Thursday, January 29, 2015

Jack Lewars on "Mount Joy"

What was your filmmaking background before making Mount Joy?

JACK: I graduated from the film school at Penn State. My first feature was a movie called Alligator Run. It was a documentary about two guys who drove their 5-foot pet alligator from their home in LA to release it into the swamps of Gainsville FL. I also work as a colorist at Technicolor New York - I watch a lot of great films and work with a lot of directors I admire.

How did you get connected to M. Angelo Mena's script and what drew you to it?

JACK: Mena and I grew up together in the town of Mount Joy, Pennsylvania. We based the film on a lot of our childhood friends and experiences. There was a thriving underground music scene there at the time. We wanted to make a movie about what it's like to dream of life beyond the borders of your small hometown -- set to a really great soundtrack.

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

JACK: We partnered up with an amazing DP, Mark Sparrough, who also came in as a producer. Mark brought in a lot of investors. Besides that we called everyone we knew. All in all, we managed to convince a dozen people to invest in the movie. We also had a successful Kickstarter campaign that brought in the remaining funds.

As far as our distribution: we had a limited theatrical release followed by a release on VOD platforms like iTunes and Amazon as well as having a Cable-on-demand run. We feel like we won the jackpot with the cable deal - not a lot of indies are accepted onto those platforms.

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

JACK: Sure after casting I think the dialogue really came to life, we changed some of that around. But honestly the script went through its biggest transformation in editing. We had to cut out an entire section of the story that was hindering the pacing of the film. It was something we never would or could have predicted would be on the cutting room floor, but we had a great team of editors who made the suggestion and they were right.

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

JACK: We used the Panavision Genesis. Love? Out movie looks beautiful. It's one of the few digital cameras that actually looks like film.

Hate? It weights as much as a small VW car engine.

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

JACK: The smartest thing I think we did was to go home to a community who supported our production. Tons of people came out to help, acting as extras, lent us locations and spread the word.

The dumbest thing we did was crash our cube truck into the overpass of the motel where we were all staying - it was at the end of an 18-hour day of shooting and we were exhausted and over-heated and forgot the truck was too tall for that overpass.

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

JACK: We assembled a good crew that we'll continue to use in the future. The vibe on-set really makes or breaks a movie. Well maybe the audience can't tell when they watch the finished product but certainly a big part of why I want to continue to make movies is because I have fun doing it.

Mount Joy is currently being released nationally on most cable on-demand platforms. The film is also available on iTunes, Amazon and DVD via their site:
Photo credit: BIANCA CORDOVA

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Colin Healey on "Homemakers”

What was your filmmaking background before making Homemakers?

COLIN: My dad is a photographer, and he was making videos of me and with me from toddler age.  I learned to edit deck-to-deck with VHS tapes at an arts camp called DASAC in the late nineties.  I also went to art school at the Rhode Island School of Design in their film and animation program and that’s where I found a lot of my collaborators. 

I really found myself as a filmmaker in the summers in college when I would teach video at DASAC and run around all day with costumes and a video camera making chaos with thirteen-year-olds.  Teasing something fantastic out of their nutty visions.

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

COLIN: A lot of my college-era work was about families and finding a home.  Particularly disconnected families was a theme.  I moved to Pittsburgh and was suddenly confronted with this city where families had been split up by the steel collapse.  Many people had left for Sun Belt pastures, leaving behind so many empty houses.  That, and I was living with a girlfriend for the first time, making a home that way. 

I wrote the film in a studio I had in a bombed-out old sign factory I was trying - unsuccessfully - to fix up a bit, and walking around on shifts as a security guard at the Andy Warhol Museum.

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

COLIN: Rachel McKeon lived with my studio mate but she actually found us through an ad we put out, and we found Jack Culbertson and a lot of good single scene players that way.  Molly Carlisle is a painter friend I had taught with who was in my thesis film. 

Once Rachel was on board, she really knew the theater scene in the city and we reached out together to respected Pittsburgh actors.  Our co-producer Adrienne Wehr helped fill in the gaps once she came on board.  She worked tirelessly to find an actress to play the burlesque ghost.

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

COLIN: Honestly, I can’t.  But!  I’ll tell you why I can’t:  we are still negotiating with distributors.  After we’ve sold, I can be more transparent.  I can say that financially, this would have been impossible without the house we shot in.  One of our production designers, Seth Clark, and our props master Travis Rohrbaugh were regulars and occasional employees at a great bar called the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, owned by our friend Steve Frankowski.  He owned the house and used it as storage.  Steve gave us free reign to use it however we liked as long as we had our own insurance and the art department helped him gut it afterwards.

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

COLIN: We used the Canon C300, mounted on our DP Ben Powell’s heroic shoulder.  Nearly every shot is a Zeiss 28mm or a Canon 50mm.  Those two focal lengths are approximate - in different ways - to how the human eye sees, and Ben felt these lenses allowed a potentially cartoonish world to feel grounded. 

We chose the C300 because of it’s incredible low-light performance.  We didn’t want to use movie lights at all - and didn’t - because we wanted to capture light in this dusty old house as it was.  We wanted the indoor lighting to feel like it was coming from our character’s aesthetic choices, so practicals became a huge aspect of the set design and it was a conversation between myself, Ben, Danielle, Seth and Rachel. 

Most of all, I wanted the actors, playing drunk and wild a lot of the time, to have free range of movement and to have any prop or wall as an option.  Lights would just get in the way in that tiny house.  I love love love the C300 and what it allowed us to do.

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

COLIN: Cuts, mainly.  The story wasn’t really altered - there had been a big script rewrite mid-production that worked a lot of kinks out.  A lot of scenes were cut in the edit, though.  One major scene was cut right before we premiered. 

The tricky thing with this film was finding a balance between the melodramatic elements and the slapstick.  Early cuts struggled because of that.  But in the end our editor Dave Schachter came up with some genius solutions that allowed us to move it into a more centered place, and Matt Bryan’s finished score really drove it home.

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

COLIN: The dumbest thing I did was underestimate how much organizational help we would need.  I really didn’t think we needed to do things like regular movies and have all this staff.  A week into production it was clear we needed some steadier hands to come in so we added a co-producer to teach our young producers how to rock out, and we added an assistant director Jeremy Braverman to teach our young director how to rock out, and it was pretty smooth from there. 

The smartest thing I think I did was hire great people.  And really trust them to do their jobs, and make sure they have the environment they need to create.

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

COLIN: I learned the most about leadership.  I can take that to any project, even if I’m the only person I’m leading.  Improving as a leader, and thinking about yourself as a leader - in terms of the responsibilities, not the perks - is the best thing you can do for yourself as any kind of artist, particularly one who literally gets people do things. 

I also learned so much about the festival process.  It’s important to know what you’re getting into, and we really didn’t.  But at the same time, one thing that allowed us to be so creative was just saying ‘we aren’t going to talk about festivals.’

Our goal wasn’t to get into Sundance, although that would have been nice.  Our goal was to enable each other to make our most creative decisions.  And we absolutely did.  Killed it.  1000%.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Alan Cumming on "The Anniversary Party"

What was your inspiration to do this movie?

ALAN CUMMING: Well, first of all, Jennifer and I both wanted to work together. We were in Cabaret together on Broadway, but we didn't really do anything together in the show. But we just got on and wanted to do something. We knew we wanted to explore working together, so it came from that.

And we wanted to write something about how we felt about relationships at that point in our lives -- something that was very current for ourselves and something that was honest and open. And also we wanted to use elements of ourselves, or experiences, and put that into a story.
How did you divide up chores of writing and directing?

ALAN CUMMING: We didn't, really. People understand the notion that you can write together. I think people have more trouble with the idea of directing together. But it wasn't divided up; it was quite smooth. We both would talk. I would do of the shouting and general announcements.

But there were certain actors where we said, 'You talk to him,' or, 'I'll talk to her.' We were very aware that we get better results with one of us talking to someone rather than the other.

It's not difficult to direct with someone else; it's actually really nice.

In a way the whole film, with it's theme about openness, and it's very much an ensemble thing, and we were using everybody who were our friends and we were using elements of them in the story as well. And the crew, they were all doing it for, obviously, very little money.

It was very sort of democratic, with the crew and everyone. There were no trailers. We all ate together. If someone wasn't working, they'd just lie on the lawn. We tried to open out, ask people's opinion. It's easy to make people feel good about coming to work. You just have to make them feel involved and that you respect their opinion and it's not an autocracy. When you have that attitude, it makes it very easy to have two directors.
Were the actors nervous about doing a digital feature?

ALAN CUMMING: No, I don't think so. If anything, they were nervous that they would look bad. We all rightly think of video as making you look hideous, shiny and awful. So that was why we got an incredible DP. We wanted to make sure that the film looked good, that was our main concern. As exciting as it can be to shoot on video and have that eavesdropping feel, the films that we had seen prior to making ours were ghastly. The technology, the process of transferring from video to film was still in its infancy, and it wasn't looking good.
The scene where the guests give out their presents is a pretty interesting scene. How much of it was written?

ALAN CUMMING: For that scene, we asked the actors to make up their own speeches for that or to make their own things. We guided them about what perhaps their character might say, what their character's angle might be, but we left it up to them to make up their thing. It was really fascinating.

We shot their stuff and our reactions at the same time. We were hearing it for the first time, which was really exciting. And also, they were really nervous, like you would be really nervous standing up and doing that, because they were actually having to perform something that they had written for the first time, too. It was good -- it worked.
What was the biggest lesson you took away from the experience?

ALAN CUMMING: Biggest lesson; Treat people respectfully. There's a sort of vogue, and there has been for decades now, that the director is god and the director is all knowing.

But when you say to someone, 'I don't understand this and I'm asking your advice because you're better at it than me,' by doing that and involving people and making the film truly a collaborative process, you get much better results. You get a better film and you get happier people and get an atmosphere on the set that is truly creative.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Jamin Winans on "The Frame"

What was your filmmaking background before making The Frame?

JAMIN: I got into filmmaking when I was a kid (about 10).  Just grew up with an RCA camcorder on my shoulder.  I made my first feature on VHS editing on two VCRs when I was 17 (it was horrible).  I then went to film school for a year, dropped out and started Double Edge Films (about 16 years ago).  

Since then I've made a number of shorts and three features (11:59, Ink, and The Frame).

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

JAMIN: Ultimately I wanted to make a movie about the feeling of being abandoned by God.  I wanted to explore the questions of God's existence, God's nature (benevolent or malevolent) and how we struggle between control and submission.

The writing process for me always starts with images.  I'll get an image of a moment and begin asking questions.  Those questions eventually lead me to knowing the character and what brought him/her to that moment.  With The Frame there were two primary images I started with; a man physically fighting to get out of a cage, and the man picking up a violin.

I work for months (if not years) on an extensive outline and then write the actual script fairly quickly.

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

JAMIN: The casting was headed up by my wife and producer, Kiowa.  We were determined to have a very democratic and nation-wide casting call so we used Breakdown Express and Actors Access.  We received about a thousand submissions for each role and Kiowa went through them one by one.

After looking at demo reels, headshots, and resumes she narrowed it down to a handful of actors she thought might be right.  We then sent those actors a few scenes to read and gave them a week to submit a taped audition.  From those we found David Carranza and Tiffany Mualem who we fell in love with.  We flew them out and auditioned them in person before giving them the roles.

The other roles were almost entirely people we knew or had worked with.  Christopher Soren Kelly is a long time collaborator and friend who's been in a number of our films.  Almost all of the actors were out of Denver (where we shot). 

Very little of the script changed after casting.  During rehearsal David, Tiffany and I tweaked some dialogue once we got a sense of how it played, but generally we kept everything as it was.

How did you and DP Robert Muratore establish and execute the look of the film?

JAMIN: Robert was involved a good year before we shot.  We're good friends so every casual get together quickly turned into talking about the film.  We watch a lot of movies together and talk about them constantly so we had a really good film reference shorthand.  I could mention the look of almost any movie and Robert knew what I was talking about.

We had the typical conversations about aesthetic that most filmmakers have.  We started with theme and discussed how best to capture that visually.  We had various rules we established early that stemmed from the point of view the story is coming from.  One big rule we had was "no handheld."  That made the shoot a lot more complicated because if we wanted the camera to move it meant it was on a dolly, jib, or steadicam.  All of those things take time and resources.   We also wanted the film to be dark, but very natural.  We had a number of references we kept going back to.

But the bulk of our conversations were much more technical.  There are some big visual ideas in the film and one specifically that I've never seen done before (the "Frame" visual).  That was difficult because we didn't have any references to look out and know if the idea would even work.  We did a lot of testing starting with miniatures and mock-ups and eventually landed on our "Frame Rig."  I don't want to say too much about that for the those who haven't seen the movie yet, but in the end we were really happy with how it turned out.

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

JAMIN: This was my third feature on a Sony.  This was shot on the Sony F55 which came out just weeks before we started shooting.  We were lucky enough to get our hands on it just in time and absolutely loved it.  Everything about it was fantastic.  We shot and finished on 4k, the low light sensitivity was amazing (critical because we couldn't afford big lights) and it was small which is always a requirement for me.

I had no complaints whatsoever with the camera.  It was honestly about as perfect an experience as I have ever had.

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

JAMIN: No, this was probably the most faithful I've ever stayed to the script and the storyboards.  I felt confident in the script and had spent five months storyboarding the film so I had worked out most of the issues by the time we shot.  I cut a few lines and shots, but for the most part it's very close to the script.

At what point in the process, as the composer, do you start thinking about the music and does that change as the edit is happening?

JAMIN: I usually start working on the music at the script phase.  The music helps me write and the writing helps me compose.  With The Frame I composed about 75% of it before we started shooting and I was able to use that on set for key moments.  Then in the edit I bounced back and forth between cutting and tweaking the music.

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

JAMIN: At one point in the shoot I just realized how well we had hired.  We just had the perfect cast and the perfect crew and that made all the difference.  The dumbest?  I can't think of any one thing, but I tend to be overly optimistic with what we can do which ends up making me miserable because I'm stressed the entire shoot.  But we always get through it.

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

JAMIN: More than anything each new film helps me gain more focus both as a storyteller and in life.  The Frame has given me a clearer path as to where I'm heading next.