Wednesday, April 27, 2011

"That Thing" by Fernando Gil

Fernando Gil of Boring Monkey Productions candidly describes making a no-budget movie without any expectation that it would be especially good:
Despite my rotten memory I remember the day I decided to actually write the script I've been itching to make a movie out of. Not the exact date, but during late December, while I was skipping out of the final exam of an English class I was going to fail anyway. I enjoyed going to that class mind you, but I was a few papers behind and I was going to eat that F anyway. Grew tired of the community college grind and decided while sitting on a park bench that cold winter morning that I was going to do something. Just do it. And I did, it was that impulsive decision that lead to two years of slowly piecing together a flick that would be called That Thing. Directing wasn't something I dreamed of when I was a kid, only in the year or two before that December morning did I start getting the urge to tell a story in that way. Should be easy, right? In retrospect it was probably a stupid idea, but hey, it got done.

I knew I would have no budget straight from the start, I've always been poor and I've never been one to ask for money. It felt ridiculous to have a budget or to even credit somebody as a producer, because anything that was paid for came out of my nearly empty pocket. Having no money probably freed us from trying to make a “good” movie. Didn't have to worry about being commercially viable, wasn't even planning to sell it. Was free to make a movie as I saw fit, good or bad. And I think that was the best way to go about it.

Wrote the script in a way that took advantage of the location I just happened to be born and raised in, out in the streets of the South Bronx, definitely added some character. Nearly all the scenes are during the day so we wouldn't need to spend as much time lighting and that worked out well. Made it so that nearly all the characters and their actors would only require one day's worth of shooting. Both a blessing and a curse because I didn't have to worry about people I wasn't paying flaking out, but it also meant I had to fill near two dozen roles, which resulted in using more non-acting friends than I would have liked. Even worse was scheduling all these people around their real jobs and lives, trying to get five or seven people to show up at the same place at the same time was never easy. Frustrating work outside of the actual movie making part. The reason the film took so long to make was because we only got to shoot a scene once every couple of weeks if we were lucky.

The experience felt like a hobby, a very frustrating hobby. I mean, once everyone was finally on set and we started rolling, it was bliss. Maybe that's the hind-sight talking but I hardly felt stressed when shooting, those were the fun times. Still kinda boggles my mind that I was able to gather that many folks together just to make something. Borrowed nearly everything outside of a tripod and the hard drive I cut the thing on, most of the budget went to lunch and the occasional prop or two. And about two years after that cold December morning there we were again, fighting the snow and shooting the last scene. And that was the easy part.

What came next was the editing of so many video tapes and coming to the realization that the movie I just made was not good, it didn't look good, didn't sound good. And that was something I had to accept, this was no Hollywood flick. From the beginning I knew I was not making a Hollywood movie, it's just a thing that was made in my spare time with the spare change that was in my pocket. Nonetheless, that realization hits hard, especially when you're on the fourth month of editing at nights while running on nothing but a can of leftover Dr Pepper because you're too broke to pay for food. When you hand someone a burned DVD with those two years of your life on it, it's hard not to tell them to look past the lack of a budget, you feel the movie can't speak for itself. Whether that's true or I'm being hard on myself, I'm not sure. Probably a little of both.

A hard lesson to learn, but probably the best way to learn it. By putting the feet to the fire, actually creating something and seeing it through from conception to completion, that experience offered wisdom that I couldn't gain from merely taking a class or reading some books, many lessons that would have been glossed over without the context. Those lessons, those words of advice I hear from other directors and such ring much more clearly now. I've been there and back.

“What now?” is the question I've been asking myself lately. The cost to make it was less than most folks who walk into a Best Buy spend on their 50-inch television set, and I'm proud that we actually made a movie for that much. No regrets. But sometimes it feels like a tree fell in the forest and nobody was around to hear it, I hope it doesn't just rot in the hard drive. It'll find it's way to the internet sooner or later, but will people watch? Probably not. If nothing else, at least I proved to myself that it could be done, as long as you have that burning desire to tell a story and you're stubborn enough to see it through to the end you can make a movie, education and upbringing be damned. That Thing is a small glimpse into the way my eyes saw the world. Now I just gotta take those lessons and make another. Made one already, the next one should be easy, right?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

"The Waterhole" by Nathan Cole

Nathan Cole, writer and co-producer of Reno, NV-based drama, The Waterhole, describes how his team used that rarity, a larger-than-expected budget.

His post is titled "The Film Budget Buffet":
The journey to getting our film The Waterhole made was a lengthy one, filled with false starts, long periods of waiting, and stress. Through it all there was only one certainty: there was always money to be spent. The cost to make a film is at the forefront of every producer’s mind, whether you’re a studio putting together a summer blockbuster or an indie filmmaker crowdfunding a micro-budget film. Reaffirming this is the fact that pretty much every filmmaker I have spoken to, aspiring or not, wants to know what our budget was. I know many independent filmmakers might disagree, but the budget affects most of the creative decisions we make. Money will not make a bad movie better, but it can make a good movie better.

The Waterhole was always conceived as a low budget film. How low of budget was never really known. At one time I thought it could be done for as low as ten grand, so when my co-producer, Daniel Menahem, came up with a sum far greater than that we thought we would have more than enough to make the film we envisioned with money left over. The reality we discovered is that if given the chance, there is no ceiling as to how much you can spend on a movie. Also, if you spend in one place, you will spend in another. A rising tide indeed floats all boats in a film budget… for the most part.

The one area where we were willing to spend money that we knew would directly affect the quality of the final product was on cast. The script is dialogue-heavy and character-driven. If the actors aren’t believable, the film is dead. We hired a casting director, Mark Tillman, a position we initially thought was a luxury (how hard is it to find actors in LA?), but it became evident early on that he would earn every penny we paid him. Mark was able to get us access to thousands of young actors in Los Angeles, carefully weeding out the ones that would not work and keeping those that had the talent to handle the script. Mark knew we weren’t interested in “names” but also kept in mind those actors that might be on the verge of breaking big. We had tons of casting sessions, which is a great way to get a feel of how different actors tackled the characters and to hear the dialogue read aloud. Mark also handled all the contracts and dealt with the managers and agents. All of which was incredibly helpful and time saving. Of course, the most important thing he accomplished was to get us our great cast.

Another position we hired that at first we were reluctant to spend money on was a line producer. If before we started you asked us what a line producer did, I would have not been able to tell you. Now I have no idea what we would have done without him. We met Michael Tarzian after he responded for a job posting. We had one conversation with him and realized how much we were in over our heads. Mike knew every last little detail of how to budget for and run a production. He was able to get a full crew, organize a reliable schedule and keep the whole operation running while not letting the spending get out of control.

This was not without a lot of back and forth from us as we tried to cut out line items from the budget that Mike fought to have put back in. For instance, anything we could do ourselves we did not want to pay for, such as location scouting and catering. It was a major pain, but we did those things ourselves. We did not think we needed a third AD, so we axed that position and were fine without it. One position we resisted at first was that of an art director. We thought that by shooting on location we would not need to dress sets or deal with props and what we did need we could manage ourselves. Mike persisted and we relented and allowed him to hire one single person to handle it all. Within one day the new art director had proved his worth by doing a great job transforming our locations into something unique. It was an eye opening experience.

The only problem was that by hiring only one person in the art department Daniel and I ended up in over our heads trying to keep up with the amount of work and constant attention needed to every seemingly insignificant detail. Making it worse is when we were needed elsewhere we struggled to move crew around to fill in for us. This was a lot of extra stress that could have inexpensively been avoided. At the end of the day having a good line producer let us experience making a film with, for the most part, a full crew. It could be argued that we could have achieved the same results without them. This might be true, but in terms of what we learned, having them was invaluable.

As we wrapped and headed into post-production, the decisions as to where we should spend money became harder to make. We shot so fast and dirty that the rough cut was a bit of a nightmare to watch. It didn’t take long to realize we needed to spend a lot more than we had left in the budget. The audio had issues and the cinematography, although fantastic, was too dark to be viewed in all but the most perfectly calibrated monitors. Despite our post house’s best efforts to deliver us a polished product it just wasn’t working. We needed more money to do a better color correction, clean up the audio, and do some ADR with the actors. In addition, we had to license several songs that were needed to enhance the tone of the movie. We had hired a great composer, whose cues really do a great job heightening the emotion of key scenes, but there was much more that we needed to prevent a film that takes place in a bar from getting too quiet. In the end we had to make sacrifices and were unable to bring the actors back into ADR and if I were to be nitpicky, the sound in some scenes is one of the areas we failed to completely make the production work.

The money you have to spend will almost always affect the choices you make and sometimes it will make them for you. On a low budget film you stretch that money as far as it can go, sometimes making artistic sacrifices, sometimes asking your crew to make sacrifices. You need to know your strengths and weaknesses and adjust as needed. You need to take care of the crew that are working for low rates and asked to do more than they normally would be required to do. Most of all you need to stay true to your vision. This is a very difficult balancing act. When people ask for advice I am usually at a loss. There is so much to tell, yet so little that may be of any use to any one filmmaker. Every experience will be different, and there is no right way to make a movie.

Monday, April 11, 2011

"Amateur Hour" by Sam Moussavi

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.

Monday, April 4, 2011

"Cost of the Living: a Zom Rom Com" by Daniel Lee White

Rhode Island-based filmmaker Daniel Lee White is now in post-production of his first feature film, and he titles his post here about it, "Zombies Movies Are Not As Easy As They Look":
I will start with my “What if...” as all good movies should start. “What if it is 40 years past the zombie apocalypse and humans and zombies have now learned to coexist?” This is the idea I had for my film almost 7 years ago--a Zombie Romantic Comedy (or Zom Rom Com for short) where we see a love story in a world where zombies are an every day part of life. I am also a fan of a film that has something to say, so I added issues of same-sex marriage, migrant workers and references to abortion and euthanasia. All of these pieces helped to create a solid story and characters the audience can fall in love with.

I began my journey as a filmmaker making a series of short films on related subjects. Many of these films were part of competitions. Although fun, these films were primarily giving me a chance to try things out and find the styles that worked for me. I got to try long-shots, musicals and even a movie shot in one continuous take. I got to work with an array of talented actors from all over New England. Finally I decided in 2009 that I was ready to do it--I was ready to take on my first feature film, and in my mind, a Zom Rom Com was just the place to start.

Writing began in the summer of 2009, and we had it finished by October. As I am a child who came from no money, we began fundraising in November of 2009, hoping to reach our goal and begin filming by April. But a bad economy and a natural disaster fund really made it harder to fundraise.

By May of 2010, thanks to many very generous donors, we had raised enough to begin shooting my first feature film. I put together an awesome collection of talented crew and hard working actors. We began shooting in June, took a break in July and resumed in August, filming all of the way until November 12th 2010. Along the way, we also shot promotional material and teasers for the film to help the film succeed.

It was not an easy process, and I will admit that attempting to produce and direct at the same time was almost more difficult than I could handle. This was a tough shooting schedule because of the locations and attempting to get all of the actors in the right place at the right time while working around their busy schedules. Makeup was tough and we had trouble with crew due to the economy--finding free available help became almost impossible. Despite all of the hurdles, there were some great times too. We had a blast filming, got to meet some great people and pulled off some amazing scenes. Not only that, but we shot a really cool music video that will be shown during the credits of the film.

Now almost two years from the start of the process, Cost of the Living: A Zom Rom Com is being edited and will hopefully be complete and screened August of this year. The film has really come together and is a work I am very proud of. I feel this is a great way for me to begin directing feature films, a dream of mine since I was a child.

Please feel free to visit the website for the film: and please donate to help us with post production and festival submission costs. On the site you can see the cast, crew and trailer for the film. Hope to see you at the premiere!