry.

After graduation I realized that I was more excited by the medium of film, so I bought a camera, got Final Cut Pro, and taught myself everything via books, instruction manuals, and internet forums. (Couldn’t have done it without the forums. Really.) I knew I was interested in experimental usage of movement and music on film, so my first films were in collaboration with award-winning Chicago based contemporary dance companies Lucky Plush, for whom I created a number of short pieces, and The Moving Architects, for whom I created a twelve minute site-specific dance film.

After I moved to Los Angeles and befriended Your Friends Close screenwriter Brock Wilbur, we explored a few projects together before landing on this film.

We shot a documentary, Special Populations, about a theatre company in Kansas that creates an original musical through collaboration between adults with physical and developmental disabilities and volunteers from the community. I jumped straight from that into Your Friends Close, which was both an extremely intelligent and remarkably silly choice.

How did you get connected to Brock’s script?

JOCELYN: Brock and I both went to Northwestern University, and we met at a mutual friend’s birthday party just after I moved out to Los Angeles. We developed Your Friends Close together, from the inception of the concept through the entire process of writing the script. We wanted to create a piece that was low budget and easily shootable, and that would showcase our friends’ talents, whether in front of or behind the camera.

What was your process for getting the script ready to shoot?

JOCELYN: Because I was such a consistent part of the script development process, a lot of the work of “getting the script ready to shoot” was done during months of writer’s notes on the project.

One of my favorite books on directing is not about film, but about theater: Harold Clurman’s “On Directing.” Clurman suggests tools for breaking down a script that I use whether directing film, theater, or working as an actor. He talks about every piece having a “thrust” statement--a thesis, if you will--that each character has their own active philosophy or attitude, in relation to.

When Brock and I were developing the many intertwining stories in Your Friends Close, I worked to define this as part of the writing process. I then held rehearsals with the actors, both together and individually, giving each actor the opportunity to explore the character one-on-one with me. We had access to the apartment where we shot for a full month, though the shoot itself was only twelve days, so we had the luxury of rehearsing in the space itself (...and I lived there for the duration of the month, which was rather meta/method in regards to my own script work as the character of Becca.)

I also shot-listed every moment of the film, though, as often happens, we threw out much of my pre-planning in favor of faster setups---we shot something like seven to ten pages a day.

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

JOCELYN: Oh man. Recouping costs? Who does that in filmmaking, nowadays?

No, but seriously---we were lucky. We had a very successful Kickstarter campaign back before Kickstarter become so ubiquitous it was every third post on your Facebook feed. We made 145% of our original Kickstarter goal, due to the help of friends and family as well as professionals and enthusiasts we connected to via Twitter.

We had support from followers of bestselling author Jane McGonigal, who publicly supported the film, the generous fans of actress and video game vlogger Lisa Foiles, game blogs like Destructoid and Kill Screen, and former Pajiba writer Joanna Robinson, who is currently at Vanity Fair. Brock and I supplemented the Kickstarter with a loan and with money from our own pockets…like you do, when you’re making an independent film.

I am grateful that I got to work with extremely talented people who were for some magic reason willing to work for way less than I would have liked to pay them. Without the generosity of their time and their creativity, this film could not have been made. I look forward to having more money to make my next film, because it was often painful not to be able to reflect in payment the devotion with which people attended to the project. To everyone who gave their time to the film who reads this: Thank you. You are golden, golden people.

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

JOCELYN: We used the Canon 5Ds and 7Ds, with vintage Nikon lenses. We actually had the opportunity to use a Red Epic, but decided against it, because we needed to shoot faster and dirtier.

The Canon cameras are astounding, honestly. We couldn’t have made this movie for this budget in any time period but ours, and for that I am so grateful that I won’t even go on record as saying that I “hated” anything about the cameras. They have their limits, but it’s really nothing to complain about.

I will say, however, that if people moved across the floor too fast or too heavily, the camera was so lightweight that it would jiggle on the tripod---which is a pretty unique filmmaking experience. Pretty sure we kept one or two moments like this in the film, when they added to the storytelling (for example, when Gunner drunkenly staggers towards Jason and collapses on his chest).

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

JOCELYN: The upside is that you learn more about the script than you could from a single position--because you’re working on it from every angle. Total immersion. There were a surprising amount of connections between my role as director and the experiences of my character, Becca. She is in charge of the development of the eponymous video game, a process which turns her relationship and her friendships into part of a political, professional process. Living through that in real life made me better able to play the character.

The downside is, of course, that it is exhausting, and there’s no cushion.

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

JOCELYN: The smartest thing I did during production was to gather a team around me of devoted, talented people who really gave their all. The shoot was intense, and required a lot from every person involved. Everyone pitched in and committed their time and their skill, from the AD who made magic out of everyone’s conflicting schedules to the actors who made it through ten pages of intensity each night, to our caterer who home-cooked 90% of the meals over the twelve day shoot, to the entire crew and creative team that stayed focused at six am when I wanted just one more shot. I could not be more thankful for the people I worked with.
The dumbest thing I did was not making sure I had enough time in pre-production. We had a very rushed pre-production schedule and I regret that I didn’t have more time to prepare, on a variety of levels. Any mistakes I made were omissions during the pre-production process.

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

JOCELYN: Patience.