Thursday, January 28, 2016

Edd Benda on "Superior"

What was your filmmaking background before making Superior?

EDD: I like to compare the family dinner table from my childhood to a cage match of competitive story telling. In my big family, everybody wanted to have the best story from their day; embellishment came standard. While I didn't know quite yet how I wanted to make a career telling stories, I did know that I loved doing it.

Armed with a passion for story telling, I had the great fortune to attend the University of Southern California - School of Cinematic Arts as an undergrad. Over my four years at USC from 2009 to 2013, I really started to discover and hone my craft as a writer, director, and producer.

As a student I made several short films, including my senior project The Hipster Werewolf which went on to play at several festivals all over the country. After graduating from USC, I founded Beyond the Porch Productions alongside fellow USC alumnus Alex Bell. He and I have worked on several projects ranging from commercials to corporate videos, and ultimately Superior as a director/DP combo.

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

EDD: In 1971, my uncle Karl Benda and his cousin Dan "Dudza" Junttila woke up one day during the summer after they had just graduated high school with nothing to do. Naturally, they decided the best remedy for their free time was to embark on a 10-day 1,300 mile bike ride around the gargantuan Lake Superior without a smidgen of preparation.

Karl first shared this story with me over a Thanksgiving dinner a few years ago, and I was immediately fascinated by the time and place where that sense of adventure and general wanton disregard for personal well-being was possible. In 2011, I started writing Superior, which became a patchwork quilt of a myriad of different stories I grew up listening to with Karl and Dudza's journey as the backbone with our film taking place in 1969.

Over three years, I wrote Superior in intense spurts of inspiration. After meticulously outlining the film while a student at USC, the biggest hurdle for me was actually taking the time to write the thing. I would occasionally write 10-20 pages in a day and then not do anything for three months.

When I finally finished the script and shared it with a few people for feedback, the random changes in tone were evident. Fortunately, I have a wonderful network or peers that provided incredible feedback to help focus the script and be ready for filming.

Did you write for specific actors or locations?

EDD: Having grown up in Michigan and spent a great deal of my childhood in the Upper Peninsula, I had very specific places in mind as I was writing the film. This was necessary not only from a creative standpoint, but also from a practical production standpoint. I knew that if we were going to make this film, it needed to be centered around locations that I already had access to, or at least a general frame of reference.

I will admit that the character of "Derek" played by Paul Stanko was written with Paul in mind. Paul is an incredibly talented actor, and he is most well known for being a hilarious improv talent and comedian. In getting to know Paul while at USC, however, I sensed an incredibly intense work ethic that he never really had an opportunity to share with the world from a dramatic standpoint. Much like "Derek," Paul had been written off as a clown, when I believed he had so much more to offer.

Given that we were working on a tight schedule in pre-production, I wanted to be sure that the friendship between our two main characters was organic, so I actually worked directly with Paul to cast his counterpart from a group of young actors with whom Paul already had a rapport. We hosted auditions in the middle of the woods in Griffith Park, and that is where we first met Thatcher Robinson who proved to be the perfect best friend and foil for Paul Stanko.

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

EDD: While we are still in the marketing and distribution phase of our film, I cannot say specifics as far as our budget. That said, I am happy to share the nature of how we fundraised for our film.

Having solicited advice and support from our network of mentors in Los Angeles, it was immediately evident that if we wanted to raise the money to make Superior a reality, that money was not going to come from Hollywood. A young, first-time director is a tough sell! For that reason, we started reaching out to small business owners, friends, family, and anyone who would listen. We were offering people that may never have another chance to be a part of the film business that opportunity. We setup a business with equity investment opportunities for all of them, and we kept pounding the pavement until we had the money we needed to make the movie happen.

We are currently on the long road towards recouping our costs, and fortunately we are heading in the right direction. We have been on a festival tour all over the country, with specifically targeted cities in the state of Michigan given our connection to the state.

We are aiming for a limited theatrical release followed by VOD, and online sales alongside DVDs before eventually licensing to streaming services. As we are working on doing that domestically, we are somewhat simultaneously handling that exact same waterfall in markets all over the globe.

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

EDD: We filmed the movie using an Arri Alexa with a vintage set of Canon K-35 lenses. I attribute the look of the film almost entirely to our DP Alex Bell, so I'm sure he can speak more specifically to the love/hate relationship he had with the camera we came to know and love as "Martha."

What I personally loved about the camera and lens selection was it allowed for a nostalgic, almost grainy look to the image. While being extremely sharp certainly has its place in filmmaking, I liked the old-school feel of what we were capturing.

If I can briefly put on my producer's hat, I can tell you that the main thing I hated about the Alexa was the cost, but also the risk we had to take to use one. Filming in an incredible remote region of the country meant that if anything went wrong we were a 16-hour round-trip drive away from any technical support.

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

EDD: I think the smartest thing we did during production was involving the local community as much as possible. Before we even started production, I held a press conference in the town where we were filing as a basic, "Come one, come all," speech to the people of the region. We didn't want to be some kind of production tornado that came into town, filmed for a month, then simply packed up and left. We wanted the film to be a part of the place where we were filming. That relationship was a two-way street. While we were incredibly open to involving the local people - I should note that the entire cast of the film except the two leads are local non-actors - we also made it a point for our cast and crew to experience the local culture. For that reason we only filmed for 21 of the 28 days we were in the region.

The dumbest thing we did was leave Stephen "Lurch" Helstad in charge of feeding our crew. At the time, Stephen was still a college student, and while he was incredible at being our UPM, he certainly lacked the skill to not only feed himself but also feed ten other people. I'll never forget getting back to the cabin where our entire crew lived after a long day of filming only to be greeted by the smell and moist texture of what became known as "Lurch Spaghetti."

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

EDD: The main lesson I try to share as often as possible is to make sure you WRITE A GREAT SCRIPT. Everyday, I am learning just how long you have to live with the story you told.

It has been almost two years since we truly started working on Superior, and this film will remain the same for the rest of my life. There is so little to gain by rushing into production with a half-assed script. Take the time to really ask yourself if the story is worth telling, and if it is, then make sure you give it the time and energy it needs to be the best story it can possibly be.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Sarah Pillsbury on "Desperately Seeking Susan"

How did you get started with your first project, Desperately Seeking Susan?

SARAH: We were very lucky to find Barbara Boyle. She got Desperately Seeking Susan made, and she got Eight Men Out made. I would have to say that she is my mentor, but she actually scared me for a while. For that type of woman, from that generation, to get where they got, they were tough. They were strong.

It wasn't until I went to her 50th birthday party, where she was talking about working with Midge and me on Desperately Seeking Susan, when I realized what warm feelings she had towards me. Because she had a tough exterior, which I was never really able to develop. There were other women of my generation who did develop that exterior. But Midge and I were never able to do that, and it hurt us, not only in dealing with men, but also with some other women of our generation who were more successful at being players.

If you weren’t good at being a player, how did you get your projects off the ground?

SARAH: We found other allies to help us with other projects; I would say it was our ability to have a few really good.

I was on a committee with Kathleen Kennedy -- the Executive Committee of the Producers Branch of the Academy -- and she told me about a project they had that was languishing at Amblin. It was a book called How to Make an American Quilt and we were able to make that, but that was because we had a Godfather on it. Steven (Spielberg) loved the book and he was just so gung-ho about making this women's project. He was very happy with the writer and the director that we suggested. He was just pleased as punch.

Then through that we formed a relationship with Kate Capshaw. She actually came in and read, did a great job, she was wonderful. Then we did a movie, The Love Letter with her

So we've always had the ability to find people to help, but it was always hard to find enough of those people, because at the end of the day the business changed so much and it became driven by the marketing. The business became less entrepreneurial. Executives would say, "This is an interesting project, but it's not high concept and it's very execution driven." But that's what a producer does.

It's like my father, he came to the set of Eight Men Out and he was wandering around and he said to me, "So, you're kind of like the CEO here?" And I said, "Yes. And don't act so surprised." But that's not a role that gets acknowledged. Partly because we stand in the background. One of our main jobs is to run interference for a director, so to some extent financiers and studios don't necessarily want us there.

An executive actually said to a director -- an executive we've worked with -- he said, "Yeah, Sarah and Midge. Yeah. They're the kind of producers who support the director." As if that would be a bad thing.

How did you get interested in filmmaking?

SARAH: I'm sure I'm probably like you -- one of the millions of people who went to the movies every week. I was, really, just lucky to find that I really had a passion for something.

I went to school in the fall of 1969 and there was a lot happening. I was very politically active. Among other things, I got very interested in environmental issues and I was involved with the first Earth Day celebration. But I was also very interested, being a radical, was interested in the Third World. I started my sophomore year without realizing that I really didn't know what I was doing with myself. I started taking some Ecology courses, and as I flipped through the course guide I saw African History, and I thought, "That's it, I'm going to go live in Africa for a year."

Both of my brothers had taken a year off, so I had that luxury, knowing that my parents would support something like that. So I got a job working at the national museum there, which is actually a natural history museum.

I got involved with some filmmakers there; they had made a 30-minute movie about the Masai and they sold it to Rand McNally. And when you're twenty years old, that is really cool. At that age, you look upon that as a major success. So I was very impressed. So I started hanging out with these guys. We'd go to every movie we could find.

This 1971 - 1972, and there were some damn good movies coming out at that time. But I was stuck in Africa, so I couldn't see them. I came home for two weeks and I saw every movie. I just got really interested in movies.

And then by happenstance I got to know a couple of people who were from Los Angeles. I always liked LA. I had this fantasy, as a blonde, that if I were transported to California, I just might be the girl that the Beach Boys were writing those songs about. It could happen. If I could just learn to surf.

How did you get connected to Desperately Seeking Susan?

SARAH: That was back in a time when, in your early years as a producer, you're sitting at a dinner and you're talking to someone and they're telling you about a script they're writing, and you say, "I'd like to read it when it's done." Now you walk away from them, across the room.

But Leora Barish wrote this script and I opened the door one day and there was a manila envelope with a script in it. I read it and I thought it was really good, and then Midge read it and she thought it was really good -- and she had read many more scripts than me, so she was really impressed.

We had already started talking to some investors, so we plunked down a big chunk of change for an option. This was 1981. We optioned it for $15,000, which was a really healthy option back then. We were competing against some bigger companies, but we told Leora that she would be engaged for as long as we could keep her engaged. I don't think we used that language, because we didn't know what we were talking about and we thought we could actually keep her intimately involved with the project all the way through.

Little did we know that she and the director would ultimately not get along and after nine drafts the director brought another writer in and we brought another writer in to save it. But Leora was involved for a number of years as we looked for a director; it took us a number of years to get a director.

What was it that attracted you to the script?

SARAH: Well, first of all the main character was a little bit like me; not as much as it ultimately came out. The idea was that she was someone who was such a space cadet that going over into amnesia was just crossing a thin line.

The movie was actually like the experience of going to a movie. In the movie she gets a bump on her head. Now we don't get bumps on the head when we go to the movies, but it goes black and then we're in a different story. To me, the story was about what movies are about: you're taken out of your reality and you walk in someone else's shoes, and you then get plunked back down in your world and you're, hopefully, elevated in some way. Your mood is elevated or you leave with some new ideas.

We just loved the character of Roberta. And it's always about loving a character so much that it's like, when the actor finally gets chosen and comes in, you're like, "It's nice to meet you! I just feel like I've known you forever, and here you are!"

Sometimes that person is different than what you imagined. We didn't think Susan was going to look like Madonna. Susan, to me, was the hippie chick that I knew when I was in Africa who could travel around the world with ten cents in her pocket and never worry about where her next meal was coming from. With the perfectly faded blue jeans and some guy's shirt.

And then suddenly we have this incredibly highly-sexualized person who was really almost at odds with my sense of that character and also with my zealous feminism.

Did you resist the casting of Madonna?

SARAH: Yes. But then she grew on me. She did a really good screen test. And she was wonderful to work with. I came to really admire her and she sort of changed some of my ideas. I think it was she who quoted Marilyn Monroe, who said, "If I have to be a symbol of something, it might as well be sex."

Initially, in the early years of Madonna, she was a bit of a poseur. She liked playing with different identities. But I really loved it. It was fun being around her when she got her first Rolling Stone cover. And then she brought a song to us, a basement tape, and we had a little fight with Warner Brothers, in order to make a music video with it.

So then the DJs started playing the song, Into the Groove, taping it off of MTV, and then Warners later released a disco version and put it on her greatest hits.

And then you made Rivers Edge. You couldn't have made two more different movies back to back.

SARAH: People always say, "Why did you make that movie after that one?" It's what we got money for. We were also developing Eight Men Out.

But it was very fortuitous for us, because we didn't get a lot of credit for Desperately Seeking Susan. Susan Seidelman had made a movie, Smithereens, that had gone to Cannes. Therefore we didn't get invited to the main festival, we got invited to the Fortnight with Desperately Seeking Susan. And Madonna was a big hit. And so we didn't get any credit for the years of developing it, or finding Susan, or putting together the whole thing.

Then we did Rivers Edge, and the reaction was like, "That's interesting. Who are those producers?" So then we got some more attention, particularly from other filmmakers, not so much from studio executives.

So after the success of Desperately Seeking Susan and Rivers Edge, how were you two perceived by the Hollywood establishment?

SARAH: It was so frustrating. We'd go to one meeting after another, and everyone was talking about Desperately Seeking Susan and wanting to make a movie like Desperately Seeking Susan, but they didn't want to actually hire us. They wanted to make something like Desperately Seeking Susan. And we didn't want to make a movie like Desperately Seeking Susan, having just made that movie.

We did have a project that was kind of in that arena, which we finally got development money for but we were never able to make. Once again, the hook for the story was a woman who escapes from her life by fantasizing about another woman. Which is actually a character device you don't see in many movies. All About Eve, for example, is one of the few movies you could name where a woman is objectifying another woman. Which is actually so common in real life, but is not that common in the movies.

So, 25 years later, do you think you're treated any differently as a female produce than when you started out?

SARAH: Now it's hard to say, because I'm just an old person. And I haven't made any money in a long time. So people say they respect me, but I've always felt that respect in Hollywood is something you can do without. I mean, I'm happily respected by people who I actually respect myself. As for the others, I'd rather that they hated me. Or feared me. Just fucking return my phone calls.

I just feel lucky to do what I did. And I don't know how to do it in today's marketplace. I want to do something where I'm using all my muscles and I wasn't. Looking for money is really hard. When I'm actually on a set and making a movie, I'm using all my muscles.

Now they've shifted things for producers. It used to be that you could actually get development money, or if you had a good script you could get them to buy it. Then you had to have a script and a director. Then you had to know who was going to be in it. And then you had to have some money already attached to it. And then you needed domestic distribution. And as a producer, now you have to be able to line all that up.

I can't support myself in the movie business anymore. But you can't turn off the brain that is thinking about what would be a good movie or what story you'd like to tell. I can't turn that part of my brain off. So I think about it. But I can't turn off that part of my brain.

Given the current state of the industry, how do you advise young people who come to you and say they want to get into the business?

SARAH: By being young, they have the advantage that it's easier to pull together a group of people to do something.

When I speak to classes, I always say that the most important person you may ever meet in the business might be sitting right next to you. I've seen that all throughout my career: the careers that have been built based on the relationships that people have with their peers, and identifying those people among you that you really want to work with.

I also beg them to not check their values at the door.

The fact is, there are some people who have had great success because they are able to think about things that will make money. But the movies that we thought would be projects that would make money we never got to make. And I tell people, don't waste your time on trying to second-guess. Instead, really think about what you want to see.

I taught this class at UC Santa Barbara. It was called The Anatomy of the Industry, and I got to bring writers, directors, actors. But I also brought in agents and executives and make-up artists and script supervisors and music editors and DPs, and that told the students that if they wanted to be in the movies, there are a lot of different ways to have a relationship with the movies that aren't writing, directing, producing and acting.

When my friend Adam Smalley, who was the music editor on The Lion King and a lot of other films, came in, people were blown away. Kids were saying, "I like music. And I like movies. But I don't think I could actually direct a movie and I don't think I could actually write a song. But I could maybe do what he does." I encourage people to look at it that way, because I think one of the biggest problems in the business is that people don't find something that really suits them.

Another thing I'd tell the class is that they have to ask questions of us. I mean, if you can't open your mouth and ask a question in this classroom -- I don't care if there are 200 people in here -- just don't be in the movie business at all if you can't put yourself forward in here. Because, believe me, no matter what you do in this business, you have to be able to put yourself forward. There are so many people who want to be in this business and to succeed you have to get noticed.

I would say to my class, "I know why I wanted to make movies, but why do you want to do it?" With the movies I saw when I started, I had every reason to believe that I could do something important. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Michael Williams on "OzLand"

What was your filmmaking background before making OzLand?

MICHAEL: I’ve been making films for a decade. I started in high school and continued through college and after. Until OzLand, I stuck with writing and directing more than 20 short films. During that time, I also worked in film as a camera assistant working my way up to being a director of photography. 

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

MICHAEL: The idea for OzLand came 4 or so years ago. I was watching a show on the History Channel. A commentator mentioned how someone without any frame of reference could read a fictional book and believe it is real. That is where the seed of the idea came.

I began thinking about “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and how that book could be explored in that context. For a couple of years, I played around with the idea and quickly developed the main premise about a man in a post-apocalyptic world who find a copy of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” and believes it is gospel.

I didn’t actually write the script until 2013. Writing is the most difficult process for me. With OzLand, I had most of the story planned out in my head, however, it took me years to finally sit down and flesh it out into a script. To do that, I would read the book as if I was the character of Lief and write their journey around that. It was a pretty painless process once I finally got around to it!

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

MICHAEL: OzLand’s funding came from several sources. We received a grant from the Mississippi Film and Video Alliance to jump start the fundraising. I also used the proceeds from my previous short film’s premiere and merchandise sales.

To get the bulk of the budget, we did a very successful crowd funding campaign through Indie Gogo and personal donations. We also made extra funds for the film during production by selling OzLand merchandise.

Our film has been picked up for distribution by Indie Rights. We released for one week theatrically on October 16th, 2015 and nationwide on VOD October 20th, 2015. We hope that the income from that and international sales will help us make an even bigger and better film to follow up OzLand. 

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

MICHAEL: I wrote the film for two actor friends of mine. Glenn Payne’s role of Emri was written for him. The actor I originally had in mind for Lief had to back out, so I auditioned a handful of other great actors and landed on Zack Ratkovich. Both Glenn and Zack were the ideal actors for these parts, and I couldn’t be more pleased with their performances. 

The script for OzLand stayed fairly solid during production, however, the cast and I would collaborate to improve certain aspects of the film during production.

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

MICHAEL: We shot on the Canon 60D with prime lenses. It was the ideal choice for our film and the modest budget we had. It allowed for us to shoot fast and maintain easy setups. This was vital for shooting such an ambitious film on such a small budget and minimal time.

However, we pushed this camera to its limits. We got the best possible image out of the camera. While I am very pleased with the visuals we were able to achieve, I do look forward to using a better camera on the next feature.

However, the Canon 60D is why OzLand was possible, and we created some amazing images with it. 

How much did the story change in the editing process and why did you make the changes you did?

MICHAEL: The story didn’t change drastically in the edit. We trimmed a lot of fat from the film. The original cut was 125 minutes. The final cut was 105 minutes. We removed a few insignificant details and side stories and quickened the pace. However, nothing major was cut from the film even though we removed 20 minutes.  

You wore a lot of hats (Writer, Director, Editor, Production Design, DP, Producer). What's the upside and the downside to taking on all those roles?

MICHAEL: The upside of wearing so many hats was that it allowed us to do this film for such a small budget. I didn’t get paid for any of those jobs. That allowed me to spend our budget where it mattered.

The cast and crew were paid as much as I could afford to make it worthwhile for them, provide 3 great meals a day, and covered some gas expenses. We were also able to afford a trip to Kansas for portions of our film’s shoot, necessary props and resources, and not have to compromise our vision.

I love being involved in every process of making the film. Being able to do all of those jobs allows me to really make the film my own. However, the rest of the cast of the crew had input in all of those areas and really helped make it richer than it would’ve been otherwise. I surround myself with a team of cast and crew that I love and respect. We may not have had many people on set, but each of those people contributed to the film in more ways than just what their main job entailed. 

The downside is that sometimes I am spread a little thin. I think we found the perfect balance on OzLand. I may have done a lot of jobs, but I worked extra hard to make sure none of those was compromised. We didn’t compromise. We just worked harder.

I do look forward to wearing less hats on the next film, especially giving the logistical duties to other people. I’m more of a creative person, so I’d prefer to focus on that side of the film. 

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

MICHAEL: The smartest thing? Well we were extremely clever with our practical effects. I won’t give away the details, but we used just about every trick in the book to pull off the ambitious elements in our film.

I didn’t compromise my vision to adapt to what people assume you can pull off at our level of filmmaking. Instead, the team and I worked hard and creatively to do things we weren’t sure was possible. We proved ourselves wrong multiple times by pulling off things we thought we’d have to change, fix in post, or omit. 

The dumbest? I don’t know about that one. I’m sure I did a lot of dumb things, but we just pushed through them and accomplished the task regardless. 

And, finally, what did you learn from making this feature that you will take to other projects?

MICHAEL: I learned that my team and I really can pull of the ambitious things you wouldn’t expect  from a “no budget” film. It reaffirmed my belief in surrounding myself with a team that I love, trust, and respect. I hope to always surround myself with these people and others like them.

No matter the size of the film/budget, your best tool is having the right people to help you achieve your vision.