Monday, November 19, 2007

What looks "cinematic'?

James and I have been having this ongoing discussion about what differentiates a professional film from the stuff you see at the indie level that we seem to be a part of at the moment.

Story (writing) and performance are typically problematic in a huge percentage of low budget films, but if you removed those two elements and focused simply on how the film looks, the vast majority of them fall far short visually of anything you'd pay to see... But why? That is one question we want to have an unambiguous answer for before we schedule day one.

We've been talking about a lot of elements, too many for me to cover in detail in a single post, but many of them (or at least most of those we've been discussing) rest squarely on the shoulders of the DP, which is why I can see James is so concerned about this topic...

Moving the camera with jibs or dollies or even hand held moves for that matter are some of the big differentiators that we had noticed. But there's a number of other elements such as use of interesting camera angles, good shot selection, and complete, yet thoughtful coverage of each scene.

While examples of this sort of technical execution are easy to come by in theaters, they are more difficult to find in features that are produced at the budget levels that we're talking about with LOD.

One example that we found that demonstrates the use of these technical elements in a low budget feature is New Hampshire filmmaker Steve Croke's film "The Busker". A preview of the film can be found here.

As we find more examples, I'll try and post them.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Location, Location, Location

I realize that it will be a while before we really need to worry about this, but now that we're starting to (finally) get into (albeit early) pre-production for LOD, I've been giving some thought to locations. The robberies that actually form the basis for some of the story took place in southern New Hampshire in the early 90's in what could be any medium sized town in the state (or New England for that matter).

Last weekend, I had dinner with my sister Sharon and her husband Bill. It turns out that Bill is the building code enforcement officer in this wonderfully picturesque and apropos town on Lake Winnepasaukee called Meredith New Hampshire.

While I had originally thought of talking to the town of Nashua (my home town) about trying to get them to cooperate with the filming, it turns out that Meredith may be a better choice. Bill and Sharon are pretty tightly connected with the local government there and the town is really looking for something like this to bring some attention to the community. It turns out that it's a relatively affluent community as well, so there may be people interested in helping with the financing of the project. To top it all off, there are some really beautiful locations in and around the town.

While it's a bit of a drive from Boston, the local support that we could get could be well worth it. It's something to consider at least. I really think that having the full support of a community and the local government for filming will make a huge difference in the support costs associated with the film, securing locations, getting the local police to help with things like closing off roads during shooting etc.

It's something I'll definitely be looking into.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

LOD Draft Complete!

Finally we have a draft that we can use for a production breakdown. We do have a review and polish draft that we need to do then send it out for coverage at least once (possibly twice) more before we consider it done and ready to shoot. I just think it makes sense to have the thing vetted by an outside source or two before we start spending real dollars and committing resources to it.

James came up with some great edits and story ideas. I cleaned up a bunch of dialog, and reworked a couple of sequences. It's nice because it's feeling more and more like a movie with each draft. I'm getting to know the characters more, and the arcs are fitting much tighter. James idea for the reveal toward the end makes it cool, it's all falling into place rather nicely. We also did away with some of the complexities that were a bit confusing. The ending is much cleaner now. It's really been a collaborative effort to get the rework done, and that feels good.

I'm a day later than I promised I'd have it done, but that's not too bad for the world of indie production I suppose. At least we're moving forward and we reached a major milestone pretty much when we said we would.
Interesting coincidence to the FOX story.

I should point out before launching into this little tidbit that this kind of thing seems to happen to me on a fairly regular basis. Something similar actually just happened to me yesterday, which I can't really talk about at the moment, but this was one that sort of struck me as freaky.

Back in February or March of last year, I was invited to the Boston screening of a film called "A Kettle of Fish". My good friend Hilary Barraford, (an actress that works regularly with Kevin Anderton's Midnightchimes troupe) was there and introduced me to a screenwriter named Randy Steinberg. It was a great evening, and Randy and I managed to trade a lot of good writing stories and information on screenwriting in general. Since Randy teaches screenwriting at BU, I was curious to know what he thought of my material. I offered him a deal; read and critique one of my scripts and in return, I'd do the same for one of his.

So we did the script swap thing, and he gave my stuff pretty good marks overall, which was cool. I enjoyed reading his stuff as well, and sent him back a pretty extensive set of notes. Overall, it went really well, and we started to rely on each other as that extra pair of eyes that writers so often need as part of their quality control.

Fast forward to late August.

It had been a while since Randy and I had spoken, so I figured that I'd drop him a note and let him know about this way cool development with FOX Atomic that had fallen into my lap. Without mentioning who the exec was, I told him about my barter deal for a meeting. Here's the excerpt from his email reply (the exec's name is left out for obvious reasons):

"my cousin, [insert name of guy I'm supposed to meet with here], works at fox atomic. not sure he's the exec you're meeting with but if so that would be funny..."

So it turns out that Randy's cousin was the guy that I was supposed to meet with! Tell me that's not at least a little Twilight Zone... Randy said that I could mention his name in my discussions with them, which hasn't helped. Even Randy didn't think it would help, but it was still really nice of him to let me drop his name.

Anyway, I thought that was pretty interesting the way it all came together and actually sort of random because, I almost didn't go to the screening in Boston for that film. I knew Hilary was going, but I'd no idea that I'd get an introduction to Randy... At that point I hadn't worked on the Silver Eagle documentary, which is how I ended up getting the connection that I needed to do "The Rocker" in the first place... So to me the way it all came together made for an interesting little story on its own.

It will be an even better story to tell if something actually comes out of the meeting FOX..
Missed the deadline.

Despite my best efforts, I didn't manage to turn in a draft of the LOD script to James for a production breakdown on my self-imposed deadline (which was yesterday). Do I feel shitty about it? A little. But it turns out James and were both pretty sick this week. In addition to being laid up most of the week with pretty serious back pain, the meds that I was on for it had me in bed most nights before 9:00. I think I actually had a touch of something as well, though I suppose what I was experiencing could have been a side effect of the medication that I was on (a muscle relaxer called cyclobenzaprine and 800 mg of ibuprofen 3 times a day).

I've decided to dedicate the rest of today to wrapping it up.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Meeting With FOX...?

I never blogged about this when it was actually happening because I was just too busy to think about blogging...

Back in June I was contacted by a production company in Toronto that wanted to use my Silver Eagle Coach for a movie being shot there. Excited at the prospect of making some real cash on it for a change and at the prospect of getting to see a _real_ movie being made I leapt at the opportunity.

It turns out that the producers needed to make shall we say, an extensive makeover of my bus in order to get her (they named her "Gertrude" in the film) into her role. For those not familiar with the lingo, cars or vehicles that are in the film are referred to as "picture cars" and the person on the production staff responsible for securing all the picture cars needed for the film is referred to as the "picture car captain". Evan, the picture car captain on this film, was great to work with. He took really great care of the coach, and did everything he could to ensure that I got a fair deal.

While I didn't mention it right away, once the deal was done, I managed to work into one conversation with Evan that I was a filmmaker and would be interested in maybe going on location for a few days to watch the production. While I never did make it to the Toronto location, I did manage to get to Cleveland for the last two days of shooting on the film.

At one point, Evan mentioned the overall budget for the coach and how it was ballooning a bit. The budget issues were not on my end, but more with the cost of "distressing" the coach and giving it a more "retro" look. During the course of the conversation, I said to him at one point (half joking) "You know Ev, I told you at the start of this thing that I'd cut you a break on the coach in return for a meeting at FOX.". To which he replied "I thought you were kidding". I told him no, I wasn't and he said that he'd talk to the producers and see what he could do.

About an hour after our conversation, he sent an email saying that the producers were cool with the idea and that they'd give me a meeting in return for me knocking some cash off the rental of the coach. Cool.

So what did I mean by a "meeting" with FOX? Well, quite honestly, I tried to think of it not in terms of trying to pitch them something they might buy. This was due to the fact that after visiting the FOX Atomic site, it seemed there was little that I had (either completed or in development) that they'd be interested in. I felt that the best way to position the meeting with them was a sort of "mentor session" in which they'd review my stuff (a reel and a writing sample), offer feedback, and if they deemed me and my talent worthy, hook me up with someone - an agent perhaps - who could move things along for me career wise.

Everyone involved seemed to think it was reasonable, and when I met one of the film's producers on location in Cleveland, he was very supportive of the idea and was all for it.

That was late July.

So it was really a pretty cool development for me and I was really excited about it. I began to think however, that there might be an issue when I heard back from Evan that the exec that drew the short straw back at the studio thought he was being Punk'd when the other producers told him about the deal and what he had to do...

To their credit, they have been _most_ kind and responsive to my inquiries, but I think that in the list of studio executive priorities I was pretty much at the bottom of the stack.

This put me in something of an awkward position though... I mean, it's not like I'm some guy off the street sending in a submission. This was part of my compensation for services rendered. Still, you don't want to be too demanding and piss them off. Then there's the part about it being a really unique opportunity so you don't want to let it fall through the cracks... So it's been a bit of a balancing act trying to get them to respond.

The truth of it is that everyone I've dealt with has been great and I'm sure they all just have much bigger fish to fry.

Yet I decided to persist.

From the start, I knew that calling every week was probably a bad idea, so I went with an every other week strategy. I did that twice then completely backed off for four or five weeks and I heard (to quote that WGA ad) not a word...

Then about three weeks ago, the call came from Evan about the possibility of reshoots in Toronto with the coach. I felt this was an opportunity to try and prod the exec's assistant. Still no luck...

Enter the WGA strike...

My thought here was that once the strike settled in, things would quiet down pretty much all over town leaving even the busiest execs time to follow up on stuff at the bottom of their todo list (such as responding to nobodies like me).

I just want to be clear and state that while I do view the strike as an opportunity to get my (promised) meeting with the studio, I WOULD NEVER exploit the strike as an opportunity to cross the line and try to find work. While I'm not a WGA member, I hope to be at some point, and crossing the line would be suicide in that regard. I support the strike 100%.

I do have to say that the exec's assistant has been completely supportive and sympathetic to my cause. Today he suggested that I email the exec directly and explain the situation, which I did. It will be interesting to see if anything comes of it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

More Editing.

When I got into this indie film world, all I really cared about was writing and directing. I soon discovered that if you really wanted to get anything done, you had to learn to pretty much do everything. I mean, I do know plenty of people that do DP (director of photography) work as well as editing etc. However, it's tough on a low/no budget project to ask people to volunteer what could be hours of their free time to one of your projects and put up with you telling them, "well no... I actually wanted the sequence to look like this... "

My solution to this problem was to simply learn enough about things like editing and camera operation to get by and reduce my dependencies on other people.

While I'm far from being an expert at either editing or DP work (or anything film related for that matter) my skills seemed to reach a point where they were sufficient enough for other people to ask me to work on their stuff. That combined with the fact that I have a tough time saying "no" to people asking for help, is part of what has put me behind on LOD.

Last night was one of those nights where I felt compelled to try and knock another of these volunteer projects that's been on my todo list off the list in lieu of working on LOD.

The project "The Audition" is a short film that I shot and volunteered to edit way back in the spring. It's going fairly well and so far, the producers (Oxrock productions) have been pleased with the cut. The problem that I have though is that since my name will be on the film too, I'm agonizing over everything and it's taking probably way longer than it should.

While I like the shooting that I did, I'm a disappointed about a few things:

- The first is that being the first thing that I ever shot using an HD camera, there were some things that I guess I wasn't prepared for. For example, focus was something of an issue. We didn't use monitors to check focus, and since most of it was handheld, I was on auto focus most of the time. The Sony camera that was used did a fine job maintaining focus (given the lighting situation) but there were some shots where things ended up being a little soft.

- The other thing is that I'd wished we'd just used more light. The "prosumer" grade cameras that we use seem to struggle in low light situations. While this Sony was at the upper end of the spectrum, it struggled a bit too, which resulted in some picture noise in the black areas of the image.

- Sound. The sound bounces all over the place. It's totally usable (levels are all good, etc), but the feel is inconsistent because a combination of boom mics and lavalier mics (a tiny clip on mic that typically goes on the lapel) were used. There was a ton of room echo picked up on the boom mic, so trying to maintain an audio track that has the proper combination and balance of sound is difficult. The other thing is that the boom mic and the lav mic have completely different frequency response curves (one sounds a little brighter tonally than the other). I experimented with a couple of things last night to try and make things sound more balanced overall, but it's not trivial.

Overall, I think it looks pretty good, but there were some things to learn from and building on my experience and learning is the other reason I sign up for these projects. This one taught me the value of the location scout. While we did do a quick scout the day before, I didn't really pay attention to all the right things. The other thing is that doing the scout the day before is a bad thing because if there is a problem that's going to require additional resources (better mics, more light etc.) there's a mad scramble that you'd have perform to secure what you need, and that can affect the creative process and just stress everyone out.

Anyway... I've only two nights left to work on the LOD script and meet the deadline. While I feel it's doable, I'll be up late - no question.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Script Progress

I'm pretty sure at some point I'd mentioned that we'd changed the name of the feature from "Heist" to "In the Light of Day". James and I now refer to the film in our discussions as "LOD".

When James and I met last week, we'd decided that we had to really start putting stakes in the ground with regard to progress. We basically are both of the opinion that if we can't set goals and stick to them, we'll never get the project off the ground because we're both easily swept up into other things that can distract us. So the tone of the meeting really centered around focus which was good because we need it if we're going to get on/stay on track. :-)

My commit was to have the next draft (the one that will serve as the basis for at least the initial production breakdown) by Friday of this week. A tad ambitious perhaps, but I've been doing pretty good at staying on target to meet that goal.

The draft that I'm currently working on doesn't really include any sweeping plot changes - it's mostly cleanup, with a few key changes that we felt helped eliminate a few things that were passé or didn't do much to help the story. Once I get the draft completed, I'll have time post some information about the basic plot and some of the changes that we made in this draft. Once the script has been registered with the writers guild, I'll think about posting it (or maybe pieces of it) as a pdf for people to have a look at.
Writer's Strike.

For those who may still be reading my blog and are the least bit curious to know what the writer's strike is all about, visit John August's blog. John is offering up an excellent daily account of what it's like to be out there on the picket lines and also has a great explanation of what the strike is all about.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Every now and then something happens in my life where I come up with a good line or exchange dialog with someone on the fly that leaves me thinking that it was almost worth writing it down for use in a film somewhere. My partner James Tauber actually mentioned a few instances of that having happened to him. Ever since he'd mentioned it, I've started noticing it more myself.

Today, I had an exchange with my daughter that finally made me decide to keep track of those interesting bits of dialog and life for later use in a fictional context. The hope of course being that incorporating them into my writing that might help lend more authenticity to it... We'll see. I'm just using a word doc to keep track of them for the moment, perhaps I'll do something more elaborate at some point, but that should work for now. In addition to the exchange with my daughter, I've thrown a few others in there that I'd cached in the back of my head.

James and I had a good meeting this week. We've actually started putting stakes in the ground around getting the script done and the production breakdown completed. The plan with the budgeting exercise is to do sort of the "dream budget" and work back from there.

We also talked about setting up a time to do some shooting with his new camera so that we can get used to its capabilities and experiment with looks. I'm really looking forward to that.