I’m excited to bring you a guest article from Ron Judkins, a close friend and my producing partner on True Love, the feature I use as a case study in my No Budget Film School class. While this is a first for me, I hope to have more guest bloggers in the future.
I met Ron about 15 years ago when I was at Next Wave Films and he was finishing his feature directorial debut, The Hi-Line. Next Wave ultimately repped the film when it premiered in Dramatic Competition at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. Made for around $500k, this beautiful film went on to play many festivals and helped launch the career of then-unknown Rachael Leigh Cook. (Incidentally, it was shot by none other than Wally Pfister, whom we introduced to Chris Nolan in Park City when we were repping Chris’ film Following, which was playing at Slamdance that same year). Though The Hi-Line was Ron’s first feature as a director, it was by no means his first time on a film set. Ron is a two-time Academy Award winning production sound mixer and a four-time nominee. He has worked with filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson, Gus Van Sant, Alan Rudolf, Stephen Frears, Barry Levinson, and most notably Steven Spielberg. In fact, he has been with Spielberg on just about every one of his films over the last 20 years, including the upcoming Lincoln.
Ron is an incredibly knowledgeable guy and the insights he shares below about the making of his new film Neighbors ring very true to me. His experience represents an excellent example of Embracing Your Limitations, the first rule I teach in my class. I hope you enjoy this piece; I look forward to bringing you more guest pieces soon.
- Mark Stolaroff, No Budget Film School
NEIGHBORS WORKING TOGETHER
by Ron Judkins
I’ve worked in the “industry” for a good long while, mostly as a production sound mixer on movies that you may have heard of. I’ve even won some awards. But I’ve also enjoyed lurking on the fringes of the independent scene as well. I directed a movie called The Hi-Line that went to Sundance in 1999. Mark Stolaroff and I were business partners when he was formulating the ideas for his No Budget Film School, so I’m pretty familiar with what he’s up to.
And while all of the No Budget theories make perfect sense, in reality it’s often hard to make a movie and completely keep to the guidelines. Mark would probably be the first person to admit that. On every project it seems that there’s something that you want to do that causes you to break the rules. You either want a different look, a higher profile cast, more interesting locations, or something. And often that something either prevents the filmmaker from making the film, or otherwise creates a huge fly in the ointment during the process.
In the years since I made The Hi-Line, I’ve been in “development” on a variety of projects. I took a lot of meetings, weekly phone calls, and strategy sessions. But no films got made. So finally I decided to gather what resources I had to just go out and make a film. I asked my across-the-street neighbor Judy Korin, and my wife Jennifer Young (very close neighbor) to produce…Neighbors
Neighbors is a comedic drama about a middle-aged guy (Michael O’Keefe) who, with the help of his neighbors, faces down a mid-life crises to re-connect with both his creativity, and his marriage.
When I originally visualized the film, I wanted to set it in an upscale urban Los Angeles neighborhood. I was thinking Silverlake, or the Hollywood Hills. But the film had specific requirements in terms of locations. As it was written, we needed three houses in a row on the same side of the street that had sight lines and easy access to each other. That is a huge task to find when you have a very limited budget.
I wanted to make a classic “L.A.” movie with lots of light, windows, palm trees, and maybe a vista of the distant Pacific. We looked long and hard—canvassing the people that we knew, and the people that they knew. And lo and behold—we found it! One of Jennifer’s long time friends had a house in the Hollywood Hills that was perfect. He loved the script and agreed to let us film there. And across the ravine from him was another artistic couple that might be sympathetic to our cause. An introduction was made, and incredibly, the second couple was very open to having us shoot in their house as well. It really amazes me what opportunities can open up for you—if you only ask. Often we just don’t ask. But I was so excited! These locations were a dream come true.
But then we turned our attention to the logistics. While beautiful, the house had very limited parking. We would have to set up a shuttle. We weren’t sure how the other adjacent neighbors would react to us filming in the ravine. One was rumored to be “not sympathetic.” And then we couldn’t find a parking lot that was affordable—or even a side street with good parking. And because we were committed to working only twelve-hour days, we had to think about the time lost to parking and shuttling. With all of that, we would be lucky to be able to actually be shooting for ten hours a day. It seemed really difficult.
Judy and Jennifer kept gently suggesting, “Why don’t we just shoot it in our own houses?”
I was so resistant to that. I didn’t think it would work—well, I knew that it wouldn’t work in the way I had imagined. A big concern of mine was that I didn’t want the scope of the film to be reduced. Houses in our neighborhood are small, and I was concerned that the locations would feel confining and claustrophobic.
But we inched ever closer to our start date and everything started to cost more money than we had budgeted. So it really came down to the fact that there was no way we could pull it off if we tried to shoot up on the hill. And Judy and Jennifer brought up a good point (do you see a pattern here?!), that it was more than just a question of where to shoot the movie. That maybe there was an opportunity to involve our neighborhood in a very organic way as a kind of a partner in the making of the movie. And once I got off my position of the way I imagined the film, I began to understand what that could be. Wouldn’t it make sense to shoot a movie called Neighbors in our own neighborhood? We had so many resources there, but it wasn’t just about resources, it was about embracing a philosophy where so many other people in the neighborhood were able to come on board and collaborate on something that became very meaningful to them—for many different reasons.
We ended up shooting the bulk of the movie in Judy’s house. We were able to shoot in the house next door to hers, which had a guesthouse behind. It was such a fortuitous choice. When we needed to shoot a real-time Skype conversation in two locations simultaneously—our neighbors down the block let us shoot at their place. When we needed high-speed Internet in the guesthouse next to Judy’s, we just ran long Ethernet lines across the backyard. Our own house, across the street, became an additional location as well as the production office, the hair and makeup department, wardrobe, and actor’s greenroom. This was not without its awkward moments. Judy had to move out of her house for the duration of the shoot. When Jennifer and I had to vacate our bedroom so that it could be repainted, we had to sleep in the living room among the wardrobe racks. When hair and make up arrived an hour and a half early to start work, they were knocking on our front door. We were SO sleep deprived! Judy’s back yard was perfect for craft service and for catering. She kept the interior of her house set up the way we had it in the film, so that months later when we came back for pickups, the house was ready to go.
Looking at the film now, it’s not that light and airy send up of Los Angeles that I had first imagined. But there is an authenticity to the locations and to the look of the film that is pretty unique. It really is another side of Los Angeles.
So the no-budget filmmaking rule of “use what you have” really did work for us—and in ways which were exponentially more important and meaningful than just the savings in dollars. Because the fact is, when making films in this manner you HAVE to engage with and inspire some kind of community or larger group of people to aggregate the kinds of energy and resources to pull it off. For whatever reasons, people have to want to be involved with your film. Your currency becomes your goodwill and your integrity and how these both can manifest and take root in that community. It can be a community of three or four, or three hundred, but it is the combined energies of the individuals in that group that will allow you to make your project. In our case, when our filmmaking community was largely populated by our actual neighbors, the project really sprouted wings.
I don’t know what kind of film we would have if we had been able to shoot up on the hill. But I do know that by fostering win-win relationships close to where we live, we created an experience that was extraordinary. Very few times did I feel that our limited budget seriously affected the way we made the film. The only exception was our schedule. I really would’ve liked to be able to shoot a more relaxed schedule. And I have some ideas about that.
So the other day I told Jennifer, “Next time I want to make a movie with even less money.” I have some hunches about how to pull that off in an amazing way. Of course it has to be the right film, and the right people.
She rolled her eyes and told me to shut up!
To learn more about Neighbors and to watch some great videos about the making of the film, check out the current Kickstarter page at:
I go see a lot of films and I see many of them at festivals. In addition to attending Sundance and many local LA festivals every year, I’ve been to over 20 festivals in the last year with my film PIG. Often I’ll seek out what I think might be a no-budget film. Not only do I enjoy these films, I also teach no-budget filmmaking, and as I like to say, I’m as much a student of the art as a teacher. I like to stay abreast of what techniques filmmakers are applying, what tools they are using, and what results they are getting from the process. Often these filmmakers end up as guest speakers in my classes, and very often they are able to move up to the next level from the success of their no-budget feature, even if sometimes, that success is only moderate. [One of the guest speakers in my upcoming class, Michael Mohan, has done just so, moving up to make Save The Date, which premiered in Sundance this year, after premiering his feature debut, the no-budget One Too Many Mornings, in Sundance in 2010].
But just as often, I go see a film at a festival because I think I’ll like it, irrespective of budget. The interesting thing I’m noticing is that more and more, these films are also turning out to be no-budget films. There are probably several reasons why this is true, and you could start with the ongoing recession, the proliferation of low-cost tools, or the influx of people who want to become filmmakers and who will do whatever it takes to become one. But the bottom line is, no-budget filmmaking works. No-budget films stand proudly next to higher budget ones at many of the world’s great festivals. And the opposite is also true: many higher budget films are not getting into these same festivals. So, at least you can say that a high budget—and by association, name actors, high-end cameras, and perfect production values—are not necessarily necessary when it comes to be accepted into a festival these days. And for some festivals, like SXSW, which relish these scrappy films, you might even argue that slicker, higher-budget fare fares worse.
This is essentially why I continue to teach No Budget Film School. For talented, budding filmmakers who have not had a chance to prove their talent, no-budget filmmaking provides them an opportunity to launch their career and demonstrate to the world what they can do. For the rest, it allows us to develop our craft, or figure out that we’re not good at this yet—or ever—without pissing away our bank accounts, pissing on our credit ratings, or pissing off all our now-former friends and now-distant relatives. There’s nothing more disheartening than making an unsuccessful film for $100,000 or $200,000—one that doesn’t get into any major festivals—and then attending Sundance or LAFF and hearing in the Q&A how the filmmaker scrounged up $5,000 and a couple of friends and made the film you just watched.
I could regale you with many such stories, but it just so happens that the last three narrative features I’ve seen at film festivals were made in beautifully wonderful no-budget ways. Here’s a little taste of how they were done:
1.) THE OLIVIA EXPERIMENT. I went to see this little gem when it world premiered a couple of weeks ago at the Dances With Films Film Festival because the director, Sonja Schenk, a veteran reality TV show producer, (The Batchelor), was a student in one of my classes. I really didn’t know how she’d made the film before I sat down and was pretty sure as I was watching it, that she hadn’t heeded any of the lessons I teach in my classes and had gone ahead and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on it—it just looked that good, that expensive. I was happily surprised to find out that she shot the film in 13 days, shooting mostly on weekends, with a smallish crew (DP, gaffer, grip, 2 AC’s, 1 additional camera operator, sound mixer, and PA), with no filming permits, and on a couple of $600 Canon T2i’s (this is essentially a cheaper version of the popular Canon 7D DSLR). The cast was made up of eager, talented no-names, and much to my pleasant surprise, the Berkeley-set film was actually shot in and around the director’s neighborhood of Venice, CA.
Her apartment was one of the main locations. With her long-time connections, she was able to wrangle help in post—editor friends helped put the first cuts together until she had to finish the edit herself—and an experienced sound designer she found on Craigslist did an amazing job on the post sound. They were shut down by the Culver City police for shooting without a permit—something that wins you the No-Budget Badge Of Honor by me—and DP William MacCollum managed to make the whole thing look great with inexpensive cameras that anyone could afford to buy or borrow, a tiny crew, and nary a grip truck in site, often having only three or four lights to work with. Mistakes were made, as they often are on a film, but Sonja’s reality show experience taught her to keep moving forward, and that there’s often a way to improvise a solution to any problem.
2.) RED FLAG. Admittedly, I read a bit about how this film came together before I saw it earlier this week at the Los Angeles Film Festival. I read how writer/director/star Alex Karpovsky, who you probably now know from his terrific stint as the asshole friend of Marnie’s ex-boyfriend on Lena Dunham’s talked about HBO series Girls, shot the film while on a two week tour of an earlier film of his called Woodpecker. I actually saw Woodpecker at a festival in 2008 and was completely impressed, and I’ve seen Karpovsky in many other acting roles, notably in my friend Bryan Poyser’s no-budget Sundance feature Lovers Of Hate. Red Flag came about when Karpovsky was asked to tour Woodpecker through the South last year, right after a hurtful breakup. Knowing that he was going to have to spend hours in the car alone stewing about the broken relationship, he decided to bring along some friends and shoot a story roughly based on the actual incidents. So, the director is real—Karpovsky plays a director named Alex Karpovsky—and the tour is real—we see Karpovsky speaking to several real audiences, signing DVD’s, and staying at shitty hotels, (there’s a great running joke about trying in vain to get a late checkout).
Actors play his friends and ex-girlfriend, but there are many non-actors playing themselves. Most notably, the film was made with a crew of ONE. Adam Ginsberg, (who incidentally shot the terrific short that played before the film, Todd Sklar’s ‘92 Skybox Alonzo Mourning Rookie Card), was the DP and sound mixer, and that was the whole crew. Shot with the Canon 7D in mostly available light and using wireless lavalieres often to get the dialogue, the production values on both sides—sound and picture—are amazingly solid. For this kind of film, which is playing off the cruel honesty of the characters’ actions, these production values just need to be adequate, especially the visuals. The 7D can deliver a great look in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing, but give Ginsberg extra credit for getting such useable sound, which I would argue for a film like this, is much more important. Based on a 30 page outline, the improvised film was shot during the two-week tour for about 8 days, then Alex edited, then they shot for another 8 days or so many months later as he honed the story in the editing room. While he (or any of these filmmakers) refrained from disclosing the actual budget of the film, it doesn’t take an accountant to figure out that a film with one title card of crew members doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to make. You will probably be hearing more about this hilarious film as its creator’s star continues to rise this year.
3.) SATURDAY MORNING MASSACRE. I picked this film out of the catalog because of its irresistible premise: four somewhat bumbling young ghost hunters—well five, if you count the big dog they take along—are hired to check out a probably haunted house where a lot of bad stuff has happened over the years. If the group, who drive an old VW bus sound vaguely familiar, you’re starting to get the idea behind this no-budget, high-concept horror comedy. It’s set in 1994, so there’s no scarf, but there are a lot of acid tabs, so if you ever wondered what Shaggy was up to, here’s one interpretation. I never figured this one for a no-budget, and the whole time I was watching, I just assumed the film was made on a relatively large budget. All the production values were there. So I was shocked to find out that the amount of time it took between thinking they should make a movie set in an old house found by one of the producers and actually finishing principle photography was only 6 weeks!
The shoot itself was only 11 days. And yes, if you were wondering, it too was shot on a collection of Canon 7D’s and 5D’s, sometimes four cameras at once. It’s the classic one location shoot, though writer/director Spencer Parsons smartly opened the film up in the beginning, shooting in several smaller locations before settling in at their main location, an old Austin mansion that was up for sale, but with a ticking clock of availability. Parsons quickly wrote an outline that his actors improvised within, and put together a crew of friends and friends of friends and jumped right into shooting. It was all done so quickly that there was no time to log anything, and with multiple cameras, that meant that Parsons had to edit the film himself, since no one else would be able to identify where all the footage was supposed to go. With such a commercial premise, you have to wonder why someone would need to work this way, but remember, that’s not how this project came together. There was an opportunity, and the time limitation inspired a level of creativity that made it all happen, which included the Scooby-Doo-inspired idea.
In today’s incredibly difficult distribution environment, where digital platforms have turned dollars into pennies, the need to work on smaller budgets is more important than ever. Believe me folks, it’s hard to get $100,000 back on even a successful film. Better to let your limitations fuel your creativity and keep those debt collectors from calling.
Well, it has been a long journey since our last Film Radar Indie Blog post, but DISPATCH is finally getting its moment in the sun. To kick off our DVD and cable distribution deals, DISPATCH is having its World Premiere at the Hollywood Film Festival; Sunday, October 23 @ 7pm at the ArcLight Theater in Hollywood.
In the year-plus since we completed DISPATCH, I have become more a lawyer than a filmmaker. But that seems to be par for the course these days in the truly-independent film world. If you are lucky enough (as we are) to get distribution for your film, that comes with a lot of baggage- contracts, music cue-sheets, insurance, key art, dubs, closed captioning, etc. Tasks that the distributors used to handle are now the responsibility of the filmmakers. The tough part is that we also have to incur all the expenses for these ‘deliverables’ while receiving little to no up-front compensation. So the business model for truly-independent filmmakers appears to be completely inside out. The vendors are billing us as if we are a big studio or a distributor; the distributors are only interested in taking our product if we practically give it away. And right here in the middle, we stand as lawyer/filmmakers, paying to have our films shown.
For example, we prepared for shooting by paying to get a title search report and copyright report. But nobody informed us that there is a 30-90 day expiration on this report. By the time the film was done and we were ready to license it for distribution, we had to go back to the clearance company and get another report (for an additional fee). This is required so that we could take out an E&O insurance policy. We then were informed by the insurance company that we needed an ‘opinion letter’ to clear the title, because apparently there were some short films that had the same name as ours. So, for several hundred dollars more, we got an ‘opinion letter’.
We’re still waiting to hear if we need to do a new sound mix (for several thousand dollars) with the dialogue stripped out (M&E mix) in order to comply with the delivery requirements of a major cable network that is going to license our film.
Don’t get me wrong. I am excited about this and all the other positive response we are getting for our work. We have had some really notable people say wonderful things about the film. And in addition to this major cable network (which we will be announcing later this year), in the coming months, DISPATCH will also be available to buy on Amazon.com. Unfortunately, in order to get on Netfilx, we need to have an unspecified number of people saving us to their Netfilx Queue- if we can even get in their database in the first place.
I am able to say that it was worth the work. I just don’t know that I will ever do it this way again. Next time I will get as many name actors as I can at the lowest price possible… or just shoot it true guerilla-style on a couple of DSLRs… or BOTH! But somebody still has to show me how to get my film shown on decent platforms without spending untold months and money to complete all these ‘deliverables’.
For details about DISPATCH at the Hollywood Film Festival screening on Sunday, October 23, 2011, and to watch the trailer, etc., please visit www.DispatchFilm.com.
Hope you can make it.
In my efforts over the past few weeks to promote my upcoming No Budget Film School class, “The Art & Science of No-Budget Filmmaking,” I received a terse and somewhat disturbing email saying, “thanks for doing your part to destroy the film industry.” Now, I am not a revolutionary or an anarchist, no matter what anyone thinks (and even considering some of the heretical things I recommend in my classes and in my writing). If I was, I suppose I would revel in that kind of comment. Yes! Burn it! Burn it to the ground so we can rebuild it the way it should have always been! While I might have ideas of an idyllic film community and industry, I guess I’m too old to be idealistic and I’m not nearly as na?ve as I used to be. And frankly, I wasn’t even sure what this guy meant. I replied to his email, but he never responded. Now, if you asked me what was destroying the film industry, a class that’s held less than once a year for 100 or so hopeful filmmakers, where I do everything I can to prevent them from throwing away their money or going into crippling debt, would have to be way down on my list of what’s destroying the industry. I mean, there’s piracy, for one. Then I guess there’s big corporations who now own studios and run them more for shareholder returns than for creating the best kinds of cinema. There’s MBA’s trying to figure out what the next remake or sequel should be. There’s asshole producers, agents, and executives. Yeah, I think No Budget Film School is somewhere down there near the bottom.
Now, if I had to imagine what he meant, my guess is that he doesn’t like me telling people not to pay their crew, as if, folks walking into my class had a million dollars to pump up the industry and I convinced them to hold on to their money and not pay for anything. As you might expect, that is simply not the case. Most of the people who take my class want to be filmmakers, or are already filmmakers who want to continue to practice their craft, but have NO money to do that. So, the choice is either to not make a movie at all, or do something irresponsible and borrow money from their Friends and Relatives, (who, someone once said, ultimately become your Former Friends and your Now Distant Relatives, once you’ve lost all their money), or worse, put thousands on a credit card and ultimately ruin their financial health. I provide an alternative to not making a film and making a film irresponsibly, and hopefully along the way, show them how to make a better film than they would’ve before and have a more gratifying time doing it.
And as far as hiring people for no money, I’m assuming that everyone who is asked to work for free has the free will to say no if they want to. I never forced anyone to work for free on one of my films. In fact, in just about every case, those people were thrilled to get the job. For whatever their reasons were—lack of experience, new to the position, new to LA—they gladly joined the team, worked their butts off, made a lot of valuable connections, and then got paid on the next gig. They were also treated with respect, fed well, and rarely, if ever, worked beyond a 12 hour day. I recently ran into a guy who was an art intern on my last film, Pig. He had just moved to LA when we hired him (for free) and he did such an amazing job, we gave him an Art Director credit. When I ran into him he was working on Entourage making a whole hell of a lot more money than I ever did producing a film, (now to be honest, since I mostly make self-financed micro-budget features, that’s not saying anything, but the point is he was getting paid a lot now). If you asked him what he thought of his experience on Pig he would probably tell you how much he appreciated the opportunity. That’s certainly how it was when I worked for free all those years ago first as a PA, then as a 2nd AD, then as a 1st AD. I was learning the ropes and was happy someone trusted me enough to give me that shot.
And then let’s look at the economic benefit that many former no-budget filmmakers have provided to the industry. I have a slide in my class that lists several filmmakers that I either worked with at Next Wave Films or met at that time; the no-budget films they made initially; and then the studio films they’d made since. Most people don’t realize that filmmakers like Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace), Justin Lin (Fast Five), and Tim Story (Fantastic Four) started their careers directing no-budget films. I personally worked with Christopher Nolan on his first feature, the $12,000 gem, Following, (Next Wave gave Following finishing funds). He certainly didn’t pay anyone on that film. NO ONE. Now, what’s been the economic benefit for the industry since then with Mr. Nolan? The combined budgets of his films since Following total $1,011,000,000 (including the upcoming Superman and Dark Knight Rises). That’s a lot of film professionals put to work, earning a good salary, paying their mortgage, putting their kids through school, helping benefit the overall economy. And that’s not even talking about the gross revenues those films have made, supporting a whole other part of the film industry. So, good for the industry, good for the US economy. But where would those folks be if Chris had never made that first film on his own dimes? If he hadn’t been able to prove himself on that first film, who would have given him any money to make the challenging Memento, and then any of the other films he’s made? So, I guess if I wanted to, I could say that no-budget filmmaking, far from destroying the industry, is constantly reinvigorating it. All Hail No Budget Film School! The industry’s savior! (Pirates and assholes be damned!)
Ok, so if you want to take my class, here’s your chance. My popular “The Art & Science of No-Budget Filmmaking” is August 20-21, 2011, followed up by Tom Provost’s terrific “Cinema Language: The Art of Storytelling,” on August 27-28. For more information on what we’ll cover and my awesome guest speakers, and to register, please visit:
And, for being a loyal FilmRadar Blog reader, I’m offering a 20% discount to all of you. Just enter the discount code: FILMRADAR Register before Aug. 6th and take advantage of the Early Bird discount. And students with a valid ID save even more.
See you in August!
|Don’t get carried away with your camera|
In the past couple of weeks I’ve consulted with three different producers about their no-budget films and inevitably, the area we spent the most time discussing was camera selection. CAMERA SELECTION. Not acting. Not script or story. Not sound. Not locations. Camera. Now, I understand this. It’s logical, as cinema is the only art form where everything that happens has to go through this little lens before it becomes available to an audience. And on a set so much energy is concentrated around that piece of equipment and the person who lords over it—the DP. And of all the elements in a film, perhaps nothing changes faster than camera technology, and with that change comes uncertainty and questions.
And while I dutifully try to answer the question of which camera to use, my real answer is pretty much always, “Who cares?” Because ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what camera you use. It really doesn’t, and I have the films and my own experience to prove it. In all honesty, the camera you choose is probably the least important decision you can make with respect to how successful your film will be. In all my years of working at Next Wave Films, and all the thousands of films I looked at, our decision of which film to invest thousands of dollars in for finishing funds never came down to what camera was used. With all the important decisions to make on a film, and with the paucity of resources available to you on a no-budget film—both time and money—how your film looks with respect to this camera choice is nearly irrelevant compared to all the other things you need to get right—the things that people who make decisions that will impact your career really care about. The bottom line is, your film just needs to look good enough. The look needs to serve the story you’re telling, so if you’re telling an intimate character-driven story, (and odds are, if you’re working on a micro-budget, you’re telling an intimate something), then the look doesn’t need to rival Pirates of the Caribbean. Every single successful Mumblecore movie made over the past six years bears this out—and there have been a bunch of successful Mumblecore movies made over the last six years that have launched the careers of the filmmakers who made them.
|The homemade camera used on “Bellflower”|
I have other examples. I saw a film called Jellysmoke at the 2005 LA Film Festival. It was shot on 16mm and projected digitally and clearly wasn’t finished. The edits were rough, the sound wasn’t designed or mixed yet, and overall it looked like shit. But the film was compelling enough to win the $50,000 Target Filmmaker Award. At the 2000 LA Film Festival I was a producer on a documentary called Keep The River On Your Right. We were trying to finish our video-to-film transfer in time for the festival (there really wasn’t digital projection yet) and the only way to finish was to do a temp job on all but the first reel. Reel one looked terrific, reels two through five looked like crap, and there was even a blip in the last reel that threw the final 10 minutes a second or so out of sync. The result? We won the documentary grand jury prize at the festival. One of the most successful films I saw in the NEXT section at Sundance this year, Bellflower, which was shot for $5000 on a homemade camera and picked up for distribution by Oscilloscope, also had major issues with their picture. There was a whole scene where they cut back and forth between two shots and one of those shots had some kind of smudge all over the lens. A Hollywood studio film might not be able to survive mistakes like these, but smaller, scrappier independent films often can. It’s something I call Organic Evenness. As long as the production values are at an even par with each other, then the film won’t seem low-budget. As soon as one value far exceeds another, though, the rest of the values start to look cheap in comparison. Be aware of where your story and production fall in line and work accordingly.
You’ve heard this many times—the camera is a tool. (Sometimes, your DP is a tool, too). You need to pick the best tool for your specific job. In the no-budget world where a book-rate camera rental might make up 25% of your production budget and a particular format might add one or two extra people to your set that you may have to pay and will definitely have to feed, this decision is certainly important, but not for the reasons you’re thinking. Pick a camera that you can own or borrow (anytime you need it), one that’s easy enough for you to operate, (because there will be a pick-up or an insert that you will have to shoot yourself), one that’s been used by many filmmakers ahead of you (and hopefully a few you know personally), one that doesn’t have a workflow that will bog you down on the set or in post, and perhaps one that is small and inconspicuous, depending on the type of shooting you plan to do.
|New Sony ‘Super 35’ FS100|
Based on today’s technology and what’s readily available, I recommend an HD camera that shoots 24p to tapeless media, and that has XLR inputs for your professional mics. If shallow depth of field is important to your look, then I recommend the kind of large sensor found on a host of cameras, including the popular Canon DSRLs (5D, 7D, 60D, T3i) and the new full-featured video cameras by Panasonic (the AF-100) and Sony (the FS-100). There is plenty of information on the internet to help you decide among these different choices, but just remember, they will all do a terrific job. They all produce incredible images if used properly. Some offer enhancements that might be better suited for your particular project and some are ultimately a little easier to control and work with. But I can assure you that if all you had to work with was a free Canon 7D that a friend lent you, you’d be able to find a way to make a good looking film with it, (See Tiny Furniture, which was shot on the 7D with very little money and a tiny crew and was ultimately nominated for Best Cinematography at the 2011 Spirit Awards against much bigger films).
And that’s really the thing—making do. You’re going to have to “make do” all throughout the filmmaking process on a no-budget film. Successfully making do is what I call in my classes Embracing Your Limitations. To me, this is one of the key components to success on a micro-budget feature. The best no-budget filmmakers don’t suffer what they don’t have, they embrace their situations and not only learn to accept their lot, but also find advantages inherent in their particular circumstances. Embracing Your Limitations is a complicated and difficult idea (and one that I spend a good 45 minutes covering in my class—it’s that crucial), but I can tell you that it starts with this camera decision. If you’re sweating all the differences between the AF-100 and the FS-100, or can’t imagine shooting with any camera other than a RED because of everything you’ve heard about 4k and dynamic range, then you’re already starting off on the wrong foot psychologically to make your no-budget film. You’re not embracing your limitations, you’re trying for perfection. And perfection is not what you’re going to get on this film, nor is it critical in this area. No one is going to notice that dynamic range, especially on the standard def DVD you have to send to every film festival you submit to or on the less-than-perfect projection you’re going to encounter at every one of those festivals you get accepted to. What everyone will notice is how amazing your lead actress is and how incredibly powerful her story is.
You’re almost better off doing what filmmaker Zack Godshall did for his latest film Lord Byron, which was made for $700 and recently premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. While he’d shot with a Panasonic HVX-200 on his first Sundance feature, the excellent Low And Behold, he didn’t have access to that camera on this film and had no money to buy or rent anything else. What he had was an old Sony Z1u, which he owned and knew how to use (and he was his own DP on the shoot). This camera is not only HDV (breaking my tapeless “rule”), it’s also not 24p (breaking that “rule”). Almost no one would shoot a narrative film today on a non-24 frame camera, but when you decide you’re going to make an entire feature for less than $1000, starting with that camera decision puts you in the proper frame of mind to make all those other difficult decisions you’re going to have to make and accept all those other things you’re not going to get. And once you’re in that mode, the process begins to free you up to concentrate on what you do have—your actors (non-actors, in this case), your story, your locations (which were easily accessible for their 3-man crew and informed the story in a vital way). This is where you want to be for most no-budget projects. Let go of all that stuff that doesn’t ultimately matter and focus on the good stuff!
The secret to making a no-budget film is pretty simple really, and not much of a secret. If you make a no-nonsense resource assessment and build your project completely around those resources you already have available to you—if you write a script for ONLY what you have in props, vehicles, costumes, locations, etc.; if you cast actors and hire crew who will work for free; use borrowed or owned equipment; and so on, then your film doesn’t have to cost one penny. The devil, of course, is in the details, and what happens generally, even for the most diligent no-budget filmmakers, is there is something or someone that they really need or want and they don’t have access to it. For most of you, this is the situation you will be in with your no-budget projects. You’re going to need a little bit of cash to fund the Gap—the difference between what you already have and what you need.
Kickstarter, the relatively new internet platform designed to help artists raise money for their creative projects, might be just the solution to your cashflow needs. Like other crowdfunding sites, (Indiegogo is another popular one), the Kickstarter concept relies on contributors receiving something tangible for their donation. You provide various rewards at different funding levels. Your contributors are not investing in your project, so no worries about Blue Sky laws and other securities regulations; and your contributors are not donating per se and getting a tax deduction, so you don’t have to achieve non-profit status or necessarily find a fiscal sponsor, (though with Indiegogo, you can include this kind of approach).
I recently embarked on a Kickstarter campaign for my new film Pig, which is set to world premiere in London and Nashville next month. We’re finishing the film now and using Kickstarter to raise funds to help us complete it. I did an awful lot of research before launching my campaign and while my journey is far from over, I’ve gathered a few useful tips for any of you who might be contemplating a Kickstarter run. (You can check out my page here: http://kck.st/hILgAs)
1.) Kickstarter can really pay off. The conventional wisdom used to be that Kickstarter was only good for raising small amounts, start-up costs or finishing funds, amounts in the $10k-$20k range. First of all, if you’re a no-budget filmmaker, that can be your whole budget. Second, bigger amounts are being raised every day. Check out Kickstarter’s Hall of Fame.
2.) Kickstarter can be a bust. While some folks are raising over $100k, I’ve seen several struggle to raise even $3k. You have to know your own strength. Do you really know 100’s maybe 1000’s of people who will give you money? Is yours the type of project that will get passed all over the internet and funded by strangers, (like this Indiegogo Hava Nagila project)? Do you have the time and intestinal fortitude to mount a successful campaign? Set your fundraising goal conservatively and accordingly. Remember, it’s all or nothing.
3.) Kickstarter is a lot of work, and it’s not for the feint of heart, the lazy, or the easily discouraged. I thought my film was a mind fuck; Kickstarter is the biggest mind fuck there is! Some of your closest friends will ignore you. Others will give you hardly anything, even though you’ve always been there for them. People with money will not share it. These are universal constants in the world of fundraising. Still, others you don’t know at all will support you, and many folks will surprise you in a good way. Get your self esteem in it’s best possible shape before attempting. See #11 about the hard work.
4.) The conventional wisdom changes every day. In other words, there are really no rules. Every time there seems to be a rule or a principle to follow, a new project comes along and breaks that rule and succeeds fabulously. The bottom line is, it’s just too early in Kickstarter’s inception and things are developing too quickly for many hard and fast rules to take foot.
5.) Actually, there are some rules, at least I think there’s some, (and of course, that’s why I’m writing this). I’ve visited countless Kickstarter pages and have donated to around 14 or 15 projects so far on the two sites, and I’ve observed some good and bad practices. I will have more observations surely when this is all done.
6.) Make a video. There’s nothing less impressive than going to a Kickstarter page, where there is the option to post a pitch video, and there is nothing but a still image. Personally, it just makes me think you’re being lazy. But more than that, you’re missing a huge opportunity to reach out and grab your potential donors by the balls. I can tell you with certainty that some of the most successful campaigns were successful due in a big part to their videos. One of the most successful campaigns I know of, I Am I, which is being produced by a couple of friends of mine, raised well over $100k. Yes, they have celebrities in their film and yes, the filmmaker worked her butt off to get the word out and establish relationships with donors, but it’s no coincidence that this project also had one of the most creative and impressive videos I’ve seen on Kickstarter. The first thing I did after seeing it, (actually the second thing I did—the first thing I did was sigh at how much better their video was than the one I was going to make), was pass it along to friends. I’m certain that most people passed it along. The filmmakers reported that over 80% of their donations came from people they didn’t know! So make a video, put yourself in it, (no matter how bad you are on camera—see my video!), and be sincere. Talk directly to the camera, to your audience of potential donors. Don’t just run a trailer or a clip from your project. If you can come up with a clever idea or make it look great or blow people away in some other fashion, then great. But if not, then be yourself and tell your story. Scrappy, earnest videos go a long way on Kickstarter.
7.) Money is the third reason to do Kickstarter, not the first. You will get money from people you don’t know, which is why money isn’t the most important reason to launch a Kickstarter video. According to distribution strategist and crowdfunding expert Peter Broderick, the first reason to do Kickstarter is to get feedback on your project or on the way you talk about your project. If you’re about to spend $100k on a film that no one seems to give a shit about, you may want to re-evaluate that decision. The second reason to do Kickstarter is to build awareness for your project and to build a network of people who, as Peter says, want your project to succeed. I’ve heard many stories of Kickstarter supporters providing valuable resources to projects, going way beyond money. And what I’m discovering about Kickstarter specifically, is you can raise “stranger dollars” from the platform—money from people who just discovered you on the site. These are the best dollars because they represent folks who were moved by your material so much they gave you money to see it succeed. No arm twisting of friends and relatives; these are true fans.
8.) Have low donation levels, like $1 or $5, and put something really attractive at $20 or $25. Most people, even your bestest friends, are not necessarily going to give you a thousand dollars. The most popular level is around $20, so make it count. If people are thinking of giving at that level and you don’t offer anything good there, they’re going to give you less. On the flip side, if you have something great at $30 or $50, then they might be temped to jump up to get that prize. I know I’ve given more than I thought I would to get either a DVD or a t-shirt. And try to be creative with your rewards. Come up with stuff that relates to your film’s subject matter or is fun to talk about. Or if you can offer something of value that doesn’t take money out of your pocket, offer that. Maybe you’re a wedding videographer or a graphic designer. I’m offering free attendance to one of my weekend seminars and also free one-on-one consultations. Some of my favorite fun rewards were in the The Catechism Cataclysm project, (which didn’t have a video, but they were in the middle of shooting their film and people ran to their aid).
9.) Prime the pump before you really get the word out. Before you start blasting your link all over the internet, send it to a few very close friends and essentially tell them to donate to you, (rather than ask them to donate). You want to have some backers and some bucks before you start sending to people who know you less and might be doubtful about contributing. There’s nothing less impressive than clicking the link and seeing “1 Backer - $50 pledged of $100,000 goal.” Most people will just assume you’re never gonna make it and go about their business.
10.) Have an angel standing by. As I mentioned above, Kickstarter is all or nothing. If you only receive $14,500 pledged of a $15,000 goal by the deadline, you get nothing. Have a deep-pocketed angel investor standing by to drop in the needed bucks to make your goal. That might be your parents, that might be you. Yes, it will cost you 5% (that’s what Kickstarter charges for their service; there are also additional credit card fees), but it’s better than losing everything. Of course, the recommended form of action is to push your lists to jump in and save the campaign. That’s why there’s a time limit in the first place, to create the sense of urgency. Make this work for you rather than against you.
BONUS TIP 11.) Be prepared, be really prepared before you start. Start collecting names and email addresses of everyone you’ve ever known. Know how to speak to all the different groups of people you appeal to—you’ll speak to your best friends from high school differently than you would to your poor artist friends, or your parents’ friends. Spend the time to craft these different messages. Also, take the time to write personal emails to your best prospects, rather than include them in a mass email. And get on the phone if you need to, or visit people in person. I was able to do this when I went back home before launching. I showed my temp video to a number of friends for their feedback and those were the ones who came through with support first. Realize that it’s a war—you will win some battles and lose some, but the goal is to come out ahead in the end. You will probably have a flurry of activity at the beginning and ending of your campaign, and lag in the middle, so don’t let that lag discourage you.
That is my report so far. I hope to send a follow-up when the campaign is done to cover any additional points I learn along the way. Please feel free to email me if you have specific questions about doing this kind of thing. And visit my page as if you were a donor. What parts do you respond to and what parts leave you cold? What would you copy and what would you do differently? You might also visit the page for the project Lost To Love, from one of my former students. I think if you ask Stephen Les is this worth it, he’d say Yes. Kickstarter is hard work, but it’s valuable work, and it just might get your project off the ground.
|Your test screening…|
Many filmmakers are familiar with the Studios’ penchant for test-screening their films, and if you’re like a lot of independent filmmakers, you probably imagine a process whereby challenged studio execs with MBA’s rather than MFA’s, and without any knowledge of how to make a good film, use these screenings to pander to audiences silly enough to accept all those “come to a free screening” invitations from folks trolling Hollywood Blvd. A true artist has a singular vision and is not interested in making lowest common denominator entertainment for the masses of asses, right? For an independent filmmaker, these screenings are for the birds. Right? Wrong.
I can’t say with certainty how the studios use test screenings—for good or for evil. I have my opinions and I’ve certainly heard horror stories, but I’ve never worked for a studio and witnessed that process first-hand. I have, however, produced my own movies, ones that were meant to be artistically courageous, that attempted to cut new paths and that were for all intents and purposes “specialized audience” films. They were made with complete creative control and it was not incumbent on the filmmakers to bend to the will of financiers, and make the films more accessible in order to appeal to a broader marketplace.
Still, I have found the audience test screening to be an important, nay, crucial part of the post production process and this idea has been echoed by many other indie filmmakers working on films that we all love for their “independence,” not for their watered-down appeal. The Blair Witch Project filmmakers made drastic changes based on feedback screenings that made the film more unique and actually, much riskier. I attended a screening of Paranormal Activity where filmmaker Oren Peli described how his film went through some 50 test screenings in order to get things “right”—25 of them before Paramount became involved and another 25 afterwards. Several of these latter screenings were used to test notes given to them by the studio—most of those notes were bad for the film, something that was proven out in the screenings.
For independent filmmakers there is a right way and a wrong way to handle these screenings and it is through my personal experience—especially the experience of my current film Pig—that I have come up with this guide to effectively test screen your film during post.
SCALE. It’s important to note that your screenings do not have to be done on the scale of a studio screening. I’m not talking about renting a screening room and hiring a company to find a decent sampling of viewers. While you can certainly choose to do that, that method is expensive and not necessary if your goals are more about improving the film rather than testing a finished product’s viability in the marketplace.
GOALS. The kind of screening I’m talking about is used to test very specific things in your film. You may think your film is working one way, but after the months or years conceiving the project, the months prepping it, the weeks shooting it, and the months or years editing it, I can tell you, you’ve lost objectivity! How do people feel about your lead character; are they understanding what’s going on in the first act; do they need to completely understand what’s going on in the first act; is the middle too slow, too long; is the third act resolution happening too quickly; these are just a few examples of the things you might test in a screening. This process is generally NOT about testing the film’s popularity. You are more than likely making a film that by design is not supposed to be “popular.” Maybe your film is intended to piss everyone off. Is it doing what you think it’s doing? That’s what you’re trying to figure out. You should have some specific questions to ask and specific goals you want to achieve for each screening.
|...will probably look like this.|
WHO ATTENDS? Generally you want to invite your friends, (these are the only people you’re going to get anyway, right?), and then ask them to invite one or two folks who don’t know you or anything about the film. I think it’s a good idea to get as many people as your facility can hold, but generally, between 10 and 20 is a good number to shoot for. I like to have a diverse audience—a wide age range, evenly split male/female, multiple races, and varying movie tastes. Yes, if your film is like Old Joy and seemingly nothing happens, then you will have several folks who probably will not like it, but again, you are not necessarily testing if they like your film. You want to know, was it clear, after you cut the scene that explains the lead character’s motivation, why he went back to the house, or is it important that the audience knows why he went back to the house. To make sure you get your quorum, without over-exceeding your capacity, it needs to be clear whether or not those you invite are attending. You need to stress to them an RSVP is essential. It’s not, “yeah, I’ll try to be there, and I’ll see if I can bring someone.” They need to tell you for sure if they are coming and if they are bringing anyone. And you need to get the name and email address of everyone who attends, (have a sign-up sheet on a clipboard). These are potentially the first fans of your film, and if they like the film or at least liked you and enjoyed the experience, they can be useful champions later in the process. Despite everyone’s best intentions, there will always be no-shows, so it’s a good idea to over-book to get your number. Something I’ve also found—your film will always play better for a bigger audience.
WHERE? If you’re working on a low budget (like I am) and you plan to hold several of these throughout the editing process (like I do), you want to hold these screenings somewhere easy and cheap (read: FREE). I don’t rent a theater; I find a house or apartment that is conveniently located in town, with easy parking, and enough chairs and viewing space to hold the 10-20 people I mentioned above. This might be your place, (hopefully), or various homes of friends and family.
PRODUCTION VALUE. You will be holding the screenings before the film is finished, and importantly, before a number of elements have been added or refined in the cut. I’m referring to music, sound, color grading; or maybe you haven’t shot everything yet; or maybe you’re missing some special effects. It’s important to first give your audience the Caveat Speech, where you explain where the film is technically. But you have to remember that these are not “sophisticated” viewers who can easily look past glaring technical issues. And when I say that, I mean to say that really none of us are easily able to ignore these issues, especially on a cumulative basis. The way around this is to get certain aspects as close to “refined” as possible. If you plan to have music in a scene, you should drop in some temp music. If your audio backgrounds are so different under the dialogue of two different characters that you notice every time you cut between them—you “hear” the cuts—then you need to spend a day or two evening out that sound. You need to do a preliminary mix and you need to adjust color levels enough so that they don’t take the audience out of the film. With Pig we used title cards in place of scenes we hadn’t shot yet at first, but ultimately to get an idea of how that stuff was working, we had to shoot some temp footage and cut that in. (Turns out that once we had a chance to replace that footage in our pick-up shoot, we preferred the temp footage and now that’s what’s in the film.) Since you have probably shot in HD, I would screen an HD version of the film, rather than burn it to an SD DVD. We have been creating Quicktimes (that are in our camera original XDCAM format and are as high a quality as we can get) and running them out of a laptop using Final Cut Pro (rather than Quicktime Pro), into an HDTV through the HDMI input, (we have a DVI to HDMI cable). This has been really easy to do and the quality has been great. Make sure you have a good set of speakers so that your audio sounds good too, especially since your audio work isn’t done yet and your levels aren’t going to be perfect. Try to use the biggest screen you can find. Turn down the lights.
|Sample feedback form from “Pig”|
FORMS. Just like the big boys, you’ll to want to have forms for people to fill out once the screening is over. I everyone ahead of time that they will be watching the film and then immediately afterwards, before they break, they will fill out the forms, before discussing what they thought with anyone. The forms are anonymous and you need to make it clear that their candid opinion is what you seek. Sugar-coating something they didn’t like does no one any good. I print them out two-sided on card stock and provide pencils. A sample of a form I’ve used on Pig is here.
DISCUSSION. After everyone has filled out the form, you want to open it up for discussion. I don’t like to lead people too much at first—I’m more interested in seeing what kinds of issues come up naturally in the discussion. Certainly, though, I will have particular questions or issues that I need clarity on and ultimately I will ask a series of pre-determined questions. You should be asking questions here, not giving answers. If someone asks about a story point or a character’s motivation, it’s not your job to clarify, it’s your job to understand if the film is doing what it needs to do with regard to these issues. Ask that person what they thought was the character’s motivation. Are they giving you the answer you want? Was it distracting for that person not knowing? I’ve found that certain people can take over these sessions, while others who may have opposite opinions will sometimes remain silent, not interested in rocking the boat. You need to be aware of this dynamic. Don’t let the loud ones determine which way your film goes. Ask if someone has a different opinion. Check in with the silent ones for their thoughts. This is why it is so important to do forms before a discussion, when everyone is on equal footing and no one’s opinion is influenced by anyone else’s. You’ll often find that what’s been said and what’s been written conflict. So why do a discussion in the first place? The discussion gives breadth and richness to what’s been written and more importantly, opens up the forum to issues you may not have realized were issues. The form is necessarily reductive; the discussion is open-ended.
REFRESHMENTS. You want this to be a positive experience for everyone and it’s going to be a long evening, what with the gathering before the film starts, the running time of the film, and the discussion afterwards. Make sure to serve some kind of food and drinks—it could be as simple as cheese and crackers or pizza, or something more elaborate, but the goal is to provide something decent without spending too much money. One question that always comes up is whether or not to serve alcohol. I like the idea that these screenings are fun—a kind of party—but I don’t like alcohol served before the screening. Wine makes people sleepy and when your film ultimately screens at a film festival or in a theater, it is unlikely that your audience will have been drinking. You can always serve alcohol afterwards, and that might even spur a more candid discussion.
RESULTS. This might sound counter-intuitive, but you can’t put too much emphasis on your results, at least not in a statistical way. It’s easy to quantify the results you get from these screenings, but as any statistician will tell you, your non-random, woefully small sample is not going to give you quantitatively accurate results. This is not an election poll (which are often wrong anyway), but rather a subjective interpretation of what a particular audience thinks of your film. I’m telling you, interpreting the results can be very difficult. The more you can put a numerical value to certain questions, the greater the temptation to quantify. So, for instance, if your first question is “What was your reaction to the movie overall?” and your four choices are: Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor; then it is easy to give each response a number, (Excellent - 4; Good - 3; etc.), and then quantify what that audience thought of that version of the film by averaging out those numbers. You might compare that number with the overall number you get from the next screening, where you made a big change. If you lean too hard on these kinds of numbers, however, they may steer you wrong. There are all kinds of reasons why these numbers are not statistically sound. They may have value, but there are many other variables that in a small sample size will have greater affect, and so, you need to try to understand those variables as well as possible. And even though the forms are anonymous, I like to have an idea of whose form is whose. Since it’s not a perfect sample, if someone blasts the film or doesn’t like a particular element, it helps to know who they are. Maybe it’s your friend who hates it every time the guy gets the girl, (another reason to have the discussion—you can match forms to people). What I try to gain from both the cards and the discussion is the gestalt of the audience response and their opinion on specific items. In fact, many times I find the most valuable part of a screening isn’t from the cards or the discussion, it’s just what I feel while watching the film with that audience. You can really feel the room in most cases, and that can tell you everything you need to know. This is for sure—the experience of watching the film with an audience versus watching it by yourself is night and day.
HOW MANY? Do as many of these as you need. Make them easy enough to organize so you’re not sacrificing your film because it’s become a pain in the ass to put one on. Yes, it is work to arrange, but we’ve gotten ours down to a science, so that I can have one organized in just a few days. As you make changes, think of these screenings as a science experiment. In some cases you may need to test one single key change. You’ll want to keep all your other variables the same to accurately test that change, so don’t make three other lesser changes that may foul up your control. If you have a film like ours—a mystery where the third act reveal makes you reevaluate everything you’ve just seen—you’ll need to find fresh blood every time you screen. Have a pool of people you can call on readily available.
CONCLUSION. Don’t get down when these screenings don’t go the way you always hoped. I can tell you that the first screening you hold will not bowl them over. Have faith that the changes you make based on the feedback you get will improve the film. I can assure you, it will. And all the little things you do once you lock will also have an overall effect on the audience, things like post sound, original music, and color correction. If you can entertain an audience without all these things, then you’re in pretty good shape. Also, don’t let your ego get in the way—it’s not a reflection on you or your filmmaking ability to hold these screenings. You are going to be getting feedback on your film all along the way, and much of it may surprise you. Better to be surprised while you can still make changes and improve the film, not after 10 film festival rejections indicate there are problems.
Many of you may have additional tips or advice to pass on; please share those in the comment section!
|Chris Pine = HERO|
After seeing Tony Scott’s straightforward, yet thoroughly entertaining suspense/action film Unstoppable, I’m struck with how different the film would have been if one simple change had been made—if they had switched out the actor playing hero conductor Will Colson, (Chris Pine), with the actor playing bungling hostler Dewey, (Ethan Suplee). I’m not giving anything away to tell you that Pine, who was the epitome of 70’s macho in Bottle Shock and the epitome futuristic macho in the recent Star Trek, is a very attractive actor, and that Ethan Suplee is…not so much of one, (in fact, Suplee is kind of a schlub). I have to imagine, though, that since this film was “inspired by true events,” it is very likely that the real Will Colson could have looked much like schlubby Suplee.
|Ethan Suplee = SCHLUB|
And what about our other hero, engineer Frank Barnes, played by venerable (and handsome) actor Denzel Washington? Here, it’s a bit easier to swallow, since Washington is in his mid-50’s and has put on some useful “regular guy” lb’s. But still, did both his daughters have to be Playboy-hot? What was the point of that? And while it’s completely plausible that an attractive guy like Pine’s character would be married to an attractive woman like actress Jessy Schram, it’s nearly impossible to imagine that yardmaster character Connie Hooper’s real-life counterpart looked anything remotely like super-fine hottie Rosario Dawson.
So what’s going on here? Why is it we always have to see pretty people doing all the heavy lifting in these movies? Why are our heroes always so damned attractive? What does it say about us as a society? Anything useful? I wondered this as I started to contemplate Chris Pine and Ethan Suplee switching characters. Would I have enjoyed seeing Suplee save the day? Honestly?
Probably not so much.
It’s been a little more than a year, but I’m finally offering a new No Budget Film School class. Producing “Pig” has been a time-consuming endeavor, as is mounting a new class, and doing them both at the same time takes a lot of resolve!
Rather than offer my popular “Art & Science of No Budget Filmmaking” class, I’m going to be presenting an all-new class I’m calling “Cinema Language.” A departure from my traditional class, which focuses on how to make a film for no-money, Cinema Language is a class I’ve always wanted to teach. Too many times students take my classes with no real knowledge of the art of the motion picture. Yes, I offer tips on how to make their films better, (and I believe that the creative process is furthered by embracing the limitations that filmmakers naturally face when they make a film for little or no money), but I don’t teach how to use the creative tools of cinema to tell your story—how all the facets of the medium can be used to articulate what you want to “say” as a filmmaker. I learned a bit of this in film school and a little went a long way, but we were so caught up in the technical aspects that we didn’t get to concentrate on these very important tenets of filmmaking. The beauty of these powerful ideas is that they can be applied to any film at any budget. Even if you’re only spending $1000 on your film, you’re going to be pointing your camera at something. Wouldn’t you want to know how and when and where and why you’re doing it? If your understanding of cinema language before this class is the equivalent of “See Spot run,” then your grasp of the language afterwards will be, “To be or not to be.”
I don’t have the expertise to really teach this kind of class effectively, so I’ve found someone who does. My good friend Tom Provost is a popular instructor and an accomplished editor, writer, and director. He’s been teaching similar courses on film language for years all across the country, and he’s come up with new material for the morning session that I’m calling Course 103: “Mastering Film Grammar.” In it he will explore the colors, shots, shapes, symbols, lines, shadows, and sounds that prompt specific emotions and make up the extremely visual and aural art that is the motion picture. Over 100 clips and screen shots from various movies will be used to illustrate and illuminate. And just like in school, there’ll be homework, but the good kind. Attendees will be asked to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz before coming to class so those films can be explored in more depth.
In the afternoon Tom will be teaching Course 204: “From Script To Screen.” Here students will have the rare opportunity to see just how a film goes from the words on a page to the final motion picture on the screen. For homework students will read the first act of Tom’s new feature The Presence, (starring Academy Award winner Mira Sorvino), then we’ll watch the film in class, (which is an extra bonus, since the film won’t be out until early next year). A detailed and candid discussion will follow as Tom breaks down the process of getting from the written word to what audiences finally see. This insider’s look at the filmmaking process includes “what went wrong” and the typical compromises that every filmmaker has to face when making their film.
Perhaps even more than my usual classes, this day promises to be extremely entertaining, even to film-goers, like the folks typically found on Film Radar. That’s why I’m offering a special discount to my loyal readers. Just visit the event page and use the discount code FILMRADAR to get$25 off
the regular prices:
I hope to see many of you there!
As I complete post production on “Dispatch”, the independent feature film I directed, getting the word out has been uppermost in my mind. So I can’t tell you how thankful I am that Karie, the creator of Film Radar, has invited me to be a regular contributor to the Indie Producer Blog. I have been a huge fan of the site for many years and have always turned here when I have been in need of a fix of great cinema in LA. I can depend on Film Radar to point me in the right direction, especially when what’s in the multiplex won’t do.
“Dispatch” is the story of one night in the life of a Hollywood limousine dispatcher. He’s got to deal with crazy personalities of celebrities, publicists, agents and his own chauffeurs. It’s the night of a big premiere. And in addition to all that the dispatcher has to handle, at the start of the story he is served with divorce papers. Not a good night. “Dispatch” is set in Hollywood but it is anything but a typical Hollywood tale. It is the story of what can go wrong for a person with a dream in this town. And worse yet, a person with a dream who, at one time, HAD great success but has fallen on hard times.
We shot the film a little over a year ago and are just now nearing completion. It’s taken a little longer than I would have liked, but I have been finishing “Dispatch” while working full time as an editor (“Entourage” and “Community”). A lot of the other key people are juggling other films while working on “Dispatch”. But I am pleased with the progress and I look forward to revisiting this blog with regular updates.
In the meantime, I would love it if you visited our website at http://www.DispatchFilm.com
Thanks! More to come…
Now that the Lakers have finished the job and cleared out of downtown, it’s time to celebrate this town’s other great passion—Film! The Los Angeles Film Festival has moved comfortably into the Downtown space and will be screening films and hosting events until June 27th.
|Hooray For Downtown!|
You’ve probably heard of the big DIY Distribution symposium going on this weekend. If you’re not already burned out from this stuff, I highly recommend it, (and please refer to my earlier entry for more on what filmmakers should be doing with regard to marketing and selling their own movies). They’ve got some big-hitter guest speakers—including Jon Reiss, Lance Weiler, Ted Hope and Peter Broderick—but more than that, the format seems much more conducive to learning than the traditional panel format that Film Independent usually employs. And incredibly, the price is very reasonable for this kind of thing.
And now to the films! Like most festivals in the post-Sundance/SXSW/Tribeca/Cannes, pre-Telluride/Venice/Toronto part of the calendar, LAFF has wisely chosen to get out of the World Premiere game and concentrate on programming a wide variety of GOOD films from across the geographic, budget and genre spectrum. There’s literally something for everyone this year, from big-budget studio films (e.g., Despicable Me), Hollywood classics (You Can’t Take It With You), Cult Classics (The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai), and of course, the traditional sampling of World Cinema, Documentaries, and Indie Narrative Films. And while there are a few world premieres, you’re more likely to find the hit documentary from Sundance or the buzzed-about no-budget indie from SXSW screening here.
Here are a few of my personal recommendations:
- MONSTERS - this no-budget sci-fi film from British director Gareth Edwards looks really cool. There are studio-level visual f/x here even though the film was made on a shoestring and shot with a tiny crew on a prosumer camera
- DOWN TERRACE - another no-budget British film, reportedly shot in 8 days
- BITTER FEAST - former no-budget filmmaker Joe Maggio’s (Virgil Bliss) new film, produced by horror-meister Larry Fessenden
- COLD WEATHER - “Quiet City” director Aaron Katz’s new film. Was the talk of SXSW.
- THE TILLMAN STORY - when I worked at Next Wave Films, we gave finishing funds to director Amir Bar-Lev’s first feature “Fighter” and he’s an incredibly talented filmmaker. His doc on pro football star Pat Tillman, who died in Iraq from friendly fire, was a big hit at Sundance
- MARWENCOL - this doc, produced by perennial No Budget Film School guest speaker Matt Radecki, premiered at SXSW where it won Best Documentary. It has since won several more awards, including one at the recent Seattle Film Fest
- CYRUS - the Duplass Brothers new comedy is hilarious. You may not get in tonight, but it’s opening theatrically this weekend, so catch it at a theater near you. Really, it’s very funny.
- WAITING FOR SUPERMAN - Davis Guggenheim’s (An Inconvenient Truth) new doc about our country’s public education problems was the first film picked up at Sundance this year.
- AIN’T IN IT FOR MY HEALTH - Doc about The Band’s Levon Helm. For serious music fans, this one sounds like a winner.
- TINY FURNITURE - buzzed about feature from SXSW, where it won Best Narrative Feature
There are so many more to see, as well as special events (like a conversation with director Christopher Nolan) to attend, what are you waiting for? Get downtown!
The 6th Annual Hollyshorts Film Festival will take place August 5 - 12, 2010 in Hollywood. Over the next couple of months, they will be giving FilmRadar readers a behind the scenes glimpse of what goes into putting together a film festival.
HollyShorts interviews David Dean Bottrell
HollyShorts Judge 2007-2010
David Dean Bottrell co-wrote the screenplay for the 2001 Fox Searchlight release KINGDOM COME. A former off-Broadway playwright and sometime TV actor, he is probably best known these days for his reoccurring role as the creepy “Lincoln Meyer” on “Boston Legal.” Over the past twelve years, he has written scripts for Fox Searchlight, MTV Films, Paramount and Disney Feature Animation among others. His first short film, AVAILABLE MEN premiered in March 2006 at the HBO US Comedy Arts Festival and has since screened in over 130 film festivals, winning 17 “Best Short Film” awards. His weekly blog, PARTS AND LABOR (a serio-comic look at being middle-class in Hollywood) has quickly gained a dedicated following. www.partsandlabor.tv David just finished writing a musical for Fox Searchlight and is currently appearing in the underground sketch comedy hit, STREEP TEASE at the Bang Comedy Theater in Hollywood.
Discuss the adventure that was your short Available Men. What it was that brought you to the decision to create your own film?
The idea for “Available Men” came to me on one of the darkest days of my life. I had just gone through a major break-up. I was broke and felt like my career was basically over. Somehow, out of that despair, this idea for a little mistaken identity comedy bubbled up from my subconscious. As soon as I had the idea, I laughed out loud. I remember thinking “If this idea can make me laugh today, it must be good.” So, I decided to at least try to write it.
What roles did you play in the development of the project? What were some of the unique challenges and rewards of writing/directing/producing your own film vs. writing/acting for someone else?
I had never directed anything in my life, but I’d certainly seen it done—both beautifully and horribly. I managed to scrape together a miniscule budget and began begging favors from every human being I knew. Luckily for me, everybody liked the script and before I knew it, we were actually making the film. Directing, is on the one hand, a very fun job because you’re sort of “God.” Everyone is turning to you for answers and they pretty much have to do your bidding. On the other hand, it’s a tremendous amount of pressure. You get hit with a lot of gnarly decisions and sometime you just have to guess. You have to act confident, even when you’re not. And you can’t have a meltdown. Everybody’s looking to you to keep the film on track.
What impact did Available Men have on your career/life?
It totally changed my career. I had been sort of pigeon-holed after the success of KINGDOM COME and could only get work on African-American projects. Sort of ironic considering how “white” I am. The short got me a lot of attention and a new manager. I began to get jobs adapting books and for a while I was even in the running for a few directing jobs. On a personal level, it restored my confidence that I could write funny material. I had taken quite a beating in the studio system and had sort of lost my edge. The short gave it back to me. It was an invaluable lesson.
You created Available Men in 2006, in 2010 it seems more and more actors/writers/directors are looking to produce their own shorts, what advice might you have for others looking to create/promote their own short films.
Do it. That’s my advice in a nutshell. A short film may not necessarily advance your career, but the process of making one is going to teach you a hell of a lot. It will sharpen your skills. When you make a short, you’re the boss. If it’s a mess, you can’t blame anybody but yourself. Experience gives knowledge and knowledge builds confidence.
You are a judge at this year’s HollyShorts Short Film Festival, what will you be looking for in these shorts?
When I judge shorts, I pay particular attention to content. Film students often get obsessed with production value at the expense of engaging material. I personally like shorts that take the audience on a quick trip from point A to point B. That’s all that’s really required. I’m not fond of shorts where the filmmakers seem to be asleep at the wheel. It’s fine to tell a personal story, but you’ve got to remember that you’re making this for an audience that doesn’t live inside your head. I also really admire young filmmakers who know how to edit. It’s really tough to watch a one-joke movie that goes on for about ten minutes after the joke stopped being funny.
You’ve written both features and shorts - are there some less obvious differences between the short medium and the feature medium?
Features are very structured. You have to keep an audience engaged for 100 or more minutes and a layered story structure is the only way to do that. Shorts are different in that you are asking for a much smaller time commitment from them. That can free filmmakers to tell their stories in a more instinctual way.
Again, so many people look to create their own shorts for myriad reasons - what are some of the common pitfalls writers/directors/ fall into when creating shorts?
The biggest pitfall is usually the script. If writing is not your strong suit, then find somebody who can write and either let them write it for you or listen to their advice. No matter what the length or genre, all film is about story. Whatever kind of story you’re telling, make sure you start it in one place and end it in another. And I’m not talking about multiple locations! Even if your film has no dialogue, there needs to be some sort of clear struggle; some movement that creates a real change in your characters. If that doesn’t happen, your audience will walking out of the theater saying “What the hell was that about?” You don’t want that.
What are some of the best short films you’ve seen recently and why?
Since I don’t want to get into any trouble, I think I’ll pass on actually naming any specific titles. I’m just glad people are making them. I advise both my acting and writing students to make shorts, just for the experience of it. Oddly enough, I just gave a friend of mine notes on his short the other day, but happily they were minor. It was actually very good. Funny, but I just wrote a column back in January about my experience (and the aftermath) of making AVAILABLE MEN. If anybody’s interested, you can read it here: http://partsandlabor.blogspot.com/2010/01/i-recently-discovered-that-short-movie.html And you can watch the actual film at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Og-9HYAC-mk