I heard about Amateur Hour when I was asked to review it for Reel Zine (review to be posted soon).
Here, DC-based filmmaker Sam Moussavi shares his personal recollections of creating the film, his first feature. He titles his post "So you want to make an independent film?"
There were times during the twenty-two day shoot when I would ask myself: "What are you doing? What the hell kind of a life is this?" Directing a goat to walk up and down the sidewalk in downtown Washington, DC will bring about these reflective questions. But such is the life of an indie filmmaker.
Amateur Hour is the first feature length of Austere Films, Justin D'Agostino's (Producer) and my production company. We wrote the screenplay in February 2010 and somehow raised the budget by June, which set the table to actually shoot the thing in September.
It was shot on the Red One, with a single-camera setup and a total crew of about ten on a good day and five on a bad one. Ninety percent of the cast and cast were local from the Washington DC, Maryland and Virginia area. The film was shot in those same three states, with the majority of the "outdoor hangout" scenes being filmed at a National State Park in Virginia called Sky Meadows State Park. We wanted to take advantage of the idyllic scenery that the state park had to offer us, as a major portion of the film takes place at the crew's "outdoor hangout," in front the white shed, by the old picnic table with a cooler full of root beers.
The music in the film was a two-headed monster: during the "Dream Girl" sequences in front of the glowing jukebox, Thievery Corporation (Washington DC power DJ-duo) provided the soundtrack. While the rest of the film was scored by local DC composer and Jazz pianist named Thomas Nassif. On insanely short notice, Tom was able to put together a string quartet of music students from American University, and they in turn put together the soulful score of Amateur Hour. Along with live trumpet tracks that local musician Joe Brotherton provided, Tom put together an amazing musical ensemble that complemented the visual aspects of the film wonderfully. Working with Tom on the music, not just the style but philosophy behind the music, was one the most rewarding experiences for me during the entire process. The collaboration between director and composer is extremely important when talking about the tone and pacing of a film and Tom's work and dedication enhanced the film without a doubt.
Amateur Hour is (loosely) based on Justin's and my struggles raising money to make a film. Filmmakers worldwide are constantly dreaming up crazy ideas and schemes to fund their films. That is what we wanted to tap into with Amateur Hour. It conjures up memories of the classic heist genre, where a crew is formed of different misfits, who encounter both internal and external hurdles, while chasing a goal. It was also my intention to create a comedic film that does not have to rely on the vulgarity or shock value that most films contain today. The style of the film is cinéma vérité, very much in the tradition of the classic French films of the 60's.
When the concept on Amateur Hour was first conceived, it was our goal to create a piece of juxtaposition. Not only with the characters and their incongruous interactions, but also with the aesthetics of the piece. Here we have this comedic film with HEART, accompanied by a jazz score, that is shot South American-style, along with a running dream sequence and flash-forward sequence to boot. I don't like to pigeonhole the film into a certain genre; so that is why I call it a comedic film with heart. The heart lies in the true message of the film. The main character believes that it is not simply about "creating something," but that the thing you are creating must affect the world in a positive way. I hope that this message shines through to the audience, but you can never be sure.
As the director of a film, something interesting yet jarring happens when you bring a cast and crew together to shoot your film... you have to give up pieces of your film and share it with the other members of the crew. That was very difficult for me at first, because from the very beginning of the project, from writing to casting, I had complete control. It is quite the humbling experience. And I had to swallow some pride. Once I understood this dynamic, it made the shooting days much more pleasant. You also realize that every crew member's job is equally important, whether it is the sound guy, the runner who picks up the food for day or the person in charge of picking up the goat (his name is "Billy," and we borrowed him from a local wildlife sanctuary) for the final scene of the film. Now that the project is over and I've I taken a step back from it, I have a true appreciation for everybody who was involved in the project to bring it to life.
Making a feature is definitely a beast, and it is something that you cannot tip-toe into; you have to dive in head first and see where you end up. There are a tremendous number of emotions flowing through your mind and body and it doesn't help to dwell on any one of those emotions. The most important thing is to get everything you need for the day so that you can have something to cut that does justice to the screenplay in the end. Coincidentally, there is also this indescribable energy that percolates throughout the entire crew during principal photography. There is a family dynamic that invariably occurs with the cast and crew members spending twelve, sometimes fifteen hours a day with each other. Eating with each other, laughing with each other, arguing (as was the case a lot of the time for us) with each other. And yet in the end, it is all about reaching a singular goal: not killing one another along the way. That's what makes filmmaking equal parts invigorating and vexing; it's totally unpredictable. But when shooting is done, the family dissolves, and it is just you and the footage. You have to sift through all of the rubble that will eventually become your film. There's no magic. And there's no guarantee that you are going to get a chance to do it again. You go with what is in your mind and in your heart. And you live with the results.