Friday, December 11, 2009

We Regret To Inform You ...

We didn’t get into Sundance.*

We weren’t expecting to, but it was still disappointing to get that email. Every independent filmmaker dreams their movie will premiere at Sundance. They imagine going to Park City, answering questions from the audience, getting interviewed by entertainment journalists, attending the parties, and selling their movie in an all-out bidding war. So when you get that rejection email, that dream is officially dead.

The worst part is, you start questioning the quality of your movie. You start wondering if one more edit might have improved the film tenfold. If casting name actors would have made a difference. If, God forbid, your little movie is simply not as good as you thought it was.

This, my friends, is an evil path to start down. For one, you will never know with 100% certainty why another film was accepted and yours wasn’t. You will never know if you’d done such-and-such, if it would have improved the movie. All you can do is listen to the feedback you’ve gotten, and trust your own gut.

On top of that, the quality of your movie is only one of the factors. Personal relationships shape a large part of what gets programmed – name directors, name actors, filmmakers with a connection to the festival, friends of the programmers – these all stand a much greater chance of getting in than some yokel off the submission pile.

Another factor is sheer numbers. According to the Sundance rejection letter, there were 9800 entries this year. Out of those, a mere 200 films were selected. Roughly half of those are shorts, another half of those are documentaries, which leaves 50 narrative features. Fifty, out of let’s say 5000 submissions. That means 1% of those who apply actually get in.

The final factor is genre. Just cause we made a solid movie doesn’t mean every festival will program us. Every fest has its own vibe – Sundance focuses on unique artistic visions, Toronto likes polished, serious movies, South by Southwest favors scrappy, genre-focused fun films. Look over the list of the features that will be playing at Park City in 2010 – out of all the features, maybe 3 or 4 are thriller/suspense/horror. Two-thirds of the program are character-driven dramas. So looking at all that, we had even less than a 1% of getting accepted.

Am I taking comfort in these non-scientific, totally generic numbers? You bet I am. I’ll take refuge behind any thin scrap of an excuse I can find. Because the alternatives – to believe our movie is doomed, to think it sucks, to worry that it will never sell – are simply unacceptable. More importantly, they are patently UNTRUE.

As a creative professional, if you’re not getting rejected on a daily basis, then you’re probably not doing it right. The simple fact is that you will rejected 100 times for every one acceptance. That’s the life you signed up for when you decided you had something to share with the world. If you don’t like it, there are plenty of other jobs out there.

So it’s counter-productive for us to let this news get us down. It’d be great to have a distribution company buy our film, but that could happen in any number of ways. We still have high hopes we’ll get into some other major film festivals, but we have to remember they’re not the be-all, end-all. They’re not even the final goal. The goal is to get the movie before a paying audience.

And that is definitely going to happen, one way or another.

* Or Slamdance.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Critical Masses

Last week our trailer suddenly spiked 1200 views in a matter of hours. A little Interweb research revealed that somehow our teaser got posted on a Romanian entertainment link site. A little more research revealed it wasn’t “somehow”: another low-budget film called “THE Fugue” is being self-released on DVD, and it seems they mistakenly linked to our trailer instead of theirs.

While it’s great to suddenly have the trailer take on a life of its own (especially since we haven’t sent it to any news sites yet), with an increased audience comes an increase of opinions. In particular, we had some very angry comments from a couple of Romanian guys. I won't reprint them here, but they are still on our YouTube page if you're looking for some Pulitzer-grade critiques.

Now, I’m not posting this to wallow in self-pity or subtly ask for encouragement. In fact, we already had a boatload of very nice response comments to these guys. I’m writing this to illustrate that once you put your movie into the world, the floodgates of opinion swing wide. Anyone with a computer, anywhere on the planet, will have a reaction to what you made. They also have the freedom to post their thoughts about it. And those thoughts may not be very nice or constructive. Often, they will be tactless, cruel, horrendously misspelled diatribes filled with anger and cynicism.

(Side thought: Why is there so much anger and cynicism on the Internet? Probably the anonymity factor. Also, it’s easier to bash something than to praise it. I’m no linguist, but I’d bet there are more words for “dislike” in the English language than “like.” Finally, it seems the haters are more likely to leave comments than fans.)

The point is, as filmmakers we have to find a way to not let the negative comments bother us. The movie is done. Any remarks about how to make it better, or how low-budget it is, or why it doesn’t stack up to "Armaggedon," are moot. All we can do is learn from our successes and failures on this project, and apply them to the next one.

Secondly, we can’t please everyone. It is impossible. In fact, highly respected films will usually garner backlash specifically because everyone likes it. We can hope that more people will like it than not, and that people will want to watch it, but that’s all. We’ve already had people refuse to see the movie simply because of the genre.

Finally, the film doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There are any number of factors – the timing of the release, the nature of the screening, the attitude of the viewers when watching it – that are going to affect how audiences receive it. Once the movie gets out there, we can’t control any of that. We can only hope people will like it and respond to it.

Being an extremely low-budget movie with no stars or a big studio marketing budget, any way “Fugue” gets out there has to be looked on as a success. Already, the trailer has been watched by more than 5000 people – far more than we know personally. Simply the fact that our little backyard movie is pissing off some guys in Romania means it’s grown beyond our little circle.

And hopefully, this is just the beginning.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


I hate asking people for money.

As a filmmaker, you’re constantly in a state of selling – whether it’s pitching a movie idea, or talking to investors, or showing your movie to distributors – every step of the way, you’re trying to convince someone else to give you money.

And why? Because filmmaking is, bar none, the most expensive artistic medium there is. It’s pretty cheap to paint a picture, or write a novel, or even sing a song these days. But making a film? Even as inexpensive as the technology has gotten, it still takes real dough.

Take the process of applying to film festivals. Not only do you have to buy and print DVDS (we got ours for around a buck apiece – killer deal), you have to get envelopes, mail them to faraway places, and cough up the festival entry fees. Which routinely run between $40 and $100. We just sent the movie to Berlin, and their entry fee is 125 Euros, or $185 American. Literally, we’re spending more on applying to festivals than it cost us to feed our crew for 17 days of shooting!

Still, it’s an important thing to do. Screening at a high-profile festival is our single best chance of getting distributors to see the film. And that will hopefully lead to getting a distribution deal, which is our main chance of paying back our investors and the crew people who awesomely deferred their salaries (pretty much everyone).

So we have to ask people for money. Since we don’t know any millionaires personally, that leads to us begging our friends and family. Which, during the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, makes me a tad guilty to say the least.

To make the whole process more palatable, we decided to a hold a fundraiser screening. All our friends have been asking all year to see the movie, so why not charge $10, raffle off some items, and let them take a look all at once?

We found a club called Busby’s East that rents out its ballroom and video projector (for free!), sent out the Evite to 300 or so people, and gathered some film-related items to raffle off. And on Sunday, October 25, we unspooled (or un-video projected) the current cut for a crowd of 73 people.

And it went pretty great. Being in a bar, the lights weren’t all the way down and the ice machine sounded like an Imperial Walker, but that kind of added to the whole “work in progress” feel. But people still managed to get into the movie, laughing at the jokes, jumping at the scary parts, and keeping up with the story. Even the bartender liked it – she told me she’s worked a lot of screenings in that room, and ours was one of the best she’s seen.

All told, we raised about $1300. And some donations are still trickling in. It’s not enough to cover all our upcoming post costs, but it will certainly help us get the movie to festivals. Just goes to show that even if you don’t like asking people for money, there are ways to do that make it more comfortable for everyone. Thanks again to all our friends and family members who donated!

(And if you’d still like to kick us some dough, there’s a Paypal button on our website:

Sunday, October 25, 2009

"Paranormal Activity"

Have you guys been following what’s happening with “Paranormal Activity?” It is INSANE – five weeks into its release, it lands in the number one box office slot, ABOVE “Saw VI!” And on nearly half the screens, as well. Do you know insane that is? How freaking unpredictable and AWESOME?!

Quick sum-up for those who don’t know the story: The director, Oren Peli, wanted to make a cheap movie. He came up with a great hook, found a couple actors, and shot a creepy psychological in his house for $11,000. Sound familiar? It went to Slamdance two years ago, was purchased by Paramount/Dreamworks, and is now on its way to being one of the most financially successful films of all time.

So what can we take from all this? It’s hard to say. Certainly, I think it’s great news for "Fugue." When we approach distributors, we have a very fresh example of a low-budget thriller with no stars that made tons o’ cash. But Hollywood is a fickle town, and some similarities on paper are not enough to seal the deal. You could release two nearly identical movies within six months of each other, and they could perform vastly differently.

What’s happening with “Paranormal” is a cinematic fluke – it was brilliantly marketed, had a unique concept with a built-in advertising hook, and it hit at a time when audiences were tired of traditional, big-budget scary movies. The cool thing is, one of these flukes seems to show up every couple years – “The Blair Witch Project,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” “Open Water” – the list goes on and on. You can hope it will happen to your film, but there’s absolutely no way to arrange it. The only rule in Hollywood? There are no rules.

For right now, it’s just cool there’s another example of huge success we can point to. I’ve seen the movie, and while it’s not fantastic, the scary scenes are legitimately scary. Which, for a jaded cinephile like me, is saying a lot.

As an example of how inspired and unusual the marketing for this was, check out the trailer below:

There’s more footage of the audience than there is of the actual movie! Very gutsy. (And also, very jealous of the 4.5 MILLION views. I was happy that we just cracked 1000, especially considering we haven't done any publicity yet.)

If you haven’t already, go see “Paranormal Activity” this week. Help make it into a cinematic success story, so we can hopefully follow in its footsteps! (And barring that, leech off its notoriety in any way possible.)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


We picture locked the movie last week! It’s taken me awhile to actually write about it, because we had to send the latest cut off to some festivals, and frankly, I needed a couple days off. The last few weeks there, we were editing for 10, 12 hours a day, looking at takes and line readings over and over, and generally thinking about the movie non-stop. My head was so occupied with the movie I was having insomnia. Any time someone would talk to me, random words would make me think of lines from the film. It was definitely nice to be done.

For those not in the movie business, let me explain why picture lock is such a big deal. It basically means the end of picture editing. Everyone agrees it’s done, and the film is handed off to the sound designers, composer, and color correction people. Once it’s “locked,” you can’t make any more changes in the timing or shot choices. This is so the sound matches up. If there’s a huge error or fix needed, you can alter the soundtrack, but it’s a HUGE hassle.

Emotionally, picture lock is very similar to finishing principal photography. You’ve reached the end of a very intense working relationship, and are moving on to the next stage. It’s relieving and worrisome and bittersweet all at the same time.

In terms of “Fugue” specifically, I feel good about it. I feel like we took the time to get it right, and we did the best we can with the footage we had. Yes, it could be better or different, but it could always be better or different. At a certain point, you have to trust the work.

There were some very last-minute changes. A lot of them entailed going back to how things were originally, but there were some additions. We added a creepy sound design moment in the very first scene, which had never been intended when we shot it. We took out a beat in the second act that was kind of cheesy. But the greatest change was finding some different takes of Victoria in a crucial third act scene. We’d gotten so used to the takes in this scene, we forgot to check the other performances. And we ended up finding something that completely altered the whole tone of the moment, and definitely for the better. It was a huge relief to find something like that in the eleventh hour.

All in all, we feel good. Stephanie our editor did a great job, and was extremely patient and dedicated over the last five months. We’re taking her out for a celebratory dinner tonight, but there’s still plenty of work. Our composer Dana is starting to work on the score, Adrian and his sound team are beginning their work, and we’re still finishing up the visual effects.

We’ve also started applying to festivals. The movie has gone to six so far, and we’ll probably send it to another ten or so before the year is out. We should start hearing whether or not we’re in toward the beginning of December.

In the meantime, we’re working on sound and thinking about ideas for the next project. Gotta keep the machine moving.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

When to Stop

We’re up to 529 views of the teaser on YouTube! That’s pretty exciting, considering all we did is put out the word to our friends on Facebook. We haven’t sent the trailer to any press websites yet, as we don’t want the buzz to build too early. (Or, God forbid, to plummet before we screen anywhere.)

The plan is to apply to a bunch of festivals over the next four months, finish the sound, score the film, and color correct it. By December, we’ll know if we’ve gotten into some of these places. That’s when we’ll start up the hype machine. For right now, we’re focused on just finishing.

Updates: Juliane, our awesome production designer, made a great cover for our DVD that we’re going to be sending to festivals. Check it out:

Also, we held our fourth test screening on Sunday. The response was again solid, almost likes and really likes across the board. But again, there was the comment that the beginning is slow. We’re sitting in the edit bay right now, trying to address that very issue. We are killing babies, people. One of the things we just cut is the very first word: “remember.” As much as I love starting a thriller about memory with that word, it’s just too damn slow. We need to get into the meat of the story faster. So unfortunately, things have to go. I keep telling myself that’s what the deleted scenes on the DVD are for. And honestly, the movie plays better because of it.

My feeling is that we are close. We are close to locking picture, and we are close to getting this story where it needs to be. It’s not going to work for everyone, maybe, but there’s no way it CAN work for everyone.

Walter Murch (editor of “Apocalypse Now”) says “films are not finished – they escape.” That is absolutely true. We could edit this movie for another year and there would still be folks who won’t like it. We could go out and do a month of reshoots, adding scenes and changing storylines, and still the audience might want something different. I’m not saying that to be a whiny, lazy independent filmmaker. I’m saying that because I’m realizing you truly can’t please everyone. You can only please yourself, and hope others are on board.

And we are very close to being pleased.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


It’s finally here! We are proud to present, at long last, the first teaser trailer for “Fugue!"

You can also watch it on YouTube directly, where the number of views we get will directly translate into how much interest we receive from distribution companies. Also, it will just make us feel good.

We’ve been working on the teaser since we finished principal photography in March. We did a first cut, made some changes, took some time away from it, make a couple more tweaks, then finished the latest cut in July. Then we sent it to our composer for new music (which is seriously amazing, she killed it). When that was done, we sent it to Adrian, our sound designer, to sweeten the audio, add effects, etc. When we did reshoots a few weeks ago, we re-recorded a couple of lines to add in. We mixed the audio on Sunday, had Daniel our VFX supervisor put filters on it, and I did the final color-correction last night.

Yes, it was a lot of work. But this is by far the most important piece of advertising we will do. It’s the first thing most people will see about the movie, and it will form most of their opinion. The website, poster, and blog are also important, but the teaser really shows what the movie looks like. I can’t tell you how many trailers I’ve watched that, as soon as they start playing, you realize they’re low-budget, have bad acting, and don’t feel like a real movie. Hopefully that’s not what people will think when they watch ours.

It’s both cool and terrifying, what the Internet can do for a low-budget movie like ours. It’s cool in that you can reach a huge amount of people, all over the world, for absolutely free. It’s terrifying because once it goes on the web, public opinion takes over. One influential review could tank your entire project, like the way J.J. Abrams’ Superman script was savaged on Ain’t It Cool News, and the whole film was canceled.

But it can also go the opposite way, a la The Blair Witch Project. It all depends on how people respond. I hope people like our teaser trailer, I hope they think it’s professional, and I hope it makes them want to see the movie.

I posted the video an hour ago, and put the word out on Facebook, and it already has 37 – no, 59 – no, 73 - views. So at least our friends seem to be interested.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Going Viral

We’re sitting in a sound studio today, doing the final mix for our first trailer. And can I just say, it is pretty cool to be in front of a huge mixing board, with two flatscreen TVs on the wall, and $1000 Aeron chairs to sit in. It’s even more awesome because our sound designer Adrian was able to get us in here for FREE. If we were doing this for real, we’d be paying literally hundreds of dollars an hour.

Not only that, but the trailer sounds great. It's three-dimensional, layered, and makes the whole thing seem expensive and professional. And that is more than half the journey toward getting distribution and getting people paid for all their hard work.

We still have to do color correction, but hopefully it will be online very, very soon. Once it goes up, we really need to get as high a view count as possible. I talked to my friend Ron the other day, whose commercial “Kid Fails Driving Test Five Times” (which I also happened to edit), has nearly 1.4 MILLION views. When you get that many views, people take notice. Supposedly, there are teams of people at agencies just scouring the Internet all day, watching every video that has more than 250,000 hits.

But when I asked Ron how he managed to get that many views, he didn’t have any real answers. He made sure it got on certain high-traffic sites, and gave a heads-up to all his friends, but beyond that, going viral is a very mysterious process.

Our plan is to send it to some film and horror-related sites, but after a certain point, it’s out of our hands. We can only hope people like it as much as we do.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Test Screening #3

I dropped off our latest cut at the Sundance office yesterday. If I thought our odds were slim, that feeling was confirmed when I walked into the lobby and saw crates – literally stacks of crates – teetering behind desk, each one filled to the brim with DVDs. In the time I dropped our DVD off, two other indie filmmakers came to turn in their opuses. It was, all in all, quite an intimidating and humbling experience.

But there wasn’t time to think about that too much, because last night was our third test screening. It was kind of an important one for us – we needed to see if the re-shoots we did last week worked, if the new structure for Act 3 made sense, and most importantly, if the second test screening reactions were a fluke.

Thankfully, it went pretty well. People jumped several times, they laughed at appropriate places, and they really seemed to get into the third act. There were notes – there are always notes, always – but this was definitely the screening that confirmed the movie is working, and we’re close to the finish line.

One example of the power of editing: in the last screening, people hated our spiritual advisor character. They didn’t believe him, didn’t think he was funny. This screening was completely the opposite. A couple people even selected his scenes as their favorite. Just goes to show how much you can change things by lifting lines, tweaking performances, and changing audio.

The great thing to see over and over is how much people respond to our main character. They love her performance, and they really identify with what she’s going through. She did such a good job carrying the movie, especially considering probably half her scenes don’t even have dialogue. Without Abby (the actress), the story wouldn’t work nearly as well.

Also great: the re-shoots were helpful and worth the effort. And there are several scares and story twists that have played well for everyone. So there are large chunks that continue to work.

The big issue, however, is people still think the first act is too slow. We were talking last night about how to address this, and it’s difficult. I jokingly said the movie is a house of cards, but it’s kind of true. Each scene has key pieces of information, so it’s not as easy as lifting things out. What we probably need to do is go in and shave a lot of the individual scenes down. But we need to be careful not to make it so fast that people can’t settle into the beginning. It’s a delicate issue, and one we haven’t quite cracked yet.

But honestly, that’s the biggest thing. We have notes for other sections, mostly about clarity and pacing, but they’re fairly small. It feels like people want to like the movie, and 85% of it is there. We just need to push ourselves over the next few weeks, and get to that final 15.


“Solid horror film. Good editing. I jumped several times.”

“Very entertaining, scary, and engaging. Love Abigail Mittel as Charlotte.”

“I feel like I’ve seen this movie already a lot. I grew tired of the location. The twist was not bad. Good acting, well edited, but I might not recommend it.”

“Good. Kept me in the seat, let me search for clues.”

“Very solid! Enjoyed it a lot. Like that it played off our assumptions from other films (“What Lies Beneath,” etc.)”

“Solid set-ups and pay-offs, well-constructed.”

“Suspenseful, good concept, maybe one too many scenes with the mystery trilobites.”

“I thought it started off slow but the twist was very surprising. Witty dialogue. Some things didn’t quite make sense but on the whole, entertaining and interesting.”

Monday, September 7, 2009


We’re sitting in the edit bay right now, working our butts off to finish this new cut by tomorrow. Ironically enough, it’s Labor Day and everyone else we know is sleeping in, going to the beach, and getting ready to barbecue. We’ll get to party a little later hopefully, but right now we’re working on the third act.

That’s because tomorrow is the deadline for Sundance. Everyone’s heard of the film festival in Park City, but the importance of Sundance for independent movies is huge. A premiere at Sundance garners tons of press coverage, exposure to distributors, and introductions to Hollywood players. It is probably the most important and prestigious film festival in the world.

Literally thousands of feature films are submitted to Sundance every year. Last year, the total was 3,661. The number of films selected to screen in Park City was 118, or 0.03%. Pretty bad odds, especially considering many of selected movies had name stars, or well-known directors, or money.

We have none of those things. But still, there are stories every year out of Sundance about unknown, low-budget movies that go on to find success – "El Mariachi," "The Blair Witch Project," "Open Water," "Grace," etc, etc.

There’s all kinds of gossip and rumors about how films get into the festival. Some say you have to “know someone” to get in. Others say it’s purely merit-based. Still others insist sexual favors are involved. Some movies are even rumored to get in without applying at all. We have a possible, tentative connection, but for the most part, we’re sending in "Fugue" purely on its own merits.

Truthfully, we don’t expect to get in. We think our movie’s good, and we think it’s going to get into plenty of other festivals, but we’re not sure if it’s a Sundance type of movie. Our goal was to make something that could sell, not something that necessarily re-invents cinematic storytelling. And I think we succeeded at that.

So we’re spending the $75 application fee and working on Labor Day not because we expect to be sitting in Park City next January. We’re doing it because it gives us a good deadline, and because I don’t want to live the rest of my life wondering if we would have gotten in.

And because no matter what the rumors or gossip say, we still have a shot.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Our Grass is Ass

We’re doing re-shoots tomorrow. It took us a few days to process the notes from last week’s screening. A big part of that was dealing with the disappointment of feeling like we were done, then realizing we were not. That was a big mental obstacle to overcome.

But after talking it over, we realized our audience was right – we do need to tweak some things. So we’re re-cutting this week, in order to make the first act play better, and delay a major emotional reveal until later in the third act.

To make this last part happen, we have to re-shoot a couple lines, and we're filming a whole new scene. It’s always a little bit hair-raising, trying to re-create something you did six months before. You worry if the actors’ hair will match, if you can find all the costume bits, if you can rustle up all the props you need.

But that’s not the biggest problem. One of the recurring things I seem to notice about making movies is that the biggest problem is the one you never see coming. And in our case, our biggest problem is grass.

We’re re-doing the first shot of the movie, in which Charlotte enters the yard and looks up at the house. When we shot it in February, there had been a month of rain and the grass was long and lush. It is now September, the hottest month of the year in Los Angeles, and the grass in our location’s front yard is long gone. As Barbara the owner/director says: “It’s basically a pile of brown dirt.”

So tomorrow morning, our ever-resourceful production designer Juliane is driving all the way out to Northridge to purchase 40 square feet of sod grass. We’re literally putting a jacket over the yard. It’s a simple solution, but one that will be dirty and expensive and hopefully not too hot to lay down tomorrow.

This whole situation once again brings home to me what a weird thing it is to make movies. So many times, you find yourself in situations that no normal person would ever contemplate. And it’s all so you can create an illusion with the very modest ambition of entertaining people. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, the amount of work is worth it.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fire & Brimstone

There’s a fire in Azusa right now. The smoke from it is drifting west, covering the valleys of Los Angeles in a haze of dark brown smog. It’s so thick and dry, doctors are recommending people stay inside and keep their windows shut.

It’s appropriate, then, that under this blanket of brimstone, we had the screening from hell last night.

I knew it was going badly a couple minutes in when no one laughed at a joke that always got a good reaction. “Calm down,” I told myself. “It’s early, people are still getting settled. They’ll start getting into it.” But another big joke fell flat. Then another. Then ANOTHER. Lines that got consistently good reactions didn’t even garner a smile.

There were times when the audience seemed to come out of it and get invested in the story, and there didn’t seem to be a lot of disinterest, but the faces were pretty stony. It was, to put it mildly, a massive disappointment.

But in another way, it’s a good thing that we had our asses handed to us. It brings us back down to earth, lets us know that we screwed up. That there are still things to work on. That we got cocky, and didn’t trust the story enough. That we were too quick to change things that were working.

Also, it helps to keep in mind that it’s not as bad as it seemed. While the discussion afterward was pretty brutal, involving suggestions that we re-shoot the ending and add lots of new scenes to explain things. But after sleeping on it, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle of these two screenings. I don’t think it was as bad as it seemed last night, but there are issues we’re still having.

One huge thing we realized is that we can’t do an opening teaser. Showing blood and trauma happening to Charlotte puts people in one mindset, so they aren’t laughing and enjoying the scenes between Charlotte and Howard in the beginning. It’s a good thing to realize, that our original intention was best. We’re a slow burn movie, and to give away any hints of danger and plot really drags down the beginning. Lesson one learned.

Lesson two: the beginning is still too slow. People want the movie to get going faster, they want the story to start. That was mentioned in the first screening, and we didn’t really address it. Your problems don’t go away just because you want them to.

Lesson three: People want an explanation that feels true, as opposed to making sense. Everyone’s bugged by a reveal at the ending, because the character’s motivation for creating a huge conspiracy doesn’t ring true emotionally. There’s an answer we can put in, and it’s a simple answer, but we haven’t found it yet. We have to do that, or people will be unsatisfied.

Lesson four: help your actors. We know the performances in our movie are good, we saw it on set. Also, their performances worked really well in the first screening. But we went and changed things, and they didn’t work as well this time around. That is totally our fault. Our job is to pick the best performance and put them in the best possible light. We dropped the ball on this one, but I’m confident we have the footage to fix it.

Lesson five: if ain’t broke, don’t fix it. People were laughing at the first screening, they were enjoying a lot of it, and we changed a lot of things that should have been left alone. So now we have to figure out what was working before, and why it didn’t work this time.

Not say it was all bad. The audience really liked the second act, and there were several key sequences – the ghost appearances, the mystery – they were really into.

We just need to focus on the beginning and the end and get those working. As hard as it was last night, this is what the process is about. You don’t have to take every single note, but it’s important to listen. It’s important to track what’s not working, and fix it if you can. I feel like our movie is 80 – 85% of the way there. Last night, we showed a version that was 70%. Our job now is to get it as close as we can to 100%. We probably won’t ever have a perfect thriller that pleases everyone, but I’m confident we can improve it. Lessons learned.


“Not generally my cup of tea, but surprisingly good material for the genre.”

“First act slow, set up took too long; got way better in second act.”

“Engaging enough at the end, but not engaging at all at the beginning. Set up too stiff and slow.”

“Very good, creepy, interesting, good acting.”

“Solid script, good structure, competent direction, underwhelming actors.”

“Movie looks great – cinematography, direction, etc … I know how much it cost and it looks like much more.”

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A New Opening

We’re doing our second test screening tomorrow night. It’s going to be another small group, probably around ten people. I also sent a copy of the latest cut to my cousin in Ohio, and she’s going to be holding a “non-industry” screening for her friends, who are all in their early twenties.

I don’t want to be over-confident, but hopefully there won’t be too many major notes. I’m sure there will be fixes -- there always are – but I’m hoping they will be small things. Fingers crossed.

We did have a big revelation last week. Barbara came back from a vacation in Germany, and suggested we needed more of a grabber opening. She’s absolutely right. This is something we’ve been feeling since writing the script, and we’ve reached the point where it finally needs to happen. If we don’t hook people with something, give ‘em a little blood and mystery, it’s definitely going to hurt our chances at festivals. We read a blog entry recently that said if the programmers aren’t hooked in the first five minutes, they won’t put the movie in their festival. From their perspective, they need something that will keep the press in the theater for the entire film.

To test this new beginning idea, we’re taking a scene from the big ending flashback and putting it right up front. It’s bloody, it’s mysterious, and it definitely should pique the audience’s interest. The problem is, it wasn’t really conceived as the movie’s opening. We can ADR some lines to have it make more sense, but it will probably never be a full-on scene. And it may end up giving too much of the story's revelations away. We’ve been kicking around some ideas for a simple, easy-to-shoot new scene for the beginning, something that would just involve Abby, but first we’re going to see what the response is tomorrow.

The unfortunate part is, Barbara always loved the opening shot. It was meant to be a slow-burn, "Boogie Nights"-esque tracking shot that introduces us to the house and the main character. We’ll probably have to lose that now, but making movies often involves killing your babies. It's always tough, but these sacrifices almost always lead to a better end product. And it yet again brings home the lesson that when you have tiny doubts about something, pay attention. It’s usually something that, sooner or later, you’ll end up having to fix in some way.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Independent Light & Magic

Our movie has visual effects. It’s kind of amazing, given that we’re extremely low-budget, but the technology has gotten to a point where it’s unbelievably cheap and easy to do these shots.

It also doesn’t hurt that our good friend Hashi volunteered to do the VFX, and he is A: incredibly talented; B: incredibly quick; and C: incredibly deferring his pay. Here’s how awesome Hashi is: when we first met with him, we pitched an idea about seeing the blood vessels in someone’s eyes burst. By the time we ran a few errands and got home, he'd already sent us a video of himself bleeding from the eyes.

Once we saw that, we realized we could probably do ANYTHING. It wasn’t until we were in post, for example, that we got the idea to have our ghost fade in like the Cheshire Cat when she first appears. Hashi was able to get in there and, without plate shots, or motion tracking cameras, or anything besides a woman sitting at a piano, he was erase her, fuzz her edges, and have her vanish. It’s a great place to be for independent films.

However, there can also be too much of a good thing. When you can add anything anywhere, that gives you a rather large list of Things You Can Do that may (or may not) make the movie better. When we first started compiling idea for FX shots, we had plans to do tons of little digital things – add some blood here, a little spooky flare there –but we found that the more VFX we put in, the less punch they had. We ended up cutting the shot list way down, and the 10 or 15 shots we now have play much stronger.

For us, it all came back to the story. Even if you CAN add blood oozing from the walls, or green blobs square-dancing through the backyard, if it doesn’t make sense, it’s going to detract from the mood. The first time we see the ghost, she’s just a fuzzy outline. The second time, she’s more solid, but has a blank featureless face (my favorite visual effect in the film). The movie continues in this way, until we reveal her true identity. If we suddenly had rats jump out of her eye sockets or something, it would be random and distracting instead of scary.

So while it’s great that technology can literally create anything, we have to remember it’s just another tool we’re using to tell a story. And the things people respond to are the things they’ve responded to for 10,000 years: character, emotion, narrative.

Though it’s still pretty cool we can erase someone’s face.

Friday, July 31, 2009

FLASHBACK: First Test Screening

Here's some thoughts from our director, Barbara, pre and post our first test screening. Enjoy!

Pre-Test Screening Horror (14 July, 2009)

It’s 10:22 pm P.S.T. In 24 hours it will all be over. In 24 hours I will be convinced that “everybody hates me right now”. How am I going to sleep tonight?

As a director, there’s nothing more vulnerable than screening your movie for the first time to a bunch of people, whoever they may be. It’s almost pathetic how painfully excruciating the anticipation is, and I can personally only compare this to a visit at the dentist: You know you have to but you know it’s gonna hurt.

So you invite your closest friends to rob your baby of its virginity. You lay it out in the open and you ask them to point out all of its flaws. I might as well stand naked in front of everybody and listen to friendly suggestions of how an abs class may help out my tummy issues.

The irony is that you have to do it and you do it voluntarily and you do it with a smile. Because any screening is priceless. You do not want your film to get out there without having addressed any problem you can.

So I bow my head and listen to my friend’s advice of using airline vomit bags - which apparently allow me to be social before a screening, yet also comfortably safe. Thanks, David.

Post-Test Screening

I don’t know what the hell I was so worried about. I’m such a chicken.

Test screenings are one of these things that once you do them, as much as it may hurt beforehand, it feels oh so good afterwards! Really the dentist analogy keeps on going. You’re just so glad you did it once you walk out of that practice. My half-sister is a dentist and I just went to see her. She filled three holes (ouch!) but I left with a big smile on my face and super healthy teeth…

The screening went really well. People enjoyed the film. There were issues, but we were hoping to hear about them anyway.

I got so excited that I screened the film again for my entire family in Poland. That’s a lot of cousins gathered around the TV set. They all talked over it (“Is this your garden?” “Are these people dating in real life, too?” “What did she say?” “Is she insane? She doesn’t look insane.”) but in the end they claimed that it was the scariest film they’d ever seen. Families are lovely…

I’m more excited than ever to finish our little film and show it around. It won’t hurt anymore.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Coming Attractions

I’m working on re-cutting the trailer for "Fugue" right now. It’s kind of stressful for several reasons. I sit down to do some work, and I find myself making excuses, doing other things. Whenever I do this, it’s for one reason and one reason only: I don’t know what to do next. I’m feeling that way about the trailer for our movie right now.

A little backstory: I cut a trailer right after we finished shooting in mid-March. I wanted to show something at the wrap party, and more importantly, I wanted an excuse to go through all the footage and get a sense of the movie. So, it was helpful and fun to show the actors something, and all that, but the trailer never changed much since then. And while it gets good responses, it doesn’t get GREAT responses. And our goal is to get people so excited and revved up, they send the link to their friends. They post it on websites. Maybe that’s way too much too hope for, but hey – shoot for the stars and hit the ceiling, I always say. (And honestly – we know it can be better. We have ideas how to make it better. And as long as that’s true -- see below – we must keep working.)

Anyway. So I’m working on the trailer, and it got me thinking about what makes a good preview.

1) IT NEEDS TO TELL YOU WHAT THE MOVIE IS. Sounds basic, right? But I can list plenty of trailers that either don’t tell you what the film is actually about, or falsely advertise what the movie’s about. (Check out the latest trailer for Alice in Wonderland – Johnny Depp is all over it, but he’s probably only in a couple scenes. False advertising!)
So if you’re going to do this, you really need to know what you’re selling. If we put super-fast Halloween-esque music in our trailer, we’re giving people the wrong idea. Our movie is a psychological thriller, in the vein of “The Others,” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” So the vibe, music, etc. needs to reflect that.

2) IT NEEDS TO HAVE A HOOK. Everything’s been done before, but it’s good to tell people how your movie is different. Ours is basically a ghost story. The first minute or so of our trailer is about the basic story: young couple moves into a new house, but there’s some spooky shit going on. But then you need to give people the hook: our girl’s got a dissociative fugue. It means she’s erased her own memory. And then the question becomes, are these “ghosts” she’s seeing real, or connected to her fugue? We have other twists that come in the end, but hopefully this is what makes our ghost story different from others.

3) IT NEEDS TO HAVE GREAT IMAGERY … Every good preview is about enticement. You show something cool, or unique, or cinematic, and hopefully it gets people excited about the movie. Remember “Independence Day?” That shot of the giant spaceship blowing up the White House? It was iconic, it was memorable, and it made you want to see the movie. (Check the trailer for Roland Emmerich’s new movie “2012,” where a tidal wave crashes over the Himalayas. Dude knows how to craft a cinematic image.)
So this is also where you show what makes your movie unique. We’ve got a ghost in ours, but we show in the very last shot how ours is different – she has no face. Hopefully it’s something people remember, and hopefully it makes them want to find out why she has no face.

4) … BUT DON’T GIVE TOO MUCH AWAY!!! Three words: “What Lies Beneath.” They had a great third act twist: (SPOILER ALERT) Harrison Ford was actually the killer! It was a great way to subvert his image, but then they go and put that fact in the trailer, the poster, and it ruined the movie. You see this with comedies all the time, where they put all the best jokes in the trailer, then when you go watch it, there’s nothing to laugh at. (“Tropic Thunder:” “What do YOU mean, ‘you people.’” I saw it so many times, it fell like a lead balloon in the actual film.)
For us, we’re trying not to show anything that gives away the ending twist. We’re putting in images from the end, but we’re not explaining them. And they’re super super short. Which brings me to the last thing:

5) BE QUICK ABOUT IT. So many independent trailers try to put in the entire movie, or what seems like entire scenes, and it’s. So. BORING. Show us the goods, give us the vibe, and get out. Better to have people watch your trailer two or three extra times, than to click over to a new page halfway through. This is something I really need to focus on, because the first cut of the trailer was a bit ponderous. It’s sometimes tough to walk the line between tantalizing and just confusing.

These are the main ideas, but let me know if there’s something I missed. In the meantime, here’s what I’ve been watching for inspiration. This is how you tease a movie:

Thursday, July 16, 2009

First Test Screening

Last night we had our first showing of “Fugue.” It was a small group, 12 people in all, and we (the filmmakers) were all varying degrees of worried beforehand. As I was driving over, I said to Juliane “I’m feeling a little nervous.” J: “If I were you, I’d be REALLY nervous. Not because the movie’s bad or anything, but because it’s a nerve-racking experience.” Me: “Great. Now I AM really nervous.”

But we didn’t need to worry – the screening went very well. People were interested, they laughed at almost all the right parts, and they reacted to a lot of the scares. One of the coolest moments for me was when we had a big death, several people actually said “Whoa!” The last scene got a great response, people yelling and making sounds.

The scores were solid. Everyone gave it a 7 or 8 out of 10. There was one six, but the person also said it wasn’t their kind of movie, and went out of their way at the end to say they thought it was well done.

The actors were very well received. Abby, who plays our lead Charlotte, got great comments: “Love her,” “I was with her the whole way,” “terrific,” “perfect,” and “well done.” Richard, who plays the boyfriend Howard, was also really liked: “good laughs,” “enjoyable,” “very likable,” “fabulous,” and “an absolute delight with charm and presence.” (I’m not making this stuff up, I swear.) The other actors were well-received, too. There were a couple of performance sections that people didn’t respond to, so it’s our job now to figure out what doesn’t work about those, and do some editing to make them play better. In particular, there was a comedic bit that strayed too far from the story, and people wanted that pulled back.

One of the things we were concerned about going in was the pacing. The movie is 90 minutes right now, and we weren’t sure if it was playing too fast, or too slow, or what. Turns out, people thought the pacing was pretty great. A few people thought Act 1 moved a little slow (we agree), but the rest of the movie they really seemed to be involved with. It’s amazing, too, how little folks need to understand something. We were worried people wouldn’t be able to follow what was happening, but not only did they track what was going on, they thought we could cut it back even more. Audiences are able to process information so quickly!

It’s also interesting to note that sometimes, people want and need exposition. Probably the biggest notes we got were about a big exposition scene in the middle. All this weird stuff has been happening, and a guy finally explains some of it. We were worried that people might get bored, so we shot and edited it in kind of a stylized way, but the audience didn’t really respond to that. At that point in the movie, they just wanted the information. Which is good, it means they’re connecting to the story, but we definitely have some work to do there.

Other comments:

“Great job. The camera work and lighting were fantastic. The production design was nicely layered. Very impressive.”

“It might not be my type of film but I think it’s full of great work. Interesting shots. Good story twists. Likable characters.”

“Perfect casting. Overall outstanding work, especially for the budget. Would definitely recommend it to horror fans.”

“A great ride. Daring. Not afraid of gore. Genuine scares.”

“Was in it for almost the entire time and identified with Claire (sic) and wanted to know what would happen to her.”

“This is a nice little movie with some neat ideas and a trick ending – if you can get the plot a little more cohesive at the end of Act 2, you’re GOLD.”

“The scares could be hit harder; it’s hard to make ghosts scary in daylight.”

“Choppy at times, lacks a stable drive, but possesses unusually engaging performances and shines during moments of pure tension.”

“Awesome job guys! What a beautiful, emotional, and scary (in a “The Others” kind of a way – very high compliment) film!”

“Really like the central relationships and funny moments work very well. Love the slow unraveling of the mystery.”

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Needle Drop

I’m sitting in my office right now listening to movie soundtracks. Not for fun, though I have been known to do that on occasion. Nothing says “rock out” like the score to 2001: A Space Odyssey. But not today, no. Today I’m trying to find temp music for our cut.

See we’re doing a little test screening next Wednesday, and the movie needs music. Even though this is a feature, and even though we have our composer Dana already working on cues. Because when we screen it for a handful of folks next week, we want it to feel like a real movie. We want that viewing experience to be as close as we can get it to what the finished film will look like, even though most of the people coming are film professionals. We’re doing this so we can truly see what’s working. If a cue is in there that’s not right, or it gives the wrong feeling, it makes it much harder to tell what’s not working in any given scene.

Another great thing about putting temp music into your cut is that it gets you thinking about the voice of your film. When we were first slapping cues in, it was amazing to see what felt right with the picture and what didn’t. I love the score to The Mothman Prophecies, but when we put that behind our little indie scares, it was way too big. It made al the sublety of what we were going for look forced and ridiculous.

Barbara picked out some great soundtracks, and a couple of them have been really helpful in determining the vibe of Fugue. One of them is First Snow, which I haven’t seen yet, but the score is fantastic. (It’s by Clint Mansell, who just did the excellent score for Moon, and often does Darren Aronofsky’s movies.) It’s very moody, filled with dark tones and glass orchestra stuff, but spare. And that really plays well against what’s going on in our story – a woman mostly on her own, trying to figure out what’s going on her head.

The other one that’s really helped is the soundtrack to Dreamcatcher. I have seen that movie, and apart from the weasel/toilet scene, it’s pretty bad. But the score is perfect for what we need – it’s filled with make-you-jump stings and lots of different musical flavors – searching mystery stuff, creepy Ligetti-esque atonal builds, dark flashback-y string sections.

But there are a couple sections that we still haven’t found the right pieces for. There’s a big (for us anyway) fight scene at the end of the movie. It needs to be intense musically. The most intense part of the whole story. And it needs to be scary. I’ve dropped in a couple tracks, but the orchestral stuff is still too enormous. It actually detracts from the scene, makes it less scary. Makes it cheesy, even.

And it brings back something I said earlier about honesty. There are plenty of pressures in movie making, and it takes such a long time, it would be easy to just slap something down. But we’re all listening to that little nudge at the back of our heads that tells us it’s not right yet. That the perfect, elusive track is still out there.

And yes, it’s only temp. But I feel like once we find the right temp track, it will help us explain to Dana how that final fight needs to play. It will give us a talking point. And all that will hopefully make for a good ending scene, as opposed to a mediocre one.

So I’m sitting here, listening. And I’m totally open to suggestions.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Best Policy

Things are moving along with post-production. We’re deep into the fine cutting, meeting a couple times a week with our awesome editor Stephanie to look at scenes. As mentioned before, the first cut of the movie was two and a half hours. We’re aiming for a tight, fast-paced 90 minutes. Which means we’re doing a lot honing. A lot of taking out the air. And a LOT of trimming lines.

The writers out there might be upset to hear this. You sweat over a great monologue, write 12 drafts of it, and do extensive research on so you’d get all the details just right. Then the actors come in and reduce the essence of it to a well-chosen glance.

But guess what? This is a good thing. Film is a visual medium. It’s about emotion, immediacy, drama. Words can very easily get in the way of all that. If you can accomplish the same thing with less, great.

They say a film is written three times: when you write the script, when you actually shoot, and when you start cutting. This is especially true in our case. We’re adding a whole extra layer of style in the editing – flashes, jump cuts, weird audio overlaps – that we didn’t even dream about when we were working on the script.

The best thing you can do when you enter post production is forget everything that’s come before. It’s easy to go into the editing room and have a vision of what the movie should be in your head. But a lot of times, that doesn’t gel with what was actually shot. Don’t worry about what your intention was, or how tough things were on the day – try to look at your footage as if you’re seeing it for the first time. Really be honest with yourself about what works and what doesn’t. Forget what your “goals” were and pay attention to what the actors are actually doing. A lot of times, you’ll find you have something much more subtle and cool than you planned on.

And again, that’s good. Film is, at its best, a collaboration. It’s a bunch of people getting together and hopefully coming up with something better than any of them could have done on their own. And the best way to do that is be honest about your footage. If something’s not working, or it’s not necessary to the story, cut it. It will make the movie better and your audience will thank you.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Number One-Sheet

One of the things we’ve been dealing with recently is the creation of our poster (or “one-sheet” as they call them in the biz). We’ve been talking about it and kicking ideas around for about a month, and Juliane (the very talented production designer) is knocking some rough ideas together over the next couple weeks.

Seems like a long time to spend on one image, right? Why not just grab a still from the movie, or a photo from set, plop some credits on the bottom, and be done with it? We could do that, sure. There are some fantastic posters out there that use just this philosophy. “The Exorcist” and “The Shining” both come to mind.

But we’re putting a little more time and thought into it because for us, the poster is extremely important. It’s the first thing anyone encountering our movie is going to see. It’s the first step in our conversation with the audience, our sales pitch, the first impression. We don’t have stars, we’re not based on a graphic novel, so the first thing people see about “Fugue” is going to form their whole opinion. Is this something they would want to see? Is it something they’ll remember? Something they’ll want to take the time to actually seek out? Put it another way: would you show up to a first date in a burlap sack and expect to score some sweet lovin’? Exactly.

So we find ourselves having deep, involved conversations on what our movie “Fugue” is exactly about. What is the theme? What audience are we trying to reach? What story are we telling? What can you expect?

In the best case scenario, a poster can actually build buzz for your film. Recently, there was a low budget indie called “Order of Chaos” that generated a lot of online talk simply because they had a striking, original poster. That’s what “Fugue” is aiming for. We want a poster that will make people stop, that will disturb them, that will leap out at them from their computer screens.

Here’s some examples of thriller posters that we really like:

What do they have in common? First, they’re professional-looking. The pictures are high quality, the fonts are well-chosen, and the design is interesting. I also think a good poster isn’t too cluttered. If you can’t sell your movie in one striking image, then what are you selling?

Finally, the ones we like seem to have a twist on them. Something that stops you, grabs your attention. They force you to look a second time. As bad as the movie was, I loved the “Silent Hill” poster. I couldn’t stop staring at the missing mouth (although it had nothing to do with movie, which kind of pissed me off when I eventually saw it. Again, be honest about what you’re selling.)

So that’s where we are: racking our brains to come up with that one, awesome poster. We have some good ideas, and hopefully we can put them out here in a few weeks to get your take.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Flashback: Day 2

Sorry the updates have been a little scant recently. We are still plugging away at the editing, trying to create this crazy jagged style that we'll be using to show the fractured state of Charlotte's brain. It's tough to figure out, but cool. At least that's the hope.

In the meantime, here are Barbara (the director) and my thoughts from the second day of shooting. Enjoy!

25 January, 2009

Second day of shooting, and the sun was out for most of the day. First up was Scenes 29 & 30, Charlotte carries plants up to the backyard and hurts her foot. Scene 29 went off without a hitch, even though we had to have Charlotte drop (and break) a clay pot.

Scene 30 was a little tougher, because Charlotte has to step on a pot shard and cut her foot. Barbara bought strawberry and chocolate syrup for the blood, and for some reason, I was tasked with creating blood packets for the foot stunt. Despite having no effect makeup experience ( besides the crappy “Lethal Weapon” knock-offs we made in high school), I was able to rig a ketchup-packet thingy to hold the blood, and that would shoot out when Abby stepped on it.

At least, that was the idea. We tried a few different methods, getting strawberry syrup all over the patio, but we eventually got a variety of blood takes. Then Abby knocked together an awesome foot cut in a few minutes, we poured more blood into it, and got some very realistic-looking close ups.

I just re-read that paragraph, and realize how crazy this is: our lead actress made cut for her own foot. Without anyone asking. What an awesome group of people we have working on this.


Thank you again to all of you for coming out this weekend and making a movie! It's really happening. There is footage. Yes, it looks and sounds good. (There may be a tad too much of it, but I have no AD to tell me to cut down my shots. Which is awesome! For now. It's just drive space, right?) Abby can do no wrong. And she creates her own special effects scars in between takes! Do I feel lucky? You bet.

Highlights of the day: Why am I forcing that pregnant girl to hold a bounce board?! Strawberry Syrup mixed with Chocolate Syrup make great blood. Unless it's all over your face and seeping into your shirt. Sorry, Abby! And my cat Emmie being patted by Aymae on the head and Matt on the back was probably as spoiled as she'll ever get. What's the best ways to slide down that hill without killing yourself?
I'm looking forward to the next time we all meet and maybe some dialogue scenes for a change. :-)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


I just watched this over the weekend. It was recommended to me by our director, Barbara, and let me to tell you: it. Blew Me. AWAY.

It’s a horror movie written and directed by Pascal Laugier, who previously made the fairly well-received but pretty standard ghost story St. Ange (which on DVD, for some reason, is called House of Voices.)

With Martyrs, though, Laugier went all the way. There’s an introduction on the DVD in which he apologizes four times for making this movie. And he doesn’t need to, because it is an excellent film. Yes, it is ultra-violent. But unlike many horror films, the violence here has a point. You could even say the violence IS the point.

I don’t want to say too much, because this isn’t a film review site and this should be seen without any spoilers. But the reason I wanted to talk about Martyrs is because it’s a fantastic example of low-budget filmmaking. Okay, imdb says it cost $6.5 million, but it follows many of the same principles: The movie takes place in one location. It has a very small cast.

Most importantly, it has a strong story. There are about four or five major plot twists, and each time one of them happened, I had NO IDEA where the narrative was going to go next. For a guy like me who’s pretty jaded about structure, that is an impressive feat. Laugier takes our expectations of story, turns them upside-down, then throws them out all together. At one point, something happens and my friend John and I turned to each other and said, “This movie has to be over, there’s no other place for the story to go.” But then we checked the clock, and we were only halfway through.

This is what you want to shoot for with your movies – something that surprises, that challenges, that makes you pay attention. You may not get there, but it’s always better to try.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Bang for Your Buck

Yesterday, I showed the current version of our trailer to an executive producer that has run several reality shows. Even though we’re still tweaking the sound and I told him we’re a low-budget film, the first thing he said after he watched it was: “That does not look low-budget.”

For a production like ours, this is a huge compliment. Once you start working in movies, you realize that everything is measured the same benchmarks of quality. If you’re shooting an action scene, you’ll be compared to “The Matrix” and “Die Hard.” Your special effects will be held up against the likes of “Lord of the Rings.” Your actors will be weighed against Meryl Streep and Denzel Washington. You might only have $15, but the audience will still expect an experience that costs $150 million.

If you’re making a low-budget movie, it sounds like there’s no way you can compete. And ten years ago, that was true. If you didn’t shoot on 35 mm film and you couldn’t pay ILM for your special effects, you were clearly a crappy B movie. But thanks to technology advances, you CAN turn out a product that can be held up to the standards of the best that’s out there. Here’s some things we did on “Fugue” to make the most of what little money we had:

1) BE SMART. Right from the beginning, we limited ourselves to what we knew we could pull off. We set the story in one primary location. We kept the cast small. Any time we had a hard-to-execute/potentially expensive idea, we tried to think of a better/cheaper way to do it WITHOUT (and this is important) sacrificing the story or quality. When you’re looking at your own projects, be brutal. Can the car chase be a foot chase? Can the outdoor rain scene be set against a wet window inside the house? There’s usually a cheaper way to do everything, and often times the restrictions will improve your scenes.

2) SPEND WISELY. Certain things you have to pay for; it can’t be avoided. One our production, one of our biggest expenditures was actor’s pay. Sure, we could have used non-SAG performers, but the actors we had were great. They’re interesting. You believe them. That makes you feel like you’re watching a “real movie” as opposed to a webisode shot with your buddies. When you have to spend, make sure it’s for something that’s important, that you’re going to see on screen, and that gives you a lot of value. Example of something that wouldn’t be wise spending: renting a grip truck. You probably won’t use half the things in there, and you’ll agonize about where to park it every night. Figure out what specific items you’ll need, and rent accordingly. You’re not going to use a dolly or a jib every day, so why pay for it. If it’s not on the screen, it’s not worth paying for.

The only exception to this: food. Good food is the best thing you can have on a low-budget set. It keeps people happy and keeps them working. But be smart about what you buy – go to Costco to get jumbo sizes, pick generic brands for things like chips and crackers. Inexpensive does not always equal bad.

3) PICK THE RIGHT GENRE. As low-budget filmmakers, there are certain things you’re not going to be able to pull off. Remember, you are being measured (however unconsciously) against the best of what’s out there. If you’re making an action movie, folks will expect “Die Hard.” Make sure you can give it to them before you start rolling cameras. One of the reasons we chose to make a psychological thriller was the genre wasn’t limiting. There are all kinds of movies (Blair Witch Project, Open Water, Wolf Creek) which have had huge success even though they had no big-name actors and tiny budgets. This is because …

4) GOOD STORY IS CHEAP. People want to be entertained. This has been true for thousands of years. If you can give them a good story and get them invested in your characters, they will forgive the lack of money and polish. Look at Blair Witch – nobody cares most of the movie is on video, because you’re freaked out for those stranded kids.

This includes being clever with your story – if you can’t pull off a car chase equal to The Matrix Reloaded, don’t even try. Think of a way to stage the sequence in a low-budget (but still clever and exciting) way. Spielberg didn’t show the shark in Jaws because he was being arty and cool – he did it because the damn robot didn’t work. So he got creative, and people stuck with him because they were caught up in the story.

5) TRUST YOUR AUDIENCE. Despite what many reality shows would have us believe, films aren’t show and tell. Not every little detail has to be on camera. In fact, a lot of times it’s better when they aren’t. At the end of Rosemary’s Baby, (SPOLIER!) we don’t even see the title character. They knew they couldn’t put crazy contact lenses or rubber horns on a newborn and have it look cool, so they didn’t show it all. And guess what? It’s WAY SCARIER. Give people just a hint of what you’re trying to say, and they’ll usually fill in the rest, and in a much better way than you ever could.

6) DON’T SKIMP ON PRODUCTION VALUE. Cinema should be cinematic. Even though most of “Fugue” takes place in a small house, the backyard features a steep, overgrown hill that looks like it wants to murder you. We set many scenes on this hill, because it makes the movie look expensive, and it cost us nothing. Use whatever you can to make your movie look big. If you live in the city, put a scene on the rooftop with the skyline behind you. Figure out what visuals your movie leans toward, and figure out how to maximize them.

7) BE HONEST. This is probably the hardest one to achieve. Making movies is HARD, y’all. You get up early, you’re on your feet all day, and after 14 hours on set, all you wanna do is go home and eat a pizza. But at every moment, from writing the script to editing the scenes, you have to be honest. Is this working? Does it look low-budget? If I were watching this in a theater, would I think it’s stupid? If the answer is even slightly “yes,” you have to change it or take it out. As annoying as it may be, I promise you can think of a better way.

When we were watching the first cut, there were a couple lines a character said at the end to justify why they did what they did. I never felt 100% about it, and even though the actors did a fine job delivering it, it still feels hammy. Those lines have to go.

Obviously, you can’t do all these things all the time. We certainly didn’t on “Fugue.” But the more you can keep these in mind and focus on making something that measures up, the better your film will be.

Monday, May 18, 2009

First Cut

On Friday, we watched the first cut of “Fugue.” It was 2 hours and 20 minutes, there was no music or special effects, but for the first time, we could really see we had a movie. And already, in this over-long, rough state, we can see that it will be good!

I don’t have any kids, but it felt very much like witnessing a birth. You spend months working and planning and hoping, but until you meet the little being, you really don’t know what you have. And we definitely have something that will not only resemble a movie, but will actually be something we can be proud of. Having worked on a lot of dumb reality shows for the last six-odd years, that’s saying something.

Thoughts on seeing the first cut: there’s a lot more comedy than I expected. We had purposely written in some funny moments, so there’d be a break from the scares, but there’s a lot of parts that are much funnier in the film than they were on the page. This can be credited entirely to the actors and the directing. They took a few words and no real rehearsals, and created something quirky and memorable. When you’re on set, you only see little snippets of the story at a time, and it’s all broken up over various days. But seeing the performances cut together, you really appreciate how difficult it is to track a character’s arc. Our actors have not only done that, but they also came up with unique touches that really stand out.

Our plan is to meet again this weekend and watch the cut scene by scene, giving specific notes to Stephanie, the editor. Then she’ll work on those for a few weeks, we’ll watch again, and the process will continue. We’re still hoping to have a locked cut by the end of the summer, but we’ll see.

Right now, I’m just happy we’re making a real movie!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

To SAG or not to SAG

So you’ve decided to make a movie. Congratulations! You’ve picked the single most expensive medium there is to express your artistic vision. (Or, God forbid, to attempt to entertain people.) You’ve got a script, you’ve got filmmakers, but now you need the wonderful people who will bring your words to life: actors.

If you live in Los Angeles, there are plenty of actors to choose from. That guy ranting to himself on the street corner? He’s an actor. The woman who took your lunch order? Also an actor. The lady in the car behind you, reading a highlighted copy of Waiting for Godot while she should be watching the road … you get the idea.

When you’re making a movie, one of the first questions you have to answer in pre-production is whether or not you’re going to use actors who are in the Screen Actors Guild. For those who don’t know, this is the huge union that represents players in all filmed formats, and makes sure they don’t get taken advantage of. Unfortunately for you, you’re an indie filmmaker with no money, so you’ll probably be the one getting taken. To the bank.

Yes, you can use non-union actors. But since most of the good actors are in SAG, trying to make a solid low-budget film without them is a bit of a Catch-22. Unless you cast yourself. Which, unless you’re Mel Gibson or Kevin Costner, is probably not going to help.

So you’re casting SAG actors. In our case, we happen to have a lot of filmmaker friends, so we asked around to find people for our specific parts. As we were doing that, we began talking to SAG about making “Fugue” a union picture.

You see, if you’re making a feature, SAG has very strict rules about how their actors get paid. First, they WILL be paid. Up front, in cash. No matter if your budget is ten dollars or ten million. The days of deferred pay for low-budget features are gone, my friends. You could fudge things and try to make it for the Internets, deferring the pay, but a) once you show it anywhere outside the Interwebs, the actors must be paid immediately, and b) their rate is eight times what it costs to pay them up front.

Bearing all this in mind, we decided to sign the SAG Ultra-Low Budget agreement. This lets us hire SAG actors at the rate of $100 per day, and we can take the movie anywhere we want. But no so fast – as an employer, you also have to pay workman’s comp and unemployment insurance. “But I’m a low-budget filmmaker!” you cry. “I’m not even paying myself.”

“Too bad,” responds SAG while reclining on a large pile of money. (Actually, what they said was much nicer and more useful. Sometimes I can’t resist a caricatured villain.) What our rep Margaret told us was – guess what? There are payroll companies that specialize in low-budget films. For a low one-time administration fee, those companies will process your paperwork, send the checks to SAG, make sure the unemployment is taken care, and even act as the employer of record for tax purposes. Literally, all you have to do is send them the check.

Our company was NPI, and I recommend them highly to anyone wanting to make a film. They answered all our questions, turned around paperwork fast, and were generally nice and helpful.

One more wrinkle I found interesting: once you sign a contract with SAG, you are required to send them a percentage of what you plan to pay the actors in your movie. This is so if you skip town without paying your performers, the actors get paid something for their effort. Here’s the thing: SAG holds this money in an interest-bearing account until you send them the final cast list and budget, usually once you’re done with shooting. Once they get that, they send you back the deposit within four to six weeks.

But the whole time they have it, they’re making money off it. For a small movie like ours, it’s not that big a deal. But for a $40 million rom com? In which the actors’ salaries are at least half that? We’re talking millions in interest. Which, in the age of Bernie Madoff, seems kind of shady to me. Especially because the actors still have to pay dues every year.

Other than that, we had a pretty good time being a SAG signatory. For more specific and certainly more correct information, you can check out If you have any questions for us, feel free to ask. I’m by no means an expert, but always willing to share our experience.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Flashback: First Day

Even though we finished shooting over a month ago, we thought it'd be fun to go back and look at our journal entries from the actual shoot. So here's my thoughts on the first day of filming:

24 January, 2009

Today was our first day on set, and of course it was one of the sole rainy days in Los Angeles. We got to Barbara’s house (aka “Set”) at around 9:30 AM, and her normally quiet street was filled with appliance delivery trucks, post office trucks, and people trying to back out of their driveways.

It was a bit of a slog, but we got everything unloaded and Barbara shot some broll shots while I went to pick up scar makeup and Juliane went to get the bathroom cabinet for our rain day cover set.

None of us are professional make-up people, but Abby (who plays Charlotte) had taken some classes, so she was able to figure out how to craft a scar pretty quickly.

Finally, the rain stopped and we were able to get outside to shoot Scene 14: Charlotte finds the fossil. It was a pretty easy scene to start with, and we didn’t have any major problems.

Then we went on to the bathroom for Scene 11, where Charlotte finds out she’s pregnant and has her first scare. The scare itself was pretty low-tech but it should look pretty cool on screen.

After that, we shot a night scene in the bathroom (scene 10) and wrapped for the day.

And here's the email Barbara (the director) sent the first day:

When my roommate Monika came back tonight she noted that it must have gone well because I had a huge smile on my face. I modestly mumbled something about always having a smile on my face when I'm shooting, but I must admit that I especially enjoyed working with you all today. It just really reminded me of all the "creatively liberating" times of my experimental teenage years. (Not that I think our movie will ever be like the time I locked a ballerina into a church. On HI 8 - does that format even exist anymore..?)
Onwards and forwards into the mud tomorrow morning. Have a great night sleep. No, really. Get some sleep.

That's it for this week. We're still powering through editing, and hope to have a first rough cut in mid-May. Coming up, we'll have some more flashbacks to the production, and talk about working with SAG. If there's anything you'd like to hear about specifically, leave a note in the comments.

Thanks for supporting our backyard movie!

-- Matt H.

Charlotte sees something disturbing.

Aymae loves making movies.