Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Rants and Rages

Submitted by Martyn Finn

Ripping Slasher Flicks

I recently went to view the spectacle that is Freddy vs. Jason. Not having seen many of the predecessors, I wasn’t much bothered as I knew it would pretty much be a stand alone film. Sadly the only bright spark in the entire film was the opening, and then sadly the ending, for which I had to wait far too long for it to arrive. In between was some ridiculously condescending filmmaking from a classic sequence of slash horror movies. Whereas Nigthmare on Elm Street and the original Friday the 13th previously found cult success in simplistic gore and blood bathing beauties, today it seems abandoning that theme altogether would be the way to go to in the search for a new audience. How wrong this is, how very wrong. Trying to palm off some sort of intellectual intrigue by getting into the minds of the killers does nothing to attract the more advanced moviegoer, when from every scene has more blood and more gore than the one before. Why not be honest about the film you’re making? This is a film about death, violence, and topping the previous death scene. Why then would you try to flog us into believing it is something it is not? It’s hard work to watch and even harder to accept that this is anything but a fading franchise. With only one bright spark coming from the news that perhaps a prequel to Nightmare on Elm Street is in the works, this film promises nothing whatsoever. Yet such a bad film is light years ahead of anything the British film industry could ever dream of churning out, but that’s another article. I hope you enjoyed reading my vented frustration, and if you think I’m exaggerating, please be my guest, and go and bore yourself to death.

The State of the British Film Industry

Here’s a little tip for aspiring young British filmmakers. First, realize that Britain is a crap place to make films. No one likes the fact that you have a camera, and unlike Americans, hardly anyone wants to be on camera. People hardly ever let you film, even if you ask them. Lastly the weather is crap as are the available locations. I’ve seen the work of many amateur filmmakers, and their films all look terrible, simply because of the locations and weather. For God’s sake, if your interested in this sort of thing as a career at least care about the places that you shoot. Go out and take pictures of every angle. If it’s not right scrap it and move on. Make it look like a place only a movie would portray. For God’s sake think about lighting. That’s what sets us apart from the Americans these days. If the weather is crap then don’t shoot, wait for a nice day, because that's what puts people off watching British movies. They look dull and miserable so people won’t watch them, because we know what it’s like to be dull and miserable. We have windows. What we want to see is a glamorous view of Britain, America does it, why shouldn’t we? Why is it that we always make films about the poverty of Britain, or the crime, or the hatred of Britain? The reason, it’s easy. It’s easy to do because it’s easy to show something as it really is. The difficult thing, the thing we don’t want to do is try and make something its not. We all know how fake Hollywood is, that’s because they make the effort to create the sets and lighting to make us believe what is not really there. So pull your finger out Britain and make something worth watching, not something to slit your wrists over. To be honest, I haven’t even really started on the British film industry. I haven’t even begun to talk about acting, so look out for more tongue lashings from me.

Willy Opened My Eyes

It’s difficult to believe you can walk away from a Bruce Willis film these days and have something worthwhile to debate. Possible exceptions being his collaborations with M. Night Shyamalan. Coming out of Tears of the Sun recently with family by my side, a fierce deconstruction of the fabric of the last two hours began to churn. Looking at events all but abandoned in film these days, Tears of the Sun went on to graphically and gruesomely tell the story of what the world is really like today. Of course, the film also had elements of cheese and the hero factor was thrown in for all the die hard Willis fans. For someone less prone to tears of his own during a screening, I found myself charged with emotion when quite vividly the subject matter at times spelt out just how awful this world can be at times. This is just a quick note to thank Tears of the Sun for doing what so many other films should do. Tears of the Sun tackled difficult subject matter and themes and explored a number of issues that needed to be highlighted. After all, isn’t that what film is partly meant to do?

The Making New World, Reflections One Year Later

Submitted by Peter John Ross

Where did I leave off? Oh yeah, one more scene to go. February 2002, for me it was infamous, Scene 41, which had more FX shots than the rest of the movie combined. It was grueling. Working freelance, and working on FX all the time, wore me down and fried my brain.

I would work out each FX shot in Adobe After Effects, then set all the shots I worked on to render, or compile all the FX together in a compatible video clip, and not find out for another nine to twelve hours if it worked. Some FX shots took as much as twenty-three hours to render for four seconds of footage.

Upon completion of the scene, I looked it over and put together my final rough cut with what I thought was all of my FX. The movie was bad. Real bad. It was nothing but a collection of sometimes good and sometimes awful scenes, and there was no flow, or any really good transitions. I came up with the idea of releasing it in five or six minute online “webisodes.” I felt this was my only salvation. I didn’t think I could make it work otherwise.

I started releasing the “chapters” online. There are pockets of people out there who love low budget, B-movie science-fiction, and it’s even better online. Within a couple weeks I got e-mails of praise and scorn, but mostly scorn. After some fairly scathing reviews, I decided the best two chapters that are short and to the point were chapters six and seven. So I focused on getting these out there more.

I did receive an e-mail invitation to submit to a science-fiction convention in Little Rock, Arkansas called “Roc*Kon.” I sent a tape of the best two chapters. Within a week I got a phone call from the lady that had invited me to submit New World, where she promptly ripped me a new orifice. She wanted it all, not a part, not a piece, but all of New World. She also said I should re-edit it and make it one long movie, the very thing I dreaded since I tried and it didn’t work. But her passion for the project invigorated my efforts, and terrified me as well.

I tried again, but there were definitely some moments where I needed something more. The 3D animator, Don Drennan, a local animation genius, agreed to contribute five shots. He did several matte paintings of a CGI “hive,” like a 30 story high alien beehive. It looked amazing. He went way over the top and delivered some top-notch FX work, and made me want to cry whenever I saw my own FX shots.

I now had a forty-nine minute version of New World.

In May 2002, we decided to screen it publicly for the first time in our hometown. I rented a theater with three other independent filmmakers. The intent was to screen our movies to the public and for the casts and crews. We didn’t sell out, but we had very good turn outs for two showings at a local multiplex, even though we digitally projected. Running mono and stereo independent movies through THX created audio problems, so for the second show, I volunteered to ride it out in the projection booth raising and lowering the volume manually.

Understand my pain. My sole reason for making movies is to eventually sit in a dark room with a bunch of strangers and experience the story. Well here I am, at one of the precious few times my movie plays in a dark room complete with strangers, and I’m in the projection booth. Immediately after the second screening, I am approached by Matthias Saunders, who caused so much disarray during the shoot, and his only words to me are “You made some editing choices I didn’t agree with.” Since he has never directed or really edited anything, I didn’t take too much offense.

Michael Evanichko, one of the other filmmakers with a movie playing, had the brilliant idea of handing out comment cards. We did and most people did take the time to fill them out. I learned a lot about my own movie from that. People can tell you what they really think unadulterated. Especially if they weren’t part of your cast and crew, they’ve got no reason to lie or hold back. And they didn’t. The results were still about seventy percent pro-New World, but even the positive cards had criticisms, and they were primarily valid.

I then made a decision. Based on the first screening, and sitting in the theater with an audience, the first twenty minutes of New World seemed to drag and drag on. I wanted to cut it out completely, but how do you cut it out completely and still have a coherent story? My girlfriend and I were driving along Interstate 270 one day discussing this, and she suggested a “previously on Buffy The Vampire Slayer” introduction with just clips. At first I told her that she was nuts because Buffy the Vampire Slayer footage wouldn’t work in our futuristic science-fiction movie. I then got slapped in the face, and then heard her say, “No idiot, make your own previously on New World.” Then the genius of her suggestion kicked in.

I edited together the footage of highlights from the first twenty minutes and cut it down to two minutes, added a professional voice-over saying “previously on New World,” and then I had a much tighter, much more fluid New World, that now runs at a scant twenty-eight minutes. I am now much more content about the status of New World.

I sent a VHS tape off to the lady in Little Rock, Arkansas, and then the idea of screening New World at science-fiction conventions as opposed to film festivals occurred to me. Film festivals with their black beret wearing latte sippers would never like New World anyway. It’s B-movie science-fiction, and not that good either. But I figured that if people still like the original Star Trek series, then I have a chance. I started submitting New World to science-fiction conventions around the country and it got around.

We screened the movie at several conventions here in Columbus, Ohio, as well as Cleveland, and as far as Fort Worth, and Baltimore. The new twenty-eight minute version plays much, much better now with audiences. I breathe easier, but I still notate every flaw and try to imagine what re-doing it will be.

Then I bagged the elephant, San Diego Comic-Con, the largest comic book and science-fiction convention in the world. This happened to be the first year of the Comic-Con Independent Film Festival and New World got accepted. We screened it for a decent sized audience there, and I got to do a Q & A afterwards. I even got to meet and have a conversation with Joss Whedon, my hero and creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in the green room.

What did I learn? A whole bunch, mostly what not to do. I learned to not bite off something this big and expect it to come off great. At least not until I’ve learned more about the basics of the craft. Moviemaking is a collaborative art, and planning is the key.

Be realistic.

The Making of In Memory of My Father

Submitted by Chris Jaymes

In Memory of My Father was shot over a five day period using three cameras following a four week on-location rehearsal process where the script was further developed. One week after returning from Southeast Asia, where I had been for three months, I wrote the script in five days after David Austin, the executive producer, asked me to write a script to film in his house. Austin lives in one of Samuel Goldwyn’s old mansions, off Franklin and Camino Palmero in the Hollywood Hills, and was planning to sell the house and wanted to have it documented before doing so.

I had been planning to see the revival screening of Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie all week at the Fine Arts Theater and it was Thursday evening, the last night of its run. So I rushed over for the 10 p.m. screening. An hour into the film, I realized that I hadn’t seen a single frame of the film as my mind had been running through images of what soon would become In Memory of My Father. I immediately left the theater and started jotting down notes in my car.

Five days later the script was complete. I sculpted three story lines to unfold throughout the house using specific actors that are friends, including Judy Greer and Jeremy Sisto. I wrote each of the actor’s story lines in a manner that would cater to their specific personalities and set each actor’s story amongst their friends, partners, and families to enhance the intimacy and comfort levels of the performers. On the sixth day, I had all of the actors come to David’s house for a reading, without allowing anyone to look at the script beforehand.

Everyone seemingly loved it and we were set to go. I rewrote for the next week, as I began producing the film with the ever so miniscule budget I was given. At the end of that week, we had another reading, which confirmed the reality of the production that would begin four weeks later as a weeklong shoot. With the limited budget and the availability of the actors, I honed it down to a five day shoot. Taking the blue prints of the mansion, I mapped out the set-up for each scene with the blocking of the actors, the placement of the cameras, camera movement, and other details in order to move quickly and as smoothly as possible.

Over the next four weeks, I produced the film and prepped the house. Abe Levy, my friend and director of photography who I had worked with as an actor in two of his films, worked with me for the final week and a half, setting lights and shooting tests. The actors were made aware that I would be at house prepping for the film, and that they could have access to the house at any time. The majority of the cast took advantage of this situation and on a voluntary and improvised schedule would show up with their scene partners to rehearse and prepare. I would try to spend as much time as possible with each of them, and during these sessions I would constantly rewrite in an attempt to bring out what seemed more familiar to them. Knowing them all as well as I did, it was easier to nurture their natural instincts and help find the beauty and core of what I had loved about them as people. The cast brought so much more to the script than I could have imagined and really took advantage of the freedom that I had given. Since we were shooting the entire film at this one location we had the benefit of pre-setting the entire house, which is the only reason we were able to complete the task of capturing seventy hours of footage in five days of shooting. The house itself was already nearly perfect.

Aside from re-decorating two of the upstairs rooms, all that really had to happen was to light the house in an invisible manner. We had a bedroom transformed into a make-up room and the rest of the house served as a green room, which was pretty amazing, and no one ever wanted to leave. The house has a fifties retro-Hollywood sort of feel to it. Large balconies overlook a swimming pool that is neighbored by a jacuzzi room (something you don't see much of anymore), both of which are set into a brick floor. An overgrown south of France yard surrounds the house and the trees seem to give you a feeling of privacy, regardless of the fact that you’re just a few steps away from Franklin Boulevard.

Unfortunately, upon David selling the Goldwyn house, the buyers gutted it and completely redesigned every last detail of the property turning it into just another ostentatious looking mansion, where prior to that there was absolutely nothing ostentatious about it. At the risk of sounding a little pretentious, there was definitely a nurturing quality about the property. It did feel like another character to a certain degree, however not a character that wanted any attention as much as one that just liked being a part of something. Not one piece of furniture or any part of the house was damaged with well over a hundred bodies moving around it at any given time, and that is something that I've never seen happen.

There was definitely a sense of wonder in the back of my mind; occasional flashes of what may have happened here forty years ago, and curiosity of the glamour and the darkness that lived inside the history of the house. The footage that I have will be the last true documentation of the property as it was originally designed, which is fortunate and yet unfortunate at the same time.
We’re currently looking for distribution and some additional financing. A short cut sneak peak of the film is premiering at the IFP market on September 23 at the Angelika Theater in New York City.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Ten Things to Help You Prepare for a Film Festival

Submitted by R. Dekker Dreyer

Just like every other starry-eyed young director in America I had ambitions of traveling to Park City, Utah in January and showing off one of my masterworks to a crowd of adoring sophisticates and landing that well-earned three picture deal. After you get into one of the well-known festivals, you might imagine everything comes together like magic. This is a pipe dream. The film industry is an industry, a job. From my own experiences at festivals around North America, and more specifically Sundance and Slamdance, I’ve compiled a list of ten things filmmakers need to know about festivals. When I was selected for Slamdance 2003 I found very little information online about what to do as a filmmaker at a festival and I wanted to provide this information to other directors who may be packing a bag and hitting the circuit. If you’re a serious filmmaker I suggest you study this list and take it for what it’s worth.

1) Nobody knows who you are. You have to be very outgoing and make friends quickly otherwise you’ll have wasted your time.

2) Your movie needs an audience and it is your sole responsibility to bring in that audience. Bring flyers, posters, post cards, a bull horn, and a giant panda suit, anything to attract attention to your film.

3) Celebrities are available to give you advice, make sure you ask good questions. I can’t stand people who ask things to the effect of, “How do make it as a director?” Truthfully, asking this will make you look like a fool in front of very important people. If you’re asking this kind of question you’ve ruined a great opportunity. Questions of that nature are greedy and give the impression that you don’t care about the craft, only yourself. Ask questions that matter, like, “When you’re directing do you...” or “I’ve seen you in ______, how did the scene where you escaped the mental hospital come together for you as an actor?” These types of questions are things you can learn from and they make the person being questioned feel good that you are interested in their work.

4) Be prepared at any moment to pitch ideas in a professional way. If your film is well received you may be asked about future ideas. Have handy, non-disclosure agreements, treatments, budgets, demographic information, comparables reports, and press clippings. Make well presented packages, nice folders and business cards are a must. The Movie Producer’s Toolbox from www.movie-producers.net is great tool for putting this package together.

5) Participate in roundtable discussions. There will be many chances to sit in on discussion panels on wide range of film topics. Sit in on as many of these as you can and ask intelligent questions while sharing your own experiences.

6) A word on parties. There are lots of them. There is a lot of free liquor. Do not abuse the free liquor. Parties are a casual environment to meet up with your contemporaries. They may be the first point of contact with some important people, so be careful to make a good impression. Dress to impress, and do not get drunk.

7) Bring a camera. Take as many photos as you can, they can be used in promotional materials about you and your film in print or online. Capture it all and let the world see how great you are.

8) Film festivals are expensive. Visiting one may cost you upwards of $800 on the low end. Make sure you can afford this by saving money from the time you submit your film. Even if you are not selected you may have financed your next short, so remember to save.

9) Many of the people you will encounter are professionals so be smart when you talk to them. Even if they are not the president of Universal you still may need them as a valuable contact. If you’re serious about making a living in the entertainment business then you need to respect the fact that everyone in the industry can help you in some capacity.

10) Leave your pride at the door. Don’t ever be afraid to ask for what you want or tell people about your goals. The only time you will look foolish doing this is if you haven’t really thought about your future as a filmmaker. If you’ve done your homework and know what you want and you’ve made your own plan on how to get it people will respect you and want to help.

Location, Location, Location: Scouting Tips

Submitted by Scott Spears

Just like in real estate, when you leave the studio (if you were ever in one) one of the biggest factors to a good shoot, is location, location, location. I’ve been location scouting many times and have seen some great locations and some not so great locations. One of the biggest things when seeing what looks like a great location is you have to think will it work logistically. The factors to locations are cost, sound issues, power, and logistics. We’ll break those down in a minute.

First, who should go on the location scout? As many crew people as possible. It’s not feasible to take the entire crew to each location (unless you have a small crew), so you need to pick department heads, the director, cinematographer, first assistant director, art director, sound mixer, and production/location manager. I like to bring my gaffer if possible. These people all look at locations in different ways and will have different and valuable input. When all of these people aren’t there, then somebody on the scout should be looking out for them. Sometimes when it’s just me and the director out scouting, we both have to wear different production hats and not just consider picture needs.


This is the easy one, either you can afford the location or you can’t. A good producer might be able to wheel and deal a better price. Sometimes you have to use some imagination with a place that doesn’t quite work, but is affordable. This is where the director has to envision the shots he will need. There’s a famous story from Akira Kurosawa when he was asked how he achieved a “perfect” frame for a period film he directed and he said, if I had panned to the right there was a modern factory and if I panned to the left, there were power lines, so the frame was set. I’ve been on scouts where people have said the location wouldn’t work because of some factor, but after talking with the director, we realized that element would never be on camera.

Sound Issues

Here’s a line I like to use on sound mixers (please sound folks, don’t take a offense, I’m joking), “they’re called motion pictures, not motion sounds.” It usually gets them riled up, but seriously, you have to not just look at a location, you have to listen to it. Is it on a street with heavy traffic? Is there construction nearby or the potential for it? Is it in the path of an airport? Do a bunch of college party kids live next door who will throw the world’s biggest party ever in the middle of your intimate drama? If it’s a multi-story building, who lives upstairs? Somebody who stomps around in combat boots? There are hundreds of noise factors that can slow or grind your production to a halt, so be on the lookout.

If you start to like a location and think it will be high on your list, take a moment and stand silently. Listen for hums and buzzes. Find out if they can be eliminated. You should visit it again at a different time of day to make sure there isn’t some factor that changes. Say you visit an apartment that looks perfect in the morning, but it sits above a bar that at night cranks up the music, well that would be a sound killer. Some smaller airports cut back on night flights, but during the day your location will have a flight overhead every two minutes. In general, try to think when you’ll be shooting and seek out any sound factor which would slow or halt shooting. Sometimes these things can come out of nowhere and cannot be predicted, but you should do your homework.

As a side note, refrigerators are the bane of sound mixer’s life, humming back to life in the middle of takes thus ruining the sound. The solution is to turn them off during the shoot, but often times they don’t get turned back on after the shoot and the production gets a bill to replace the spoiled contents. Here’s a clever way to avoid that. The person that is assigned be the last person to leave the location, be that the assistant director, the location manager, or a production assistant, should put their car keys in the fridge, that way when they go to their car and pat their pockets for the keys they will remember they put them the fridge for a reason and will remember to turn it back on. This was taught to me by a wise assistant director. I love tricks like this.


A nightmare for gaffers is lack of power. If you need a shaft of sunlight pouring through a window that is created by lighting, not the sun, and the production can’t afford a generator, then you need lots of power. Older buildings should be given special inspections. I’ve shot in apartments that had only two twenty amp circuits which means if you plug in more than four lights, you’re going to start blowing breakers. We ended up borrowing power from an apartment two stories above and just dropped cables out the window to feed our lights. Not ideal, but it worked. Does the place have plenty of outlets? Where are the circuit breakers? You should know where they are so if you blow a breaker you can get at it to reset it. I’ve had hour-long production delays because a fuse box was locked in a closet and nobody could find a janitor to open it. Get to know whoever’s in charge of the keys to all the doors in a building and make them your best friend.

Another side note, here’s the Scott Spears lazy man math formula for calculating power needs for lights. Say you want to use three 1000 watts lights (1Ks for short) and a 500 watt light. You take the watts and add them up which makes 3500 watts, then you divide that by 100 (I know it should be 110, but that’s why I call it a lazy man formula) and that will give you the amps you’ll need, which in this case will be 35 amps. Most houses have 20 amp breakers, so you’ll need at least two dedicated breakers for your lights. Total watts divided by 100 is the number of amp you will need.


Locations bring their own set of logistics, just like people. There are a lot of things you don’t think about as you walk around a cool location lining up shots and thinking how you’ll use the space, but there’s a lot more to a location than that.

Where the heck are the cast, crew, and equipment vehicles going to park? A film production takes up a lot of space so there better be parking. How do you get all the gear to the location? Are there elevators or is the crew going have to drag a ton of equipment up four flights of stairs? Exterior locations have these same concerns. I’ve had to hike about a mile uphill for a shoot with gear on my back and in each hand which isn’t fun, but you have to do what you have to do. Do that six times to start and end your day and you’ll think twice about that location.

Don’t forget about changing rooms for cast and a make-up area as well. Here’s a biggie, are there enough bathrooms? Nothing can get you booted from a location faster than having thirty people trying to use one bathroom and to have the toilet overflow.

Now that you and your stuff are on set, where do you put people and extra gear when they’re not working? All the grips and cast not on camera need someplace to hang out while shooting is underway.

Do you have a place for the cast and crew to eat? Is there a large space so everybody sit together and eat? That’s a great way to build camaraderie (as long as the food is good, but that’s a whole other topic). If you don’t feed people on site, are there restaurants nearby. Be careful letting cast and crew loose on the world because they’ll all come staggering in a few minutes late with the excuse that the waiters were slow or there was some other problem.

Some locations have special requirements, like no shoes, cover the floors, or be out at a certain time. Make sure everybody respects these rules or you may be looking for a new place. If a location throws on too many restrictions off the bat, you may want to look elsewhere because once you’re there, life may get even worse with more rules and complaints about even minor infractions.

Final Thoughts

I’ll close by saying my rule is to try to and leave a location better than you found it. Don’t leave a mess because eventually that reputation will catch up to you and you’ll start getting locked out of places.