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.
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.
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.”
the Costco store brand ↩
A single-location stageplay film, like the one I’m directing later this month. I really enjoyed this. Good rhythm and loved the use of the wide-angle lenses, makes for really interesting depth of shots and brings you close to the characters.
And it made me feel a lot better about shooting in a single location — this film takes places in a single house and most of the action is in the living room. My film has the same basic parameters but it’s actually spread around the house more. Yes, I guess it can feel claustrophobic, but at 72 minutes or so, it wasn’t an issue.
Coming down the home stretch. Casting is wrapped. Cinematographer is on board. Location is signed and paid for.
I went to Fedex to print a copy of the script and put it in a binder. I like working with a paper script so I can annotate it and put all the notes in the margins, the notes that I’ve been collecting off and on for the last few years, since I started writing the script in 2015.
I went back and looked at my first draft from 2015 and much of the dialogue is the same, although much has changed. Kind of amazing how much from the first draft stayed though, like an almost fully-formed film just came out of me. OK, that’s an exaggeration, I did have an outline.
And the story as it is now, takes places at one location — an upper-middle-class home in Chicago (we’re filming in Ravenswood). The original script was split between the story at this house, and another two characters that are on their way to the dinner party at the house. In 2016 I split those characters off into their own screenplay, so in a way, I have a little cinematic universe going on. Maybe for the sequel…
A day after printing the script, I was already changing things. The writing never stops (and how I look forward to starting fresh on something new when this is over).
Also went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond to pick up this Global chef’s knife. Good knives are expensive apparently. This guy was $124 before the mandatory 20% discount. I should return it but maybe I’ll keep it — I’ve never owned a really good (and sharp) cooking knife.
This morning I went to a cafe to work on the script. The directing part of the script. I read through my old notes on Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies, an excellent book on directing. The main thesis of the book is that every movie has a theme, a central principle, truth, or message.
That theme guides all other choices. Once you have that theme, it’s easier to make your decisions and answer questions.
I spent about three hours thinking through the theme and how I want the camera to move and what do to with framing, the key moments of the film, the tone, and the rhythm. The rhythm is so important to me and I’ve learned from experience not to leave this to the editing room because there’s only so much you can do with cutting.
The movie is dialogue-heavy so it needs to feel in motion and to move forward at all times, so as not to get stuck in the single location.
And I leafed through my dog-eared copy of Werner Herzog’s book, A Guide for the Perplexed, which I love dearly.
When he’s not talking about being shot in the stomach or bamboozling border agents, he says things like:
The best advice I can offer to those heading into the world of film is not to wait for the system to finance your projects and for others to decide your fate. If you can’t afford to make a million-dollar film, raise $10,000 and produce it yourself.
Guess that one stuck.
This should be a lesson to filmmakers today with inexpensive digital technology at their disposal. You need only a good story and guts to make a film, the sense that it absolutely has to be made.
I learnt that the worst sin a filmmaker can commit is to bore his audience and fail to captivate from the very first moment.
And of course because why not
I tried things out with various pigs during pre-production, but none of them became altitude sick.
Another busy couple of weeks as pre-production intensifies on the feature film. Every time I feel like I’m on top of things, new things come up. The schedule, shot lists, finalizing the DP, food planning, contracts, etc. Sometimes it seems like there’s hardly any time to deal with the actual work of directing — thinking about and planning how to shoot the actual film, how to talk to the actors, etc.
Today I took a bit of a break. I try to keep some semblance of a day off on Sundays, with a leisurely morning and only some basic writing (i.e. journaling).
In the afternoon, I went up to 2112 to participate on a panel about pre-production for a group of female comedy filmmakers. The program is run by WiCo (Women in Comedy) and they asked for volunteers to talk about pre-production and other aspects of filmmaking.
One of the questions was “what went wrong on one of your projects?” and I told a story about the first time I directed anything (Words Fail Me). A few minutes into the improvisation on the first take in the first episode, I realized that I didn’t know what to say after saying “cut” and I was so nervous that I let the actors go on for about eight minutes while I thought of notes to give them.
After that I learned to keep a note in my back pocket at all times, so at the beginning of the day, I know what to say when I don’t know what to say. Sometimes you just watch a scene and think “hm” and don’t really know what to do and it takes a few takes to figure out why it’s not working the way you imagined it would work.
The Americans is over. It’s the only TV drama I’ve been able to get into in a long time and it’s one of my favorite shows of all time. I won’t spoil the ending, but it was an intense, heart-wrenching episode with some really nice surprises. Excellent writing.
Rewriting the script today.
We did a table read on Wednesday. The beginning doesn’t work, the story takes too long to gets moving.
And I’ve been trying to figure out how to handle scenes where a group of people are talking and not really moving. Time to go to the well…
I decided it’s better to make them move more and talk less, to give them props, and let the characters inhabit and interact with the space more.
I re-watched The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and saw how Bunuel moves the camera and the characters around to say so much and play with the frame.
Once I have the thought that they have to move, it gives the scenes more life. Not just speaking words, but moving each other around, pushing and pulling with words.
And re-watched Rope as well, another dinner party film.
Last night we looked at another location. I’m not going to post photos of it because the owners lives there (as opposed to just renting it out on AirBnB). It’s a promising option. I’m hoping that we lock down the location this week.
We’re working with Compass Casting for… casting. Auditions start and (with luck) finish next week. Two of the big three are close to complete. We’re still talking to DPs, which is the last of the big three things that you need to make a movie. Or that we need at least. I’m breathing a little bit easier now.
The most stressful time is when all three of those are complete unknowns and you’re talking to people but you can never really talk to them because you don’t know that you’ll have one of the other things in place, which means you can’t really be sure of your dates. I prefer to work linearly. It’s easier for me to hunker down and work through something. It’s very unnerving to work on three things that are all uncertain and all rely on each other.
I think that after the first time, it will be easier and I will be confident. My first short film felt like this, only 10x worse.
Tonight I’m going to see Hinds at Lincoln Hall with some friends so I can check out and relax a bit until it starts again tomorrow.
Up to Appleton, WI today with the producer and a non-film friend to see about another house.
The movie takes place almost entirely in a single home, so getting the right house is important. It’s so much easier finding one location instead of 30 or 40 (like insanely easier), but it’s still a bit difficult to find a house that we can use for two weeks with our limited budget.
We’ve been mostly talking to people on AirBnB and they’ve been much more amenable to letting us use their houses, because they’re already letting people stay in them. Finding a homeowner willing to vacate his or her house for two weeks is almost impossible on our budget. An apartment would’ve been much easier.
That has set us further afield than Chicago, where rental rates are lower. On the one hand, this is more difficult because it means it takes an entire day to scout a single location and there are logistical challenges with production. Will the cast and crew be willing to go away for two weeks? And if we go outside the city, we need a second house to lodge the cast and crew.1
We’re treating it a bit like going away to summer camp. Yes, you’re working all day, but in the evenings you are sharing meals and drinks in the warm summer air, outside of the city and away from your day-to-day life. For some that will be too inconvenient, but for the people that join us, we’re hoping to create an unforgettable experience and forge friendships for life.
A conversation with friends on a summer evening is better than going home to Netflix.
And I really want the making of this film to be a special experience. It’s a low-budget affair and in a perfect world, it serves as a calling card for myself and the others involved, furthering our careers. Maybe on the next one, it’s a little easier to raise money…
But beyond that — beyond making a good film (which is nearly impossible) — I want it to be a fun, joyful experience. Something that people look back on and remember fondly. The best possible outcome is a good film and great memories, with the people we bring together forming bonds for life.
Appleton is a small city in northern Wisconsin, about 190 miles north of Chicago and 100 miles north of Milwaukee. About 70,000 people live there. The main street is thriving with shops, cafes, and a performing arts center. Away from the main drag are streets with colorful houses and big front porches. People don’t lock their doors there and the air is crisp and fresh.
We visited an occult bookstore with an in-house psychic and the book selection was wonderfully eccentric. Where else can you find a book on bird magic?
OK well I just found it on Amazon, but you get the point. And hey, it’s actually well-reviewed there, with 4.2 out of 5 stars, although one person did have this to say:
Sigh. As usual, a magical book with no balanced perspective on masculine/feminine energies. I really do not like metaphysical books that claim to be about balance and harmony while ignoring half of the energetic balance of nature. I was excited to get this book from both a naturalist and Pagan perspective but if a book gets such a crucial thing wrong, it makes the whole book suspect that to me
This was my favorite title:
I opened to a random page and found a chapter called something like “how to know if the spirit you’re talking to is really your loved one,” which yeah, of course, once you start to consider this seriously, there are some practicalities that have to be worked out, like ID verification.
Soon enough, all spirits will be given unique public keys on the blockchain and we’ll all look back and laugh at our archaic analog methods of spirit-ID-verification like giving your loved one a secret passcode that only they know before they die.
Fun fact I learned from Futility Closet last week: Houdini, who spent much of his career disproving psychic mediums, actually gave his wife a secret code, just in case he came back as a spirit (he didn’t). I don’t remember the episode, but it’s a great podcast.
After touring the town and calling our mothers for Mother’s Day, we went to a restaurant overlooking the Fox River, then drove back down to Chicago (after a stop for ice cream from Culver’s).
We’re aiming for a combined total of about 11-14 people, depending on the day, which is a very small production. ↩