Monday, May 17, 2010

In their own words: Indie filmmakers

The “Making a Feature Film in Massachusetts on an Indie Budget” panel at the recent Independent Film Festival of Boston was moderated by Mike Bowes of Central Productions, with Garth Donovan, director of Philip the Fossil, Mark Colucci, director of Slip and Fall, and Kurt Bergeron, production designer for God of Vampires.

The following is an edited version of their comments:

Q: How do you make it happen?
Garth: For me it’s belief in the script. Once you have the script and the actors, then you can find gear, you can find people who will be hungry to work on your film.

Kurt: A lot of it was just going out to everyone we knew. If you gave us a thousand dollars, we gave you a producer’s credit. If you gave us five thousand dollars we gave you an executive producer’s credit. We raised fifteen hundred dollars having a raffle at conventions, and whoever won the raffle got to die in the movie. That worked so well we raised another fifteen hundred dollars, and whoever won the second raffle got to kill the guy that one the first raffle. This movie was getting made no matter what.

[ltor] Kurt Bergeron, Mark Delucci, Garth Donovan and Mike Bowes

Q: How do you know that the script is ready?
Garth: You have to look outside yourself for that. If you don’t, you’re going to find out at some point that it’s limited. You have to send it out and have others read it […] people that you trust, filmmakers that you trust, laymen that you trust, your sister’s friend that just likes movies. It’s important that you don’t just give it to film geeks, who are like “Oh, you’re going to use a dolly on page 13!”

Mike: I have ten to fifteen people that I always send stuff out to. I work mostly in comedy and things are typically funnier to you if you’ve written it or involved in it. They might make sense to you, but you might not have explained it well on the page.


Q: What were the budget levels and how did you go about raising money?
Garth: I run a painting company, and a lot of houses that I painted went in to it. My own personal money for feeding crew and for some gear, probably about $7,000. I had another guy that probably put five thousand in. I collect scrap metal and cans at high volumes, like OCD weird volumes, so I put a lot of funding into the movie through scrap metal. Probably about $6,000 over a two year period. So a total hodgepodge, just whatever to get it done.

Mark: There was a guy on Craigslist who had a script and had some money and was looking for a director, and you never hear of that, ever. A friend of mine sent me the link, and it said low budget and I thought it was going to be a joke, but I figured I’d go in and talk to them. I don’t remember what we ended up with - about $400,000 - which was great.
There’s a certain range of money that it doesn’t really matter if you have say 40 to 400,000 because when you only have a small amount of money there’s stuff that you just beg, borrow and steal to get. And when you have more money, you’re just paying for the things that you were asking for favors.
But in order to get that much money, I sacrificed a lot of control.

Kurt: Rob had created a short film and we brought it around to potential investors; business owners, friends and family, and we said “Here’s our short film, this is what we can do, here’s the new idea, Who’s in?”
I think the most we got was $12,000 something like that, and the rest we did on our own. We had about $25,000 when we started shooting and by the time it was done I think it was about $35,000.
Rob would get jobs on sets [of other movies], and by the end of the film we’d say “Listen, we’ll take down all of your sets, but give us the wood.” We would grab materials from all these other pictures and we would recycle them.
The second bonus for us. We shot our movie in a warehouse in Haverhill MA where they made military uniforms, and there were spools of material and equipment we could use, so we got to go shopping on our own set, which was invaluable.

Q: How did you crew up for the shoot?
Garth: I like intimate crews. I’ve done four features and I’ve always had a very small crew; not more than four or five people that I trust. We shot two cameras, a DP and I would shoot with one of the cameras, a soundman and another hand on deck.
I searched for some young hungry kids that had skills and really wanted to make a film. They would literally shoot with me for a month for $300. There’s a satellite school of BU called CDIA and kids from CDIA have helped me out on my last two pictures.

Mark: Having a significantly larger budget really helped us with the crew. A lot of stuff I’ve worked on in the past, that has had no budget, you shoot it on a collection of weekends. We were able to lock down and focus and I think we shot for 19 days and a B-roll day.
There’s a lot of talented people in Boston, but we don’t have as large a market as New York or LA. The thing about the crews in Boston is that they’re really passionate and willing to lend a hand.

Kurt: I think it took us about three years for us to find our crew. There were always people that worked on the film, but we had to let people come and go if they were getting a job that paid. The final crew was about five people. It was myself, Rob Fitz the director, Dharma Lim the star and producer, Silas Tyler the DP, and Casey Heemskirk as grip, though he was behind the camera for a lot of the movie as well.
When I first approached Rob about the project, I actually went as an actor. Rob sat through my whole audition and he said “Wow, you did a really great job, but its Chinese vampires. But I need a production designer,” and I said “Well I’ve never done that before,” and he says “Well I’ve never directed before, let’s do it.”
We shot our film entirely in sequence, so you can literally see our learning ability from when we first started. Rob had this Arri-BL we were using with short end stock, but some of it wasn’t stored properly, so by the time we ended up using it, it shows. We tried to fix that by color correcting in post.
Silas brought in the Arri LTR 7 he used, and then he was working with Boston Film Shack, which was an awesome resource for us, and they gave us an Arri SR3 with an elite lens package, and then he sold his camera and he got the A-Minima and we finished the film off with that, so from start to end, it’s so drastic.
Not only did we learn such a huge amount, and the acting got better, but visually as well, it just grew. We’re still learning, but you can definitely see the amount of growth that we had in our film.

Kurt Bergeron

Q: How do you cast? Where do you find your cast?
Garth: Before I start writing something I usually know who I’m going to use. If I write something I know I’m going to shoot it. I always go for personal connections. People I know, because I don’t want to wait. I want to do it now.
I like to use non actors. I troll everything, it doesn’t matter to me. I’ll put it up on Craigslist, I found a great actress on Craigslist. I found the dregs of society as well.

Mark: I direct TV commercials, and we have a relationship with a casting agency, so for our film, we knew we didn’t have enough money to cast, but we called in a favor and I called a woman at the casting agency and said “we have this amount of money, what can you do?” and she actually gave us a full on casting service. She posted everything on line and we did call backs. I think we had $2,000 for her and she didn’t even take it.
The one problem we have is a lack of steady work, so typically our curse is, somebody gets good enough, they move to New York or LA.
Also, being Boston, it’s very white. It’s really hard to find any minority or cultural specific role. And I ‘m not really sure why that is.

Kurt: We had the same thing. It was mostly non-actors. As far as finding Asian actors, we’re so limited. We’re so white here. So there’s people in the film that are Korean, Japanese, Cambodian. In our film, your eyes are torn out, because the Chinese believe that your eyes are the part of your soul that gives you free will, so the head vampire removes them. So we had all this makeup on, and one of the defining features of being Asian is gone; I was a Chinese vampire at least four times.
One of the funniest things that happened to us, we were at an apartment complex in South Boston and we’d put signs up leading to the apartment for an audition saying “God of Vampires this way,” and we’re sitting there waiting, wondering where the hell is everybody? And this old woman came in holding all the fliers and says “I will not support vampire cults in my apartment complex.”

Q: What was the timetable for the film?
Garth: We shot in a pretty tight three weeks, and I began cutting pretty intensely, and made a cut of the film and had people come in and watch the cut and they let me know that my masterpiece wasn’t what I thought it was.
And then we had to come up with how were we going to fill these holes? We’d go out and do that, and I’d screen it again. We probably worked on the film shooting for a year, but again, that might have been four reshoot weekends.
I cut pretty fast, so if we shot over the weekend, by Wednesday I’d have everything we shot cut and placed back in. But again, I run a painting company, so I would cut in the morning, before I go to work, or when I come home. Filmmaking has never been something that I’ve been lucky enough for it to be my primary focus, so I’ve always had to work after hours and a lot of coffee.

Mark: I came on the job in January [part-time], and then February was exclusive, and we shot the month of March into April for four weeks. After we finished shooting we sort of pumped the brakes, because we put most of our money into production and our post budget was a little bit smaller. We didn’t have enough money to get the editor exclusively; we’d be in there nights, weekends with him.
It probably took us six months to get to a final cut and then we went into finishing, that took another couple of months, maybe four months, and we finished in the end of January, February.
I definitely wish we had taken a little time to get a little feedback because at this point it’s so close, it’s something you’ve lived with for over a year, so in my case with jokes, the timing of a joke, it’s not really funny.
In my experience with comedy, when you’re there, on set, it’s the funniest thing in the world, and then you get in the editing room and nobody’s laughing.

Q: When doing production in Massachusetts, What do you find as major assets, and what do you wish was here?
Garth: What do I wish for? I would probably say actors. There are good actors here, but you’re probably going to have to go elsewhere.

Mark: Because we’re a small community, its’ really tight knit and we’re really a community, and we are all friends and family. I really like that aspect of it.
What I think we need is a little more infrastructure. You can’t always get everything you need whether prop based or wardrobe. I do a lot of commercials and we were doing a hidden camera shot and we wanted an earwig so I could talk to the talent directly. It probably took four or five days to figure out who had it, what it would cost and what we would need to run it. I was doing a similar job in LA two months later and I turned to the producer and said “Oh, I forgot to tell you, we need an ear wig for tomorrow, is that going to be a problem?” and he said “I could have it for you right now. The place is 20 minutes away.”

Kurt: Movies are still rare enough that everyone is excited about it. I’m not saying use people, but free labor comes, and you wouldn’t be able to make your film without them.

Mark: The cool thing about it is that people are generally interested in it, and if you want to shoot in an office, they’re like “Oh cool.” When you’re in LA, that’s what everybody does, so if you want to shoot in a restaurant, the manager doesn’t care because he has two scripts in his desk draw and went to three auditions earlier that afternoon, so nobody cares at all.

[ltor] Mark Delucci, Garth Donovan and Mike Bowes

Q: How do you deal with permitting?
Kurt: We had no insurance or permits whatsoever. We were down at Danvers state asylum when they were doing Session 9, and they were filming at the same time and we walked up with all our film equipment and they said “Can we help you guys?” and we said “Yeah, we’re second unit for Session 9,” and they said, “Alright go on up” and we walked up and shot “God of Vampires” somewhere else on the same location.

Mike Bowes: The whole question of permits is town by town based, so you call city hall and talk to the town clerk. But in Boston you need to get a bond with the city, and street permits and parking permits.
I’ve had the little old lady at town hall say “Oh, I’ll just tell the cops you’ll be there, don’t worry,” and other times you’re doing two weeks permitting just to get a specific spot and all the parking, it’s a very town by town thing.

Mark: Usually the higher the rent or the mortgage is, the more difficult it is to shoot there.

Q: What about marketing and distribution?
Garth: For my stuff I know that festivals are going to be the biggest way of getting attention. Hopefully you get in a festival, make a wave and then have a distribution offer. But festivals cost a lot of money. Everybody’s film is going to be different. You might pitch your uncle “I need $30,000 dollars, 15 to shoot, 10 to edit and then 5 because I’m going to submit to five festivals right off the bat.” But it’s very hard to sell a movie up front.

Kurt: Learning to make a movie is one problem. Distribution is another.

Garth: There’s a really innovative new means of funding that’s online called Kickstarter. People make videos “Hi my name is, I’m making a film this summer it’s about x y and z” and ask for donations online. I was at South by Southwest this year and pretty much every film there under 50,000 was funded by kickstarter.

Kurt: I learned film making with no budget, so even if we had a budget, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. I’m just so used to making things with nothing.

Q: Can you explain the difference between Modified-Low budget Sag agreements and Low budget?
Mark: Our crew was non-union. Ours was called modified low-budget. There’s a place where if you actually cross $1 million, you’re capable of less than if you had 700,000 because premiums and everything goes up.
Don’t get me wrong, having more money makes things way easier at every stage of the game, but it also makes things more complicated.

Mike Bowes: The difference between modified low budget and low budget; in low budget you have to pay for background actors, extras and stand-ins, whereas on modified low budget you don’t. So on low-budget everyone in the restaurant you have to pay $125 to, on modified, you can use your friends and family.

Q: What do you use for equipment?
Kurt: We rented ours a lot. We ended up buying cameras, but lights and c-stands we pretty much rented.

Garth: I try and shoot as much low-light as I can. A lot of digital HD cameras will shoot low light really well, and I personally like the aesthetic look of it. We used a couple of Keno lights that disburse pretty even light so you can set it up and just get in and shoot.

Mike: Every camera that comes out is better able to function in a low light situation. There’s still the creative side of lighting and creating a look, but if that’s not what you’re going for it’s becoming easier and easier to literally pick up a camera and shoot.

Q: After school, is it best to explore different cities? Should you go corporate vs creative?
Garth: Well what do you want your career to be? Do you have stories that keep you up to tell, or do you want to get in and work on crews? If you’ve got films that you want to do it. If that’s what’s going through your head, one isn’t better than the other, just start shooting.

Kurt: Rob said this funny thing to me once. I was going to school and he was giving me a hard time about it. He said the biggest thing you get out of there is contacts. He said “You’re learning stuff that I know you already know how to do. You’re paying this much money for school, and then when you get out you’re going to have to try to find that money again to make your first film, when you could have just skipped school and made your film.”

[UPDATE 10:50PM: Corrected Mark Colucci's last name and name of festival.]

1 comment:

Kurt Bergeron said...

Wow, I had no idea anyone did this! lol, thanks, kinda neat to look back on it. Was definitely a fun panel! :)
-Kurt Bergeron