Category Archives: film producing

Unadorned

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.

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Ten Realistic Zero-Budget Filmmaking Tips

Recently saw a list of ten zero-budget filmmaking tips on the Raindance Film Festival website.  And while I thought most of the tips were solid, I felt they needed tweaking, and a few were off base.  Here is my reworking of the list taking into account that zero budget filmmaking is what do.

1. The Story is Everything — If your script sucks your film will most likely suck.  If you don’t have some idea of the story you’re trying to tell as you begin shooting your documentary, your film will suck. And most importantly, if you don’t know how to tell a story in the editing room, if you don’t understand basic filmmaking principals like the three act structure, you film will ABSOLUTELY suck.

2. Location Location Location — you can find amazing locations for free or for very little money.  It’s why I so often shoot at the Hotel Duncan in New Haven.  Even the bare walls have character.  But a plain white wall in your dorm room is not a location for a film, any film.  Not even a film about a person stuck in a dorm room.  It will only make yours look like the product of a high school hobby.

3. Capture as Much Footage as Possible — video is free.  You can shoot for hours.  Get the extra take, then the one after that.  Get coverage.  Give your editor something to work with.  You’ve already put in so much time into this film, and you’ve only just started.  Shoot more, then shoot more after that.  (And as an addendum to that, learn how to use your lights.  You can light a scene beautifully with one light.  I’ve done it hundreds of times.  Play with shadows.  What’s unlit is just as beautiful as what you can see clearly.  Study old photographs.  Watch old films.  Do your fucking homework.

4. Sound is King — it’s more important than your image.  And no, you won’t be able to fix it in post.  ADR is really expensive.  Most unprofessional actors suck at it.  And if you’re doing a doc, well then you’re completely fucked without good sound.  Try to never shoot outside.  If the mic has to be in the frame in a doc, no one cares.  We care about what the subject is saying.

5. Great Music Can Save a Scene — there are so many cool bands out there in the same situation as you are.  Find the music that’s appropriate for your film from a great unknown, approach them nicely, and ask for permission to use it.  You might be surprised at the answer.  And you will definitely be shocked at how the right music can make a good scene great.

Matthew Ryan wrote this haunting theme song for my film BROKEN SIDE OF TIME in exchange for me creating a music video for a song from his next album.  A win-win situation no matter how you look at it.

6. Get Organized — I’ve argued that making a feature film is the single most difficult thing to do in the world.  And I do believe that.  There are a thousand things that can go wrong, and if you aren’t organized.  If you aren’t ready, well, then you’re pretty much up the proverbial creek.  You have seconds to make a decision.  And this decision making happens a hundred times per day when filming.  If you don’t have everything else under control, if you are not organized, then give it up now.  Go back to talking about making a film at the coffee shop, because that’s all you’ll ever do.  Know every shot, visualize the edit in your head, know when the street outside will be noisiest, when the sun is setting, etc. and so on.  Be an all-knowing God, because after 30 minutes on set, you’ll realize you’re not.  But you’ll at least be glad you tried.

7. Your Friends Can Not Act — Neither can your mom, your girlfriend, or your high-school play director.  Hire real actors.  Do a proper casting.  And I’m not talking union here, but people who’ve done it before.  There are tens of thousands of them out there.  Otherwise you’ll have one bad line delivery after another, and we’re back to high school project.

8. Build a Following — social media is free.  Work it.  Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.  Find like-minded people.  Tell them about what you’re doing.  Compliment what they’re doing.  Share their links.  It works both ways and takes a long time, but if you show respect, you’ll earn respect, and a retweet from someone with 100K followers can help a lot.  (And please, if you’re using KickStarter, absolutely back a bunch of projects before your ask for funds.)

9. You are a Filmmaker, a C.E.O., an Accountant, a Publicist, a Salesman — Unless you can afford to pay people to take these positions, it’s up to you.  And trust me, you can’t afford to pay anyone.  You are the only one who can guarantee the job gets done correctly.  Filmmaking doesn’t stop at the wrap party.  A film will become a two, three, maybe even four year commitment during which you wear all those hats and more.  Like I said before, the hardest job in the world.

10. There’s No Such Thing as Luck — It’s work.  A lot of hard work.  But if you truly feel there’s nothing else you were put on this earth for, and you’re willing to put in 10 to 12 hours a day, every day, for years on end (not an exaggeration, kids), then it’s also the most rewarding job in the world.  Just don’t expect to finish your film, get into Sundance, and be entertaining four-picture deal offers from the majors.  You’re more likely to win the lottery.

You’ll find more related thoughts and observations HERE and HERE.

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The Black & White Rules of Indie Filmmaking – part 13

13. Film Festivals – part 1

I’ve already two blog posts on how no to be a film fest douche. They are here and here. Study them. I’ve spent a lot of time taking to the people who run film festivals. They’re usually the ones at the fests I spend most time talking to. I know of which I speak.

Ok, now the first news flash. You’re not getting into Sundance. Not unless you have a major star, a major studio behind you, a major film rep, or your parents are rich and famous. But if you have one of those things, you probably aren’t reading my blog.

But y’know what? Submit anyway. It’s like buying a Lotto ticket. You can’t win if you don’t play. And sure there’re probably 4 slots saved for the almost 5000 feature submissions. And Lady Luck might be one your side.
Submit to SlamDance, if you’re a first time director. Submit to SXSW. Likewise for Tribeca and Toronto. And of course Los Angeles. And if your film is a documentary add Hot Docs and Silver Docs to that list. Those are the no-brainers. Those are your lottery tickets. But don’t hold your breath. And you probably are not going to submit to them all. If you’ve finishing your film and it’s November . . . and you’ve missed the Sundance deadline . . . do not wait a whole ten months to start submitting. Move on, submit to the next on the calendar list, and save Sundance for the next movie. Use common sense, there is no reason to let a film sit for almost a year. Even you will forget about it. And by that point you should be knee-deep in production with your next film anyway.

Ok, those submissions are in the mail. Now let’s find the fest that is actually going to screen your film. And here you need to do homework. There are literally thousands of film festivals. You need to find the ones that are a perfect match. You need to research what they’ve played in the past, what other filmmakers say about them. If all they do is play film with known actors, and seem to promote all their red carpet parties on their website, your little no-name film is not a good match. If they like art or foreign fare, your torture porn horror film is not making the cut. Hell, I know first hand, even if they specialize in rock docs, your critically acclaimed rock doc which breaks all the rules is not getting in. Really study the films they’ve accepted.

Likewise, look for warning signs. If you read filmmaking after filmmaker complaining about their treatment, bad projection, disorganization, take that as a red flag, and do not submit. There are plenty of fests that have their shit together, and who love well-made films, even without stars. But there are also festivals that don’t even acknowledge your presence when you’ve flown a thousand or more miles to attend and do a Q&A. There are festivals that project your 16×9 feature in 2:35, or worse 4:3. Watch the brilliant film OFFICIAL REJECTION to witness one of the most offensive film festivals of all time. (Actually, watch OFFICIAL REJECTION because it’s an amazing film on the film fest world. It is a MUST SEE.)

Remember festival submission fees are not cheap. I’ve dropped between $3 to $5 thousand dollars on submission fees for past features. (That’s PER film, not what I spent on all of them.) And you’re on a tighter budget than that.

Also, if you’ve gotten into a few fests, won awards, or have amazing press, forget the fees, email the festival directors, tell them all about your film, and it’s acolaids, tell them how you feel the film would be a great fit for their festivals, send a trailer link, and finally ask for a waiver of their fees. Worst case, they say no or never answer. But after 6 months on the circuit with COLOR ME OBSESSED, I decided no more fees. And it worked. A good email, backed by packed houses and great press, and guess what, we got waivers. With my Archers of Loaf doc I decided no fees at all. So far, so good. We premiered at NXNE in Toronto last week, played another Canadian film/music fest on Monday, and are having our American premiere at the CBGB’s Festival in July.

Next up: more on life after you’ve wrapped

My filmography.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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