Thursday, March 31, 2016

Lee Chambers on "The Pineville Heist"

What was your filmmaking background before making The Pineville Heist?

LEE: I've always been a creative person.  A storyteller. I have an artistic background and took graphic design at a Community College in Canada. I got my diploma and then two weeks into working in that field... I knew I couldn't just sit behind a desk for 40 hours a week for the rest of my life. I was too restless.

With family in England I upped sticks and moved to Yorkshire and completed the Post Grad Film Production Programme at Leeds Metropolitan University. I loved it. Every day is different and a challenge. With an awesome crew surrounding me as I was directing on the top of a tall building in Leeds, I knew there was no turning back.

Lots of shorts and music videos and some television and feature work helped prep me for directing my debut feature. It took 20 years after film school but worth the wait. The journey has been brilliant.

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

LEE: I was at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival pushing myself there and after talking to distributors I realized that I needed to craft something genre-based that I could do on a smaller budget.

I looked back at some short stories I had laying around and found one from a long time ago. It was based on a true story when I was about 12 years old playing hide and seek. I hide under a canoe and could only see the feet of the person looking for me and they never looked under the canoe. So I drafted up a story about a kid seeing a murder. That old idea sparked me into a longer story that eventually became The Pineville Heist.

I wrote up a treatment for it and played with the script but I prefer co-writing and bouncing ideas around so I worked with my buddy Todd Gordon in Boston to draft it up! We probably played with 24 drafts before we finally shot the movie in the summer of 2014.

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

LEE: I chased the Canadian funding agencies for years and the biggest issue was always: me. Even though my previous short was in 45 film festivals and got me a Directors Guild of Canada Ontario nomination, I was still a new director in their eyes and the doors closed on me.

So all the financing was private from people that believed in me. What kept the project alive was that I novelized the screenplay and sold over 42,000 copies in eBook, paperback and audiobook formats. It inspired my investors and eventually landed me a distribution deal.

The biggest question I always get is "where can we see it on the big screen?" Well as a little indie film lacking P&A resources there's little benefit financially to releasing theatrically. Besides accessing screens isn't easy.

So a limited release tied to a charity gains us an audience and then pushing at the American Film Market, Cannes and releasing via Walmart, Amazon, VOD, iTunes and the looking for TV sales is the best path forward.

What was your process for casting the film?

LEE: When we were pushing for traditional financing casting would have been tied to that. The distributor has so much power with casting. The moment we went private I had the power to cast and crew up who I wanted.

As I had spent some time in Australia Associate Producing on a $2.4m thriller called The Reckoning in 2013 it helped launch my movie and I ended up bringing a bunch of Aussie's to Canada to make my movie. Including the editor of The Reckoning and the DOP, that was a friend of mine when I lived in the UK. I also has three actors that went through dialect coaching to play my American stars.

So I handled the process and decsions myself and found people in Toronto, Los Angeles, Dallas and halfway around the world to make it. Pretty bold on a tiny budget.

Did you adjust the script, based on your final casting choices?

LEE: Not really. It plays out pretty close to how I imagined. Most of the changes are based on location issues and logistics.

What type of camera did you use and what did you love (and hate) about it?

LEE: We shot using the Arri Alexa using a set of Red prime lens. I love everything about it. Great image and it's a top camera used on big features. Definitely helps add production value and credibility.

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

LEE: The story changes as you edit. Once you have all your footage, you chuck the script away and craft the story out of what you have, not what you think you have or wanted to shoot. The story is the same but the bits and pieces move around a bit to better serve the story and help get an audience involved.

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

LEE: I took some time to work on some features first. I educated myself. I practised my craft on smaller projects and then I ran my little cash-strapped shoot like it was a major motion picture and hired people that were smart, solid and supportive. It's a collaborative craft and I really appreciate the hard work the cast and crew put into this movie.

The dumbest? Not utilizing a 2nd camera unit earlier in the shoot to tackle the inserts and shots the editor needed. It lead to having to get lots of pickup shots long after principal photography - most of which could have probably been avoided. Next time... I want a 2nd Unit.

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

LEE: Well I can't make another movie the same way again. It would kill me. I proved I can direct a feature and I am excited to see the next one come to life.

It has to be with proper funding though. Not so much that I want a payday but I want to make sure everyone else gets paid and I want to be in a position to hire union actors - which helps with distribution.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Jennifer Corcoran on "She Sings to the Stars"

What was your filmmaking background before making She Sings to the Stars?

JENNIFER: She Sings to the Stars is the first feature I've worked on.  We dove in at the deep end. Exhilarating, gruelling, mystifying and demanding.  A thirteen-ring circus.  I wouldn't consider doing anything else.  As soon as we've procured distribution for She Sings to the Stars, we are on to the next one.

I come from the theatre, trained as a director, worked on stage.  I moved into documentary production then picked up a cheap Super-8 camera and started making black and white shorts with no expectations, just a lot of experimentation. 

As a child I fashioned a box to capture my dreams. With a hole in the top, shedding light on a blank piece of paper inside, I tied the box to my head when I went to sleep. I thought to bring the unrestricted realms of dreaming into the confines of our waking world.

I've had some kind of camera in my hand since I was a teenager, most of my inspiration for stories comes either from photographs or dreams.

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

JENNIFER: First, a synopsis:  Mabel is a Native American grandmother who lives alone, tending her drought-ravaged corn in the desert Southwest.  Her half-Mexican grandson, Third, dreams of 'making it big' in LA, but his plans change dramatically when he comes to his grandmother's house to collect traditional dolls he hopes to sell for a high price. 

Lyle is a faded magician from LA traveling with a white rabbit, the promise of one last gig and a life-long dream to be able to magically disappear.  When his radiator boils over, he is stranded outside Mabel's house.  Both men must yield to a timeless rhythm and discover a creative capacity greater than imagined.

I had lived in the Southwest for years and came to know several elders from Third Mesa at Hopi in Arizona.  I was able to draw on a life lived with that land, its skies, its animals -- and at my age, on years spent observing beauty and human behavior. 

One of the voices that plays through She Sings to the Stars is 'what does it mean to listen'?  Can we stop long enough to actually listen to each other, and perhaps more importantly, to listen to something deep within ourselves?  The desert offers a silence, a mystery that engages the film-goer in a way that will, hopefully, inspire.  I find a quiet in the desert that thunderously begs you to listen.

The script was two years in the making, countless years brewing.

I was visited by the character of Mabel in a dream. She told me "It is time to sing the song.  Listen. It will take you four years."  For a year when I lived in the Southwest, one of the elders I have alluded to, appeared to me in dreams with regularity.  When I asked him about the dreams, he replied, "This happens." 

The script required what might be called a lot of "clinical" research which seemed to continue throughout the writing and even once we were in rehearsal, but I also read volumes of poetry and novels, relentlessly wondering, not only 'what is it to be human?', but 'what it is to be a woman?' vis à vis 'what is it to be a woman in a man's world?'  What is our collective feminine nature?

I constructed three life-sized, newspaper-stuffed, dressed figures of the characters and lived with them.  Sometimes they offered clues, sometimes they didn't -- there were days and weeks of nothing but frustration, then 4AM wakings where I could actually see a light inside my brain and ideas would scramble to get out.

The story grew through 17 drafts. 

It wasn't until I had to take a long-haul flight -- my producer brother and our line producer, waiting at the other end, expecting me to arrive with completed script in hand -- that I pulled all the pieces together to create the final draft.  I have never typed so fast, sure that if I stopped, the tap would dry up -- or worse, my laptop would run out of battery mid-flight.

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

JENNIFER: Financing the film was a substantial hurdle, a 'Catch-22':  "You've never made a feature film before.  You have no track record.  Why don't you make a short?"  It reminded me of being 18 again, "You can't have the job because you have no job experience." 

I was trained as a director in the theatre, worked on stage, in documentary production, made Super-8 shorts, as a literary editor, even home schooled three children (Home schooling three children is more complex than working with a film crew in the middle of the desert)

My brother who is producer has an equally diverse and accomplished background in the business world, with several successful, alternative start-ups.  We weren't untested, we weren't 18, had a great business plan and we were hardly asking for millions; but because we didn't have a track record in the film world, we weren't offering enough investment security. Those days were nerve-wracking.  But you learn a lot about presence.  And, ironically, it foists you back on yourself to keep refining your vision, both the creative and the business aspect of it.

We were very fortunate to have family, friends, friends of friends put their weight behind us.  You just need to find a few people who believe in you. It's heartwarming to discover what people will agree to do with you to make a project that excites them get off the ground.  Passion and enthusiasm are infectious.  And that then spills over into production and post-production; and hopefully, now into distribution.

The market has never been so saturated with indie films.  If you consider how many film festivals there are, how many new ones are created each year, how many films are accepted versus how many turned down, the numbers are staggering.

It's tough raising funds for an indie film. But in retrospect, the gritty, gruelling nature of fund raising, shooting and editing the film is not actually the most challenging part of the odyssey. The Herculean task is to secure distribution or the film will sit on a shelf in perpetuity.

After our first preview screening, I thought we had arrived, at last.  A good friend, who is a multi-award-winning documentary filmmaker, came up to me and said, "Great.  You're half way there."  I didn't have any idea what she she meant.  Now I do.

Distribution strategy, platforms and channels seem to be changing on a daily basis. On the advice of a veteran insider, we have been counselled, "Keep your wits about you, they are shark-infested waters!" 

We need to raise funds for distribution.  Once a contract is signed with distributors, you are expected to turn over the film's "deliverables" which include all music rights, all audio-visual formats for each of the distribution platforms, legal and insurance costs, etc. --  basically everything that is needed to sign off on the film.

This is the only way the film will be released, so we have to raise the funds to be able to pay for the deliverables.  'Recouping' is a concept still too far down the road to consider.

We are launching a crowd funding campaign via the Seed & Spark platform in mid-March to raise those funds.   "Onward!"

What was your process for casting the film?

JENNIFER: We auditioned for the parts of Third and Mabel in New Mexico.  I had lived with the character of Mabel for two years so was sure I would recognise her as she walked in. But though we had some very capable actresses audition, Mabel just wasn't appearing.

Our casting director went to a book launch featuring contemporary Native American artists, where she met two artists.  They invited her to their tribal feast the following weekend and introduced her to their mother, Fannie Loretto.  Fannie had not acted before, but as soon as our casting director saw her, she called me to come immediately, "I think I've found Mabel."  And she had. Fannie is beautiful with long greying braids and an open face which conveys both a depth of feeling and whimsy. She was thrilled by the prospect of being in a film.  When she auditioned on camera, we discovered she had a natural onscreen presence. And her timing with regard to dialogue, was instinctive.

I had trawled the internet 6 months prior to auditions in Albuquerque and had found a head shot of our actor for Third, Jesus Mayorga. He was quite young in the shot with an intense stare.  Our casting director had pre-screened him prior to auditions and decided he didn't suit the part well enough to go through to the next round of auditions; but when I didn't find who I was imagining in the auditions, I showed her his head shot and asked that she call him back. In walked a much older actor than the head shot, with a softer demeanor but still with an uncomfortable intensity that I needed for his part.  He was perfect, and he and Fannie bonded immediately as grandson and grandmother.  We learned that he had a lot from his own life to draw upon for the character as he is, indeed, an immigrant from Mexico.

The casting of Lyle, the magician, was tricky as I was holding out for a box-office name talent. 

Tom Waits came to mind again and again while I was writing the part of Lyle. He even waltzed into my dreams. I modelled the character of Lyle on a broken Waits-like magician, collecting old bits of wreckage and trivia, a junkyard philosopher, a peculiar but loveable, undefinable rogue. Though Tom Waits is a musician and a performer - definitely not an actor - we thought we'd see if he would  play the part when it came to casting; but we couldn't get past his gatekeepers.

Waits' gatekeepers did us a big favor. Larry Cedar offers an amazing and profound performance, one for which I am deeply grateful.  We called Larry at the eleventh hour; he was just closing a one-man show on stage with a Sunday matinee and flew out to New Mexico on the Monday morning.  He was a gem to work with, so fluid, responsive and intelligent with an "actor's actor" ability to share scenes, which was particularly important as he was working with two unseasoned actors.

What type of camera did you use and what did you love (and hate) about it?

JENNIFER: RED.  It was terrific until we shot at 15F.

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

JENNIFER: The story didn't change per se, it tightened, and definitely became more focused -- even if in a dreamy way.

As is often the case with lower budget indie films, once I was in the editing room, I longed for shots I hadn't taken.  Our shooting schedule was short and intense.  The last night of production was the coldest, it was 3 or 4 in the morning, the actors were wet and freezing, with stiff faces.  There was a shot in that scene that was never taken.  Everyone was crumbling and I remember our AD coming up to me, ever so gently saying "We have to wrap this movie in 9 minutes."

That scene should have been re-shot another night.  I never got what I wanted in it.  We went around and around in the edit process trying to find a way to make it work.  It was a compromise.

When you see shots in your head and you never get them, they linger in mind like phantoms.  Each time I see the film, I still expect that shot to be in there.

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

JENNIFER: Smartest?

The set was a quiet one. I was ridiculed by our Art Director who asked me why I wasn’t more demanding, why I didn’t raise my voice to assert my authority. “You need to be an asshole, get tough, then people will respond, you’ll get things done. This is your film.”  To me, it was listening that was needed.

In a recent online interview about She Sings to the Stars, actor Larry Cedar put it this way:
Would you say that this was a completely unique film for you? Unlike anything you’ve previously done?

"Without question. The experience was almost indescribable in its uniqueness. Every day was full of surprises, challenges, joy, stress, exhaustion, and supreme satisfaction. Rarely have I worked on a project of such creative purity, i.e. where everyone involved, from cast to crew to cinematographer to director and producer, was completely and passionately committed to capturing the story in the best way possible. Add to that the sheer magic of working in the vast expanses of the New Mexico landscape under the cover of what seemed like a billion stars, and you have a fairly intoxicating creative brew."



Not only were we in the desert, we were in the middle of nowhere.  We had miles and miles to drive every night  -or at dawn, if we had been shooting all night - to get back to our motel. 

All electrics had to run off generators.  Fine desert sand and grit ground into all the equipment.  The sun could be intense and burning during the day, we weathered dust storms and driving winds, and at night temperatures went down to 15F.  Because we were delayed with financing, what was a summer story was now to be shot at the end of October and into mid-November where night temperatures fell well below freezing. The rain and fight scene occurred on the coldest night.  The water coming from the rain tower froze into icicles in between takes, the actors were in summer T-shirts and had to warm up in electric sleeping bags as soon as they came off set.

It can be challenging to make intelligent decisions when shooting through the night in those temperatures. I watched us all stutter with brain freeze and fumble at simple tasks.  On November 1, All Soul's Night, our actress, Fannie Lucero who is native Jemez Pueblo, asked for the night off as it was an important feast and night of ceremony for her tribe.  Her parting words were, "You all should take the night off because the spirits of the ancestors will be out.  We honor them and then go inside for the night because they are all wandering around.  If they find you outside, they can play tricks on you."  Well, we thought we had a film to make, so we forged on, shooting scenes which didn't involve her:  a generator broke down, the picture car broke down and the camera broke down.  When Fannie heard our news the next day, she said, "I told you."


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

JENNIFER: My brother, Jonnie Corcoran and I created Circeo Films, our independent film production company in 2011 with the intention to produce a cycle of films about women -- innate feminine voices are too often missing in the story-telling world of film. And we seem to have forgotten the feminine nature of the Earth and our intimate relationship to it.  I think it is a time when women all over the planet are beginning to come forward with their own voices -- ones which seem to have been quiet for a very long time.

Once She Sings to the Stars has been distributed, keep an eye on the Circeo Films website.  Our next film of the cycle will be shot in Ireland with a 28-year old woman as protagonist.  I have nearly completed the screenplay, so we'll be hunting for investors. 

The learning?  Let the “no”s from potential investors, festivals or distributors drive you forward. If the project is genuine and you encounter resistance, it’s probably a healthy sign; you're offering something new that may clash with an old way of thinking, of making films.

Suspect anyone who calls themselves “an expert.”

I don’t think filmmaking is a navigation of logic, it is a fluid, intuitive medium. Apply what John Keats described as ‘negative capability’: It is about trusting the process, looking for and listening to what is not obvious, paying attention to what is elusive and yet to be defined.

The process, itself, is how the vision comes to life. It requires courage, but it works.

Above all, keep a sense of humor intact.

Twitter:  @SingstotheStars
Crowd funding:  Seed & Spark SHE SINGS TO THE STARS

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Scott R. Thompson on "His Neighbor Phil"

What was your filmmaking background before making His Neighbor Phil?
SCOTT: My first love is screenwriting and there's no better school for screenwriters than to see your work in a theater full of people.   So I've been writing/producing/directing films for seventeen years, more than sixty features and about a dozen shorts, mostly in small communities around the upper midwest in order to give people anywhere a chance to participate in filmmaking without having to drop everything and pack up and move to a film school.  

We've discovered some wonderfully talented people and the communities who have worked with us have had a great time.  But in terms of my writing, it has been 70+ opportunities to write a screenplay and see it play out on a screen with an audience.   As a result, my writing has improved all along the way.

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

SCOTT: The idea for His Neighbor Phil came from my own experience with some people who have had dementia or Alzheimers, including my grandmother.   Music is a key factor in the film and I have witnessed firsthand the transforming power of music for many victims of dementia.    

I wanted to tell a story which focused more on the caretakers of those with Alzheimers than on the disease itself.   Caretakers suffer equally with their loved ones and their story needs to be told too.   Music has helped many of these caretakers keep their loved ones more "present" with them, if only for a little while longer.   It really touched me. 

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

SCOTT: We are working on several ideas on how to market the film, exploring the best options between television, digital, and home video, and even some limited theatrical.    

The film was sponsored by several Alzheimers support groups and senior care companies, so they're already using the film in a limited way in the daily work they do with caretakers and families. 

What was your process for casting the film?

SCOTT: I like to write for actors I know, so I included some familiar faces from our other films, like Daniel Roebuck, Ellen Dolan, Sally Kellerman, Ashlee Hewitt, etc.    

But the mission of our work has always been to also give anyone from the area in which we're shooting a chance to participate, even if they've never had experience before.    

So we're very proud that some of the key actors in the film were acting for the first time ever and did a wonderful job.  A young actress near where we filmed the movie named Kristi Knudson, who had never acted in her life, ended up with one of the most demanding roles and absolutely did a stunning job.  

So we had a wonderful mix of local and professional actors. 

What type of camera did you use and what did you love (and hate) about it?

SCOTT: Our Director of Photography used the Canon C300 and I love the workflow out of that camera.  

The visual quality is perfect for our projects and its ease of use allows us to shoot quickly, which is crucial for small budget films. 

How did you find and produce the music for the movie?

SCOTT: Much of the music was provided by local musicians, which fit into the context of our story.  They often have played at the very theater which is featured in the film, so that's why we used them.  

The soundtrack score was written by several artists, from Bill Holmes who did the majority of it, to some other local musicians again including Logan Langley and Brian Banse. 

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

SCOTT: The story didn't really change because we had a small, tight cast and premise.  

But in the editing process, we were able to tighten the story and navigate the heavy emotions within the film more smoothly so that it never felt like we were manipulating those emotions or our audience. 

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

SCOTT: The smartest thing was partnering with the community of Zumbrota, Minnesota to produce the film with us.   They not only provided the majority of the funding for the film, but they were integral in every aspect of the process behind the scenes, from catering to housing to locations to drivers to crew members and even to acting and musicians.  

The dumbest thing we did during production was not allowing enough time for the crew and cast to rest.  It was an emotional storyline and it would have been nice to have had some time to back off the ridiculous schedule and just appreciate what we were doing and how it could impact real families and their loved ones.    

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

SCOTT: I'll approach this question as a writer.  

Sometimes writers fall into the trap of trying too hard to make their characters "complex" or "multi-layered" and they force their characters into situations which may be intellectually intriguing but which have no emotional connection to the heart of their audience.  

In all of my scripts, but especially this one, I just wanted to show what life is like for people who live with Alzheimers every day. I didn't have to make it more complex or add additional layers to these characters because the audience related to them so deeply and provided their own complexity and their own layers.  They saw themselves in the caretakers and the neighbors and the friends.  Once we connected to their hearts, their own life experiences provided all the complexity they needed.    

It's a great lesson for any screenwriter.