Sometimes things just come together perfectly.  A year ago, in February, I brought together a group of six extremely talented young women to make a music video for a song on the about-to-be-released Matt Ryan record. Everything about “(I Just Died) Like An Aviator” rocked.  It’s one of my favorite shoots, one of my favorite videos. You can watch it here.

Then, last Wednesday, I read that Matt would soon be releasing an unadorned acoustic version of the same album.  He sent me a copy, and I immediately turned on the acoustic “Aviator” and before the song was over I knew what I had to do.

The texting began. I started with my Matt Ryan-impersonator Chloe Barczak as she would have to carry so much of the idea I had in my head.  She was in.  Then co-producer Charlotte Beatty to handle the organization.  And the first video’s guitarist Carina Begley, as the guitar was (except for a few piano notes at the very end) the lone instrument.  An acoustic version of the same team, so to speak.

Then I told Matt we were again making a music video of “Aviator.”  He never even asked what we were planning, and instead got American Songwriter Magazine to agree to premiere the video sight unseen.  He sent me the chords and even a video for Carina on how to play a few of the guitar parts.

By Friday of last week we had a schedule and a location.  The same location as the original video.  We all met at 8:45 AM on Sunday, loaded up my Jeep with almost all of my gear, and drove the two tenths of a mile to the home of Dean and Shellye.

As Carina got used to the feel of my Martin acoustic, Charlotte and Chloe helped me set up lights and camera.  By 10:30 we were filming, buzzing from a lot of Willoughby’s coffee, Coke-a-Cola, and salted-caramel Orangeside Donuts.

But this time around Chloe and Carina had their work cut out for them.  My concept was to present the video in one long take.  No cuts.  Just a perfect performance and some precise rack focusing. No sweat.

We worked on blocking the first half dozen times through, as Chloe worked on her emotional delivery.  She felt this version of the song was really sad.  Desperate.  Depressing even.  Both Charlotte and Carina agreed.  I was not about to argue.

We got the blocking just right, the lighting perfect.  And by the twelfth take I started noticing tears in Chloe’s eyes.  That was when I knew we had something special.  We knocked off one take after another, with barely a pause between, and she nailed it.  Take sixteen was fucking brilliant.  Take eighteen was perfect.  We did a few more.  I had a B-camera rolling just in case my impossible one-shot idea would not work.  And after the twenty-fourth take we wrapped.

I got home around 1:30 PM.  I copied the footage onto a drive as I put away the gear.  Then I started editing, going back and forth between takes 16, 18, 12 and 24…but ultimately the fucking brilliant won out.  It would be take 16.  I added titles, the slightest color correction, some film grain, and I exported the timeline.  By 4:30 PM I texted Matt, Chloe, Charlotte, and Carina a private viewing link for the video.

This is what Matt Ryan wrote to me after seeing it for the first time: “My god she’s killing me. I seriously have tears in my eyes.  I love it.  Breaks my heart.  It’s beautiful  Please tell them I love it.  Thank you for thinking to do this.”

His appreciation was appreciated.

Matt stripped down a beautiful song, and allowed us to do the same to the original video.  But this video is unadorned in other ways as well: void of ego, attitudes, rude people (unlike most of the rest of my past few weeks, hell, unlike most of the world we live in). It was just four people working together, all doing what they need to do, having fun doing it, turning a beautiful song in a visual work of art.

Thank you to Chloe, Charlotte, and Carina, my brilliant cohorts on this project. Thank you to Dean and Shellye for again letting us invade their home.  Thank you to Matt Ryan and American Songwriter for the blind trust.

And here it is:  American Songwriter Magazine

Sometimes things just come together perfectly.

The Black & White Rules of Indie Filmmaking – part 12

12. The Sound Mix

I can’t really explain it but the mix is one of my favorite parts of the entire process. Four films in a row, beginning with YOU ARE ALONE, and up to and including WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? just a few weeks ago, I’ve done my mix at DuArt in NYC, with Matt Gundy behind the boards, manning what we jokingly (lovingly?) call the HissMaster3000. I love mixing at DuArt. (So much so that I’m pretty sure my dedication to them was one of the reasons a producer who was trying to raise millions to help me turn my first novel THE SECOND GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD into a feature walked away from the project. He said there were better places to mix. I explained DuArt had been good to me when I had no budget, and that when I finally had some money to spend, they would be getting it. We never spoke again.) It’s an old school film house that has always supported independent filmmakers. I support them back. (Yes, I am as loyal as I am difficult.)

The mix is pretty much the last step for me. Adrian Correia, the only DP I’ll work with, has already done the color correct. Please . . . if your DP worked with you, as opposed to against you (see an earlier post), let him/her color correct your film. Or at least sit in on color correction. He knew how he lit the film, and how it should look. If you don’t, you’re back in douche-ville. I trust Adrian implicitly. And usually let him have his way with the color controls.

Back to the mix. It’s like the final dressing. The audio buzz behind someone’s dialog, or the man handling of the boom poll, the horn beeping, it can all somehow disappear when you’ve got a master controlling the knobs.

Take COLOR ME OBSESSED, we ended up using about 125 interviews. That’s 125 different locations with issues ranging from street noise to air conditioning compressors. Or me going “um-huh” 500 times. (I’ve since learned to control that.) Matt Gundy makes it all disappear. Listen to the film. It has a beautiful even tone. Even when rapidly cutting from one location to the next. And this is without any score to help cover up the issues. Matt had all of 4 days to mix 123 minutes. He made it seem easy. (Though at one point Dave Foley did crash the HM3000. If you go back to the Making of Color Me Obsessed series on this very blog you can read much more about mixing.)

Make sure you put aside some cash for the mix. It will be the difference between your film sounding like some amateur YouTube video and a professional feature film. No joke. The difference will be astounding, and well worth the investment.

For WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? which really only had about 20 minutes of interviews (the music which had been mixed and produced by Brian Paulson was perfect as is), I could have easily pulled some crowd sounds lightly under the talking. Hell, the talking sounded pretty damn good as it was. I’d learned a lot since Color Me Obsessed. But still, I spent a half day at DuArt just so the film could get the Gundy touch, and it was completely worth it.

If you love your film, finish it correctly. Dress it up appropriately. It’ll love you back for it.

Next up: film festivals

My filmography.

The Black & White Rules of Indie Filmmaking – part 11

11. Editing-part 3

As I said in an earlier post: get the best sound you can when filming, because you won’t have the money for ADR, and even if you do, your actors probably won’t be very good at it.

When editing, make sure to checker-board your sound tracks. It’ll make your life a lot easier when it comes time to mix. Don’t go nuts trying to clean up background sounds and such, because your mixer will most likely start over from scratch. Keep effects to the bare essentials, play with volume, fade in and out. That’s in. Unless you’re a ProTools genius. In that case you probably won’t need a mix. But since I’ve never met a filmmaker who really understood sound, I doubt that’s a possibility.

As for music. First off, if you don’t have the rights to a song, DO NOT USE IT. It makes you a douche. Plain and simple, it’s stealing. And no, on your micro budget film you are never getting the rights to that Rolling Stones classic. No, someone in their camp is not going to read your script and realize they have to give you their song. That is not going to happen. That song is going to cost you $25,000, or more. And on any low budget film, it’s not worth it. (Really, you should be making music videos instead.)

And if you think you can get away with the version recorded by your brother’s band. Wrong. You still need publishing rights. That’s right, you need both publishing rights (basically, from the person who wrote the song) and master sync rights (from the person who owns the actual recording, usually the record label) for every song in your film.

Now, let’s say someone from the Rolling Stones camp actually returns your call. They are probably going to offer you something called “Festival Rights.” Do not EVER buy festival rights for a song. It’s one of the biggest rip-off in the film business.

First off, you don’t need them. No festivals check on whether or not you have clearances for the songs in your film. No one is coming after you, as you made no money from the festival screening. However, personally, as a filmmaker who always gets the rights to everything in his films, it pisses me off when a filmmaker submits a film that can never be released because he’ll never get the rights. It’s lazy, bullshit, filmmaking. It’s makes you a piece of shit in my eyes. You’re a thief. And I’ll have no problem confronting you at a festival. Or calling you out on it on a panel. (Seriously, that would be like someone just copying your film and submitting it as theirs. Might piss you off right?)

Secondly, if you were stupid enough to buy festival rights, and then lucky enough to sell your film, pretty much whatever you sell your film for is going to be the asking price for those songs you never bothered acquiring all rights to. That’s right, all the money you just made is going to music rights.

Feel like an idiot? You should.

And you now why. There are so many truly amazing indie bands out there, in the same boat as we are. Independent artists just wanting to be heard. And one of them will have a song that’s perfect for your film. Many of them will. And they will be more than happy to sell you non-exclusive rights to it for something you can afford. A hundred bucks, and maybe a ¼ of one percent of backend. Be creative. It can work. And you’ll be helping a fellow indie artist.

Look at the soundtracks to either YOU ARE ALONE or FRIENDS (WITH BENEFITS) and you’ll hear over 30 gorgeous tracks from a variety of amazing bands from Crooked Fingers to Matthew Ryan, the Wrens, Sarge, Phosphorescent. Every one of them indie. In every case I negotiated with the artist. In every case it was something I could afford.

It’s something you can afford. Film within your means. Wanting a Rolling Stones song (and obviously I’m just using them as an example, but any major artist would charge similar fees, from Beyonce to the Shins, all the same) is the same as wanting to film a car crash on your $25K budget. It just make you look as if you haven’t a clue. Because, well, you don’t. (Correct, the Shins are not indie. I’m talking someone who releases their own music, on their own, or a very small label.)

You’re indie. Support indie. Don’t be a douche filmmaker.

Next up: the mix

My filmography.

The Black & White Rules of Indie Filmmaking – part 10

10. Editing-part 2

Another example from FRIENDS (WITH BENEFITS):

After putting together the assembly of the film, which is basically every scene we filmed in order, as in the script, I realized the while the script was surely focused on the love story between Chloe and Owen, the film itself had lost focus. Chloe and Owen’s story became lost in the friendships and sexual games played by their four friends: Brad, Shirley, Jeff, and Alison. They were funnier, kinkier, they stole the show. The movie was more AMERICAN PIE-like in this incarnation.

So I needed to reel it back in. Or go with this new take. I stuck with the former. The story I wanted to tell was Chloe’s and Owen’s. Everything that truly moved me about the film played into that. From their beautiful prom scene dance to the improvised kiss atop East Rock Park, to Owen’s naked seranade. Their love story was my story.

So I started chipping away at scenes involving just their other four friends, removing a lot of dialog that didn’t somehow relate to Chloe and Owen. Sure, I kept in the funny bits. Laughs are hard to come by, and there was no way I’d ever cut some of the gems delivered by the characters of Brad, Shirley, Alison, and Jeff. But a lot of extra dialog, and a few smaller subplots, fell by the wayside.

I was brutal. I always am when cutting. I once cut over a hundred, fifty pages from a novel. And if you know how long it takes to write a hundred, fifty manuscript pages, you’ll understand what it’s like to cut. I used the film’s therapy sessions to cut into longer scenes, allowing me to chop out their middles, much as I did with Brad’s List.

Then I discovered that split screens would work beautifully for the pace of this film. While we were watching Brad and Shirley on one side, why not also watch Jeff and Alison on the other. It worked perfectly. And became the visual style of the film, a breakneck pace of jokes and romance, kinky sex and breakups.

The rule I have for cutting is simple, if it doesn’t move the story forward, cut it. I don’t care how long it took to get the shot, I don’t care how proud you are of the scene, I don’t care if the actress finally cried on cue. Does it work in the context of the film? Does it get your point across, or is it pointless? It’s all cancer if it doesn’t work. Cut if out.

A local filmmaker a few years back asked me to watch his film and give notes. He really wasn’t looking for notes, but instead wanted confirmation that he was brilliant. The film was far from that. One actor in particular was so hideously bad that she took you right out of the drama. I’m talking porn star bad. Laughable. I suggested he cu her out completely. And I gave the filmmaker a way to make the film work without any of her scenes. He insisted that his friends and family thought the actress was really funny and there was no way he could cut her out. Well, needless to say, the film was really never seen outside of his circle of family and friends. And I don’t mean to imply I’m right about everything, but instead of listening to someone whom he turned to because of my many decade background of telling stories, he listened to his friends and family. I was trying to help his film, but stroke his ego. Unfortunately he couldn’t tell the difference, or didn’t care to.

I do the same thing to myself in the editing room. Every time. Does this work? Is it integral to the story I’m telling? (And yes, my COLOR ME OBSESSED pause was integral!) Put your story ahead of your ego, or the feelings of anyone else.

Next up, in the final section on editing, I’ll talk sound, music, and the mix.

My filmography.

The Black & White Rules of Indie Filmmaking – part 9

9. Editing – part 1

To put it mildly: Editing is the most important part of filmmaking. You can have the greatest script, the most talented cast and crew, but if your editor isn’t brilliant and completely in sync with you, the film will suffer and most likely fail.

Probably the truest statement I can think of regarding filmmaking comes from David Mamet, who said, and I’m paraphrasing, “There’s the movie you write, the movie you film, and the movie you edit.” After making films for going on three decades I have never found a film that doesn’t hold true to this statement.

You can write the most beautiful, perfect script in the world. But once you get to the filming stage (and this goes for any budget $25K to $250 million, doesn’t matter), it will change. The words you wrote will inevitably stick in an actor’s mouth, it will rain when you need sun, or it will never rain, never snow (stay away from exteriors). Something, many things, will be out of your control, and your beautiful, perfect script will change. Then you will get into the editing room. And I do truly believe filmmakers should edit their own films, or have an editor who can read the filmmaker’s mind, who knows everything about his/her aesthetic, has a similar taste in film, can SPEAK film. But in the editing room, that second version of your movie, the one you shot based off that beautiful, perfect script, will morph into yet another form. Hopefully, the story you originally wanted to tell.

I’ll use the first bar scene with all six leads from FRIENDS (WITH BENEFITS) as an example. Wrote a kick-ass funny scene with some wicked dialog. In rehearsals I had the actors deliver the dialog during the group scenes at a breakneck HIS GIRL FRIDAY clip. It was fast, it was funny, it rocked. Then we get on set. Throw in the intricacies of lights, sounds, camera moves, dolly tracks, extras, blocking, egos, attitudes, who’s just having a bad day, overnight shooting, and of course, time constraints, and things begin to change. And seventeen takes later of a nine page scene with a slow dolly creep past the table of six friends, we have a really solid oner — a one-take master of the entire scene that could potentially work on It’s own.

I love oners. But thankfully I had the wherewithal to go into closeups on the six leads. Because once I got into the editing room, the scene though funny as a whole, just slowed down the first act, and along with other too-long scenes, pushed the end of the first act to the 40 minute mark. About 12 to 15 minutes too long. (If your first act is more than 30 minutes, you film will fail in every way. It will suck. No one will care. Period. End of story. That’s just the way it is. As soon as you figure out a way to live without oxygen I’ll listen to your arguments as to why I’m wrong.) The problem with the scene was that the writing made one thought flow into the next, with a lot of very real “cutting off” of lines when people were speaking. Which made chopping it up a bit of a task.

And then one day in the shower (don’t we all come up with our most brilliant ideas in the shower?) I came up with Brad’s Rules…or how to really use them in the film.

All through the film, the character of Brad, played to perfection by Brendon Bradley, talks about his rules – rules of sex, rules of friendship, rules of life. (I’ll post the entire list at the end of this entry.) And at one point during the early part of the bar scene he comment that something wouldn’t happen “if you just followed my rules.” And it came to me. List the rules. Actually put in a list. White letters on a black background. A hundred rules in all. Scrolling past, super fast, with the cheesiest of music.

That would allow me to then cut further into the scene. The flow had already been broken. People would be laughing. It would appear seemless.

I put out an email to everyone I knew with a sense of humor and got back some great responses as to what Brad’s rules could be. And it so worked. And I was able to cut the 9 plus minute scene down to under 4 minutes.

But was this use of the list anything I thought of during the writing process, or during filming? No, never. Not for a second. This was the editing version of my film.

More on editing in the next installment.

My filmography.

Here now, Brad’s Rules (warning, they are obnoxious and hardly PC . . . and note #56 has always been my favorite):

100. Friends don’t let friends fuck ugly people

99. Try everything twice, the first time you might have been doing it wrong

98. Fat girls give the best head because they’re always hungry

97. Cologne: overrated…Deodorant: a must

96. Blondes are usually too dumb to realize they’re having more fun

95. After puberty, that’s not “baby fat”

94. ATM = the Holy Grail

93. All hippie chicks deep throat, but few vegans swallow

92. Women like shoes. They will look at yours; purchase accordingly

91. BBBJ or why bother?

90. Women cannot parallel park

89. If you wanna fuck it, you’ve got to be willing to lick it

88. Ass, stomach, legs, boobs – in that order

87. If it’s not dirty, you’re doing something wrong

86. If a friend’s apartment is running low on toilet paper, you’re required to use it all

85. Cheerleaders are overrated

84. Under no circumstance may two men share an umbrella

83. Never allow a conversation with a woman to go on longer than you are able to have sex with her

82. Other than in February, the 14th of every month is Pizza and Blowjob Night

81. Dogs are better than cats…period

80. Bigger is never better when they’re fake

79. Don’t leave the house if you’re not camera ready

78. A period does not equal a week off from sex

77. Mustaches + Hunting = Gay

76. Sucking your best friend’s dick = priceless

75. You are not accountable if you bring ugly people home, unless you fuck them again in the morning

74. If her mom isn’t a MILF, chances are she won’t be one either

73. Fake orgasms count, as long as they’re not yours

72. The G-spot does not exist

71. There is NOTHING sexy about pregnant women

70. Persistence gets you laid

69. Never give yourself a haircut while drunk

68. No panties = a good night

67. Drinks hard liquor = a great night

66. Tongue piercing = God loves you!

65. Saliva isn’t always the best lubricant, just the most fun to apply

64. White cotton panties and knee socks. Enough said!

63. Never lend money to friends

62. Never lend books, CDs, or DVDs to anyone

61. The month you finish paying for your car, it will break down

60. Elvis is not dead

59. Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone

58. What’s good for you does not always taste better. Example: processed peanut butter vs. the all-natural kind

57. People who don’t use turn signals deserve mandatory prison sentences

56. Never let a girl shave your balls

55. Porn saves lives

54. Republicans are better at…well…nothing

53. If you’ve never had New Haven brick oven pizza, you’ve never had pizza. There is no pizza in New York or Chicago. Don’t argue, you’ll just sound foolish

52. Old country = cool
Alt-country = really cool
New country = sucks

51. Condition your hair once a day

50. Masturbate twice a day

49. Eat three square meals every day

48. Women should never cut their hair, unless they’re going to play for the other team

47. Crying is blackmail

46. Your choice: spay or neuter your pet…or yourself

45. If she sleeps in your bed, sex is a given

44. If a girl leaves her dirty panties lying around, she wants you to sniff them

43. There’s no such thing as “giving 110%”

42. Halloween is the only holiday that matters

41. Sympathy sex trumps make-up sex

40. Body hair just gets in the way

39. Rip bread, don’t slice it

38. Every man should learn how to dance, but no other man should know he can

37. Men have no right to speak on the subject of abortion

36. Every decade gives us only one great double album: The White Album, Exile On Main Street, London Calling, Being There, and Cold Roses.

35. Chivalry is not dead, but she has to earn it

34. Watch Carnival Of Souls at least once in your lifetime

33. If your pubic hair is blonde or red, shaving is optional

32. You can cheat on girls with hairy legs

31. If they don’t answer, it means yes

30. Never turn down a chance to sleep with a celebrity

29. Sex is better in warmer climates

28. Emo guys = gay; emo gals = easy marks

27. Never trust people who don’t drink coffee

26. Springsteen really is The Boss

25. If there’s a problem, talk it out

24. If you can’t talk it out: fuck, then try again

23. Never lease what you can buy

22. Never break up using a post-it note, her biker friends will hurt you for it

21. Never say “no” to a green-eyed girl

20. Live life as if The Catcher In The Rye were your bible

19. Don’t lie, you will get caught

18. Admit that the 1986 Mets were the greatest baseball team of all time and life will be easier

17. Know the legal age of consent in every place you visit

16. Wild animals belong in the wild, not in zoos, fairs, or roadside attractions

15. Pussy farts are charming

14. Only wear a bra if you’re going to offend me

13. Beauty is in the eye of the beer-holder

12. It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye

11. Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups

10. When in doubt, mumble

9. Masturbation is overrated

8. Small boobs are misunderstood

7. Better to be feared than loved, but even better to have your love feared

6. Handcuffs are the ultimate sex toy

5. If you can’t convince them, confuse them

4. Quiet girls are the most likely to toss your salad

3. Women do not understand remote controls, there is no exception to this rule

2. Never overthink

1. Friends don’t fuck

The Black & White Rules of Indie Filmmaking – part 8

8. The gear you need

The short story: shoot your micro budget film on a DSLR with a prime lens. It will give you more quality than you will ever need, and all the control you want.

The long story: Let’s talk straight about gear. Forget film. It ain’t happening right on any budget short of $5 million. But you know what, forget the Red One, and all the cameras in its ilk, as well. They’re big, bulky, slow, and expensive as hell. Even if given the opportunity to use one for free on a film in this budget range, I’d respectfully pass. And you know why: you don’t need that quality. Your film is not going to open on 3000 screens on Memorial Day weekend. Hell, it’s not going to open on 100 screens at one time. If you’re lucky, as we were with COLOR ME OBSESSED, your film will play a bunch of films festivals, then hit the very indie circuit across the country (more on that when I get to distribution). Theatres that will screen a DVD or BluRay. COLOR ME was filmed using a Canon XH-A1s as the A-camera, and a Canon HV40 as the B-camera. One a barely prosumer camcorder, the other very much a consumer camcorder. And you know what? It looked fucking great.

Because let’s face something here. Those screens are the rarity. Most likely your film will find a home on DVD, VOD, and streaming. Half the people watching it will be doing so on their iPads or phones. The rest on their television. And all that extra RED ONE resolution will be lost. Will go unnoticed.

If you know what you’re doing with lights, you can get a truly amazing image with a DSLR. And that is the way I suggest you go. They’re light-weight, easy to handle, and give you more of a cinematic image that anything I’ve seen in that price range. (And this advice is coming from someone who once owned his own 16mm and 35mm rigs, complete with superspeeds.) I know Canon is all the vogue, but I went with the Nikon D7000 (and am now drooling over the D800) for the simple reason that I’ve shot Nikon still cameras my entire life and already had a lot of the lenses. Plus Nikon was the first to give us longer take possibility (something Canon just caught up with), and Nikons do not overheat. Plus the double SDHC slot is a godsend, giving you the possibility of shooting 7 hours of 1080 footage with two 32GB cards. What does the D7000 body cost? Around $1200, a third the cost of the Canon 5D. And no, it does not have a full frame sensor (the new D800 does), but again . . . YOU DO NOT NEED THAT QUALITY. Get it through your head and you’ll be a better filmmaker for it.

(By the way, and this goes back to crewing up, if you’ve hired a cinematographer who insists that he can get just as much depth of field with his video camera and it’s zoom lens, fire him. Immediately. He’s an idiot who has no clue as to what he’s talking about. Or course if you somehow believe him, you should not even be reading this because you have no business making films. Even more than line producers, DP’s can take over your film if you’re not paying attention. Many seem more interested in their reel than in your film. So if they ever disagree with your artistic choice for framing, lighting, something you really want in your film, explain to them it’s your film, and they can either shoot what you want, or get the fuck off your set. I’ve had DPs who’ve argued with me during our first meeting. Hopefully they’re all assistant managers at Target at this point. Obviously these are not the people you hire. Likewise, someone who’s shot TV news and industrials all of their life will not make your film look good, as in the DP who insisted you must always see both eyes in every person’s close up, that half the face can never fall into shadow. In almost 30 years I’ve worked with two cinematographers that I trust completely – Adrian Correia on almost everything recently, and Chris Squires on THE KISS. Everyone else, well if I could go back in time and smash them in the face with a C-stand, I would. YOUR FILM. YOUR VISION. The DP is supposed to act as your eyes. They can make suggestions, and if they’re talented those suggestions will be brilliant, something you never thought of but something that so fits in with your vision. But ultimately what you say goes. You have the final word. If they can’t live with that, fire them.)

Back to gear. Whatever DSLR you go with (and both Canon and Nikon are great), pick a body, then order a Zacuto Z-finder ($375), and a few prime lenses. A 50mm and a 20mm are great places to start. The faster the better. And with Nikon’s anyway, the old manual AIS lenses work perfectly. Nikon makes a kick ass 50mm f/1.2 which is one of the single greatest pieces of glass you could ever own. And the depth of field will make you die a little. Beautiful.

Remember if you buy a full-sensor camera, a 50mm will act like a 50mm…but with the smaller sensor cameras like the D7000 and the Canon 7D, you need to add about 60% to the focal length. So a 50mm acts like an 80mm. And your 20mm will become a 32mm. Confusing? At first a little. You’ll deal.

If you have some extra bucks to spend and want a rig with matte box and follow focus, check out Indisystem. They make quality rigs that don’t break the bank. Take a serious look at the Bulldog.

(Another DP moment, this one brought to you from the good folks at Incompetent, Inc. During our tech scout for my film YOU ARE ALONE, our DP upon seeing room 500 at the Hotel Duncan, where 75% of the film would be shot, told me and co-producer Frank Loftus that he and his crew would need a half day to rig the lights outside the windows of the room, to make it look as if sunlight were perpetually coming through the windows. The story took place over the course of a few hours during the afternoon. We of course would be filming for twelve hours a day, for ten days. We asked him if he was sure, was that all he needed? He was sure. So, we gave the cast and the rest of the crew the first half of that first day at the Duncan off. The only problem, after lunch, the lights were still not ready. Next morning, same issue. It wasn’t until hours after lunch on the second day that we were finally able to shoot, but at that point it was too late. So instead of taking the half day he asked for, it ate up two full days. Two full days where cast and crew members were waiting around, being fed and housed. And did this DP ever apologize for his miscalculation? Did he ever act like a man and admit to all of us he had been wrong? No, instead we learned he told his crew that Frank and I had only given him a half day to light. That he had told us he needed more time, but we wouldn’t give it to him. Thus turning his crew against us from day one. How do I know this? One of the crew members told me months later, and was shocked to learn the DP he was working for had so lied to everyone. Hell, there are so many stories from this film. One morning the DP and crew never showed up at call time, so Frank and I said “fuck it” and just started setting up camera. When the hungover DP finally stumbled onto set he asked us what we were doing. We told him, “We started without you.” Now, you’d think this would have embarrassed him into showing up on time. No. Nothing changed. Like I’ve said, if I could go back in time, I’d have fired the jerk, but not before the C-stand to the face. Learn from my mistake. Vet your DP as if he were a Vice Presidential candidate.)

For sound pick up a Zoom H4N. It’s easy to use and gives you a crisp clean track. But be careful, there are certain mics that don’t work with this recorder. I learned that the hard way when my trusted Audio Techica shotgun was picking up virtually nothing. Rode mics have the same issue. Try a Sony or Sennheiser, and go for a quality shotgun. You want to record the best sound possible, because you WILL NOT have the money for post production ADR. Get the sound right now.

I’m not going to really go into lights other than to say: keep it simple. Use practicals whenever possible. That is basically how I’m lighting Broken Side of Time. (Check out the scene lit by nothing more than a Zippo lighter at the end of the trailer below.) And with your uber-fast prime lenses, this won’t be an issue at all. Used correctly, practicals (i.e. lamps) make a room look real.

(By the way, the KickStarter campaign is here.)

Buy good cases (PortaBrace, Pelican), and always take care of your gear — remove batteries, keep lenses clean, etc. – and your gear will take care of you.

And look at that . . . you’re pretty much ready to make your film.

Next up: Editing and the sound mix, a love story

My filmography.

The Black & White Rules of Indie Filmmaking – part 7

7. Be organized.

Before the first minute of filmmaking, you should have the entire shoot laid out in your head, every detail planned, every “i” dotted, every “t” crossed. You should have run this through a hundred times in your mind, looking for anything and everything that could go wrong. Because, and I promise you this, no matter how organized you are, within the first hour of the first day, there will be major fuck-up.

Fuck-ups are inevitable. But if everything else is under control, you can handle a problem or two or three. But if you have nothing really planned out, and the problems start. You’re screwed. Time for the job at Starbucks.

Christine Vachon in her brilliant book SHOOTING TO KILL (a must-read for anyone thinking about making a film) put it best when she said “An independent film is a disaster waiting to happen.” And you will have that disaster on an almost daily basis. But that’s okay. After a while they’ll roll off your shoulders. Freaking out solves nothing. You are the commander in chief. You need to show calm through the stormiest seas. Take a deep breath, and solve the problem. As a director that’s your most important job.

I’ve lost locations seconds before we were supposed to shoot because the person with the key who was letting us into the location overslept. What do you do? You figure out if you can live without the scene, and put the information contained in the scene somewhere else. Or you find a backup location pronto. Remember you have at least 8 or so people waiting around for you. Look brilliant by solving the problem. This is one of the things I know I do best. But you MUST stay calm. If you freak out, you in turn freak out everyone around you. Not a good way to start the day.

But back to planning. Think EVERYTHING through. As an example. On a film a few years back, I knew two of the leads had great sexual chemistry. But I also knew that it wouldn’t last, that soon their personalities would clash. So how did I handle that to make sure it looked as if they were madly in love on screen. I shot all of their love/sex scenes first. Day one they were making out, slamming each other against a wall, rolling around on a bed. It worked in every sense of the word. And good thing, because by the end of the shoot they were barely speaking to one another.

As director you need to think ALL of these things through. Your line producer/production manager/first AD/second AD/UPM/script supervisor person might tell you it makes more sense to shoot the script in this order, but you’ve been there since the start, you know these actors (through all those rehearsals), you know the script (you probably wrote it) and what you want from it. It’s your movie, you make the rules. If people don’t want to follow them, there’s the door.

That’s another point: if you want something done one way, and a certain crew member refuses, or keeps doing it their way instead. Show them the door. They obviously want to direct. Let them go direct their own film, instead of fucking up yours. I still to this day regret not firing my DP (or perhaps doing something worse) and most of his crew on YOU ARE ALONE. Thankfully we had a B-camera running most of the time, and B-cam operators who were listening to what I wanted, otherwise we would have been screwed. But I learned my lesson. Never again.

I also want to point out that there are times you need to loose it on set. One example: on one particular film the production design team kept fucking up some of the details. So, we were five minutes from lunch this last time it happened. And knew we’d still be shooting the scene after lunch. So…I…just…fucking…lost…it. Literally went off he deep end, stormed off the set, and went to my office. My co-producer and my DP came running in after me not understanding what just went on. They found me laughing. I explained I did it strictly to put certain crew members in their place, even told all of the actors so during lunch. (Most of them already knew.) But it worked. Suddenly the details were right. We went on filming. All was well.

But also make sure to listen to your cast and crew. I now work with great people now who all bring amazing talent and ideas to the table. But it took a while to assemble this crew. And there are certainly times when they see things in a way I don’t or can’t. And when they’re right, I’m the first to admit it, and give them credit for a great idea. And when I prefer to keep on track with what I had planned, they show no attitude, or go sulking in a corner. (Read my Billy Zane post from years back on how someone working on a film should never behave.) They understand I am the film’s director, and ultimately their job is to make my vision a reality.

Finding crew members you trust is a great feeling. After the crew debacle that was YOU ARE ALONE (you can hear the details on my director’s commentary, but in short how that film turned out so well is a testament to a very few great crew people and two very talented actors), I found a great DP in Adrian Correia. He knows film. He speaks film. A few amazing co-producers, Jan Radder and Dean Falcone, whom both go back years in my life, Jan to PSYCHOS IN LOVE and Dean to when our bands played together in 1980. Sarah Hajtol, who was my right arm during the making of COLOR ME OBSESSED, and who’s camera work on WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? is mind-blowingly perfect for the film, and whose posters and websites so rock. Taryn Welker who is quickly learning every aspect of what to do behind the scenes, from sound to running B-cam to script supervision. Plus there’s Jodi Baldwin, who’s done costumes for me twice and will again. Frank Loftus, who always has my back (and stopped me at least twice from killing someone on the You Are Alone set). Katie Dickey who is so great at research, and pretty much any job I toss her way. Cory Maffucci and Andrew Ross who are great PAs, ready to take on any job I hand them, and never complain. And of course, actress Lynn Mancinelli, who seemingly can read my mind, and make my thoughts better than they originally were. These are people I trust not only with my back, but with my film, which is akin to my life.

Find these people in your life. They will keep you sane AND organized. Work together for that common goal: getting your vision up on the screen.

Next up: The gear you need…and don’t need.

My filmography.

The Black & White Rules of Indie Filmmaking – part 6

6. Your Audience

When people ask me who I make my films for, my answer is “me.” I make my films for myself. I know people who find this answer obnoxious, or flat out rude, or who don’t believe me. But you CANNOT create a work of art to make someone else happy. You will fail. Which is why so many Hollywood films suck.

You are your own audience of one. Does your film make you laugh, or cry? Does it move you in the way you intended it to? Are you completely proud of it? Is it what you forever want to be known for? Are you happy to sign your name to it? Would you defend it to the death as you would your child? If you can answer yes to most, if not all, of these questions, then you don’t have to worry about making your film for an audience, because the audience will find you.

Great and passionate art always rises to the top of the heap. Will everyone like your film? Absolutely not. You don’t want everyone to like your film. Because if everyone does, it’s most likely commercial crap. In fact you want some people to love it unconditionally, and some to detest it more than any film they’ve ever seen. Then you know you’ve got something special. What you certainly don’t want is people saying, “it was okay.” You want an audience to be as passionate about your film (either love or hate) as you were about making it.

In my first documentary, COLOR ME OBSESSED, A FILM ABOUT THE REPLACEMENTS, there’s an interviewee named Robert Voedisch who really polarizes many of the men in the audience. Not the women. The women seem to adore him. But he makes some men angry. Especially the more macho types. And I finally realized why. He so painfully reminds them of the geeky kid they were at fourteen, their ego now puts up a wall. He makes them uncomfortable. He makes them squirm. In Voedisch, who so blissfully lays himself emotionally naked in the film, they see who they once were, and they never want to return there. Voedisch unleashes their deep hidden secret that their macho self was once a geeky kid who hid in his room and played rock and roll records because he was too scared to talk to girls.

Another moment that I truly love in COLOR ME OBSESSED is Bil Mac’s pause. I ask the simple question: “What’s your favorite Replacements song?” He answers “Go,” and then says nothing else. I hold on his look of absolute conviction for six seconds in the film. This pause so bothered everyone who worked on the film: my closest friends, the people whose opinions I trusted and valued most. The pause had to go. Well, so I wouldn’t have to hear about it endlessly as we all discussed the various cuts of the film — what worked, what was repetitive, what was out-of-sync — I cut away at the pause until it barely existed. By the last time we all watched the film in preparation for the sound mix, looking for typos, weird cuts, anything wrong, it was down to about 24 frames. One second. But that was because I knew, the day before the sound mix, when even my assistant editor Sarah Hajtol was finally given a day off, I’d be putting the pause back in all its six second glory. In my gut it worked. It belonged. After the rapid fire pace of the first twenty minutes of the film, it was a breather. And it stands as one of my favorite moments of the film. The pause bring an air of importance to Bil’s response. It’s as if I were asking the Pope if he believed in God. That’s what the pause does. How can we not believe in The Replacements after that pause?

What I’m saying is: Find the Voedisch in your film. Find the big pause, and all the little ones. Find the elements that drives your film forward. And don’t worry if they pisses the hell out of some people. If you know in your gut they’re right, that they fit, then follow your gut. YOU, as director, are signing your name to this film. NO ONE ELSE.

Some audience members will fall in love, other will squirm uncomfortably, and you will have done your job as an artist.

Next up: Be Organized!

My filmography.

The Black & White Rules of Indie Filmmaking – part 4

4. Pay backend only.

Really. Pay no one up front. Work out backend deals, and treat filmmaking like a business. If your film is any good you will make some money back. And if you have only 10 people sharing backend, with no investors (get to that shortly) to pay back, everyone will see a check or two, or more.

But also remember, you as director/writer/producer should keep the biggest piece of the pie. You could be working on this project for a years (I shot my first COLOR ME OBSESSED interview in November 2009, it’s now May 2012 and I’m still traveling with the film), while the person doing sound was in and out in two weeks. So, you are the biggest investor: of TIME. Figure out everyone’s role, how much time everyone is spending on the film, what they’re bringing to the table so to speak, and work out percentages from there. If the DP is bringing along the entire camera and lighting package, you need to factor that in. If you are shooting in one location for a few weeks, and that location is as important as any cast member, the owner of the location needs to be compensated appropriately. And no, one percent or less is not an insult, if the person really has only spent a small amount of time on the film. But really think this through. Make a list of every single person who will have something to do with the film, from indie bands who contribute a song to the soundtrack, the person designing your poster/website, leave no one out, then work on the numbers.

This CAN work. But backend gets a dirty name because most people don’t follow through, or they have no solid plan on how to distribute their film once it’s done. There are so many ancillary markets at this point in time, so many places to get your film seen, and so many books and sites that point you in the right direction. Do some homework, research, Google exists for a reason. You are not going to make a film, sit back, get into Sundance, be signed by CAA, and get a 4-picture deal with one of the studios. That really is not going to happen. Ever. You need to be proactive, you need to make everything in your career happen. It’s ALL on your shoulders.

But remember, when you get in that check from Netflix, or iTunes, or even YouTube, when you get in every check, even it it’s only $500, pay out backend. Because even getting a royalty check of $20 will make someone’s day. And you will get a reputation as a filmmaker people will want to work for, i.e. he/she finishes his/her films, actually gets them distributed, and pays out royalties. That almost seems like a pie-in-the-sky fantasy in the indie world, but ask my crew/cast members, they’ll tell you it can happen.

Next up: Funding Your Film

My filmography.

The Black & White Rules of Indie Filmmaking – part 3

3. Casting.

Never give a friend or family member a speaking role in your film. Every line is important. And the wrong reading of even one line can take the viewer out of the film. Actors are everywhere, especially if you’re within a hundred miles of near New York or Los Angeles. Find them by place a casting notice in Back Stage, or any one of the many online casting services, such as The Casting Network.

But if you’re doing a micro budget film, stay away from SAG-indie. They are hands-down the most difficult union to deal with. Their paperwork is suffocating. You’ll have to give a deposit assuring you’ll pay your SAG actors what you agreed to pay them, and it’ll take months to get that deposit back after they’ve been paid. They do not bend the rules whatsoever. Really, unless you have a name actor who will make it easier to get distribution for your film, and who is willing to work under the SAG low-budget agreement (i.e. for $100 per day), or if you have an actor whom you know is the only person on the planet perfect for the role (that’s how I learned about SAG-indie), stay far far away. There are many good actors out there who are not SAG members.

Have time and patience when casting. You might not find your dream cast the first time out. But they are out there. And once you have them locked down, rehearse. Remember your script is about real characters in real situations. Allow your actors to work on their part. Together. With you in the room. Bring pizza and beer. Take notes, give notes. Now is the time to get the nuances down.

I’ve easily spent six months rehearsing a film. Perhaps more than that with Jessica Bohl, the star of YOU ARE ALONE. Jessica was a professional model who had never acted before. I allowed her to bring much of her personality and back story to the script, so much so that she was given an “additional dialog by” credit. But all of that work made her performance vital and honest. Jessica went on to win numerous best actress awards at film festivals where YOU ARE ALONE screened.

Remember, it’s about the story you’re telling. And sometimes the greatest line of dialog in a script can sound false when read out loud. Or your actor just has a problem with a certain word. Change it. Find something with the same meaning. You want your actor to inherit the role, for them to believe that they are this character. If they’re uncomfortable with a line, it will show. But work all of this out in rehearsals. One of the things that has made me angriest on set was when an actress decided she didn’t understand a certain line. We had been rehearsing for months. So she had months to question the line. That was the appropriate time to do so. Not when cameras are rolling, and you’re on a very tight schedule. This goes for director, writer, and cast: work it ALL out in rehearsals.

That also means trying to get as much of the blocking down as possible. And blocking can be a complete bitch when working in a confined space. Look at YOU ARE ALONE, two people in a room for about 60 minutes of the film’s 84 minute running time. Trying to keep it interesting, and real, and also something they could repeat again and again on subsequent takes. An actor who can remember his/her blocking is a life saver in the editing room. Someone who changes it up, even a little, every time, will drive your editor crazy because the close up will never correctly match the wide shot. (One example, an actor picks up a bottle of beer during a conversation. He needs to pick it up with the same hand, in the same way, on the same word. An actor who can do that is like a gift from above.)

And sure a lot of this blocking will change on set, but at least you’ll have a notion of what you want, the actor will know on what line he needs to pick up the beer bottle, and you’ll all be able to adapt quickly to the nuances of the set.

Next up: Paying Backend

My filmography.