WHAM

I put my short film, WHAM, online:

The long dark winter of the edit

Blessed without a day job I’ve had hours upon hours to sit with my movie and polish the cut. The days blend together. I think I was sick a few weeks ago. Or was that last week? My birthday was a month ago and I’m not sure what I did that day or night.

I was thinking today, why does it get harder as you get closer to being done? There’s the sort of obvious answer, which is that it’s scary to ship stuff. It’s scary to say “here, this is it.” Much easier to say “this is the rough cut, what do you think?”

But I think there’s a practical (and unavoidable) reason why the last 20% takes 80% of the time.

It’s like when you go to the ophthalmologist1 and she’s flipping back and forth, number one or number two, how about four, that’s four, now five, etc.

It gets harder with each level because the difference is more noticeable, she’s tacking in from a wide chasm to a narrow one so each step gets progressively harder to detect a difference. When you can’t tell the difference anymore, that’s your prescription.

So movies. At the beginning, there’s lots of fast progress. You start the day and you have no scene and then a few hours later you have a scene. It’s not done necessarily but you took it from 0 to 0.8 in a day.

And then as you get deeper in, the changes become finer. It’s harder to tell the difference. Is it better this way or that way? How can I tell, I’ve been looking at this for days, maybe I’ll send it to a friend to see what they think.

All of this and the quality approaches a local maxima, an asymptote, as close as necessary to perfect.

And as you reach the asymptote, you start to question: are we really there? Is it done or do I just want it to be done?


  1. just realized I’ve been misspelling that as “opthamologist” my whole life 

Newsletter: Berlin + Feature Film Update

Reposted from today’s newsletter:

It’s December and for most Chicagoans that means turning inward to look deep inside ourselves and ask the age-old question: am I really going to do this fucking winter thing again?

“No! No, I am not!” I declared to myself while waiting for Amazon autoplay to kick in the next episode of Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

I am going somewhere that is two degrees warmer on average, slightly less windy, but even grayer and rainier. That place is Berlin and I hear that it is NOT lovely this time of year. I don’t care. Coffee tastes better in the winter. And it’s a great time to GET STUFF DONE.

Anyway, I’m going for a month.

// still-untitled feature film update

I spent a weekend in November in NYC with Anna, the editor. The movie is like almost there. I screened a rough cut for some friends this week and the consensus was “it’s like almost there, but here’s 20 things you should think about or change.”

So, back to editing. ETA is still TBD but looking at Q2 FY2019.

Also, I’m really proud of this movie! It’s really weird! I’m still very shocked but eternally grateful that my friends read the script and said “we should make this.” I think half of doing anything big is just having friends who will shrug their shoulders and say “yeah, why not?”

Here’s a picture of the production from when it was summer:

(photo by Jeanne Donegan)

Have you seen The Favourite yet? It’s so so funny. And good.

That first assembly

I just got the first cut of my feature film this week from the editor in NY.

I still don’t have a title so it’s called Dinner Party. Still untitled. It’s a rough assembly of the first 32 minutes.

Watching rough cuts, especially that first one, is never really pleasant. Mostly I was dreading it, dreading that it would be bad or stupid or terrible or a waste. That’s self-doubt of course, but the fear is real. Sometimes what you make is not good.

Some of it works really well, some of it needs work. I’m relieved. It’s going to be OK. With a lot of work, it might be better than OK or perhaps good or very good or excellent or even great. I won’t know until we put in the work.

At the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham

I went to Sidewalk last week in Birmingham, Alabama and I meant to post something about it but I’ve been working from 7 7 7 to 11 every night (kinda makes life a drag…). Yeah I’m on a freelance producing gig that just has insane hours but I’m rebuilding my savings after not working for four months and making a feature film. Freedom awaits in November…

Sidewalk Film Festival. They really know how to take care of filmmakers. I woke up at 4am last Friday to catch the early flight from Chicago to Birmingham so I could get there in time for the filmmaker luncheon/retreat.

They took us to a now-defunct iron and steel processing plant that was built in the late 1800s and was operational until the 1980s. Birmingham is almost uniquely situated for steel production as all the raw materials are within 30 miles of each other, and it was the 2nd biggest producer of steel (after Pittsburgh) in the U.S. for a long time (my facts are a little hazy).

The old buildings look like sets from a post-apocalyptic world, as nature slowly reverts to the its pre-industrial state. The event was hosted by representatives of Film Birmingham. They were very eager for us to film something there and made it known that there wouldn’t be a lot of red tape.

 

Our guide (one of the many resident artists who have been given workshop space on the premises) told us that the plant was shut down overnight and the workers weren’t told — their personal belongings from their last day are still in their lockers and there’s still salad dressing and… something else… in the refrigerator.

The plant isn’t completely shut down — there’s a dolomite quarry right there.

 

   

Massive trucks bring the dolomite up from a 400-foot-deep quarry where the rocks get smashed in giant rock smashers so they can be used for gravel and other industrial things that need small rocks (it’s an ingredient in steel too).

Driving down into the quarry, which I sadly didn’t get a good picture of, reminded me of Taste of Cherry (I mentioned this to another filmmaker and he was like “me too!” and we became friends immediately).

The quarry processes 7,000 tons of dolomite per day. There’s something awe-inspiring about being around massive machinery and trucks. Living in a modern city, I feel shielded from any kind of industrial of manufacturing whatsoever. By the way, those trucks the guys drive — super high-tech. The loaders cost about $2,000,000 a piece and they have climate-controlled cabs, multiple cameras, high-tech seats that don’t bounce around, and a lot of other stuff I’m forgetting.

Back in town I walked around a bit and got food. I spent most of my time in the downtown area of Birmingham, which felt pretty empty and sleepy. Someone told me later that the neighborhoods to the south and east are more bustling with life and culture. I don’t know, it was weird walking around on a Friday morning/afternoon and barely seeing anyone on the street — the buildings weren’t abandoned or run-down though. It felt like everyone was on vacation.

Don’t forget your Jesus Cake. I actually ate here twice (they set up a stand on the sidewalk outside one of the theaters) and it was delicious. Very good Cuban pork, mofongo, and plantains. I asked what Jesus Cake is and the girl told me that it’s something like tres leches cake, and not a Cuban thing nor a Birmingham thing. So just a thing they made up.

What about the film festival, Robert?

This is a great festival. I mean, they really take care of their filmmakers and by take care of I mean they throw big grand parties with free food and booze in remarkable venues.

 

The opening night screening and party was at the Alabama theater. The opening night film was White Tide: The Legend of Culebra, an over-the-top doc about a Florida man (hah) who goes after $2,000,000 in cocaine that’s buried on Culebra, and island in Puerto Rico. It was a perfect fit for a raucous crowd of 2,000 on opening night. It’s a good story and very funny.

Then there was a big party on the stage of the theater. And everywhere else in this massive 3-story theater. There was just a party and food and drinks everywhere. It was a ton of fun. I made new friends and ran into some old friends that I didn’t expect to see there.

I talked to some locals and asked about the film scene there and what people thought of the festival. My understanding is that Sidewalk is the biggest thing that happens there every year. I talked to one woman who had been planning months before to come and had picked out all the films she wanted to see in advance. I also talked to other people who said that 80% of people in Alabama only care about college football and look at you funny if you mention some sort of non-college-football form of entertainment.

I talked to another local woman who works for the city, helping to promote it (I can’t remember exactly what she does). She told me about how the city is resurgent, about how 20 years ago it was dangerous to be downtown and how it’s developing and people are moving back and there are cafes and shops and how great the food scene is.

It’s the same trend playing out in so many cities across the U.S. There are so many small to medium sized towns now that are pleasant places to live.

The festival took over Linn Park in the middle of downtown Birmingham for a massive party.

I had a really good conversation at the party with someone about living in a small and pleasant city vs. a big and ambitious city. The question for her and for me and for probably a lot of young people with options is: is it better to live somewhere comfortable and pleasant and enjoy the good life, or should I ask for something bigger in life, something more ambitious? Am I being complacent?

I loved living in Baltimore. It was fun, I liked the texture of life, I was a big fish in a small pond (the improv pond). Good food, a great baseball stadium, very affordable, good art/music scene, and an actually weird place that doesn’t really give a fuck about trying to be anywhere else. Obviously Baltimore has massive problems too, with crime, education, etc., but those weren’t the reasons I left. I left because it felt too small, too hard to be ambitious there.

Chicago is a big city. I think it straddles the pleasant/ambitious divide. It can be either. It’s certainly more ambitious than cities like Baltimore or Portland, but less so than L.A., San Francisco, or New York. I’m not sure where Austin fits into this (it feels like it’s in the process of rapidly changing from pleasant to ambitious, which is causing a lot of angst for the people that want it to keep its old identity).

I think what I’ve been feeling in the last few years, when I feel the urge to move, is that Chicago is just a really big pleasant city and not really an ambitious city. When the woman from Birmingham tells me about the great food scene there, I politely listen, but I know that it’s nothing compared to Chicago. Maybe Chicago is an ambitious place for aspiring chefs (I don’t know, I’m really not a foodie).

But when it comes to film, entertainment, entrepreneurship and startups, etc. — I think it’s not an ambitious place. Not that there aren’t ambitious people here! Not that nobody is doing those things! It’s just not the big ambitious place where people move to seek those things out.

Oh yeah, my short film, WHAM, premiered on Sunday.

WHAM at Sidewalk Film Festival, DC Shorts, and Middle Coast

WHAM, a short film that I wrote and directed last summer is premiering this weekend at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, AL. It’s a great festival and I’m really excited to be a part of it, in fact so excited that I’m waking up at 4am on Friday to fly in early so I can enjoy a full day of meeting people and seeing great films. If you’re near Birmingham this weekend, check it out.

The film will also screen in Washington, DC at the very excellent DC Shorts festival on September 8 and 10. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to make it back home for the screenings because of work, but it’s my first screening near my hometown in Maryland and it feels good to get to show m friends and family back home what I’ve been working on for the last few years.

And finally, it’s coming to Chicago for the first time on September 22 at 4pm at the Middle Coast Film Festival. I love this festival. The Deadline premiered there last year, so it will always have a special place in my heart (they programmed Off Book too). I’m a little sad that they moved it from Bloomington, Indiana to Chicago because I liked the excuse to take a road trip. It’s screening at the Davis Theater. Come see it and have a drink at Carbon Arc if you’re in town.

The Deadline is online

I released this earlier this year and completely forgot to post it here. The Deadline, my first short film, is now available to the public:

Better ugly than dull

One of the big takeaways from making this first feature film was that everything about budget and production can be questioned. I think that everyone knows this. That you can just say fuck it and do it low-budget, but then when you try to do it and get people on board, a lot of people get scared that they won’t have enough resources.

I found that a lot of the cinematographers we talked to, all of them excellent, were approaching the low-budget film from the starting place of a high- or medium-budget indie film. For instance, they were thinking that you just do a scaled-down version of stuff and we wanted someone to come at it from a completely different approach. We kind of had to figure this out along the way and realized that we were framing and positioning the value proposition of working on this film in the wrong way.

We wanted someone to look at it as an opportunity to experiment and use the camera in interesting ways, to create a different kind of beauty. Not the kind of beauty of just beautiful images, but the beauty of using the camera poetically or creatively in new ways.

For me it was about this: that making something dull would be tragic, but making something ugly would be acceptable. And the choice between making it purely beautiful in an aesthetic sense would mean more time, more crew, and of course more money. In other words, it was a choice between making the film now or waiting months or even a year to make it, while we raised more money.

I was in part inspired by The Celebration, which I watched for the first time in the months before production. Visually you could say that it’s ugly. It’s shot on video and it’s very grainy, especially at night when the ISO is ramped up. They used only practical lighting, no outside lighting equipment. And it shows. But, it’s also one of the most intense, grab-you-by-the-throat films I’ve seen in the past few years. The camera is wild and maniacal and the story is incredibly emotional and gut wrenching (and hilarious at times). I would much rather watch something emotionally powerful than sterile and pretty.

In the end, we did end up with some gorgeous shots. But more importantly for me, we got some emotionally charged pictures. One of the final images of the film, which I can’t talk about yet, is one of the best shots I’ve ever captured. If it works the way I intended, then it will be the kind of image that resonates and stays with the audience long after they’ve watched the film.

I haven’t started editing yet, so I don’t really have a good sense of how well the film will come together, but I’m confident that it will not be boring.

Wrapped on my first feature film

We wrapped a week ago. My first feature film as a writer/director/anything. The working title is Dinner Party Movie and that will definitely be changing.

It’s the most difficult thing I’ve done, the most I’ve ever given myself over to a singular pursuit — six weeks of intense commitment, devoted almost entirely to the single endeavor of making the film. And of course there was much work before that.

 

We shot 71 pages in 10 days, doing 8-10 hour days. And yes, there were some actual 8-hour days in there, which is hard to believe. Most people assume that an indie production will be 12-hour days, which I don’t really believe is sustainable for more than two or three days. The work will start to suffer and attitudes will sour, and then the culture will start to break down. At least that was my fear — we never really pushed it except for a single 12-hour day in the 2nd week.

 

People have asked me if it was “fun” and I always laugh and say no, no it was not fun, at least that’s not the first word that I’d use. Yes, there were moments of fun and joy and laughter and all that, every day. Making it with friends meant it was an infinitely more rewarding and relaxing experience. But, it was intensely overwhelming, stressful, and mentally and physically exhausting. Joyful yes, fun no.

 

The biggest difference between directing a short and a feature: I felt my role was much less about directing each scene with precision, but rather about steering the whole project in the right direction, tone management, making sure that each piece would fit into the larger whole — about seeing and feeling how the whole film would cut together, constantly cutting and re-cutting it in my head.

 

I learned that we can question just about everything related to production and budget. The going rates for things are always negotiable. You don’t need x number of crew. Most crew positions can be done without. Everyone knows this and yet hardly anyone really believes it or is willing to follow the premise to its conclusions and make something this way.

 

People told me that I was very calm and relaxed on set. Outwardly, I suppose I was. I’m not frantic and I didn’t yell or snipe at people. Inwardly, my God, a different story. I was waking up in the middle of the night panicked, waking up with crushing doubts about myself and the material, and often feeling like a complete failure.

Then there were the highest of highs, times when I felt like the work was very good and that the final product would be very good, and then I’d wade back into another eddy of anxiety and depression and back and forth for two weeks.

 

There were many moments of fun, joy, happiness, and excitement. But I could always feel the bear behind me. And now, to be free from the bear, is a sweet sweet feeling.

 

The weekend before production

We start filming on Monday. It’s a 10-day production, over the next two weeks, with the weekend off.

This week has been a whirlwind of last-minute prop pick-ups, phone calls, meetings, waiting to hear back from rental houses and friends about what we can use and how much it will cost. Yesterday I spent the afternoon finalizing the shot list and our approach with the cinematographer, Zoe.

And of course, Costco:

We spent $406 on crafty and supplies and hopefully that lasts the whole two weeks. Most people understand that working on a micro-budget indie film means that they’re not going to get paid a lot and I am dearly grateful for their contributions. But you have to feed them! I try to get healthier options but the producer reminded me that some people like to eat gluten and sugar.

We got to the coffee section at Costco and were severely disappointed. I’ve never had Kirkland-brand coffee1 but I’m incredibly skeptical.

I found reviews online and it’s well-reviewed on Amazon but I started reading the reviews and they were all people saying “I used to drink Maxwell House and switched to Kirkland and it’s just as good!!!” So, no. Besides, I believe that even if Kirkland coffee was just as good as, I don’t know, Metric, it wouldn’t matter. The branding does affect the flavor.

But it doesn’t matter because we lucked out — the producer, Josh, emailed all of the local Chicago roasters and one of them finally got back to us — Metropolis is donating a 5lb bag to the production! That’s some seriously good coffee and I’m really overjoyed.

Part of making a movie, in my mind, is about the culture you create on set. Little things like having good coffee ready for people in the morning, they go a long way. Movie making is hard work. It’s really hard. But it’s not some crazy ritual of suffering — it’s a lot of fucking fun, or at least should be. Yeah, there are a lot of down times and yes, there are painful compromises at every turn (when you don’t have money), but there’s a real joy to working incredibly hard with a tight group of 10-15 people for two weeks straight. But, you better have some good coffee.

One compromise we made was not having a full-time makeup person on set, which led me to my first purchase of makeup, a jar of Laura Mercier translucent powder. The makeup person recommended it. Basically, you need to keep the actors’ faces from looking shiny on camera and this creates a matte look on their faces.

I was re-reading my dog-eared pages in Werner Herzog’s book and he said that he likes to carry a small makeup kit with him whenever he directs so that he can touch up an actor before a take if he feels like the actor needs a little more time to get ready, not unlike a baseball umpire dusting off the plate as a courtesy to a catcher after taking a foul ball to the body.

Besides saving money, going the DIY route with makeup saves time.

We’re taking the approach that if this film succeeds, it will succeed on story, performance, and interesting visual storytelling. It will not succeed because of breathtaking-ly beautiful imagery, incredibly meticulous set design, or high production value. Not that we don’t want it to look good. And I think we are going to deliver some truly striking images, but my goal is to move the audience with emotion, not abstract beauty.

My living room has been transformed into a holding pen for all of our props, crafty, and some lighting and grip equipment.

OK, I gotta make some last-minute rewrites and then load all that stuff into my car and drop it off at the location. We’re setting up the location house today and tomorrow, and maybe even stealing a few establishing or non-talent shots, then a table read tomorrow afternoon, and hopefully a few free hours to do my laundry and cook some food for the week.

Bang on, as my English friend says.

And thank you to all the people who have offered material and emotional support, lent us gear, gave us honest feedback and good advice, encouraged us, and said “yes” when others said “no.”


  1. the Costco store brand 





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