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.