Rebel Without a Crew & Clerks….

The thing that crystalized me into making my own feature was reading the book “Rebel without a Crew” by Robert Rodriquez and the release of “Clerks” directed by Kevin Smith.  I had been trying to get a film together for some time, but I ran into resistance, and non-compliance by some.  So I decided that I had to go my own way and do my own thing.  Others were certainly doing it, and reading Rodriquez’s book was inspiring, and it set my soul on fire.  You would think that after reading so many books on filmmaking I would get inspired.  Rick Schmidt’s books certainly did that, but I wanted to make films of a different nature.  I was always drawn to B movies and I thought I could write something along those lines.  My favorite author was and still is Jim Thompson.  Thompson is the author of such novels as “The Killer inside me“, The Grifters“, “A Hell of a Women” and “The Getaway”.  These are all novels that were turned into films.  Some were successful, but to me it never came close to the true essence of a Thompson novel.  The closest was “The Getaway” with Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw not the remake with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger.  Not that I totally disliked the film, but the original was a lot closer to the novel, and it was directed by Sam Peckinpah who got it right.  So I figured I try and write something like that, and it was no surprise that I loved the film “Blood Simple” by the Coen Brothers.  I looked for articles, and interviews when the film “Blood Simple” came out. It was the Coen Brothers I was trying to emulate, yet I did not have the budget they had, so of course my attention was drawn both to Rodriguez and Smith two creators I felt I had something in common with, and that was no money.

Can I say that I saw “Clerks” a total of three times in the theater.  I thought it was brilliant, and I reveled in seeing someone make a Black & white comedy.  Eat your heart out Woody Allen I thought.  I read everything there was on the making of “Clerks”.  I can thank “Moviemaker” magazine for their coverage of the film.  They even printed a budget for the film which again I looked at and studied.  What both movies had was that they were made by people with a passion for moviemaking, and a desire to get it done without any excuses.  It was then that I set off to write, plan and execute my own film.

With the knowledge I acquired I made my film “Deadly Obsessions“.  I started in 1997.  Shot it in 1998, and finished it in 2003.  Took 6 years approximately to finish the film while at the same time I worked at my day job.  When I finished I tried landing it somewhere at a festival, and I had no success.  I can cry “its not what you know, it’s who you know”, but I tried all the  festivals I could think of to no success.  Even got a book about film festivals.  I put it on “without a box” website, and still nothing.  I was a film lost in the wilderness of other films.  By now digital video had exploded and the internet was awash with DV clips, and shorts. Digital video changed the landscape of independent film.  Now there was a avalanche of films that were being submitted to festivals.  I was being lost in the shuffle, and I’m not making any excuses here.  My wife and I did our best to try and get it seen, but it became too expensive after awhile, and other priorities came first.  Number one being my family.

I still am very proud of the film and would like to release it someday online.  The film was available for a short while at Film Baby which closed awhile back.  I would need now to convert it to HD, which is possible, but costly.   I still have hopes that the film will be seen someday as it was meant to be seen, and I even have desires to do more.  What I learned in making my film was tremendous.  The people I met and the people I worked with will be forever etched in my mind.  I so want to use some of them again.  When you work with talented people you want to do it again.  I even believe that I could make a feature for even less then I original made “Deadly Obsessions” for.  But in order to do another feature it would have to be something that would be close to my heart.

All I can say is that if you’re going to go down this road make a movie you can live with for awhile because you’ll be working on it for sometime.  I’m sure you’ll do it on digital video since it’s easier and it looks fantastic, but you’ll still need to have a life, and the bills don’t stop coming so you’ll have the day job.  But pace yourself my friend, and get i done.  However it takes.  Francis Ford Coppola said once to an audience that:

To me, the great hope is that now these little 8mm video recorders and stuff have come out, and some… just people who normally wouldn’t make movies are going to be making them. And you know, suddenly, one day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, you know, and make a beautiful film with her little father’s camera recorder. And for once, the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed, forever. And it will really become an art form. That’s my opinion.

Francis Ford Coppola

I’ve always loved that quote, and it has fired up my very existence.  I see it in the young boys and girls I teach sometimes, or even in my own children.  There is so much more vision out there.  You are all better then Hollywood because you all have real stories to tell.  With todays technology all things are possible.  That neat little sci-fi epic you have in mind can be done.  I still have dreams and I’m much older now, but still the dreamer with a realist vision.  There is inspiration everywhere, and we all need to break down the walls that separate us and start building bridges.

What I want to do now is make more films.  Hopefully I will be able to.  In the meantime I’ll write, and keep yelling into the wind with the hope that someone else will hear.  Do you’re on thing and keep plugging away.  Enjoy your life, and meet others.  A rich life is a life with many friends and family.  Don’t let Hollywood dictate to you what a success is.  Find inspiration where you can, and don’t let the creative spark fade.

 

The Unkindest Cut…

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As I’ve said earlier in my posts I’ve read a lot of inspiring books on the subject of filmmaking.  “The Unkindest Cut” by Joe Queenan is a book about how NOT to make a movie.  The book made me think and gave me second thoughts about not doing a film then I would likely admit to.  The book is about the making of the film “Twelve Steps to Death”.  I have not seen the movie and cannot find it anywhere, but Queenan also includes the script to the film, and if the movie is anything like the script there may be good reason why Queenan never released it to the general public.  Like myself Queenan was interested in the making a $7,000 film like Robert Rodriguez’s film “El Mariachi“.  Yet I found the book inspiring as well.   Is it even possible to get something out of a failed attempt of making a movie?  I have to say yes, and in fact I kind of identify with Queenan’s journey into moviemaking.  Queenan’s skill at writing and describing his adventures in making this film shows how maddening the process can be, and how sometimes so demoralizing it can get.  To Queenan’s credit he finished the movie and it even won an award in a local film festival up in Tarrytown New York where the author resides.  Queenan’s film shows us that it is an up hill battle for a filmmaker not only to get his or her film made, but to actually get it seen.  I would eventually hit that brick wall as well, but unlike Queenan’s my film did not get seen by the general public because of lack of money for entries to film festivals, and lack of knowing influential people.  It is the old adage “its’ not what you know, it’s who you know that get’s you seen.

The book even contains a budget for the film.  On page 55 there is a summary of the budget of the film.  Seeing the budget made it simple for me, but where Queenan goes wrong I figured I do my best to keep it professional.   I didn’t use friends and acquaintances to be in my movie.  After years of doing that in my super 8 backyard epics I hired professionals, and people with similar passions like myself.  I used SAG and AFTRA actors, and some classmates from my alma mata (Brooklyn College).   In order to show that I was serious about doing a film I wanted to pay people who would invest their time in making my movie.  In essence it was put up or shut-up.   If you know some professionals thats great, but offer them something.  If you don’t you’re just exploiting them, and you’re setting yourself up for heartache when they have to leave your production for actual paid work.    You would be surprised how cheap you can get people to work in your movie as long as you do it quick and fast.  I had scheduled my film to be shot over 12 days, which turned out to be 11 days.  I had to hit benchmarks each day, to make sure that I completed my film,  and I did.  The key piece of advice I have is once you start filming don’t stop.  I had several hiccups which threatened my film.  One was technical, which we resolved partly on-location, and partly in post.  The other was getting in trouble with the some of the local residents.  That in itself is a story for another day, but I can say I met the problem head on and succeeded.  You cannot stop.  If you stop you’ll have a harder time getting everyone together again and a project can fall apart easily.  So don’t stop.

Queenan’s book is well written and humorous at times .  He shows you the trails and tribulations one needs to go through in order to make a film.  Warts and all.  It showed me what NOT to do.  Making a movie is not for the skittish, and there can be a lot of hills and valleys to cross, but if you have very little resources this is a good book to read.  I learned to keep it professional in my case.  It’s also a funny book and has some valuable tips on keeping it within budget.   If you can find it I highly recommend the book.

Spike Lee

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Spike Lee’s book about the filming of “She’s Gotta Have It” was a premier for me.  When I saw the film I became a fan of the film.  I had some stylistic issues that I disagreed with, but Mr. Lee’s bravado in film-making turned me on, and I really wanted to know how he did that.  This book set the stage for me in creating my own film.  What interested me was the journal in making the movie.  I even created a short journal while making my film even though I really never had the time to sit down and write about my day.  It was only in the evening where I was tired, and drained from the day’s shoot that I could write anything.  Low budget film-making is fast and furious, so there is little time to reflect.  I will in the future try and put some of those notes up here, but as for now I just want to go over the people and movies that inspired me.  Spike Lee’s film “She’s Gotta Have It” was one of those films.

The film was made for $175,000, but the book really shines a light on what Mr. Lee did to start filming his film.  A lot of people took deferments, and Lee’s back was against a wall.  Shoot or wait, and if you know anything about film-making waiting can be the kiss of death for any project.  lee worked like a dog to get the script up to snuff, and he pulled money from a couple of places, but here’s the real secret.  Lee shot the film with about 30K, and he continued to raise more of it while he was shooting.  The book opened my eyes on what you could do with very little.  Spike Lee’s innovative film-making style made the film what it is.  The book is a revelation at how independent film is made.  It’s a hustle plain and simple, and reading it made me think twice about shooting my own film.  But what the book does is show how you can do it.  I learned to hustle and I put a lot of money of my own into the film.   I cut corners in personal and made my film a simpler movie.

Seeing how Lee struggled was an eye opener.  The book is a good primer in the nuts and bolts of film-making.  Lee describes how he had $6,100 from friends and acquaintances.  It was a struggle, and he shot while pulling more an more money in.   Even the lab threatened to sell his negative if Lee didn’t come up with $1,000.  Citing all these examples shows that film-making isn’t for the faint at heart.  You need to believe, and you need to be driven.  It’s a great book on how Spike overcomes all hurtles, and it shows that you need to be flexible.  Sometime things do not turn out the way you want to, so you roll with the punches.  Lee knew once he started he had to finish.  Shot in 11 days also shows his pace, and how well he planned the film.

I made sure I broke down my script, and created a shot list.  What I really am amazed at is how Lee pulled it all together while still shooting the film.  It said to me that one person can do it if he or she really wanted to.

The book is inspiring and a good practical guide in making films.  Shooting a film when you don’t have the whole budget in the bank is risky, but it can be done.  You also need to surround yourself with a supportive cast and crew.  I looked for people who were hungry and creative.  Somehow it all gelled.  I used some students from my alma mater (Brooklyn College) to crew the film, and they really helped me.  I really recommend reading the book, and seeing the film.  I am in no way as talented as Mr Lee, but he does show that you can make your own film if you have the desire and will to do so.  He has always been a favorite of mine, and through this book and watching his film you can see how to actually make a film  yourself.  He had a whole lot more money, but my point is that he didn’t when he started production.  In Mr. Lee’s journal he lays it all out.  Scraping together money to pay the lab, or pay for insurance, while owing back salaries, and loans.  Film-making isn’t for the faint at heart, and Spike Lee shows you how he did it all.  His original film is on Netflix so it’s available to see his labor of love.

What I came away with is that “you could make a low budget film under 30K”.  But that only gets you past production if your shooting film at a ratio of 3 or 4 to one.  I paid my crew and actors because I needed them for a certain time and their time was valuable.  Much more then I was paying them, but I had to have money also for lodging, and food.  I wanted them comfortable, and they saw that.  The actors gave me their all because I was giving them my all.  That’s the key.  Treat people decently and you’ll find some phenomenal talent out there.

It in a way it’s even easier for someone to do a film today then it was back in the pre-historic time of analogue.  No need for film stock.  Just shoot digital.  You’ll cut your expenses in half.  Do the editing on your laptop, and try to get it seen.  Festivals, the Internet, and even four walling your digital epic in a theaters  even.  But do yourself a favor.  Have money left over after the production.  Even though you can build your web site, post your video you’ll still need to get it out there, and that costs.  I soon ran out of money with festivals, and stopped after not getting the results I wanted.  I got an offer or two but it wasn’t worth me giving up my rights to the film.   After all it was my baby.  I didn’t want to abandon it and loose everything I put into it.   The next two events that happened that propelled me into doing my film was reading “A rebel without a Crew“, and the distribution of Kevin Smith’s film “Clerks” . Two things that rocked my world and put me on the road to making my own film.  More to come folks.  I hope this is helpful, and I wish you well in your creative endeavors.

 

 

Low Budget filmmaking…

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So what made me want to do a feature film?  Why would I want to go down that rabbit hole and what possessed me into thinking I could pull it off?  I guess it’s something I always wanted to do since studying film production at Brooklyn College.  I interned on several films, and I was familiar with working on a film set, so why put myself through that torture and invest my own money in such a risky endeavor?  The simple answer is that I thought I could do it faster, simpler, and cheaper then all the rest.  Plus I liked working with actors.  Seeing a page from a script come alive in front of you is a pretty cool feeling, and one that is immensely satisfying.  But before I go through the process I wanted to know all that there was about feature film making.  I read whatever books I could get my hands on, and I read every article I could read about the process.  I searched for interviews of filmmakers who had already done it, and I scanned each article for the how-to’s of filmmaking.  Equipment, editing platforms, crew compliment, and even production software and hardware were all information that I tried to learn about.   In this post I’ll try and go through some of the books I read and which ones gave me the best information on how to make my film.

I have to start with Rick Schmidt’s book “Feature Filmmaking at Used Car Prices“.   If you notice in the picture the book is an older version of the book that is out now.  I do have that one as well because it has some newer information about digital video, and right now that is the way you want to go, but for me it was this book that inspired me and made me think that I could make a film cheaply.  I received the book at a workshop that was taught by Rick Schmidt over at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington Long Island NY.   It was a workshop that was billed as creating a movie in 2-days.  Of course that was not the case, and to be fair to Mr. Schmidt it still was an eye opener, and I’m glad I participated in.  What we came out of that workshop with was several ideas for a film, and they all came from us in the workshop.  Mr. Schmidt videotaped our stories, and he put them together creating a sort of feature film featuring our groups stories staring us.  What I took away from the workshop was that their are stories everywhere, and that when creating a feature film try using a collaborative agreement.  That way all the participants have a stake in the film and you learn more from the group then just by yourself.   I just recently finished Schmidt’s autobiography entitled ” Twelve Dead Frogs & Other Stories“, and came away with a better understanding of his philosophy, and methods.   Schmidt actually spells it out on how you can make your own feature at a low cost in his book.  My film costed a bit more then the $10,000 or less, but it is Schmidt’s philosophy that I followed.  I saved a lot of $$$ doing my own editing, and finishing on film.  Since then I don’t think you need to shoot on film.  Everyone has access to video cameras, and there is no reason why you can’t make your own feature with them.  Just know what you need, and Schmidt’s latest book “Extreme DV at Used-Car Prices: How to Write, Direct, Shoot, Edit, and Produce a Digital Video Feature for LessThan $3,000“, and his “Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices: Second Revised Edition” are books that are worth reading.  Inspiring and useful info for the serious filmmaker who wants to make a film instead of just talking about making one.

The other book which I’ve read from cover to cover and several times as well was “Persistence of Vision: An impractical Guide to producing a feature film for under $30,000” by John Gaspard & Dale Newton.  This gets into the business end of filmmaking as well as the technical, but not as much as Schmidt’s book did.  It also does not cover video, so the book is a bit out of date, yet it has thoughts and ideas on how to be practical in low budget filmmaking.    Why is this book relevant now?  It’s because the people who wrote it are also feature filmmakers.  John Gaspard and Dale Newton created “Resident Alien“, and “Beyond Bob” two ultra-low-budget features each produced under 30K.  That was useful to me since I knew I had to get into some uncomfortable territory that was called “the film business”.  Things like incorporation, contracts, scheduling, and insurance were things I needed to get familiar with.  I wanted to use SAG and AFTRA actors so I needed to read up on the requirements on different low-budget agreements.  The book made it not as complicated as I thought.  It also has examples on how to be frugal on a low budget film.  Every dollar you save will be a dollar that you can put back into your film.  This book convinced me that I needed to go 16mm at the time because it was the professional way to do it.  

Of course Robert Rodriguez book “Rebel without a Crew” was a big influence, and is not one of the books in the photo above.  The book was a gift from my girlfriend of the time who is now my wife.  I’ll go into that particular book in another posting.  That book set me on fire.  Rodriguez made it simple, and he had some great advice for people like myself.  There is too much to cover in that book, so I’ll be writing about my reactions, and how it changed my idea’s about filmmaking and how it got my ass in gear later.   I will also be talking about the other books that helped me and fuel my desire to make a feature film.  More to come for sure.  Till then stay creative, and keep on creating.

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