Friday, March 28, 2008

Feed Your People, or They Will Feed on You

I'm the first guy who wants to save money on a shoot. What you save here, can be applied there. The constraints of a tiny budget force you to be creative and come up with unique and inexpensive solutions. This doesn't have to cut into quality, but can actually make a production better than the one that wastes resources and encourages laziness. When you have to become more organized due to lack of funds, you will become a better filmmaker. Or you'll just quit.

Even in the so-called "no budget" movie there is one area you had better address with some cash or you may find yourself alone on the set one day. That key category is food. You have to feed your people. They have to eat. Film shoots are notoriously long, and humans will run out of energy (and get cranky) without some kind of fuel to keep them going. Do not cut this corner, or no one will want to "work for free" again.

Make sure you ask the cast and crew what they like. A happy cast and crew is a better cast and crew, and you will be rewarded for the attention you give to your people. Some may even have special needs (like vegetarians) and may not be able to eat the bowl of pork rinds you feel is adequate.

I realize that most of us can't afford catering. Shop the discount stores, or really plan ahead and (gasp!) cook the stuff. If you aren't the cooking type, ask mom or your wife. They fully support your movie making habit, right? I prefer a somewhat healthy menu over candy and grease, but something to eat is better than nothing.

I had to learn this lesson the hard way (of course). On one of my first short films shot in my apartment, I thought nothing about food. I'm usually high on adrenaline and eat very little since I'm always busy. Since no one else shared in this particular food group, people started raiding my pantry for snacks. They found what they wanted, but when it was all over, I was hungry and the cupboard was bare. Never again, I thought.

Even if you have no money to pay your people, you had better find some way to feed them. Otherwise, you will not only be known as the "low-to-no budget" director, but also the "cheap and torturous" one.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Time: Filmmaker Friend or Foe?

In Stu Maschwitz' excellent manual, The DV Rebel's Guide, he points out that the little movie guy has something the giant Hollywood studio does not: all the time in the world. The small player can utilize this resource by refining and polishing and tweaking ad nauseum. This is an advantage if you want to spend an eternity on each project, but what if you want to avoid burnout or attempt to make a living at this sort of thing?

In a recent Renart Films Podcast, host Daniel Schechter interviewed Josh Alexander, writer of Backseat. It was a good interview, but I find it alarming at the time it takes to get even a low budget film completed through traditional methods. Josh wrote his script in 2000, and the final product is just now getting a limited release in theaters. That's EIGHT YEARS for one film! Granted, it's not all Josh did in this time period, but wow.

I'm definitely an old school guy when it comes to movie making. I like good lighting and dolly shots. I like preparation and well thought-out sequences. I hate sloppy technique and lazy shortcuts. I'd rather go slow than fast, but never have that luxury if I want to get everything done on everyone else's donated time and resources.

I think the perfect model falls within a one year time frame. Take six months to complete your web series, or narrative, or whatever and document the whole process while you do it. Put those documents on the web ASAP, generating interest about your final product. Build some buzz via social networking or real world press however you can. Put a countdown timer on your blog or site showing the time remaining to your project's release, and make sure you do something cool when that timer hits zero.

Spend the next six months promoting the crap out of your widget. Focus on getting as many eyeballs on your movie and don't get distracted with another project.

Repeat.

I realize this isn't possible for everyone. It's not possible for me, either. Many of us have day jobs and families and lives we try to juggle in order to get those images out of our heads and onto a screen, no matter how small. I do think it is possible, and could be very rewarding and creatively expanding to be working on a new full-length whatever on a yearly basis. Take your time, but use your time wisely and get it done, so you can move on to the next challenge. It can be done (even by me).

Thoughts?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Indie DVD: 'Drop Box'

Video Store Clerks
Movie
DVD

We’ve all had at least one of “those” jobs. They involve a series of mundane tasks, and almost always feature interaction with the general public and their associated dregs. The pay is low and the desire to move on is high. This common scenario is ripe material that everyone can relate to. Drop Box is an attempt to capitalize on one very familiar setting (a video store) by mixing in someone not so mudane or typical: a national celebrity. The result is a mixed bag low budget effort that kinda works, but is undone by story contrivances, a confined location, and an abrupt ending.

Incognito pop star “Mindy” (Rachel Sehl) accidentally returns homemade sex tape to a local video rental store. Once cynical clerk Tom (David Cormican) finds out, the game is on, and Mindy will stop at nothing to get the tape back and save her career. Will Tom give in to her demands, or sell this Golden Goose on eBay?

Let me first say that it is always a nice surprise to see a microbudget movie that cares about the way it looks and sounds. With YouTube desensitizing everyone to a lack of quality, I am grateful that writer/directors Anesty and Spiros Carasoulos put real effort into lighting and cinematography. Drop Box looks really good. Shot selection is impressive despite a few self indulgent angles from the bottom of bags or behind clothing. The sound has a few issues (some sync problems, ambient noise cutting), but is only mildly distracting.

The problems begin on the conceptual level of the scripting and the confines of the story. Drop Box is set entirely inside the video store, and if you are going to go this “one location” route, your writing had better be fantastic, since we are essentially watching a play transpire. Well, this film has some good pacing and funny dialogue (Mindy: “What’s a good romantic comedy?” Tom: “There aren’t any.”) but can’t sustain itself imprisoned in that store (the repetitive musical cues didn’t help either). I so desperately wanted them to get out so the story and characters could breathe, but they never do (even at the end, which would seem to present that opportunity).

When the setup is presented, I had two questions. How does someone who claims to have sold “50 million albums” escape the omnipresent paparazzi to go visit a podunk video outlet? Then, when Tom refuses to give her the tape, where was her bodyguard or other entourage member that could easily beat Tom silly? Drop Box bites off more than it can chew with this scenario, and I never really believed it.

The script comes from the Kevin Smith School of Frank Sexual Talk, with a lot of profanity and conversations about male and female body parts (the store has a porn section, so we get to hear a lot about that). It’s a bit much, but never sinks to the level that Smith often goes to. Some of it is funny, but I often felt like Mindy was being victimized by Tom who comes across as more of a stereotype to her thee dimensions. I also felt cheated by the ending, which is set in motion with an unbelievable event--then just ends.

The acting trickles down from very good to passable. The leads are excellent, with Cormican and Sehl trading verbal barbs with verve and chemistry. Cormican almost plays Tom too well, as the script paints him as a know-it-all jerk. I liked his performance, but didn’t care for him much as a character. Sehl is just plain electric, transforming her bitchy teen queen into someone you really care about. She has a very honest face, and her delivery feels genuine. The rest of the cast is hit-or-miss with child actors who come across like amateurs to great bit parts like the the psycho customer played by Cameron Sheppard (“Watch your mouth--and your back.”).

The DVD is the bare bones variety, with nothing but the film included. This is a real missed opportunity, as I would have loved to have seen some interviews with Cormican and Sehl, as well as some behind the scenes stuff. I always enjoy watching what the filmmakers went through to frame their project (which is often more interesting than the film itself), but here we get nothing. I was informed by email that every cent of the budget went into the production, but how much could a director’s commentary cost? Maybe next time.

Drop Box is a curious mix that never quite worked for me. The acting is the highlight with Rachel Sehl proving she is one to watch. The filmmaking is good, and I would watch another movie from the Carasoulos camp. I just hope their next flick is not so crass, has multiple locations, and knows how to end itself.