Thursday, April 30, 2015

Laurie Agard on “Frog and Wombat”

When did you first become interested in being a filmmaker?

LAURIE: Well, I had a huge gap. I was really interested in film for a number of reasons when I was little kid. But as an adult, not until after I graduated. I went to school in the Midwest and never really contemplated being in Hollywood and working on films. My degree was in writing and I was writing computer manuals. Then I suddenly decided one day that I wanted to write a screenplay. That screenplay got optioned, and that is how I got into filmmaking.

As a kid, what got you interested in film?

LAURIE: I got perfect attendance in school. I lived in a really small town in Colorado.  I was the only kid that year that got perfect attendance, and so I got a free movie pass. I actually got that every summer.

So I spent every summer literally seeing movies over and over and over. Which was actually pretty good, because my parents went through a divorce, we didn’t have a lot of money, and so it really ended up being pretty awesome. I got to watch Grease and Star Wars, sometimes hundreds of times in a movie theater, often all by myself.  

But the idea that, ‘oh, I’m going to go make a movie,’ never occurred to me.

How did you gravitate toward writing a screenplay, instead of something else, like a novel?

LAURIE: I was writing poetry, and I think there was something about the condensed form of writing. I remember I was in a bookstore in Santa Cruz and I saw a book about how to write a screenplay. I can’t remember the name of the book or what it was. But I sat down and literally read it in the bookstore.

I wrote the screenplay in about three months. I sent it away and got an agent within a month. And it was optioned by the company that was handling the Olsen twins back then, when they were little.

That all happened pretty quickly, to write a script, get an agent and get it optioned.

LAURIE: I know, it was crazy. Sometimes there is an advantage to being a little bit naïve about something. And I was lucky because it was a bit of a hobby, and I was making my income and paying my mortgage doing something else.

It was actually just a way for me to escape my job. Now that I live in Los Angeles, I realize that it’s a little bit scarier for people, when it is their job. There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on you to do something.

Do you remember where the idea for the screenplay, Frog and Wombat, came from?

LAURIE: Yes, my best friend and I, when we were kids back in Durango Colorado, had walkie-talkie names. I think our walkie-talkie names were Frog and French Fry. But it was two FRs and it looked confusing on the script. So somehow one of them became Wombat.

It was just about us in the summer and riding our bikes around and having walkie-talkies. That’s not what the script is about, but I think the budding relationship and walkie-talkies is where it started.

How did you make the move from having written a script to directing the movie?

LAURIE: Well this is another weird story. I knew nothing about Hollywood or anything, but the notes I was getting back made me confused. The story is about two girls who are opposite--the story is about friendship and what happens when you grow apart. It’s a sad part of life I think. So it did not really make sense to me to have twins playing those roles. But I thought it was cool, hey, it got optioned.

And then it became clear to me, as I talked to more and more people, about how many billions of scripts get optioned and never made.

The other thing that happened, was that it was really fun to write scripts, but I was missing the collaboration. I played basketball at University on the scholarship. At that point, I had been out of college for a while. Having played in a team environment, where often, one plus one equals three, I was sort of lonely working as a writer.

So I decided not to renew the option.

Also, I started taking a class at UC Santa Cruz on videography and film. Through that a bulletin came by about a film, Mad City, that was shooting in San José.  And they needed videographers for that, because the plot of the film was about reporters. So they needed people who knew how to operate a Betacam camera.

It was the first movie set I have ever been on. I was basically a prop. Just a bunch of us running through the shot with cameras. We just had to know how to hold a Betacam camera.

I just absolutely fell in love with the process. And I met a lot of other people on the set, like assistant casting directors and production assistants, people who have Masters degrees. But we were sort of in the Bay Area, where not a lot of productions come. So they get people from all different walks of life, filling in for different spots.

By the end of that week I had determined that I wanted to form my own production company and direct and produce that script. So there were a handful of women on Mad City that came on as producers and production assistants and we found, I think, 52 investors. And we made the film. And we ended up making the film within three months of that.

That’s really amazing.

 LAURIE: It’s kind of crazy. But when I look back on it, it was one of those magical things that happens when you’ve got one plus one equals three. When there is a spark of creativity and a lot of people come on board, you build on that energy. Everyone came in with their own strengths and backgrounds. And none of us had ever produced.

The whole film was shot on short ends, getting just one or two takes. With two 11-year-old kids starring, who had never done anything. And it went onto HBO and Showtime and was sold to a number of different countries. It was a little piece of magic I think, to get it done.

It is a very sweet film.

LAURIE: Well thank you. I think it’s very sweet, but it embarrasses me a little bit, because I can’t go around while people watch it and say, “We only had one take.”

It was what it was. Now that I’m working on these giant budget films, I’m like wow. These are the resources other people have. It makes me laugh even more. Had I known that, I never would’ve been crazy enough to try to do what I did.

So on the first day of shooting Frog and Wombat, with the exception of watching Costa-Gavras direct Mad City, you had never been on a film set, right?

LAURIE: That is correct, except as a little kid, in Durango, there was a movie called Avalanche starring Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow. And I was on that set for a week. But that was when I was in the sixth grade.

So how did you prepare for your first day?

LAURIE: I think people come into it completely differently. There were three things that I came in, feeling very confident about.

First was teamwork and how important it was for everyone to have their own function and to do their own function. And to understand that.

Second was to inspire people to do as well or better than they can do. I think that is definitely what my sports background brought into it.

And the third part was telling the story.

Most this movie was shot in master shots. So the question always was, ‘how does this serve the big story and how does this serve the little story we’re trying to tell?’ And I think I knew that, because I had written it.

So, looking back on the experience, what are your thoughts?

LAURIE: If I knew then what I knew now, I would’ve been more terrified. But I was just really excited and felt very confident. It never occurred to me that the film wouldn’t be finished or wouldn’t be released. But I had a lot of people who were stressed, who were coming to me crying and just afraid. And I remember just thinking, why are they worried?

Was your technical team more experienced than you?

LAURIE: The technical team definitely had more experience. I have been reading a lot and I had driven down to Los Angeles and taken a couple of weekend workshops.

But the crew was fabulous. When we started, I did not have an editor and we did not have post-production money raised. That would have been really helpful. We ended up having a fabulous editor who I have worked with a number of times since.

If I were to say anything to a first-time director, it would be to surround yourself with a really great technical team. And listen to them. You know what you know, and if you can communicate your story, they can do their craft.

Did you get any resistance from the crew because you’re a woman?

LAURIE: It was a non-issue. That may be because I was also producing and I interviewed everyone and hired everyone. I think I probably would not have hired someone had I felt that might be an issue.

After making the movie, you moved to LA and worked in television. What has that experience been like?

LAURIE: My experience in Los Angeles in television is that you get hired as a director and it’s a moving bus and you just jump on. You really are the guest. The crew works long hours, sometimes six days a week, sometimes for years on a series. And you are coming into their home. And although it’s their home, you are telling them what to do, which is sort of strange.

It’s a very different experience from creating something all on your own. You’re not a guest, you’re not jumping on a moving bus. You are the one creating the momentum.

In a way, there is not much similarity between television and making a low-budget independent film.

Now that I’ve done the few independent films that I’ve done, just by going out and doing it, Now I’ve sort of created my own film school and am watching some of the best people that I can do it from beginning to end and see how it is different. And then see how I can apply that to what I want to do.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A Conversation with Editor Dody Dorn

How did you get interested in film? Was editing what you always intended to do?

DODY: No. It wasn’t. I grew up in LA and my father worked in the film industry.  All of the female role models that I had were schoolteachers.  So, I just thought, I’ll be a schoolteacher.  It never occurred to me that I could do something other than that.

Aside from my father, everyone else in my family was the scientist of some sort.  When I got out of high school, I actually went to City College where I was taking math classes.  As a product of my times, I got interested in being in the workforce and not going to school.  So I started looking around for work.  And it became apparent that the film industry was a place where I could get a job without a formal education.

So, I did a lot … a lot … a lot of odd jobs in film. I was in extra, I was an assistant to props, I was a production coordinator, I did some scripts supervising, I was the location manager, a lot of things.

It sounds like a great way to learn how movies are made.

DODY: Yes it was.  It was great. I was the assistant to the producer and the assistant location manager on a movie of the week for Dick Clark productions call Elvis that was directed by John Carpenter, starring Kurt Russell.

When the film was over, they decided to make a theatrical version of the film and they brought in a different editor. The producer asked me if I was interested in staying on and working in post-production. I thought, sure. I’m curious. I’m just a curious person. So I said sure.

So I said yes to that and I self taught myself all of the things needed for being an assistant editor. From there I never looked back, because I really liked having such clearly defined skills. It was a very concrete skill set and it was marketable.

I wasn’t into film as a kid, I didn’t go see a million movies. But once I started working in film and seeing the alchemy, I fell in love with film and then I started to teach myself film history. Seeing classic movies. I’m still an avid classic film watcher. Most of the movies I watch are classics or art movies or foreign films.

I became fascinated by film and the magic of editing. And I took it from there.

You say you were self-taught as an assistant editor. How did you do that?

DODY: I called a friend and I said I’m getting this job as an assistant film editor, what do I need to know? And I learned over the phone the difference between the emulsion and base, how many perfs per frame, how many feet per second, etc.

I called the rental houses and learned all the names of the pieces of equipment that were used.  In those days, it was a pretty straightforward mechanical process, in terms of the gear.

The job of being the assistant editor, especially in a film that has already been cut--it was a recut basically--was that of being a librarian, along with distributing the materials to the other departments that they needed for completing their parts of the recut.

I learned the names of every last single part of every piece of equipment, probably in a couple of hours. I know it sounds very mundane, but that was what I needed to know, so I learned it.

And I was very active, going and talking to all the people in all the facilities where we were working. I learned all about the lab and what was in the lab and how things were done there. I just had really good communication skills with the providers of the services. Whatever communication I could have, I did have, and learned that way.

Did you have any union issues?

DODY: No, because I got into a union on my very first job.

How did you do that? When I talked to Carol Littleton, about half of our conversation was about how tough it was for her to get into the union.

DODY: I don’t even know how much of this is legitimate or not legitimate, but I was working for union company and I was gathering my days. I worked for long enough that I got my days and I went to the union and I got my checkbook out and I said, “Here are my days.”

I met with the field rep at the time and I said I’m ready to sign-up. And it went from there, I signed up and I was in the union. Because I was so forthright, just standing there with my checkbook open, maybe the field rep just thought, “Ah, she’s just a good kid.” I don’t know.

You said you self taught yourself film history. Do remember what you found to be the most useful?

DODY: There are so many great books out there about cinema, and I just went back to the early ones. Eisenstein and his theories about editing are fascinating. I was just voracious, watching and reading what I could. But that was later, by the way. The first two or three years, I was just doing my job and feeling good about having a marketable skill.

And then once I knew it inside and out, it became kind of boring, and I started to look deeper. And then I started working in sound, and when I was working sound I was examining the film in a different way. Because as an assistant film editor, you’re not really examining the film. You’re really more of a librarian.

Now it is easier to examine the film in its progressions. It wasn’t so easy in the days of 35mm. Because you’re handling the film with such kid gloves. You were just popping it up on the Movieola and watching the cut as it progressed. You, as the assistant editor, were cleaning it and repairing splices and making sure it didn’t get damaged. You weren’t necessarily in dailies, you weren’t necessarily in the discussions between the director and the editor. And that was the thing that kind of bummed me out. I was very appreciated as an assistant, but that is what I did. I was an assistant. I wanted to do more.

And so I went over to sound. At the time, a lot of people said, why you moving into sound? It was looked upon as a step down. For me, I am just curious by nature, I like to learn new things. So I felt I had learned as much as I could as an assistant editor, and I didn’t see myself getting into the room with the film editor and learning about cutting from that.

So I became a sound assistant. And very shortly thereafter, I was cutting sound. When you’re cutting sound, you see the editor’s version come through and then the new version comes through and you see what’s different and you begin to understand what the impact is.

My main things that I cut were dialog and Foley. And cutting Foley was very instrumental in teaching about editing because it’s all about rhythms. And again, because you’re watching the same material over and over and over again.

When cutting dialogue you also learn about rhythm, because you see how the cuts are made. Sometimes because they made them in the middle of the sentence. You saw which parts of which sentences could go together, and where you can make those joins. And what the impact of those things was.

So this lateral move was a very conscious choice on your part?

DODY: You know, I’m not all that sure that it was. I’m not sure that it was conscious. Mainly it was a form of appetite, more than a maneuver. I think of myself as a naïve person. In terms of politics and how to get ahead. Positioning has never been one of the things that I wanted to do. I figured I should just do what I do as well as I can. And see what happens.

But because I’m so curious, and so willing to go sideways or down or up or around, I learn a lot more.

So how did you move into the position of editor?

DODY: The same way. I was a sound editor, and then I was a supervising sound editor, and then I started a company. At some point, again, it became kind of boring, because I was doing the same thing, doing it by rote.

And then I wanted to move back into the picture department. I had been a sound editor and a supervising sound editor, by then, for 10 years. I couldn’t go and be an assistant editor. So I started to look for work as an editor. And I found that I couldn’t get arrested. So I went back down to the bottom, and started working for free. As a picture editor.

I worked on shorts and low budget features. I did something in Germany that was not for free, but for low pay. If it needed editing and I found it interesting, I would edit it. I was not making the salary important. That wasn’t important to me. It was important that it was interesting to me.

Do you feel that you were not getting opportunities that guys were getting?

DODY: I have to say I did not perceive that, if that was true. I did hear, once in a while, someone would say, “Oh we’ll hire him, he’s got a wife and kids.” And that would gall me. Because I did not feel that should be a criteria for filling a position. Especially a creative position.

And I have to say, I struggled quite a bit to become an editor. By struggle, I mean I worked a long time for low or no pay. And it was difficult to get into a position where I was considered.

By then, with all my work on sound, I had worked with some great directors. But those directors were not interested in giving me a shot as a picture editor. So that was frustrating, but I understand it – you need to know that someone can do what you need them to do. It’s a really important position.

What was the first movie you worked on as an editor?

DODY: I did a movie called Floundering. Peter McCarthy directed. He was a producer. He produced Sid and Nancy. And that was a no pay job. After that I did an extended cut of Terminator 2 for Jim Cameron.

And then I did Guinevere with Sarah Polly and Stephen Rea.

Looking back on it now, do you recommend the approach you took, the whole process of learning?

DODY: I do recommend it. I have recommended it to quite a few people. One thing about life is that it is not a thing where you just work and you arrive. It is a series of ups and downs. It’s a journey. To look at the goal as an endpoint, I think can cut you off from a lot of opportunities. If that makes sense.

Have you seen the results of that advice?

DODY: One guy in particular, Matt Clark, who has cut several films for Kirby Dick. And Matt is a guy came to me with a question that most people have, maybe not expressed this naïvely. He called me up and he said, “I want you to tell me how I can get work at the Studios.”

And I thought oh no. And I said, “Are you sitting down? Have you got a pencil and a piece of paper? Never ever ever ever ever call anyone ever again and ask ‘How do you get a job at the studio?’”

And then I gave him my recipe. It’s not really a recipe, it’s my advice. And I was very forthright about it. And he followed it pretty aggressively. And he became a film editor.

One of the things that I said--and I learned this from somebody else--when I was fresh out of high school or looking for work, I had one of those very similar conversations. I was meeting somebody that I’ve known from my father’s business. And I said, “I’m thinking of working in film.”

And he said, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “Oh I’ll do anything.”

And he said, “Never say you’ll do anything. Say you are a this or you are a that.”

And that is something that I took forward and I take seriously. I am a film editor.

With Matt I said, “You want to be a film editor, do you have any money? Do you have enough money to live for a year without working? Will your parents help you out?” It was that kind of conversation.

Because what you need to do is, you need to edit. You need to edit whatever you can. You just keep editing.

I wasn’t just editing anything that came along when I was working for no money. I always made sure that it was something that I would be proud to have on my resume. If at all possible.

There is one film on my resume where I noticed that the director changed the credit to an Alan Smithee film, so that must’ve been one where I needed to pay my rent. But for the most part, I tried to make sure that I was making my decisions based on the project and not on the money.

What project do you think you learned the most from or that provided the most challenge?

DODY: That’s interesting, because I feel like I’m learning all the time. I think I’m in a state of constantly learning.  I’ve learned on every project, so it’s a hard thing for me to answer. It’s like saying which one is your favorite child?

Okay, let me ask this: While you were teaching yourself film history, were there any films that really jumped out at you?

DODY: All That Jazz was really remarkable. Also I would say Bonnie and Clyde is another one. There’s a kind of poetic quality to the editing that I think is really exciting. I think it also took a lot from the French New Wave.

I still see a lot of foreign films, and I see a lot of classics. I’m not, for some reason, all that interested in contemporary films.

Are you an editor or an audience member when you watch these films?

DODY: Oh, I’m an audience member. If I’m watching the technique, I feel that it is self-conscious. On the other hand, in my career when I’m reading a script, I’m always looking for scripts where the editing gets to be a character.

Like in Memento, the editing is a character. I did another film, Guy, where the editing is a character. It’s a point of view film, and the point of view was a cameraperson who is a character. And so that person is a filmmaker and a cameraperson, making a documentary. And the way it is cut has to represent that person’s personality.

Self-conscious editing, if it’s justified, I love. Just to be self-conscious for no good reason is not interesting to me.

Requiem for a Dream was, I thought, self-conscious. I did not enjoy the self-consciousness of that. But I felt they were pushing the envelope for a reason. But it wasn’t something that I responded to.

And now an example of where the self-consciousness worked for you?

DODY: Well, All That Jazz is a great example. The way the editor and the director together placed the sound and the image, it does grab your attention. When the sound drops out during heart attack scene, there’s not a person in the theater who isn’t wondering what happened? What’s going on? They’re suddenly conscious, and thinking that the projector is no longer making sound. At least, that’s what I think happens. That’s the way I felt when I was watching it.

It is certainly a wake up call. It wakes you up. You’re not just rolling along.

You see, there’s this funny thing about editing. It‘s all supposed to be invisible. And I think there is value in that. That’s what the match cut is all about. But it is equally valid to have a strong hard cut that jars you, if it has a narrative purpose.

What were the special challenges you’ve dealt with on Memento?

DODY: Among the things that Chris Nolan and I talked about were, How much of the repeated material needed to be shown in order for you to understand that not only were you seeing the same thing again, but it was the exact same moment again? Because those are the clues that were laid that told you that things were going backwards. Nobody says or announces, there is no subtitle upfront, that says this is going to go backwards.

We did things with sound and music that were very identifiable. So if it was Muzak in the bathroom, it was a very identifiable piece of music. But we also use the exact same pieces of film. They weren’t necessarily the same length. They were often much shorter. And we wanted it to be ever shorter and shorter throughout the course of the film.

And so we were just kind of testing that, to see how little it could be before you to recognize it. And of course once the pattern is set, then there’s a rhythm about how fast we were jumping back-and-forth.

And the other funny thing about it is, that it is not really backwards. It is something that is folded in half. So you are going backwards in the color and forward in the black-and-white. And so the beginning and the end are the starting point of the story and as you are marching forward, you are getting to the middle.

And so just understanding that was fun. It was a very frustrating script to read, because you have to keep flipping pages back-and-forth and back-and-forth, because it’s confusing. But that was enthralling to me.

It was fun. It was really fun. My mother was a mathematician, so I have that in me. It was kind of like a puzzle. Like I was doing my own little puzzle. And it really required a lot of intense focus, but it was very very well laid out in the script stage. We only rearranged one scene. Everything else was exactly as it was structured in the script.

What did you rearrange?

DODY: There was a point in the middle of the script where the jumping back got too frequent. So we join two sections, and dropped one repeat.

Did you do any audience testing with Memento?

DODY: No. We showed it to some people, but it wasn’t really a test. And I think that was the right decision. It is not the kind of film where you could gather a response from the test. People always come out of that film looking like they’ve been hit on the back of the head with a 2 x 4. And I think that’s one of the most gratifying things about it. Because the whole film is a wake up. It wakes you up.

And there are some people who are really irritated by it. And I liken that irritation to something I said to Chris in our first meeting. It reminded me of the book called If On A Winter’s Day A Traveler.

In that book, at I think close to the end of the first chapter, some of the text is repeated. And then the author addresses the reader straight out of the page, saying “Oh, and now you’ve noticed that some of the text is repeated.” And I thought, hey I don’t want to hear this, I just want to read a story. But I wasn’t the editor of that book. Reading the script of Memento and thinking that I might have the opportunity to be the editor of that, that was very exciting.

But as a viewer, I can understand how some people might be irritated by it. It’s a matter of taste, if you want to be played with like that. Many many people just go into the theater and they want to be carried down that stream, they don’t want to be woken up.

Have you had any experience with any of the films you’ve worked on being tested with audiences?

DODY: Yes I have.

How do you like that process?

DODY: I don’t like it.  Things need to be tested to be sure that audiences are following and that they understand. It depends on what kind of the film it is. So if you want people to understand, you might have to test.

I think I don’t like it, because I don’t like all the politics involved. It’s a stressful process.

Any final advice? For someone wanting to get into the business?

DODY: The clearest advice I would give is do your best to find projects that you can believe in and work on those. And the rest may or may not follow. It’s a very tricky business. And it’s a tricky life. On some level, all you have is now. So you better make sure that what you’re doing now is something you enjoy.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Tyler Graham Pavey on "The Phoenix Project"

What was your filmmaking background before making The Phoenix Project?

TYLER: I was lucky to grow up in a public school system that offered video production elective classes from middle school on. When it came time to apply to college, I realized that what I'd actually been doing the longest and enjoyed the most was playing with cameras, so I decided to go to film school and ended up in the directing program at Chapman University.

Chapman had just built a huge new facility for film, so the curriculum and rules were still being fine-tuned. It was the Wild West of the department when you could get away with anything as long as you found a loophole.

The most valuable part of film school is actually the people you meet, and I started to hang out with other kids who wanted to tug on those loopholes too. We started working together on everything, which is how The Ironwood Gang came about. Our student films were just the biggest, most complicated experiments we could come up with, a way to make mistakes and aim high without any consequences.

We shot The Phoenix Project a month after graduating, but what really made it possible was that we'd already done a ton of shorts together.

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

TYLER: One of the biggest mysteries to a young aspiring filmmaker is how to get started, and the more people I'd ask about it, the more vague the notion became. It was clear that unless I started planning a film for the other side of school, there wasn't going to be one, so I needed to come up with an idea that could be achieved for limited resources.

My buddy was going to the beach, so I went with him and just sat in the sand and listened to the waves and wrote out the original outline that would become our first feature. It sounds ridiculous, but you don't really choose a story, the story chooses you, and when it does, it flows pretty effortlessly.

But for as easily as the concept came, I had a heck of a time writing the actual script. Over the next year or two was a long string of “first draft”s of The Phoenix Project that all ended up getting abandoned because they were just so miserable. At one point, I was so fed up that I brought on another screenwriter to write a draft from scratch in the hopes that he'd just solve my problems. Unfortunately, his wasn't right either, but it did help me see my problems more clearly. After that, it was just a matter of sticking with it and putting the time in.

The script was always being altered though. Once we got to set, every word was up for discussion. I believe a script is like a suit. You cast the actor that fits best, but you don't have them wear it off the rack, you tailor it to fit them and only them.

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

TYLER: The key for me to raising a budget is to just start working on the project. In independent film, there's a bit of a chicken and egg paradox where you need the money to produce the movie, but you need to be producing the movie to raise the money. Once you start the cycle, it kinda just becomes more clear what needs to happen to perpetuate it.

Recoupment is a toughie. For a film like this, the plan was always festivals first, then look for a deal. We struck out hard with the big 6, but still ended up showing in some nice places and signed a really good deal with FilmBuff.

The main key to making money on a movie is to find the right price point for it. Every dollar you spend is another one you have to make back, so if a dollar isn't actively contributing to the overall value of the film, it shouldn't be spent. Indie budgeting is about maximization.

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

TYLER: The whole film only has four actors and I already knew I wanted to cast the very talented Orson Ossman as Carter Watts.

Los Angeles is the land of actors, which is a great asset for indie casting since there is a ton of untapped talent there if you're willing to dig and find it. To fill the remaining three roles, I looked through about 3,700 actors. Just a lot of days in a casting office reading and working with dudes of all styles and backgrounds. It's kind of like speed dating. They come in and do their thing, you work together for a couple minutes and see if you can make something together, and then the next one hops in the room.

Then there were callbacks with all the top picks to make sure they worked well together. From that, I built four different casts. Interplay and chemistry are so important in a film, especially one as claustrophobic as this, so if any one guy said “no,” I'd have to drop the entire cast and move on to the next one.

We didn't have much to offer these guys, but fortunately my top pick cast all said yes and really moved mountains to be a part of the project. I'll always be extremely grateful to those guys for that.

After casting, the script structure remained pretty intact, but the dialog changed considerably. Before we shot any scene, I would sit down with the cast in a gazebo out back of our location and we'd read through the scene we were about to shoot. Anytime an actor says a word they don't believe, the audience can hear it immediately. If there was a line that didn't sound right, I'd circle it or cut it, and we'd come up with a line together that would fit better and communicate the character.

Sometimes writers have a tendency to get so focused on syntax that they lose sight of the real goal, which is to tell the story. One scene in particular was reading so poorly, we cut every single line, and played the whole thing in non-verbal reactions. It's the best rewrite I've ever made.

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

TYLER: This was one of the bigger questions we had as a team going into the shoot. We didn't have a set schedule or shot list, so we wanted to have flexibility and be able to shoot quickly.

Our budget was extremely limited, so for a moment we had it penciled in to shoot on a Canon 5DMII, but that wasn't sitting well. The camera sensor is the film stock of the modern age, it's a choice that dictates your look. This film called for a relatively sterile and sharp image, something that felt cold and scientific. For that reason, we ended up shooting the film on the Red MX with Arri SuperSpeed Primes. It turned out to be a great choice, not only in how the footage looks, but also the gravity it brought to the entire production.

At the time we shot, The Social Network had just come out and had been shot on the same package. Getting a crew to come work on a crazy project for free has a lot more appeal with a well-respected camera. With that said, we were broke, so the one we rented was a junk pile. It overheated, would randomly corrupt a file every now and then, and had a habit of bricking right when we wanted it not to.

Overall though, it was a great camera and was perfect for our shoot. Very happy with the choice and the result.

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

TYLER: I think the best move by far was deciding to shoot the film chronologically. We only had one location and every actor was needed every day of the shoot, so we were in a unique situation that allowed us to start on page one and work our way through.

The ripple effect of this was massive. It meant that the actors and I only needed to work the characters forward instead of hopping back and forth between different emotional sequences, so they could grow organically over time instead of having to set a plan and stick to it.

It also meant that the machine could be built up while we were shooting, that the crew would get better the closer we got to the climax of the film, that our editor could assemble the film while we were in production to see if we needed pickups, and a whole host of other benefits.

On the flipside, the dumbest thing I did was neglecting to shoot promotional material while we were in production. Often when you're in the midst of a project, you become so consumed by just completing it, you fail to think about what it will need down the line.

In our case that meant poster content, website stills, press kit photos, behind the scenes footage, etc. It would have taken five minutes to do on set, and not taking that time has cost us dearly. The bitch of it is, I made the same mistake on my second film. Oh well. Third time's a charm, I suppose.

Finally, what did you learn from making the film that you've taken to other projects?

TYLER: I could fill a book with the answer to that question. Hopefully that'll be the case with every film I direct. Making art is about exploring, I don't ever want to be covering ground I'm already familiar with.

Independent films are so damn difficult to make, it's amazing they happen at all, and I think if most filmmakers knew upfront everything it was going to take to finish the job, they wouldn't undertake their projects in the first place.

It seems to me that the perfect state of mind is knowing enough to get started but not enough to be intimidated, a sublime educated ignorance.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Stuart Gordon on "Re-Animator"

Why did you decide to do a horror film as your first film?

STUART GORDON: First of all, I like horror films. I've always liked them. But it was also because I was told by a friend that they were the easiest kinds of movies to find financing for. The wisdom, and I think it's still true, is that no matter how badly a horror film turns out, you can always sell it to somebody and the investors will get their money back.
Why did you decide to work with the Lovecraft stories in the first place?

STUART GORDON: It began with a conversation I had with a friend. This was in the early 1980s and there were all these vampire and Dracula movies being made. I said, "I wish someone would make Frankenstein movie," because I always liked Frankenstein better. This friend said, "Have you ever read
Herbert West, Re-Animator by Lovecraft?" I had read a considerable amount of Lovecraft and I had never heard of this story.

It piqued my curiosity so I started looking for it and found that it was out of print. I eventually ended up going to the Chicago Public Library and found that they had a copy of it in their special collection. I had to fill out a postcard requesting it. A few months later they sent me a note saying I could come to the library and read it there, but I would not be able to take it out of the library. When I got there, they handed me what was essentially a pulp magazine that contained the stories. The pages were literally crumbling as I was turning them, so I asked if I could photocopy it and they allowed me to do that. The stories had been out of print for many years.
Were the stories in the public domain?

STUART GORDON: They were. All of Lovecraft's work is now public domain. This was something we didn't know at the time. We believed that we had to get the rights through Arkham House, which was the publisher of the stories.

What you usually do when you're working on something based on existing material, you do a copyright search, just to make sure that the people you're dealing with do indeed have the rights to it. We discovered that the material was public domain and that Arkham House did not have the rights. When we confronted them with this, this just sort of said, "Oh, well." They didn't argue about it at all. They knew that they had been trying to pull something.
Was one of the attractions of the piece was that it was in the public domain?

STUART GORDON: That made things a lot easier for us. We were prepared to pay something for the story. If they had asked for a lot of money, that would have been difficult, because our budget was small. Finding out that it was public domain was great, it was one less thing to worry about.
How conscious were you of budget limitations as you were writing?

STUART GORDON: With low budget, it really has to be minimalist. You have to have as few sets and locations as possible and as few characters as possible. You really have to determine what's really essential and what do I really need to tell this story. If it isn't essential, it usually will get cut.
Was there anything you learned while working on that script that you took to future writing projects?

STUART GORDON: One of the things was that when you're working on a horror film, every single scene should have some tension in it. That was one of the things we really worked on with
Re-Animator. You really can't have any scenes with people just sort of sitting around and relaxed. You have to really find the tension in each scene. There needs to be something scary about every single scene in the film, otherwise you're letting the audience off the hook. What you really want to do is to keep people on the edge of their seats all the way through.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Griffin Dunne on "Lisa Picard is Famous"

How did you prepare to shoot such a spontaneous project?

GRIFFIN DUNNE: With movies I'd done before, everything was about preparation, so that there would be absolutely no mistakes, because mistakes would cost so much time and so much money. So you plan everything, if you're really doing your job right, so you're not going to be felled by weather or any of the billions of things that can go wrong. You try to plug every hole before anything sets in.

With this movie, I approached it, before I started shooting, that it was the lack of preparation, the being open to accidents and disasters. It was so small that I thought this would be the fun thing to explore. So, if she's running to catch the train and she accidentally catches the train and I don't want her to catch the train, then we shoot her catching the train. If she doesn't catch the train, then we shoot that.

I found that when I was in the editing room, just like a documentary, they don't know how it's going to turn out. And neither did I. For example, with my character I had no idea when I started that I would be narrating the picture and playing such a role and taking their story of two desperate actors and making it all about me. I was very happy with that; it was a very organic shift and very accurate. We see many journalists make themselves more important than the story.

If there was a lot more money at stake and if there was amore oppressive financier, I might not have had the freedom to find the movie, let it reveal itself to me.

How did you get Kit Carson to appear in the film and re-crate his character of David Holtzman?

GRIFFIN DUNNE: I met Kit when I was about 13, through my aunt and uncle in Hollywood in the sixties. He was a very dashing and charismatic and hippie for lack of a better word.

I had never seen David Holtzman's Diary, but I'd heard the legend of David Holtzman's Diary.

About a month before shooting I ran into him and he said, 'What are you doing?" and I said 'I'm doing this movie and it's about …' and I described the story and the desperation of it and I said how much fun it was to make a documentary. And he said, 'You should see David Holtzman's Diary. You should have me in it, talking about David Holtzman's Diary.' I looked at him and said, 'That's exactly what I should do.'

So I told him to sit in a coffee shop and someone would get in touch with him. And then I approached him with a camera crew. And he was just totally prepared.

How was your experience editing the film on an early version of Final Cut Pro?

GRIFFIN DUNNE: At the time it seemed to be the only way possible to make the movie editorially the way I wanted to make it. It sounded exciting to take a chance on this. And we had a great assistant editor and he was really into it.

The disadvantages were that they weren't used to holding this much material. I also shot a lot of footage, I mean, a lot. Many many many hours, because I thought, 'well, hell, it's just tape, let's take advantage of the digital revolution here.' But, as with everything, there are pluses and minuses, because you have to download it and put it in a machine that can hold all this stuff.

So, because of all the footage I shot, it really was baptism by extreme fire.

Consequently, it crashed a lot. And it always seemed to crash right at a fix you were trying to make to see if it would work. It was very difficult and we lost a few days.

But it was a perfect trade, it was worth it in this case. The other way of saying it is, nothing is free.

Were you daunted by working with a small budget?

GRIFFIN DUNNE: I wasn't daunted by how little money I had; I decided to make that part of the style. However, I didn't have that First Feature pressure where I felt I had a lot riding on it. For me, it was always an experiment and to have a lot of fun and rope in friends and call in favors and go to work in the morning and see how the day turns out. I'd been under so much more pressure before that this was just much more enjoyable to me.

Also, because it was a smaller budget movie, I insisted and got without any problem, final cut. Which was something I'd never had, true final cut. So I had the luxury of being able to listen to people's notes, with an open mind and learning from them, taking in what I needed without having to also have a political agenda on top of it and deal with other people's politics.

A director's job is to be the most prepared, and this was an exercise in leaving a real part of your creative process to being unprepared and open to accidents. And I was able to keep those 'let's see what happens' balls in the air for most of the picture.