The importance of a good sound mix!

My new narrative feature, BROKEN SIDE OF TIME, which premieres on Friday, June 28th at VisionFest in NYC (at the TriBeCa Cinema at 9:30PM), was my first film where I discovered the sheer joy and beauty of shooting with DSLRs.  In this case the Nikon D7000 and a bunch of old manual prime lenses.  It was also the first time I was in charge of recording my own sound…separately.  For that I had purchased a Zoom H4N.  A great little recorder.  I used my Audio Technica AT897 microphone, the same mic which recorded all of the COLOR ME OBSESSED sound, quite beautifully, I might add.  But after just a few hours of filming, we realized the mic was giving us truly low levels.  Not unusable.  But lower than they should have been.  After doing some overnight research, we discovered this very popular mic (along with a model by Rode) was mostly incompatible with the H4N.  I had a Sennheiser overnighted from B&H, and we moved on.

I bring this up because I was truly always worried about the scenes recorded with that old mic.  Specifically an 18 minute scene between Lynn Mancinelli’s Dolce and Audria Ayer’s Viral, which was honestly the main set piece in the film.  The sound was passable at best.  Really quiet in a not-so-quiet location.

Lynn Mancinelli and Audria Ayers in BROKEN SOUND OF TIME with Matt Gundy behind the boards at DuArt Film & Video
Lynn Mancinelli and Audria Ayers in BROKEN SOUND OF TIME with Matt Gundy behind the boards at DuArt Film & Video

Heading into the film’s sound mix last week, that scene was the one which worried me most.  I knew DuArt’s Matt Gundy was brilliant behind the boards.  He had mixed every one of my films since YOU ARE ALONE in 2005.  This would be my sixth feature mixed by Gundy.  But could he really work miracles?  Could all those notch filters and the infamous HissMaster 2000 give him god-like powers?

The answer, in a word, yes.  As much as I liked BROKEN SIDE OF TIME going into the mix, because of Matt Gundy’s ability to add plug-in-Woolite to all the background noise, and gently scub away the drek, watching the film now, I fucking love it.  Matt Gundy saved my film.  It sounds as clean and full as anything playing in the multiplex.  He added sound effects as subtle as a breath.  He mixed certain songs to sound as if they were coming from juke boxes, or even better, from juke boxes in another room.  He took out squeaks in the noisiest mattress every filmed.  He turned by $15,000 feature into a million dollar movie.

That is the difference a sound mix can make.

If you make a film, don’t scrimp on sound, and don’t forget the mix.  It can make the difference between sounding like a bad YouTube video, as so many mumblecore movies do, and a film that deserves an Oscar nom for best sound editing.

Matt Gundy is BROKEN SIDE OF TIME’s hero.  He has my eternal gratitude.

Skip film school. Make movies instead.

You want to be a filmmaker and you’re thinking about going to film school.  If I may offer bit of advice.  Don’t.

No, really.  Don’t even consider it.

Not for a second.

Look, the most important thing about making a film is your ability to tell a story.  And no school can really teach you that.  You either know how to tell a story or you don’t.  I truly believe that.  Great story-tellers are born, they are not mass-produced in school.

Sure, any good film school might be able to give you the tools, teach you about structure, etc., and so forth.  But a used copy of a Syd Field book, or “Save the Cat,” can do the same thing.  (Read it, see how it applies to films you love, and it’ll be as clear as daylight.)

Write dialog that sounds real.  Words that people would actually speak.  Listen to everyone around you.  Ride a bus or a subway, sit in coffee shops.  Listen to conversations while pretending to read a book.  You will quickly learn how people actually speak.  Use that knowledge.  Have a friend read your dialog out loud.  If they’re stumbling over words, change those words.  Be in love with the story you’re trying to tell, not the words on the page.

I recently read a number of interviews with film festival programmers and each one stated emphatically that story was more important than technique.  No one is going to care about seeing a magnificently shot film with a crap story.  But a great story that looks only mediocre will get people into the seats.  Have both and you might start developing an audience for your work.

So you have a story in mind, but how do you refine it?  How do you turn it into a film?  You start by watching the masters.

The Criterion edition of Godard’s “Breathless” with its hours of extras will teach you more than any pompous professor blowing smoke out his ass while trying to tell you why the film is so important.  Watch “Breathless,” watch all the extras, then watch it again, then again a few months later, while you work through a few of Godard’s other films like “Contempt” and “Vivre Sa Vie.”

Move onto Hitchcock, Chaplin, Fellini, and don’t skip Bresson.  Ask yourself what sort of film do you want to make?  (If it’s a documentary, begin with the entire Errol Morris canon, move onto Pennebaker, Maysles, and yes, Bresson again.  Skip Michael Moore.  We do not need another Michael Moore, which is something we can all wish Morgan Spurlock would learn.)

Now look, if you want to make big action films.  If McG is in your eyes our finest auteur, then stop reading this now.  Go to film school.  You’re an idiot.

But if you want to make great independent cinema, watch the films which brought that desire to life.  For me it was Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise,” which broke rules I didn’t even know existed.  Then when I returned to filmmaking in the early 2000’s, after a decade of writing books and scripts, it was Miller’s “Personal Velocity,” parts of which were so beautifully shot on no budget and with a Panasonic VDX100.

What is the film that made you want to be a filmmaker?  NEED to be a filmmaker?  If filmmaking is something you just think might be a cool career choice, but it’s not an urgent need.  Your life doesn’t depend on it.  Give up the dream now.  Become a brain surgeon. It’s easier and the pay is a lot better.  For me, I know how to tell stories.  Nothing else.  I would be lost and dead without the outlet.

But for those still reading, I’m serious, spending a year working through the entire Criterion collection is better than spending a year at film school.  And a lot cheaper.

Learn by watching, then put your own spin on it.  I loved what Errol Morris did with  “Fog Of War.”  One interviewee.  One point of view.  I so wanted to take that concept and turn it into a rock documentary.  But few rockers could sustain a film by themselves.  Most would have you putting the proverbial pistol to your head after twenty minutes.  Then the day of a “Color Me Obsessed” screening in Brussels, Belgium, I had breakfast with Grant Hart, co-founder of the legendary American punk band Hüsker Dü, and walked away from that meal knowing I had found my subject. “Every Everything:the music, life & times of Grant Hart” was born.

OK…so you have your concept, your script, your idea.  What next?

After all those DVD purchases, you have roughly $245,000 left from that $250,000 that you were about to piss away on a piece of paper that’s more-or-less worthless.


  1. Buy a good camera, one that you like and are comfortable with.  And no, I don’t mean blow your whole wad on a RED or something of that ilk.  Honestly I’d recommend a DSLR, either the Nikon D800 or the Canon 5D.  Both great cameras, that offer breathtaking quality.  Hold them, play with them, decide which rocks your world.  They will become like a lover, you will know their every nook and cranny, love or hate their every eccentricity, and revel at the way they see the world you put in front of them.  Now find some lenses you like.  I’m not a fan of zooms.  I prefer old manual primes, with a nice fast aperture, which you can usually find on ebay for under $500 a pop.  Get a 20mm, a 35mm, a 50mm, an 85mm and a 135mm.  (If you do prefer a zoom, make sure you get one with a fixed aperture, so if you want to shoot at f/2.8 when it’s wide, you still can when it’s zoomed in.)  Pick up a Zacuto Z-finder.  A few fast memory cards.  And get a good, but light tripod (Manfrotto is the place to start).  And for roughly $7K you’ve got a package that can shoot anything.  And yes, you can project it on a screen 60 feet wide, and the image will blow your mind.
  2. Sound.  Pick up a Zoom H4N, a great shotgun mic (make sure it’s compatible with your recorder), a boom pole, and a durable mic stand.  Complete: about $2K
  3. Lights.  Two Lowel Rifa’s (what you can do with these is amazing.) And one Arri 1K.  Four stands.  A Road Rags kits.  Extra bulbs.  Total: $2K to $3K.
  4. Throw in a few good cases (Porta Brace cases are amazing and will protect your gear even on flights), clamps, batteries, cables, extension cords, tape.  $2K
  5. Editing: Buy a souped-up Mac Pro.  Pick up a used copy of Final Cut Pro 7 (not Final Cut X…Final Cut X is a piece of amateur shit for which Apple should be ashamed), some 8TB G-Tech drives, at least two monitors.  Here we’re talking anywhere from $6K to $10K depending on the Mac you get.

But still, for $25K give or take, you’ve got yourself a freakin’ production company.  And that would have otherwise just covered housing for a year at NYU.

Now what? You ask.  Take that idea and shoot.  Make a film. That IS what you want to do right?  Don’t be one of those people who just talk about making films (y’know, like hipsters), actually make a fucking film.  Then make another.  And another.  Do at least one or two shorts first, before moving onto features.  You’ll learn much more from actually making a bunch of films than you ever will from sitting in a classroom.  You’ll learn from your own mistakes.  You’ll find your own ways to do things.  (Not your professor’s.)  You’ll learn how gear works, what it can and cannot do, better than you ever would from taking a school-owned camera out for a long weekend.  You’ll live and breathe your camera.  And you can work with the people you want to work with, not classmates, most of whom you can’t stand, and most of whom are there because they think filmmaking sounds like a cool thing to do.

But remember to keep your crews small.  Four or five people tops, and that includes you.  Anyone else is just wasting space and eating your food.  Get people who are not afraid to work.  Feed them well.  (I always go out of my way to treat my crews to great meals, and amazing coffee.)

Once the films are complete actually do something with them.  Submit them to film festivals everywhere.  But do your homework first (what did the fest show last year?).  Avoid first-year festivals, they are usually cluster-fucks (it does you no good if your film screens hours late, and in the wrong ratio).   Find good fest fits for your specific films.  WithoutABox is the place for that.  And DO NOT limit yourself to your home area.  If you just want to make films to show to your friends and locals, you’re not a filmmaker.  You make home movies.  Reconsider brain surgery.

So you want to be a production assistant…

I recently saw a post for something called the Production Assistant Bootcamp, where over four consecutive Saturdays you could learn to be a production assistant in film & tv.  For only $499.  And it made me laugh.  It made me a little angry about how people are always ripping off those who want to break into the business.  Because honestly, anyone can learn to be a good PA, if they have the passion for film (which can’t be taught) and can follow two simple words:


All the time.

Every freaking second.

Leave your phone in your car.  If I see you texting, talking, whatever, you’re going home.  The only call you should answer when you’re involved with one of my films, is mine (or one of my department heads).  And that would be when you’re on a run for something off set.


I never want to be calling a PA’s name.  I want them standing by watching for when I’m about to ask for something.  And I don’t care if I’m asking for you to run and get a cable, to get me a coffee, to go feed the parking meters, to find me my co-producer.  Whatever the task.  Do it with a smile.  You’re a PA.  You don’t want to be a PA forever.  And the fastest way to stop being a PA and get promoted is to be a fucking fantastic PA.

Don’t EVER question or complain, or say something stupid like “I fed the meters last time, can’t someone else do it.”  The answer would be yes, someone else can, because you’re going home.


Watch how the lead crew members behave.  See how they handle gear.  If a particular department (camera, set design, whatever) interests you, during lunch (LUNCH, or perhaps hitch a ride with them during a company move) ask that department head questions.  We all love talking about film.  And we all like people who are as passionate as we are.

The worst PAs I’ve ever had came from NYU Film School.  No joke.  They were above everything.  They knew it all.  The best were people who just really loved movies and wanted to work on a film set.

Don’t dilly-dally.  If I’m sending you across the street to Starbucks for two coffees, I don’t expect you to be gone an hour.  Treat everything as if you were rushing to the hospital because your best friend was about to die, and you want to say goodbye.  Every second counts on a film set.  Everything is URGENT!

Once again: PUT AWAY YOUR GODDAMN PHONE (before I take it from you and crush it under the heel of my Doc Martens. And yes, I will do that without missing a beat.)


Listen to what we call things, how we speak.  Every film set, every director has his own language.  If you have a brain, you’ll pick it up in a day.

And if we see you’re doing a great job, you will get more responsibility.  Though it means more work, it also means we trust you.  Cherish that opportunity, and ask if there’s even more you can do.

NEVER be late.  Arrive early, and don’t even think about leaving until the doors are being locked.

If you’re a guy, and I see you walking near a gal who’s carrying some huge case, and you don’t offer to carry it.  I will take you down in front of everyone.  I don’t mean to be sexist, but I want my male crew members to behave like gentlemen.  At least offer.  You’re a PA, when things are being moved your hands should never be empty.


Don’t talk.  The last thing I want to hear when trying to figure out a shot, or when I’m about to interview someone important, is mindless chatter.  If you’re talking, you’re not paying attention.  Do NOT give your opinion unless asked for it.  Never comment out loud about how a shot looks, how a line is read.  That’s not your job.  And NEVER NEVRER NEVER talk to the cast members. NEVER give an actor your opinion of their performance, or how they look.  This will get you physically thrown off any good director’s set.  Don’t flirt.  Don’t have a one-night-stand with the hunky lead actor, because tomorrow when he barely remembers your name it’s going to be a distraction to you.  And if you’re distracted you’re not paying attention.


A good attitude.  I don’t care if you drank too much last night and your head is about to explode.  I don’t care if you’re fighting with your boyfriend/girlfriend/parents.   That’s not my problem or fault.  Arrive on set smiling, and ready to work for the next 12 to 16 hours.  If you’re running in slow motion, or falling asleep in the corner, or crying on the phone, guess what…you’re not paying attention.

Those two simple words.  And yet you’d be shocked as to how many people fail at this job.  Perhaps their passion for film is not real, or not as deep as they might have thought.  Perhaps they’re just lazy.  Remember, short of a nuclear explosion across the street, the ONLY thing that matters is the film you’re making.

Oh,  and one last thing…

(pay attention)

There.  I just saved you $499.