Saturday, March 12, 2011

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Lloyd Kaufman on making your own damn movie

Asked for words of inspiration for DIY filmmakers at TMAYM, Troma Entertainment legend Lloyd Kaufman suggested we use a quote from one of his books, so here goes—from Make Your Own Damn Movie:
To make your own damn movie, you have to be equal parts dictator and diplomat. You must be both the visionary storyteller addressing the audience at the film festival and the dickhead shoveling rat shit out of the basement because nobody else would and everything would be lost if it didn't get done. You must be both extravagant artist and penny-pinching asshole. It isn't easy, it isn't always fun, and if you're looking to get rich quick by making the next Blair Witch Project then you'd might just as well stop right now. The odds are stacked heavily against you ever making a dime directly off your masterpiece.

So, knowing full well that the road you're about to embark on is long and painful, will probably require you to be publicly humiliated on more than one occasion, and will require your total obsessive attention for more than a year, is it worth doing? Absolutely. Writers know the satisfaction of completing a story. Musicians know the satisfaction of completing a song. But filmmakers know they've brought people together and created something bigger than any of them could have done individually. They have orchestrated an experience that no one involved will ever forget. They've created something that will have a life long after they're gone. They have made some art under circumstances that would send most people into therapy for the next five years.
FYI, this quote follows a rather vivid description of Lloyd having to clean a Troma storage room that was befouled by rat feces... as well as a rat carcass infested with spiders. Filmmaking is nothing if not glamorous.

Update:

Lloyd, thanks for the tweet about TMAYM!

"Glass City," "Happily After," and "Separation Anxiety" by John Klein

Glass City:




Happily After:




Separation Anxiety:



Here with our first triple-feature is John Klein, whose production company bears the name of his first feature as producer, Glass City. (Note: Klein produced all three films discussed here, and he directed Happily After. Cole Simon directed Glass City and Separation Anxiety.)
Back in my hometown of Toledo, when I was a senior in high school, I started an amateur theatre company called Still Waiting Productions, the name inspired by our first production, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. (Cue ironic chuckles.) Knowing what I know now about theatre, acting, and art in general, I can only assume it was a horrible mess. But at the time, we were the kings and queens of our domain, a small band of passionate students eager to leave a small yet significant mark on our hometown. Our summers, home from college and producing stage plays, defined us, as they do for everyone, I’m sure. When I graduated college with my film degree, it seemed only natural to write what I knew.

I think I’ve covered all the clich├ęs so far, right?

Anyway, that first script I wrote was called Glass City, based very loosely on our experiences with Still Waiting Productions. And, like so many beginning efforts at anything, it also was a mess at first. The screenplay was a hodgepodge of my favorite influences of the minute – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Garden State were doing circles in my head – and elements were borrowed or ripped wholesale from my life and the lives of my friends. There was no reason not to bring on Cole Simon - fellow SWP-er, good friend, theatre major at Ohio State – to direct because, in addition to being supremely talented, he had shared so many of those influences and elements.

Cole likes to say that when I tell people I’ll do something, it’ll happen. However true or untrue that is, I said we would produce Glass City in my hometown – Toledo has always been referred to as the Glass City, and we saw the morose, stagnant Mike Stegman’s life (get it?) as a nice parallel to that of the city’s downtrodden luck – and that’s what we did, about a year after I moved to Chicago. To keep our costs down, we shot on my HVX200 with a Redrock M2 adapter – all the rage at the time, prior to the onslaught of DSLRs – and Cole brought in actors from Ohio State while I brought crew in from Chicago. Ninety-two pages in thirteen days.

The result was probably the most personal film I will ever produce or shoot. I know everyone looks back at their first film and cringes. I won’t say I don’t do that, because I do. But I also know we made some seriously good choices on Glass City. We came up with a visual style and color scheme that fit the story perfectly, gradually growing from a desaturated, static palette to a more frenetic, vivid look. The acting was remarkable, and I can say that with my modesty intact because I had absolutely nothing to do with it; Cole is just a phenomenal director. And oh, the things we accomplished! We set up a traffic jam with twenty picture cars. We had a fifty-five setup day in a Laundromat, and finished ahead of schedule, dolly moves and jibs through ceilings and all. We closed the largest bridge in Toledo for a night. For a few twenty-somethings on a micro-budget, that was majestic. And for a couple of guys who had lived through summers we wished could last for years, we watch Glass City and now have a complete snapshot of what those times were like for us.

* * *

Following the completion of Glass City, we christened our production company Glass City Films and set off on finding our next projects. I suppose the easy goal was to grow and stretch ourselves beyond our means in terms of production value. But we also wanted to break down our storytelling barriers. Glass City showcased us portraying our own experiences. We wanted our next projects to be steps outside of ourselves.

It didn’t take long. After Glass City premiered, a friend of mine from elementary school invited me out for coffee – which I don’t drink, but whatever – and slid a script across the table for a feature titled Happily After. (The “Ever” is silent.) I read it, and as her first feature film screenplay – much like ours – it needed some tweaking. It was a romantic drama, a love triangle of sorts that was incredibly talky… but then around page 68, a spectacular twist just turned the whole script around, turning it into a sort of neo-noir thriller. It was awesomely twisted and unique in the best way, and excited the hell out of me. We collaborated on smoothing over some of the rougher patches - as we've done with all our scripts - though the big selling points of the story and dialogue barely changed. And then I told her I'd direct it. It was an enthusiastic statement without any substance at the time. But when I say I’ll do something….

About the same time I was signing my creative life away, Cole was in a play at Ohio State called Separation Anxiety, written by Jeremy Sony. He sent me the script on a whim, in full acknowledgement of its limitations as a stage play, expecting me to come back and call it unfilmable or something or other. It was one of the most emotionally resonant pieces of writing I had read, and I immediately said, “Let’s do it!” Never mind that half the script took place in an airport, or that there were fireworks at one point, or that the story juggled three separate timelines at once, or that one character sounded like a walking, talking Hallmark card. It was there, and we could totally pull it off.

Now, if you had told me in 2008 at the premiere of Glass City that we’d be producing two feature films back-to-back not more than one year later, I think I’d have spit my drink in your face. But, well, I’m an ambitious idiot. We slated both films for 2009: Happily After for August and Separation Anxiety for November. And our sanity left with them.

* * *

Happily After, my directorial debut, came first. Ninety-seven pages in eighteen days. It was our first SAG feature, and our lead actor, Ross Marquand, was a revelation. My longtime friend and 1st AC, Justin Cameron, lensed the film – his first feature – taking over for my usual cinematography work, and brought a whole new level of excitement and raw creative energy to the set. We had nearly twenty locations, ranging from a park to a police station. My gear was still our only option given our budget, but we had learned much from our mistakes on Glass City, and were able to handle the adapter this time.

I think it’s a fact that every first-time director can’t sleep in the weeks leading up to Day One, and when I did sleep, I dreamt of the worst possible circumstances. But when you get on set, everything melts away but the joy. And that’s how it was. We made our first five days, the scenes looked and sounded great, we were able to bounce two pages ahead of schedule by taking advantage of a sunset on a high-rise rooftop, and we all started to feel that excitement.

And then disaster struck.

During the filming of a scene involving our lead actress, Sharina Martin, she severely injured her wrist on a broken window. The good news: she’d be fine (and was, eventually). The bad news: she needed reconstructive surgery on her wrist, and would require a cast for the remainder of the shoot. Too deep into shooting to recast – something none of us wanted anyway – we simply rewrote the film to accommodate and rescheduled nearly every scene of the shoot to fit around the change in availability. We wound up only two days over schedule, in the end, and I’d say no one who watches the film is aware of the change until I bring it up in Q&A sessions, so I’ll count my blessings.

But for the rest of that month, we were all in a state of heightened awareness, of constant improvisation within the confines of what visual arcs, themes, and ideas we had already set out for ourselves. The police station – an abandoned location rented out by the city of Chicago – had fallen prey to scrap metal thieves, and there was no longer power in the building. The art department had one day to redress four rooms of the station, including the prison area. We had only half a day to film the final scene of the film, which featured an eighteen-foot crane and a Steadicam. Such is life on every set, I know, but it all seemed more so because of the early challenges.

The editing room only brought further difficulties, as we struggled with early test screenings and wound up cutting 25 minutes of superfluous plot points out of the rough cut. To say this film was made in post-production is a true understatement, and if I could share a directing credit, editor and colorist Mike Molenda would get it. The work he did was awe-inspiring, and the film exists and thrives because of it.

To this day, the completion of Happily After is something I refer to as a collection of minor miracles. I’ll never have a cast and crew as good as that ever again, methinks, at least not a group so dedicated and so willing to take on the impossible. I took more creative risks on it than on anything I’ve ever done, and more financial risks to boot. I hope that energy comes across. And so, here we are, and here it is.

* * *

Compared to that, producing Separation Anxiety should have been a breeze. Five main characters instead of twenty? Half the locations? Sixteen days instead of eighteen? Easy as pie. Of course, by now, I should also have gotten used to being wrong.

There were rewrites and changes abound in the early stages of the transition from stage to screen. The screenplay was trimmed to ninety pages from over 120. A more ambiguous ending was scrapped in favor of one that provided a real emotional catharsis for our trio of main characters. Finally, Cole stepped in as director when Jeremy decided to focus solely on the screenwriting, and I again relinquished the cinematography reins to Justin so I could exclusively produce. We’ve always prided ourselves on not wearing too many hats, so we could excel at one thing rather than be mediocre at two or three things. Collaboration makes our world of filmmaking go round, no question about it.

The first five days were early wraps and brought incredible performances from Glass City actress Kiana Harris and former “Dawson’s Creek” star John Wesley Shipp. I suppose it must be our sixth day of production that brings us trouble on our shoots, because the massive forty-setup day – which featured emergency vehicles and a rather complicated series of jib crane moves at dawn near an iconic dam location – finally broke us. We wound up having to come back the next day to shoot several remaining elements, and had severe issues matching the cloudy day to the previous day’s sunny footage. I suppose we should be grateful, though, that clouds were all we got. We were blessed with a two-week dry spell; had it rained on a single one of our shoot days in Columbus, the entire schedule would have been dead in the water.

As it stood, we got to Toledo and I finally realized the worst part of filming Separation Anxiety as a producer: the airport. Populating an entire wing of the Toledo Express Airport with extras – whose information we required weeks in advance for TSA to run background checks – and then trying desperately to light consistently despite being surrounded by wall-to-wall windows just as the days are getting shorter…yeah, we probably should have thought that through a bit. All praise to Justin for not losing his cool and getting some truly splendid photography out of it. And equal praise to our 1st AD, Dan Gutierrez, for corralling extras and making an indie film look massive. In the end, we closed an airport. We even got to film on a plane. What films get to do that at our level?

After Separation Anxiety premiered, Cole won the Golden Drover for Best Director at the Trail Dance Film Festival. I think we all would’ve been happy to win Best Drama, of course, but I think I was secretly happier that Cole took home his award. The growth he displayed from Glass City to Separation Anxiety was stunning; I can only hope my second feature is as grand a leap in maturity and quality.

* * *

I could list hundreds of little nuggets of advice for all independent filmmakers. Don’t be so afraid of hearing “no” that you forget to ask the question. Trust your crew. Good food is the most important thing on a low-budget set. Always have a backup plan in mind, whether it’s a second airport or another picture car or a replacement crewperson. Or hard drives, for that matter. But, no matter what, treat every single person on the cast and crew with the respect they deserve, which is quite a lot. That means communication. That means proper housing, food, and paychecks. That means insurance. And it means just plain being nice.

Our company is a Midwest group. We started in Toledo, we’re in Chicago now, and we have no intention of going to either coast. This is home, and this is where we’ll do our best work, always. Our mission statement speaks of fostering Midwest talent and artists through powerful narrative drama. We have humble beginnings, as all indie filmmakers do. But however much a mess we may think we are sometimes, we couldn’t be happier with our films or with the people we’ve chosen to tag along with on this crazy journey. And someday, hopefully, we can look back on all this and say, Yes…this was still only the beginning.

Monday, March 7, 2011

"Cannonball" by Scott Stafford



Scott Stafford tells us about the long, long road Kentucky-based Walk Softly Films took in making a Bigfoot feature:
From conception to completion, Cannonball was in some form of production for seven long years. Three friends who always wanted to make films decided to jump into the process feet first and learn the craft through their mistakes. There were plenty to learn from. I am one of those friends and the mistakes began with my first screenplay which was at least 40 pages too long. However, we had confidence in the moments and beats that we had devised together. Someone would be entertained by our efforts and that would make it all worthwhile.

For us, the real victory comes in simply having a finished product in hand. Our shooting schedule was horrific. Even in our most productive stages we were only able to shoot every other Saturday. We're talking 8 hours every two weeks. We are three men with full time jobs and families. When production began, all three of us were married. By the time it was over, one of the three marriages was still intact. Victory! Through divorce, remarriage, child birth and job loss, we struggled to persevere. None of us had seen any project this large to completion before. And Cannonball had every possible chance not to succeed; no experience, no budget, no actors, etc. Cannonball, despite any shortcomings, is a tale that we fostered all the way to the end despite obstacles of every variety. And, for that reason, it will always hold a special place for us. (And we will never attempt to shoot any project in the same manner again.)

When we started to discuss ideas in 2002, we all agreed that a Bigfoot movie would be a blast to explore. It had been at least twenty-five years since the last Bigfoot movie we could remember had been produced. Flash forward seven years and at least fifty sasquatch-related, straight-to-video titles, a handful of theatrical releases, and at least one national advertising campaign have been released in the meantime. And, somehow, they all star Lance Henriksen. We also decided to combine Bigfoot with a project we had been working on since 1992; the Global Wrestling Alliance, a loving spoof of professional wrestling. It was our obsession for a decade. We were compelled to weave the GWA into our story because we felt a couple of those characters that we loved and knew so well would be a perfect fit for this story about friends without a future.

When we began shooting Cannonball, exactly one of our actors had acting experience and it came from community theatre. Since I was directing and also spending much of my time in front of the camera, we had to find someone to put behind it. Our first two candidates bowed out, so we did what any true filmmaker would do. We drafted my Dad. Thankfully, he is an extremely talented artist in his own right and blessed with a good eye. More help came in the form of two amazing musicians who allowed us to use their songs for a snippet of their worth.

In the end, despite our mistakes and inexperience, we ended up with a feature film that makes people laugh. Success. Every time we sit in on a screening and we hear laughs and see smiles, we receive the reward we were looking for. We were also surprised to discover that kids love the movie. When I say love, I mean kids who are six, seven, and up go bananas for it, which never ceases to amaze us. Cannonball has been an official selection of four film festivals and even won Best Original Feature in one of them. It has also received some very kind reviews and was selected Feature of the Month by Microfilmmaker Magazine. DVD's are available for purchase at cannonballmovie.com and you can follow all our newest projects at walksoftlyfilms.com.

One last example of lessons learned: It isn’t wise to leave your prop shotgun laying out when you’re in a public nature preserve. Also, it isn’t fun when the caretaker of said preserve walks up to find the shotgun, two of your actors in bloody combat on the ground while one is dressed in a gorilla suit, and she believes your tripod is some type of “crossbow”. Things can get awkward.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

A hat tip to Microfilmmaker Magazine (microfilmmaker.com)

I just wanted to give a shout-out to the folks at Microfilmmaker, whose constructive, solicited critiques of ultra-low-budget films were a great resource for finding dedicated DIY filmmakers when we began outreach to find good first-person feature-filmmaker stories to get this blog started.

Microfilmmaker offers a lot of resources, and they have a great philosophy that respects true independent filmmakers, who all too often get ignored in favor of star-studded, multi-million dollar so-called indies.

Friday, March 4, 2011

"Dawn" by Jay Reel



Tell Me About Your Movie isn't a review site, but I'd be remiss if I didn't say how much I enjoy and admire Jay Reel's Dawn, a unique, low-budget, character-based take on vampirism. Very happy to see Jay share his story with us here:
I based the screenplay of Dawn on a short story I wrote in September of 2000. At the time, the idea was to write a "journal" of sorts, with entries made in real time, set on the dates they were written. The final entry was to be on my birthday (12th). It didn't quite work out that way, and I finished the story several days early. The "journal" was written by a man, who was relating the day-to-day struggle of living on the road, homeless, with his young daughter, who just happened to be a vampire. She was around 8 years old in the story and was a living creature, in that she had a heartbeat and could die like any human. I kept some of the vampire attributes of legend (unnatural strength, empathic abilities) and eliminated others (no "allergies" to the sun or crosses). Ultimately, the human father and his "special" daughter come a rather tragic end.

In adapting the short story to feature length, I needed to add some elements of danger, that wasn't there in the original version. Now, there was a man pursuing Dawn and her father, who knew of the girl's vampire origins. The ending of the movie is very similar to the short story, but otherwise the mood is much more somber. This really isn't a horror movie, but rather a story of two misfits, struggling to survive in the world. I was influenced by certain "road movies" I appreciated throughout my life, about characters on the run and trying to eke out a living. Jim Jarmusch's Down By Law, Paper Moon, Of Mice and Men, etc. In this case, Dawn's vampirism is like a disability that separates her from society in general. Otherwise, she's a normal little girl, with all the aspirations and hopes of any child her age. The father is like any caring parent, who would do anything to protect and provide for his child.

Dawn was shot during the summer of 2002, with Ray Boucher portraying the father (John), 10-year-old Kacie Young was Dawn, and Mindy Raymond as the mother. The mother's story is told during an unusually long flashback (20 minutes!) that culminates in her death, while giving birth to Dawn. I "acted" as Carlton Reed, the psychic "bloodhound" who is pursuing Dawn.

Dawn premiered in Dallas, at the Angelika Film Center, in August of 2003. J.R. Bookwalter (The Dead Next Door) picked up Dawn for DVD distribution through his Tempe Video label in 2006. It is available for sale through Amazon.com, and several other online retailers. It can be rented via Netflix.com as well.

You can find me on Facebook.

Additional videos:

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

"Driver's Ed Mutiny" by Brad Hansen



Brad Hansen of Collateral Damage Productions tells us about crossing state lines—lots of them—to make his indie feature, Driver's Ed Mutiny:
Driver's Ed Mutiny follows three teenagers who have to make their way from Chicago to Los Angeles, each for their own personal reasons. With no other options, they hijack their driver’s ed car and embark on a coming-of-age journey down the historic Route 66, with plenty of bumps along the way.

A comedy/drama, Driver's Ed Mutiny is the second feature from filmmaking group Collateral Damage Productions following their award-winning 2007 release The Chemistry of Dating.

* * *

Driver's Ed Mutiny came about because I thought I had a great story idea and I had friends who were willing to help make it a reality. I wanted to make a modern day John Hughes movie—a film about teenagers that wasn't an R-rated gross-out comedy. I was also tired of seeing indie films that all took place indoors. I wanted to push the scope of what a microbudget movie could show.

Driver's Ed Mutiny was certainly a challenge to make. We ended up shooting in 9 states and over 50 different locations—a massive logistical challenge, particularly for a tight budget. But it was a terrific bonding experience for the cast and crew (most of us didn't know each other before the film but we are now close friends). Ultimately I think we ended up with the film we set out to make—a touching yet funny movie about characters you hopefully care about that spans the nation. I'm very proud of all the hard work and dedication that the cast and crew put into the film to make this dream a reality.

Our movie is nearing the end of its successful festival run and we are starting the search for distribution. Keep tabs with us on Facebook or Twitter for distribution news!

"The Drachen Recruitment Experiment" by Matthew Martino



Matthew Martino recently finished post-production on his directorial-debut feature film, The Drachen Recruitment Experiment. He reports that he's currently negotiating distribution deals with several production companies and hopes for a limited theatrical release this summer.

He shares some observations from the experience, which he titles, "Solitaire in a Bar—A Big Headache for the Independent Filmmaker":
Imagine that you and a bunch of friends gather at your house and you decide to play poker. You all get together, plunk down your chips and after an a few rounds, they all go home happy after a fun round of games with good company. And yet you still want to play cards. You might decide to grab your deck and head to local bar where you can sit quietly at a table and play solitaire by yourself.

Only that would never happen. You would never sit quietly by yourself. Someone would inevitably come over and start to tell you how to play. He would stare over your shoulder until a move he would make comes up and he would emphatically tell you that you must make that move. And should you remind this rude onlooker that it is your game and your deck and you will make the decisions and the moves you want to make, most likely he will get very angry because his benevolent advice was not heeded. He will storm away and tell everyone in the bar how much of a jerk you are and that he hope you lose your card game.

If you make an independent film, this will happen often. As people learn that you are making a movie they instantly want to chime in with advice as to how you should do it. This is most likely because everyone has dreams of making movies, being movie stars and of breaking into Hollywood. So when you say you are making a film, you become their surrogate child. And they will live vicariously through you like a zealous soccer mom.

They have had some dream idea for years and they always felt if they just told the right person, it would be made into a blockbuster. I generally believe all people are creative. Truthfully everyone does have a blockbuster idea that could be a hit if it was made in Hollywood. Everyone is creative. Which is why the need for creative people is nil. There is nothing more cheap out there than ideas. No one owns an idea. What is needed are people with the work ethic and drive to do something with their ideas.

I don’t need ideas, I need script writers. When someone gives me this great idea of theirs, I tell them to write it out in a script. I will even recommend CELTX - a free script writing program that could help you put things in the proper format. When I say this, they seem offended. In their mind they believed their idea was so great, I would have to stop what I was doing and immediately get writing on their idea and when Hollywood makes millions on it, I would turn over a check to this gracious person who blessed me with their idea.

The problem is I got my own creative ideas I am working on. I don’t need yours. Why would I work on your stuff when I haven’t even gotten a fraction of my own stuff down? But that’s it, I actually have written scripts. I have put the keystrokes in and can see the fruits of my labor. It puts me in a rare category.

I made a big mistake once. Someone got to see my script. Someone I shouldn't have let see it. But he saw a laptop with the script up on the screen and he asked if he could read it. I said sure. Big mistake.

About an hour later without me prompting he told me that my script wasn't very good. I asked him why and he told me he had only read about two pages. So I asked him why he didn't read more. And he said it wasn't very entertaining.

I then asked him how many scripts he has read. He mentioned that he read the script for The Dark Knight and that it was way more entertaining to read then mine. So he stopped reading mine after two pages. I told him I can't take his opinion seriously because he didn't give my script a chance.

I then asked if he had ever took a script writing class. He hadn't. I asked him if he had ever written scripts, he told he hadn't but that he had really good ideas for scripts. Basically, I found out he knew nothing about script writing and had read only one example.

This seems to be the attitude of nearly everyone I meet where movies come in. Everyone is an expert without having any experience. Imagine applying for a job as a mechanic at an auto repair garage. When you get there the manager asks you what experience you have in the auto industry. You reply that you have been driving a car for ten years, so that makes you an expert on automobiles. After all, how hard can it be to fix a car? All you have to do to make them work is turn the key and step on the gas. They are easy to understand.

The logic falls apart in that scenario. Yet lots of people who have done nothing more than watch films, feel that they must be experts on how a film is made. What is there to do except tell the actors to say their lines and turn the camera on? Right? Certainly your average American has seen hundreds of movies. But that doesn’t mean you can make a movie any more than driving a car means you would know how to build one.

I recently had a woman watch my completed film albeit without the soundtrack being added. The soundtrack was being finished so I lent her a copy without it, thinking that since she had some musical experience, she could imagine where and what type of music would be added. I was wrong. She criticized the film for having long and silent scenes with no dialogue that dragged. She recommended that I re-edit it so that it could be more Hollywood style.

I agreed that the scene dragged, but that was because when music would be added, the scene would move along with it. And I told her that re-editing it at this point in the post production process would be disastrous. This is where the arguments began. When I told her that color correction took weeks, she dismissed the comment saying color correction was not that important. Well she lost me there. Ask anyone in Hollywood who edits how important color correction is. It is huge and massive time consumer. One friend who recently finished editing a feature film thought that he spent about 400 hours on color correction alone. We both bemoaned 13 hour overnight renders that crashed at the last minute, setting us back a full day.

Editing is one long, tedious and frustrating process that seems easy if you’ve never done it. If you really don’t know much about a subject, it’s best not to advise someone on it. You just come across as ignorant and I cannot respect your opinion. And when you get mad that I didn’t validate your opinion - well I cannot respect you.

So if you decide to make an independent film, be aware that people with no experience will give you advice. They will tell you which stars should be in your film (did I mention my first film had a budget with only 3 digits?). They will tell you that should add car chases, explosions, alien invasions - the list goes on. They will want you to completely take their ideas in exchange for a huge check. And be aware that they will be very angry when you don’t take their advice. You’ll make enemies. But you’ll also make a feature film - which puts you in a rare category. Who knows, you may even have some good advice to give to the next new filmmaker. Everyone’s an expert.

"The Changeling" by Jay Stern



Jay Stern tells us about making his first feature-length film, based on a 17th century play:
I made The Changeling because I had simply grown tired of wanting to make a feature.

There had been many things keeping me from making one. I went through film school prior to the digital revolution, so it was much harder to just go out and make a feature when I graduated and moved to New York City. Instead, I started working in theater, which I could rehearse in my apartment and put up in small theaters and bars around town for practically no money.

During this time I developed a few film projects but had trouble finding the financing. I made short films in the meantime and started a film festival which is just about to enter its 9th year.

One day in 2005, after another grant rejection for an ambitious project I planned to shoot in various locations across Europe, Siberia, and the U.S., I decided that enough was enough. I realized that I would never make a feature unless I just went out and made one. I looked at the network I had developed during my years in theater and running a film festival and realized I had all the resources I needed. I decided to adapt a successful play, so I wouldn’t have to worry about creating a script that worked. I searched for one that was public domain and could be produced on a tiny budget, shot in my apartment if need be. I would then gather my group of actor friends, rehearse, and shoot.

The goal was simply to make a movie, to get something in the can that was feature-length. I’d pay for lunch and tape stock (remember tape stock?) but that would be it. It would be a down and dirty production that would highlight our strengths – solid, strong and intimate acting, and a long-standing working relationship that would allow us to work efficiently.

After much search I settled on Middleton and Rowley’s 1622 play The Changeling. I know that in hindsight choosing a minor Jacobean play with the original period language isn’t the way to ensure commercial success for a super low budget first film. But our goals were small, simply to make a movie, to work through the process of creating a feature film together. For this, the play was perfect.

We started rehearsing without a crew, location, or any funding in place. I expected these things would come together eventually. I just wanted to be doing something every day that would keep momentum moving so that at some point we wouldn’t be able to stop the process, that there would be no turning back.

It’s a long story, and most of it can be read on my production diary. Suffice it to say that the project grew much bigger than I could have imagined. We found an incredible director of photography who was naturally in tune with me and the project (the supremely talented Alan McIntyre Smith, we gained access to two beautiful locations for very little expense, and what originally was going to be a down-and-dirty modern adaptation to be shot in friends' apartments became a beautiful period piece. We raised $17,000 from private donors to get the film in the can, and eventually went on to secure a New York release, and receive reviews in the New York Times and Variety.

The resources we went into the film with turned out to work to our advantage. My previous relationship with the cast and our long, detailed rehearsal process meant that the actors were completely comfortable with their roles and each other so that they weren’t thrown when things came up on set. We never had to do a second take due to a performance issue. And this was necessary because we could only afford to shoot for six days! (I don’t recommend doing this by the way. Six days is just too short to shoot a feature.) And giving crew members a chance to step up their own departments on this movie meant that they gave their best work to the project. The cast and crew were the best production resources I could have hoped for.

The experience was transformative for many of us. It was my director of photography’s first feature as DP, my composer’s first movie, my sound designer’s first feature, and my leads' first feature leading roles. And ever since then I have no longer been uncomfortable about referring to myself as a “filmmaker” (although, yes, technically it was shot on video, not film).

The movie was a hard sell, as far as I can tell, due to the genre, the lack of famous actors, and the fact it was shot (albeit beautifully) on miniDV. It was rejected by every festival I applied to. And I applied to tons of them, big and small. But Ray Privett, the programmer of the Pioneer Theater (and who now runs his own distribution company, Cinema Purgatorio), saw the film when we had a private screening at his theater and he asked if he could release it for a New York run.

Outside of our New York run, we had limited attention in the U.S., but the play the movie is adapted from is quite well known in Europe and the other film versions aren’t very well regarded, so I routinely get requests for copies from England and Germany. And having successfully produced and directed a low budget feature, I’ve received offers to produce other films. I’ve also gone on to lecture about low budget filmmaking (you can see one such lecture, about my work on The Changeling, here.)

Since The Changeling, we’ve since gone on to shoot another feature, Spirit Cabinet which is now in post. You can read about that ridiculously short shoot here. And now we’re in pre-production on a low budget romantic comedy musical called The Adventures of Paul and Marian. We’re currently raising funds to get us through production via Kickstarter, so if you’d like to join the indie film revolution, please check us out!

So let this be a lesson to you – you too can make a feature if you make sure to cultivate a group of talent and give them a chance to do the work they normally don’t get to do. Don’t sit around waiting for someone else to make your dreams come true. No one is going to be as good at it as you are.

Questions about our work or making movies in general? Feel free to email me at jay@jaystern.com

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"Freaky Farley" and "Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas" by Charles Roxburgh

Freaky Farley:



Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas:



Our first indie-filmmaker story at TMAYM.com is a double-feature, with Charles Roxburgh from ShockMarathons.com describing the making of two DIY feature-length films.

Many thanks to Charles for kicking things off!
A gorgeous co-ed drapes herself onto a bed, seductively toying with her hair. Her partner on the twin bed in this cozy dorm room is a male student, a guy she considers a friend, but about whom she might be having stronger feelings of late.

“Why is it that you can always make me laugh,” she coos, gazing dreamily at the guy.

Our young man maintains his position on the edge of the bed, sitting ramrod straight, a bottle of liquor clutched tightly in his fist. He looks away, apparently quite nervous about the beautiful female’s advances. This young man is Radish. Yes, his name is Radish.

It’s the moment of truth for Radish. He suddenly speaks up. “I... I’ve gotta go do my inventory for the coach.” With that, he pops up from the bed, hurries out the door, and down the dorm hallway, giddy, sporting an odd smile.

Matt, Tom, and I jumped from the couch, cheering, hollering, questioning, theorizing, basically freaking out. What a great scene we’d just witnessed! Radish’s rebuffing the delightful girl’s advances and his subsequent weird joy is unexpected and oddly charming. And his name is Radish; how great is that! We rewind the film, partly to take notes, partly to ensure that such a curious little scene just graced a horror movie. Thus, Final Exam (1981) won us over. To this day, we even use the I’ve-got-to-go-do-inventory-for-the-coach-line in regular conversation. (Q: Want to come over and help me mow the grass? A: I would, but I've gotta go do inventory for the coach).

My name is Charles Roxburgh and I’d like to tell you a bit about the two movies my friends and I have made: Freaky Farley (2007) and Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas (2009). Matt Farley, Tom Scalzo, and I went to college together. We began enjoying VHS horror screenings while at school, and soon enough decided that we'd like to make some of our own.

Some quick facts about Freaky Farley and Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas:

–Both movies were shot on super 16mm film.

–Filming took place predominantly in New Hampshire.

–No outside producers or financing was involved. We scraped together what we could, on all fronts.

–The majority of our actors are non-professional. These are people doing it for the sheer joy of it. Or because we begged them incessantly.

Movies like Final Exam serve as a powerful inspiration to us. In fact, check out Monsters, Marriage and Murder in Manchvegas for a direct homage to Radish. Our character Vince–a sweep-up boy from the wrong side of the tracks, played by Kyle Kochan–uses the gotta-do-inventory line to cover his shy nature whilst in the arms of beautiful young lady, played by Sharon Scalzo. We love the unique character moments, the low budget can-do spirit, and the free-and-easy style that results from not being overproduced. Similar low-budget horror influences include: The Pit (1981), Rana: The Legend of Shadow Lake (1975), The Devil Master (1977), Fiend (1980), and Memorial Valley Massacre (1988). These are some entertaining movies! Regarding influences that I've experienced on my own, outside the Matt and Tom horror marathons (which we refer to as ShockMarathons), I'd cite Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and the TV shows Get a Life and Twin Peaks.

Seeing as we have such an affinity for late-1970's and early-1980's movies, it probably shouldn't come as a surprise that we appreciate motion picture film. Going into Freaky Farley, I knew full well that we'd have quite a hard time pulling off various locations, props, and costumes. But with film, at least we always had the organic texture we were after. Digital scratches, jitter, or artifacts...heck no! Our movie is rough around the edges, but so were our filming conditions, and so are our characters. Even if it's on a subconscious level, I think that super 16mm film, especially when coupled with a 1970's zoom lens like ours, helps to put the audience in the right mood to experience a quirky horror/comedy story like Freaky Farley.

Perhaps the hardest part of shooting on film was that our particular setup (Krasnogorsk K-3, modified for super 16mm) only afforded 100-ft rolls. Thus, after every three minutes of filming (actually less, when you consider all the slates and a bit of waste at the tail), I had to open up the camera, unload the used film, and load a fresh roll. This created some downtime, but not enough to be seriously detrimental to a day's shoot. That camera sure is noisy, though. Use a camera like this to film a feature at your own peril!

As a filmmaker, you're never going to have everything perfect. I humbly offer up this advice for any other filmmaker to consider, as I've come in contact with many people who've had a hard time getting a start on their own projects, due to waiting for everything to reach some near-impossible degree of perfection. I truly think that you just have to gather all your resources, pick a time in the near future that seems best, and roll with it. And once you start, don't stop. Momentum is everything when making a movie. When the actors and crew are excited about the project and you're making progress, don't let anything derail the team. On Manchvegas we had a main actress drop out two days before she was supposed to start filming. Farley and I dropped a character, rewrote any scenes that were affected, and promoted another actress to the vacant role. It worked out just fine.

If I had to pick our biggest hurdle so far, I'd say that the lack of a promotional budget is the hardest to overcome. All ad space costs money, so any filmmaker wishing to push his or her film must be extremely diligent and creative. For us, the ball is entirely in our court regarding getting the word out there. We continue to try our best.

Are you interested in checking out our films? I hope so! Freaky Farley is currently on Netflix, and Manchvegas should be back up there once Netflix re-orders some DVDs from us. Please save Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas to your queue to help convince Netflix to order more! In the meantime, the easiest place to check out Monsters, Marriage, and Murder in Manchvegas is on iTunes.

Our goal was to make two breezy, fun pictures that just might, if we got lucky, find a way into the hearts of a few viewers out there. Just as we were dazzled by Radish's giddy moods and curious actions in Final Exam, we hope that perhaps a few viewers will find a moment or two to remember in our films.

If you know anyone who's willing to give low-budget, essentially homemade, films a chance, please pass on the word about our movies. We'd really appreciate it!

Our website: shockmarathons.com

Find us on facebook.