Thursday, April 27, 2017

Hunter Lee Hughes on "Guys Reading Poems"

What was your filmmaking background before making Guys Reading Poems?

HUNTER: Outside of my experience acting, I'd say my crash course in filmmaking began when I served as the writer's assistant to Mardik Martin (co-writer, Mean Streets and Raging Bull). I didn't feel I could afford film school, but that job paid me $20/hour to learn from a master, whose simple, effective wisdom on the subject of screenwriting still guides me.

The other mentor who shaped my early career was legendary acting coach Ivana Chubbuck. I trained in her master class for five years and slowly absorbed a method not only of developing characters as an actor, but of observing actors and communicating with them.

Previous to Guys Reading Poems, I wrote and produced the dark short film Winner Takes All and directed a 12-episode webseries called Dumbass Filmmakers! about a clueless installation artist making a difficult transition to directing films. It definitely felt like art imitating life.

Where did the idea come from and what was the process for getting the script ready to shoot?

HUNTER: My maternal grandmother passed away in 2007 and I ended up with her poetry books. She was an avid reader of poetry and would read her poems aloud to keep her mind sharp. When I finally got around to reading the poetry books she collected, they became like little clues to who she was, as she'd interacted with the poems on the page, like underlining this sentence and circling a certain phrase or writing a note in the margin. So that got me interested in how individual poems could be revealing of the psychology of a film protagonist.

Getting the script ready to shoot....honestly the answer for me of how to get the script ready to shoot is the shot list, which is for me the bridge between what's written on the page and what you capture on set. You're forced in the shot list to start visualizing the mechanics of how you'll shoot rather than just seeing these compelling characters in an imaginary setting running free in your brain.

I'm not a director that likes to leave things to chance on the set, so in this case, everything was shot-listed in advance and I always ask myself with every sentence I read in the final script, "How will the camera move to cover this? How will the people move within the frame? And why?" So for me, the shot list is the way to do a final revision of the script because you realize little moments you need or don't need.

What was your casting process and did you change the script to match your final cast?

HUNTER: I consider Guys Reading Poems to be an ensemble of 15 actors. Of those 15, I already knew 12 of the actors and made offers to them without auditioning them. Two came through the audition process, Luke Judy, our seven-year old lead and also Blake Sheldon, who was the youngest of the seven poetry guys. I met Lydia Hearst through her manager Oren Segal and knew within seconds of meeting her that I'd make her an offer for the role of "The Actress."

I originally was going to have the climactic scene between Patricia and Jerod silent, like so much of the rest of the movie. In the beginning, I was very rigid that the only "dialogue" should be the poems. But as we rehearsed, I started feeling that we needed to hear, in very simple words, the two of them resolve their relationship.

And once I added dialogue to that scene, I realized that the entire section of the movie that takes place as Patricia leaves the prison and returns home needed to have dialogue. So I added dialogue here and there - to her interaction with the prison guard and also when she runs into the young man with the guitar.

I realized that part of the movie that was taking place in the present needed that sort of ordinary, simple dialogue and that change was inspired by rehearsing with Patricia and Jerod.

What drove your decision to go with black & white ... and how did that decision make production easier and harder?

HUNTER: For me, the poetry lent itself to a 1950's boarding school kind of aesthetic and it wasn't a far leap from that to black-and-white. As a practical matter, black-and-white can hide a few things when you're dealing with a lower budget. I think it's easier to make a film look expensive with black-and-white.

I'm not sure it made anything in production harder as much as it comes up in the conversation about distribution. Some distributors just are not interested in black-and-white films.

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

HUNTER: We shot on the Red Epic Monochrome and I think the image quality is really remarkable, the detail, the richness of the black tones. I think the camera inspired everyone on the camera crew, and especially our lighting team, because you know it's maybe once a year, if that, that they get to work on a black-and-white feature. It brought out the best in our team.

I suppose that because our costume designer Shpetim Zero is so amazing and Lydia and Patricia are both so beautiful, every now and then I'd look at one of them in one those beautiful costumes and wish we could shoot it in color, which of course you can't with the monochrome chip, but that was a small price to pay for the satisfaction of working with such an amazing black-and-white camera.

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

HUNTER: Certainly, the movie evolved in editing. In fact, we shot the poems first and it was our editor Patrick Kennelly who convinced me that I had to find a way to take the poems and incorporate them into a feature film.

Including the poetry and the narrative, the entire shoot was 15 days, so we didn't have a limitless amount of options. We shot what was in the script and not a lot extra. But I think Patrick Kennelly (our editor) is just brilliant and I especially love the montage flashes in the Death chapter.

You might think a super weird film like ours changes more drastically in the editing. But we were remarkably close to the script in terms of what was shot and the scenes remained in close to the same order as they were designed on the page.

Can you talk about your distribution plan for recouping costs?

HUNTER: We have an international sales agent, Patrick Holzen of Bodhi Tree Media Group and are repped domestically by Daniel Bort at Omni Media Arts.

National Poetry Month in April is important to us. We're screening at the Rush Arts Gallery in New York City on April 4th. We have our monthly open mic event in Los Angeles on April 6th and then we open theatrically for a brief, one-week run at Arena Cinemalounge in Hollywood on April 28th.

From there, we'll move to DVD, SVOD and VOD but the details of that are still up in the air. I can say this. We now see the feature film Guys Reading Poems as the most intense offering in the experience of a wider movement of " Guys Reading Poems.

Our open mic nights draw 40-60 people each time and we sell t-shirts there. We've built a respectable following on Facebook where we highlight the videos of our audience reading their own poems with plans to expand the open mic night to other cities. So we've designed the experience of Guys Reading Poems as a positive feedback loop between providing open mic nights for our audiences and the actual film.

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

HUNTER: I committed. I have no regrets whatsoever about the kind of effort I made.

The shoot took so much out of me - mentally, physically, emotionally - but I honestly did give it everything I had. And I'm not sure I can take credit for this, but I noticed that so many people in the cast and creative team were just as driven to figure this movie out and to go out and shoot it.

As a director, you set the tone. So I think I set a good example in that way and that was smart.  I think the crew respects you more when they see how hard you're thinking and working and figuring it out.

The dumbest mistakes probably all centered around time management with a child actor. When they are seven, you have so little time with them when they can actually work. And, in our case, Luke is basically the lead of the movie. So one time, I remember I wanted him on set early to rehearse with him and that was super dumb because it ended up being two wasted hours and then he got pulled from set later at a crucial time because that was his limit for the day. But you sort of just adjust and somehow get the movie done.

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

HUNTER: I'm sure it's been said before, but I think a good analogy for directing movies is "the good parent." A good parent knows that their kids have own identity and sensibility and they will communicate that identity to you. So, more than anything, being a good parent involves being a good listener and observer and then fortifying your child towards the life they were meant to live.

I believe a film is like a child and our job as directors is not to control the child or force it to be something it's not. Your job is to listen to the film and what it wants to be and then lend the film your strength when it needs its essential qualities nurtured or protected.

I feel like I learned how that process feels through making Guys Reading Poems and will take the same experience to the next one.

The movie will open theatrically in Los Angeles on Friday, April 28th at Arena Cinelounge. Tickets are available here:

Also, for those that are interested, they've released several of the poems and some pr interviews for the actors on a YouTube site -

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Russ Emanuel on "Occupants"

What was your filmmaking background before making Occupants?

RUSS: Occupants is my fourth feature film.  I started making films in 2002 with Her Knight and Girl with Gun after studying cinema at the University of Southern California and taking UCLA Extension courses.  There, I met my filmmaking partner Emile Haris whom we have worked on all my films since then.  

Because of the success of Girl with Gun, which got into numerous festivals including San Diego Comic-con, it got the attention of my future producer Howard Nash who had put together a feature film script called P.J. which had John Heard and Robert Picardo already attached.

Since then, we worked on the features Chasing the Green starring Jeremy London, Ryan Hurst, William Devane, Robert Picardo, The Legends of Nethiah starring Robert Picardo, Jeremiah Sayys, Jared Young, Occupants starring Briana White, Michael Pugliese, and Robert Picardo, and most recently The Assassin’s Apprentice starring Tarah Paige, Marina Sirtis, and Robert Picardo, which we shot in early December 2016.

How did you get connected to Julia Camara's script and what was the process for getting the script ready to shoot?

RUSS: It was the producer Howard Nash who optioned her script in February 2014.  He then showed me the script and I was immediately hooked. 

The process involved getting the funds which we successfully raised on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo (106% raised).  Once that happened, we cast the film and hired the crew and turned Julia’s wonderful script into a shooting script based on the location we found.

What was your casting process and did you change the script to match your final cast?

RUSS: The casting process involved holding auditions for the main role of Annie Curtis – we had 24 actresses whom we auditioned alongside our lead actor Michael Pugliese (who played Neil Curtis, the husband of Annie). 

Also, there was our Director of Photography, the aforementioned Emile Haris.  Once Michael and Emile and I discussed whom we liked, we called back five actresses and picked Briana White who was a perfect fit for the role.

And yes one role we changed to reflect the actual cast – that was the role of Dr. Alan Peterson of the Peterson Research Institute, played by Robert Picardo (the role was originally for a woman, but was changed because of Julia’s love of Star Trek and the fact that Howard and I have worked with Robert before on four projects).

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

RUSS: We used the Canon 7D and HVX200 cameras.  I loved how they were able to get us the vibrant colors we needed in the film.  I really enjoyed shooting with these cameras, even though it was 2K and not 4K.

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

RUSS: The movie did change during the editing and that was to reflect some videos that Robert Picardo’s character sent to Annie and Neil Curtis to show they aren’t the only ones experiencing the parallel universe phenomena that was seen in the film. 

Originally in the script, it just mentioned “some video.”. So during post-production, we actually created an official Peterson Research Institute video with actor Chris Winters as the representative and shooting various people around the world who recorded their sightings.  You can actually see them at this site:

Can you talk about your distribution plan for recouping costs?

RUSS: We got distribution through ITN Distribution headed by Stuart Alson who is busy going to various markets including Berlinale and selling the film.  In order for him to be able to do that, we got the film into thirty-plus film festivals all over the United States, Canada, and Russia. 

We also won awards such as the “Best Sci-Fi Feature” award at Shriekfest, one of the top horror festivals in the United States, seven awards at the Dazed 4 Horror Film Festival, and just last week the “Best Director” and “Audience Choice” award at the SoCal Film Festival  To date, we won 19 awards and have been nominated for 12 more.

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

RUSS: The smartest thing we did during production was finding our location through Air Bnb.  This was a suggestion by the producer Howard Nash and I was so relieved when we found the house we shot at. 

Since we technically “owned” the place for 12 days, I was able to stay there for the duration of the shoot.  We were also able to leave the equipment there for each of the days, which helped with set-up times.  It made for an efficient 10-day shoot.

The dumbest thing was not getting a professional hair-dye job for our lead actress Briana White when she transformed from real Annie Curtis to parallel Annie Curtis on Day 8.  It took our makeup artist Alisha Baijounas 3 tries because the over-the-counter hair dye job turned our actresses’ hair from blonde to gray (and not brunette as we wanted).  We ended up using a permanent dye and paying for her to turn it back to blonde after production wrapped.  Basically, we tried to save money but ended up spending way more.

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

RUSS: Always have a preparation day that helps with setting up equipment and production design and giving the actors a chance to see the set during pre-production so they can prepare for their roles.  I was glad we were able to do this and it helped tremendously.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Dean Peterson on "What Children Do"

What was your filmmaking background before making What Children Do?

DEAN: I went to film school at Columbia College in Chicago and barely graduated. After school I spent months spinning my wheels and bagging groceries at Whole Foods before realizing that a big check wasn't going to fall from the sky to shoot a movie and fueled by absolute desperation, decided to lift myself up by my bootstraps and make a feature film by any means necessary.

Which ended up meaning moving back in with my Mom in Minnesota, working part time at a liquor store, and doing a Kickstarter to raise the very meager budget for my first feature Incredibly Small. We shot the film in 14 days, premiered it at Raindance in London and went on to play it at a bunch of festivals and put it online where it got some attention and a Vimeo Staff Pick.

In the intervening years I made a bunch of shorts, moved to New York, and shot my second feature film What Children Do in April of last year.

Where did the idea come from and what was the process for writing the script and getting the script ready to shoot?

DEAN: The idea was loosely inspired by the death of my grandfather in 2014. His funeral was the first time my entire family had been back in the same place in many years and I was fascinated by seeing how all of the conflicts, rumors, and tensions that had laid dormant for so long were reignited the instant we were all back together.

I also wanted to explore the relationship between sisters which I had never seen done in a really satisfactory way in movies before. I have two sisters, and even though the characters in my film aren't based on them, I find that basic dynamic utterly fascinating. 

I wish that I could say that I had an elegant and thoughtful process for writing but I would be lying. I was working awful 9 to 5 time jobs while I wrote the script, so my process was to force myself to come home from work and write for 1-2 hours as often as I could muster.

The first few drafts were utterly appalling, but with each successive draft it got better and better (I hope???) as I tried to hone in on the voices of the sisters as well as work out the kinks with the plot.

My sense of humor is really random and often nonsensical, so many passes on the script were just trying to solve problems like "which scene can I work this Applebee's joke into?"

What was your casting process and did you change the script to match your final cast?

DEAN: The two sisters were difficult to cast because they're such dynamic roles. I needed to find actors that were able to pull of really big jokes but were also capable of incredible emotional honesty, often within the same scene.

I saw Nicole Rodenburg in Annie Baker's play The Flick and was floored by her performance. I looked her up online the next day, and I'm still not sure why, but chose to DM her on Twitter. Within a minute of our first meeting she mentioned that she had a frozen Cornish game hen in her purse AND applied drops of oregano oil on my tongue after finding out I had a cold and I decided to cast her on the spot.

I had originally seen Grace Rex in her short film This Is She and was taken by her look and the way she commanded your attention on screen, without even saying anything. I also found a bunch of comedic short films she had done online and after meeting with her knew immediately that her voice and instinct as an actor were exactly what I wanted. She was so talented and her filmography is so intimidatingly impressive, I never thought in a million years she'd want to do the movie but I was able to somehow trick her into signing on.

I'm always completely open to script suggestions from actors, and we made a few changes here and there to personalize the characters, but I would say the script remained about 95% the same. A lot of the details about the characters like their wardrobe or choices they make inside of scenes were from the actors though.

I cherish these kinds of contributions and try to continually encourage people I work with to bring these ideas to the table. 

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

DEAN: We shot on the Canon C300. I love the image quality and versatility of it. You can have a really small rig and easily sneak into places and steal shots which we did a lot of.

It's also really good in low light so you can shoot out in the real world with a small crew and move from scene to scene quickly, which is fantastic because I hate standing around on set.

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

DEAN: The movie changed a lot in really subtle ways. I cut lines that would change the tone of the scene, extend pauses to increase tension within a moment, and I actually ended up cutting 8 minutes off the very end of the movie which totally re-contexualized how the story ends (spell check is telling me that "re-contexualized" is not a real word).

My editing process is wholly instinctual and I'm never able to intellectualize why I do anything. Something just does or does not feel right and luckily I edit my own films because I doubt I would be able to intelligibly convey any information to an editor.

Can you talk about your distribution plan for recouping costs?

DEAN: With my past two features and all my shorts I purposely worked using really small budgets which offers me the freedom to be adventurous in distribution as well as not being excessively beholden to financiers.

I gave my first film away online for free and am interested in pursuing similarly unusual modes of distribution with this film. That said, we haven't even started playing festivals yet so it will be hard to say what it's life will end up looking like.

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

DEAN: The smartest thing that we did was have everybody stay in the house that we shot in. The cast and crew were always 15 seconds from set so nobody was ever late to call time, it also freed you up in the event you finished early and wanted to shoot something that wasn't on the schedule because everyone was just in the next room. It also created a really fun, communal, family-like atmosphere on the shoot. Every day after we wrapped we would eat dinner together, have some drinks, and listen to music. 

The dumbest thing I did was try to cast a micro-budget feature during pilot season. You're literally at the bottom of every agent's priority list. 

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

DEAN: Shoot your goddamn movie.

Don't wait around for years and years trying to raise a budget that may never come in. Set a date, tell lots of people what you're doing so you'll be thoroughly humiliated if you back out, and then press forward every single day, ignoring anyone who is doing anything other than enabling you to get your movie made.

I learned that if you can shoot movies for very little money nobody can stop you.