Thursday, June 26, 2014

Nicholas Barton on "Wichita"

What was your filmmaking background before making Wichita?

NICK: Since 2009, I have been mostly a freelance commercial producer - occasionally music videos and television shows.  I've shot commercials for Wal-Mart, Dell Computers, Cargill Beef and music videos for almost every major music video network.  

I didn't go to school for film, I studied philosophy, which at first I thought might be a hindrance, but then I discovered that a significant percentage of full time video professionals had backgrounds the same as me.  

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

NICK: I've always loved the Noir films of the 40s and 50s and felt like something really beautiful has been lost in cinema.  We're in an age where there's little to know creativity left in stories and we're being spoon-fed cookie cutter A-B-C story lines because they're easy to put out.  

I've always believed that the audiences around the country are incredibly intelligent and genuinely love films that make them use their brain until the very end.  I wrote a story that doesn't really reveal itself until the final scene of the piece.  

I started writing Wichita in January 2012 and worked up about 5 drafts before signing on our producers, Ryan McGuigan & Raymond Eickstadt, in February 2013.  From that point on, I tried to withdraw myself as a writer and focus in on the production: What was possible within our budget, what we had access to in terms of locations/cast, and had to make mild adjustments to accommodate our resources. 

From day one we consistently heard how "ambitious' our film seemed to be for our budget - which to us served mostly as a euphemism for 'Good luck, but we know there's no way in hell you're pulling this off.'  There's no doubt we had to make initial script sacrifices, but more than 95% of what we wanted to do initially, we found a way to do.

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

NICK: With our production house, we have re-invested in equipment for the past 5 years and own all of our own camera systems, lighting, sound, etc.  We self-financed a portion of what was left and had a few investors who were willing to commit to the project.  

We tried to be conservative in all of our spending - travel, hotels, meals.  As opposed to putting together a massive catering budget - we had a full time set-chef who bargain shopped each day and prepared home-cooked meals.  No one worked for what they deserved and several groups brought costumes, props, and set pieces in for free.  The beauty of shooting in Kansas is pretty much no one tells you 'No' when it comes to helping out for a feature film.  We were very fortunate.

As for recouping our costs - we are starting out with a 36-city, 6-state tour.  We made phone calls for 3 straight days to anyone involved with the performing arts, locked in different venues and started hitting the road.  We're right now prepping for City #12 and are fairly confident that we'll make our below the line budget back by the end of the tour.  We're now starting to take requests from Theatrical reps on multi-screen deals and have had 2 different Video, Television, and On-Demand Distribution Offers.  

We have submitted to some of the major film festivals but are not putting our eggs into that basket in order to make up our budget.  Instead, we're trying to be pro-active and create a sustainable network of theatres and venues we can circuit on our next projects.  Hopefully, whichever distribution company we lock in will be partners and investors for years to come.

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

NICK: A significant percentage of the principle cast was pulled from the various area theatres.  My wife and I try to go to as many plays as possible and try to handpick actors who we feel like work well for our cinema style of acting.  

We held 2 days of casting auditions in a banquet hall of a Hyatt Hotel and had about 50 people show up.

Finally, we posted a casting call on the website Backstage and had over 850 applicants in the first 72 hours, so we had to put a hold on the posting until we could go through the pool of actors/actresses.  We received probably another 50 phone calls over the next week from casting agencies asking if we were interested in their actors.  

Once we locked in our cast, we really didn't adjust anything in the script for them.  

What are the key things you learned about how to successfully create an historical movie (as opposed to a contemporary movie)?

NICK: Hire a costumer.  

Have two or three historians on set that you get along with and who understand that the filmmaking process takes precedence over the history lesson.  They are guides without being co-directors.  We were incredibly fortunate to have several really great collaborators on set with us who had a fairly deep understanding of movie-making and were willing to offer insight that wouldn't be destructive to the storyline.

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

NICK: I've been an avid supporter of RED Cinema Cameras since Day One.  We were some of the first people in the Midwest to acquire the first generation RED ONE and have loved the progression of the camera systems into the new Scarlets and Epics.  

For this feature, we exclusively used the Scarlets with a set of Zeiss super speed primes.  I love the size and versatility of the camera.  We shot all but one scene in 4k raw and worked with a skilled colorist in New York (Brian Boyd) to finalize our compositions and treatments.

Media burns up quickly and by the end of our shoot with video and audio files, we had just shy of 8 TB of data to work with.  I honestly have no idea if this is standard or not.

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

NICK: Smartest: We live in Kansas and as the saying goes, "If you don't like the weather, wait an hour and it'll change."  So, we had B & C schedules ready to go weeks before the first day of shooting.  I'm almost positive if we hadn't had it, we would have rain and thunderstorms every single day.  But, since we did - we only had 2 days (out of 25) of adjusting our shooting days for weather.

Dumbest: We only had one person in place for our baby and our saloon lady.  So of course, both of them cancel on us the day of the shooting.  Luckily we were able to find replacements the day of for both.  (Huge props go out to our producer Ryan McGuigan for making this happen right away.)

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

NICK: It's a huge endeavor.  HUGE.  You'll find some people that want to be a part of it because they thinks it's cool and some people want to be famous.  I try to make a mental inventory of every time someone went above and beyond their job description and tried to make my life easier.  I can assure you, those will be the first people I have on my team for the next project.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Kurt Larson on "Son of Ghostman"

What was your filmmaking background before making Son of Ghostman?

KURT: From a directing standpoint, fairly limited. I came to Los Angeles roughly 15 years ago to be an actor, and have been fortunate enough to work on some films (The Terminal & Jarhead) and TV shows (Harry’s Law, ER & JAG) in that capacity.

But luckily as a struggling actor/writer, I’ve been around a variety of low-budget or no-budget projects, so the access to both equipment and working with various people in close quarters was fairly extensive. There’s always someone doing something, and I like to be around that energy.

So although this was my first film as a director, I was armed with some skills that I thought could help overcome what faults I had.

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

KURT: I wanted to make a film that had a unique metaphor to what my friends and I had been going through--the balance of aspiring for a creative life while still maintaining the practical responsibilities of the real world. Horror Hosts fit that bill, and I adore them.

I also hoped that the audience would feel the mixture of putting classic TV horror hosts into a traditional rom-com structure was fresh and interesting. I had always wanted to make a film honoring what those guys/gals do, but not a lot of people in Hollywood were interested. It’s a tone thing, and unless they see what I’m trying to accomplish, they have a hard time envisioning it.

I also knew that the historical crude technology that horror hosts usually utilize would be a favorable aesthetic to our shortcomings in that field.

The story from script to development to lock took approximately one year.

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

KURT: I personally paid for the entire project by saving money over many years waiting tables. Yes, I am a cliché. But using the money didn’t matter. I had to make my movie and luckily had a wonderful wife who insisted I do so.

To be frank, I do not expect to make the money back, nor did I intend to. I genuinely made it for two reasons: one, to make a feel-good story that a wide-audience could enjoy.

Secondly, I made it because I’m anxious and inpatient. I had been making progress in the Hollywood system with my writing but still found the process to be agonizingly long. I wanted to make something unique but thematically universal to a lot of people.

My goal was to attract attention from studio and indiefilm people alike, in hopes of making more stories, because I have dozens I want to tell. It basically was, “look over here, we did this with virtually nothing but sheer will and determination, so try to imagine what we could do with some real support.” That was the goal.

You wore a lot of hats on this project -- Director, Writer, DP, Actor, Editor. What's the upside and the downside of that approach?

KURT: It’s fairly straightforward. The positive aspects are that you control the final product in every way. The film stands or falls on you and your team’s imagination, not the whims and thoughts of a corporate entity. I personally have always reviled in that trapeze of pressure. I thrive under those situations, and often times even create obstacles that don’t exist just to get my competitive drive churning.

The downside is exhaustion. You really do spread yourself thin, and I’d say for me, I don’t focus on my acting as much. That can privately discourage me at times, but it doesn’t stop me.

The other downside is knowing I don’t have a tag-team partner to tag in and give me a month or two off. But again, that just plays into that competitiveness I described above, so it keeps me focused.

What was your system for directing yourself?

KURT: Well, this is where it gets tricky and perhaps I didn’t accomplish exactly what I wanted.

We were a two-man crew, so I worked the camera while my incredibly talented producer Gabriel Guyer did sound. If I were in a scene, I’d set up the shot as best I could, show him what I wanted, and he would get behind camera.

But that was created a new problem, because that would mean someone else had to do sound, which would stress him out… leaving us both filled with trepidation. In the end, a variety of friends would end up behind camera on those scenes.

Truth be told, the finished acting work primarily came from my instincts, as we didn’t have time to watch dailies. I wouldn’t do it that way again, but luckily being a villainous buffoon wasn’t too difficult to handle acting-wise.

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

KURT: The Canon 7D with a variety of prime lenses.

What I absolutely loved about it was the images it gave me for little money. Again, it was the only practical choice based on budget and what we needed to do guerrilla style. I loved the compactness of it, the colors it gave me, and the overall HD post options. The ability to be conspicuous in heavily populated areas was pertinent to success, and the 7D gave us that.

Negatively, I loathed trying to focus, as the depth of focus was every bit as sensitive as everyone warned me. Despite having a screw-in 6-inch monitor, we still missed clarity at times. It frustrates me now, but that’s why I look forward to working with an experienced Director of Photography on the next project. I now have a better understanding of all the jobs these gifted artists do, and communicating with them will be exponentially easier because I have some idea of the challenges they face.

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

KURT: Honestly, the smartest thing I did and continue to do is trust my and my team’s instincts. In every scenario where I did that, it worked out. That doesn’t mean that I was always right or that I didn’t fail at times, but overthinking things always gave me a negative result. Going with my gut always provided a solution or lesson to get to the solution.

I also think convincing my non-film best friend Gabriel to come along for the adventure remains my most important decision. It hasn’t always been easy, but I honestly believe no other human being on the planet could have made Son of Ghostman with me. He was just invaluable, both professionally and personally.

The dumbest thing I did was submit and show the film to colleagues and festivals before it was complete. I was just so damn excited, but every filmmaker knows the vast difference between your first and your final cut.

Just. Be. Patient.

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

KURT: Oh man, so much, I’m not even sure where to start.

Doing all the technical jobs has given me an encyclopedia of knowledge of which to draw from.

Doing a film from step one until now has taught me invaluable lessons about who I am and what I’m capable of. It’s also taught me the beauty of helping someone else achieve his or her potential, to work together, to really believe in what you’re doing.

It’s also taught me that chasing paychecks is a waste of time. I’d rather take these films to the studio level or keep making them small. I’m not interested in pursuing projects with people “just to be doing something.” I want to make stories I want to see. And accepting that is incredibly rewarding and makes future decisions much, much easier.

I’ve learned that I have much to learn, and every person I work with offers me another valuable lesson.

I feel so lucky to have worked with this incredible group of creative people, and only hope it’ll be like that in the future.

Trust me when I say from experience, I’ve learned how a group of talented actors really can make a director look all right himself. I owe them a lot.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

James Duff on “Hank and Asha”

What was your filmmaking background before making Hank and Asha?

JAMES: My first film was a documentary that I made just after graduating college, a cross-country bike trip about Generation X, which ended up being broadcast on PBS (POV).  That led to a job shooting documentaries in West Africa for the next two years, everything from HIV education to circumcision to women’s rights.

But my dream has always been to direct narrative feature films, so I returned to the States where I earned my MFA in film production at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. My short narrative thesis film ended up playing over 40 festivals around the world.

Currently, I teach film directing and production, including two years at a film school in the Czech Republic.  I have taught workshops in Kenya, at a refugee camp in the Sahara Desert and Vassar College. I’m also a theater director, and have directed more than 20 shows since I arrived in New York. Hank and Asha is my first feature film.

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

JAMES: My wife and I were teaching at a film school in the Czech Republic, feeling very lonely and isolated, and longing to make deep meaningful connections with people. We decided that we wanted to make a film about two lonely people who make a deep meaningful connection from a long distance, and how their connection gets them through a difficult time in their lives.

We were both nostalgic for a time in our lives when we used to write letters.  Taking time to get thoughts down on paper. The delicious anticipation of waiting to get a letter in return. You could create yourself to be the person that you wanted to be. And you could project your fantasy on who you wanted the other person to be, and this correspondence could get you through a rough patch in your life. 

We decided to update the idea to 2014, by having the characters send video messages rather than letters back-and-forth. The idea crystalized when a friend of ours told us that he courted his now wife by sending her video messages. He actually let us watch them! We discovered that in watching these intimate videos, while he was meaning to address his wife, since we were the audience he was actually addressing us.  We felt like we were on the inside of growing relationship. 

We thought it would be cool to make a movie where we put the audience on the inside of a relationship, to really put them in each character’s shoes.  You really feel like they are talking to you.

The script was basically a 30-page outline. We wrote the intent of each scene, but didn’t write much in the way of specific dialogue. We wanted this to be a very collaborative process with the actors, and make it feel as real and authentic as possible.

I’m also a theater director, and so we cast theater actors who were very good at improvisation.   We didn’t rehearse, because we wanted to capture the awkwardness of the characters talking to the camera. We knew what we wanted out of the scenes, but gave the actors free reign to input their own ideas and personalities. We did around 10 takes for each scene, doing it a different way every time, to give us ample choices in editing.

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

JAMES: From the beginning, we knew that we were making a micro-budget film.  This was by design.  We planned to raise funds from family and friends, so that we could be free to take risks and experiment and not be under pressure to pay anyone back. 

We gave ourselves the constraints of making a movie with only two characters and a documentary style crew, which also kept the cost down. We managed to do it, thanks to the amazing contributions of cast and crew.

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

JAMES: We shot with it with the Canon 5D Mark III. We really loved it – not only a really great image, but also very unobtrusive, which was essential for production. We could shoot out in the street and people would think that we were just taking still images, and no one would interfere.

It also suited our story.  Both characters, who are budding filmmakers, would shoot their video messages on the Canon 5D.  An affordable camera, so it’s realistic that a young filmmaker could own one. 

What was your biggest challenge in making the movie?

JAMES: The biggest challenge was creating chemistry between the two actors who aren’t on screen together. We shot Asha’s material first. The actress who plays Asha, Mahira Kakkar, didn’t have any footage to respond to.

We worked to create the emotion behind the video messages, and in making them, how she wanted Hank to feel. Then she used her own brilliant imagination. Since we shot Hank second, we were able to show the actor, Andrew Pastides, some of the clips, but not very many. Like Mahira, Andrew worked with the objective of each letter and how he wanted her to feel in making it.  It’s such a tribute to both of them that they could pull this off.

Another big challenge was then putting it altogether in the editing room. Since we did around 10 takes for each scene, there was a pretty massive amount of material.  Our first cut was two hours and 45 minutes! Now it’s 75 minutes, so we had to cut a lot of our favorite stuff, which was agonizing. We forced ourselves to stay on track with the emotional story between the two characters and keep it as streamlined as possible.

How did the movie change during the editing process?

JAMES: The movie changed daily in the editing room! There were many puzzle pieces to fit together. There was a possibility of each message fitting into different parts of the story, depending on the context and the content of the message. So we did a lot of shuffling around. Juxtaposing messages with each other could create different meanings. If we wanted to use take three of a certain message, the content and context was entirely different then take one of the same message. If we discarded a take because we thought it didn’t work and then moved the message to a different part of the film, often we discovered that it would then work.

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

JAMES: The smartest thing we did was hire an excellent casting director, and a top-notch crew who had a passion for the story. We would not have made the movie if we hadn’t had such amazing people to work with.

The dumbest thing we did was that we only made one backup of both the Prague footage and the New York footage. So all of our original footage was basically on four hard drives. We edited the movie in Prague, and then when we came back home to New York, three of the four hard drives crashed. We thought we had lost our movie. We spent an agonizing three days waiting to see if the footage could be retrieved. The technicians at TekServe finally managed to retrieve the material. Thank you TekServe!

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

JAMES:  I learned that it’s very important to try to work with people who are better than you, who have more experience and can really heighten the level of the movie beyond how you originally saw it in your own mind.

Making a movie is so difficult and consuming, it’s essential to have absolute passion for what you’re doing. Before the stress of each day, I would take a moment to remind myself how lucky I was to be doing what I love to do.

Most of all, be kind. Spreading the joy is infectious!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Roger Corman on "Targets"

How did you come to produce Targets?

ROGER CORMAN: As a result of various complications in a contract, Boris Karloff owed me several days' work. So I wanted to do a horror film, starring Boris Karloff, in which he would only work for those days.

Peter Bogdanovich had been my assistant. (My assistant before that was Francis Coppola and after Francis had worked for me on a few films, I gave him a chance to direct.) I did the same thing with Peter. I said, 'Here's the problem: The picture must star Boris Karloff, but he can only work for these days.'

And Peter came up with the idea of Boris as an actor doing a traditional horror film, and in that way we could take some footage out of some of the horror films that Boris had done for me before, and also cut away to the boy and tell a parallel story.

The film has a couple of really long, continuous takes, which seem to go against your rule of getting proper coverage.

ROGER CORMAN: It goes a little bit against my rules, but on the other hand, all rules are made to be broken. I do like to get coverage, to get as much coverage as possible. Yet, at the same time, when you're on a very tight schedule, sometimes you have to sacrifice coverage. And when you do that, sometimes you can make a virtue out of necessity.

What was it that made you feel Bogdanovich could pull off this directing debut?

ROGER CORMAN: Peter is highly intelligent, and he had a great knowledge of film. He had written some added scenes for me on previous pictures, and had directed some second unit, so I was aware of his ability as a second unit director and his ability as a writer.

I had the feeling that he had the talent.