Meet Our Cinematographer, Zak

As promised, over the next couple of weeks, I will be introducing key members of the creative team behind "Passing Harold Blumenthal".  First up, acclaimed Cinematographer, Zak Mulligan. Zak has an extensive resume as a Cinematographer with credits ranging from commercials to music videos to award-winning feature films. Last year, Zak was the recipient of the Excellence in Cinematography award at Sundance for his work on Diane Belle's "Obselidia". But, rather than simply post the man's professional bio, I thought you'd enjoy a little insight as to how our Director of Photography ticks when it comes to nitty-gritty filmmaking. Below is an article Zak did for Filmmaker Magazine after shooting his film, "i'm not me".  Though a different type of film to "Blumenthal", Zak's approach demonstrates a refreshing perspective on the merits of truly independent filmmaking. Take it away, Zak. Picture this: Two guys with a camera, a rental car, and an afternoon to kill. The duo take a drive out of New York City with no particular destination in mind, possessing only the vaguest of ideas and a desire to shoot something… Anything. Suddenly a kernel of a thought takes hold and the first frame is captured. What now? One idea flows into another until they have something. It’s not exactly a short film; it’s more like a doodle. A quick sketch that could perhaps be developed later on. This humble beginning marks the inception of my latest film“i’m not me” .

Along with actor extraordinaire and my directing partner Rodrigo Lopresti, we continued creating these doodles for several months. It was great fun, required no pre planing, and most importantly nothing was sacred or precious. Our creativity spawned out of whatever we had in front of us at that moment. These moments then led to new ideas and we began to branch out by enlisting the help of other actors we knew. Before we could even finish editing all the pieces, we realized we had something much bigger. So, we decided to put the camera away, break out the laptop, and start writing a script.

The following weeks after finishing the script, we thought long and hard about how to get this thing in the can. A few strategies came to mind. The first we tried was to ‘get a name attached’, watch the investors line up with fists full of cash, and count the money as it siphoned into our bank accounts.  While we did have some early success in getting the project in front of people, we quickly realized that it was going to take a while. An incredibly tedious and very long while, in fact. We couldn’t help but wonder, how had we got here? This wasn’t filmmaking! We’re not producers, at least we didn’t want to be. There had to be an easier way. Well, it turns out there is. This is the big secret. This is how we made our film. Drum roll please…. (Ok, it’s not really a big secret or even that dramatic!) It’s very simple. We decided we would go and make “i’m not me” with the resources we had available to us. That’s about it.

The wonders of the information age were all around us, so we decided to take advantage. The internet was our first stop.  We launched one of the very first Kickstarter campaigns, found a couple private financiers, and filled in the rest of the gaps with our own money. The whole fund raising process came together in a matter of weeks instead of months or years.

We then proceeded to shoot the film piecemeal over the next year. We borrowed a friend’s house upstate for a couple weeks as a location, shot city locations when we had free time, and begged others for their cars/apartments/gear/help/whatever. I now owe enough favors to keep me busy for next decade or so. Most of the time the only people on set were the actors in front of the lens and me operating the camera — no PA’s, no assistants, nobody.

What’s truly remarkable about our story isn’t the process of making this film or how much money we did or didn’t have, it’s the fact that we were able to make this film at all.

Cynicism within independent cinema is pervasive. Filmmakers lament the rise of the digital, the diminished use of film, and the lack of a clear means of financing, distributing and exhibiting these films. I’ve also heard more than a few complaints about the sheer number of films being created now. Sundance submission numbers broke records this year. It’s enough to make anyone throw their hands up in despair and avoid the process all together. However, this way of thinking is all wrong. Right now we are in the middle of a historic sea change. It is now cheaper than it has ever been in film history to create films with high production values. While this may be a very grand sweeping statement, it happens to be true. Just imagine if John Cassavetes had a RED camera and a laptop. It’s uncertain how much more work he would’ve produced, but I bet you the entire “i’m not me” budget he would have created more films. I have to admit, I’m not always a fan of the HDSLR fad, but one cannot deny that these little cameras (when in the hands of a skilled artist — but that’s another article) can create very nice images at a very low price point. Combine this with a good script and some talented people, and you may just have a crack at an Oscar, or at least some awards at a major festival.

When I started making films (not all that long ago) we had to scrimp to buy 16mm film and borrow whatever camera we could find. If we didn’t have that kind of money we were stuck shooting 60i standard definition video on a tiny little 1/3 or 2/3 inch chip camera. Needless to say that didn’t look very good at all! We didn’t have the luxury of exploring, practicing, or making doodles in a format that was of a quality to be taken seriously as a story telling medium. Democracy has truly arrived in filmmaking, and the side effect is volume. Volume of productions does not necessarily translate to better quality films, and it is true that there is now a large base level of noise, but undoubtedly good projects will rise above the noise and be noticed by those who care to look. At least I hope so. The noise at Sundance last year was as loud as ever. You heard the buzz before you could even hit the slopes and ask “Was that Mark Ruffalo on a snowboard?” Many of the media frenzied, buzz worthy titles eventually gave way to the projects benefiting from a repeating wave of good word of mouth. At the risk of sounding cynical, rarely did the buzzed about films benefit from good word of mouth.

Democracy is coming. This shift has displaced traditional power structures giving much more of it to the artists. It’s really exciting to think about micro budget filmmaking as a means of liberating the artist from the machinations of the marketplace. This is what I call “too small to fail.” When there are no investors to be indebted to, one has the freedom to take risks and experiment. This is very much in keeping with the spirit of “i’m not me”  It is a film without any big stars (yet!), an unconventional script (we had a tech script so much of the dialogue was improvised) and a very unusual production model. These are all things that wouldn’t have been possible had a studio been involved, or if large volumes of cash had been coming our way.

What does it mean to be financially emancipated? It means you are too small to fail. These kind of films are not motivated by box office numbers, which of course makes for a different kind of film. If this kind of film loses money there’s nobody there to care very much. However, financial gains from a few films (Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project) should not become the main motivation for creating more of these kinds of films. This type of film is more a place to test new ideas, take risks and hone your craft. It’s a means to make a doodle. It’s a realm where just making the film is success enough. I love doodling.

But is this democracy a good thing? Were the old barriers to entry a positive situation allowing only serious filmmakers to produce work? Has a paradigm shift really happened and if so what does it mean for the future of this medium? Move beyond the noise and find out for yourself. – Zak Mulligan

Originally Posted by John Yost 2011

The Crowd is Funding, but We're Still Working!

We've had a terrific start for our Kickstarter page with an impressive 8% of our goal pledged in the first 24 hours! This is an extremely exciting time for all of us working on Passing Harold Blumenthal and it's incredibly encouraging to have our audience lining up to see this film made. We are beyond grateful for your support, and continue to encourage everyone to share our Kickstarter link with friends. Enemies will work fine, too. Fundraising aside, my production team and I are pounding away at the creative and logistical aspects of the film. This week has already landed us two key actors for the film, and I couldn't be more anxious to share their names with you. More on that once everything is official. Beyond that, there is location scouting, number crunching, design ruminating, and crew hiring.

I'm learning that for one to be successful in filmmaking (or in anything really), one must surround themselves with good people. That might seem fairly obvious to most, but I would caution that defining "good" can be dangerously arbitrary. The "good" that I believe in and have been seeking out is the kind that challenges you. While I stand by my philosophy on avoiding/managing Naysayers, it is also no help being surrounded by Yes Men who mindlessly do your bidding.

In a recent conversation with my Production Designer, Marie, I found myself being challenged in just that kind of positive way. We were discussing the particulars of locations  appearing in the film, and I told her what I had in mind for one apartment in particular. She was into my idea, but followed it with a question. Not a naysaying kind of, "Well, Seth, we can do that but it's going to be a headache and it'll be expensive" kind of question. Rather, it was a question about the characters who live in this apartment and their history together and their relationship (e.g., How long have they been married? Who owned the apartment first?, etc.).  The rest of our conversation had me revisiting things I was wrestling with back in November when I wrote the script! While some of these "character history" details may not be explicit in the script, the environment they will live in on-screen will most certainly be explicit with what it tells the audience. That is precisely why we have a Production Designer! Thanks, Marie.

While low-budget filmmaking often means we are slaves to whatever is available or whatever is cheapest, it is important to at least address the specifics of what you are going for. It's fine to start with an ideal, even if that ideal is not an option. From there, the creative team can hopefully translate that to our scale of production and achieve the desired effect in the film. My feeling is that my creative team and I will be at our best only if we push one another and let ourselves expand our imagination and ingenuity. That, my internet peoples, is collaboration.

Support

A filmmaker friend once told me that making independent movies is about taking all your worthwhile friendships and business contacts you've made over the years and ruining them. "It takes about a year before people start talking to you again," I remember him saying.

It's a somewhat extreme take on the whole endeavor, but I understand what he was saying. It's sort of strange to be in the position of having good work to offer people, but not much money to pay them for it. It's hard not to feel like you're taking advantage of people when that's exactly what you're doing. Sort of.

Whether your uncle sends you a large check or a friend lets you use their house as a location, independent films run on favors. But favors alone won't make your movie. It is people's investment of time, work, and sacrifice that will ultimately see you through, and I believe that "investment" begins with instilling in people a sense of ownership. People should never feel like they are just helping out, but rather becoming a part of a greater collaborative effort. This film does not belong to me alone. It belongs to anyone who believes in it enough to want to join in the process.

To that end, I have been floored in recent weeks by the amount of support pouring in. Seemingly out of nowhere I have a new co-producer, a casting director, some actors, and a key crew member all secured. These are not favors. These are people that are excited enough about the film to feel it is worth their while to come on board.

I can ask people to borrow their camera. I can ask people to borrow their apartment. I can even ask someone to work for free. If I'm lucky, people will say yes and I'll save some money. But I can't ask people to enthusiastic. I have to enthuse them. I have to offer them something to be excited about. Maybe it's a great part to play, maybe it's a Producer credit, but the only thing that makes those things appeal to them is my own enthusiasm. I have to love the investment enough myself for someone to want to join me. Even a good script can't rally the troops alone, that falls on the filmmaker. Hopefully, that enthusiasm becomes infectious and ultimately fuels things down the line if/when one starts to doubt themselves.

Big Budget Blues

In planning a film shoot, many filmmakers will ask themselves, "What's the right way to do this?". Whether determining the size of the crew or scheduling the shooting days, we tend to find ourselves looking for a standard to draw from. A production template, if you will. The only problem is that the only real standard of doing things is predicated upon having a massive budget. I had a chance to observe and reflect upon this "standard" last week while I was out of town shooting a TV commercial. As surprising as it may be, most television commercials have huge budgets. How huge? Well, for a thirty-second spot, many commercial productions will spend anywhere from $1-3 million. And that's only for a day or two of shooting!

As I was acting in this commercial, I was afforded a terrific vantage to observe the workings of the set from minute to minute. You'd think that because I'm trying to make my own movie, that I'd be drooling over all of the luxuries afforded on such a set: Comfortable transportation and lodging, large wardrobe selection, thorough props and art direction, a sexy camera, HUGE lights, and a massive support crew for every department. Surprisingly, all this made for little more than a lesson in inefficiency.

To my eye, the problem begins with too many people. While it's fair to say that delegating is the key to managing any large operation, it can also increase the likelihood of miscommunication. Too often it ends up being a game of telephone where people are relaying unimportant information and confirming nothing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PP_pDXBOSBI&feature=related

Time is money, and when it takes ten different people's approval to move forward on anything, a simple task can turn into a huge obstacle. I also noticed that the further removed a crew member was from the creative heads, the more complacent and lazy they would be about any and every task. Ultimately, I was working for two and a half days on location for about twenty takes of ONE shot. Most of that time was spent trying on different outfits that either no one liked or no one could find someone to sign-off on. I'd seen this sort of thing before on other commercial shoots, so I started analyze further...What does this mean for me?

My limitations become my liberation. The bare-bones crew that I'll be working with on Passing Harold Blumenthal might make some things difficult in that there will be fewer hands. But the way I see it, having fewer hands may help to yield fewer problems. If I only have a First Assistant Director, for instance, then I don't have to worry that what I tell them won't make it's way to the Second AD, and then to the Second Second, and then to the actor waiting to go on set. If I can't afford HUGE lights, I don't have to worry about paying and feeding and communicating with three gaffers. The more gear, the more people. The more people, the more time. The more time, the more money. The more money, the more stress. The more stress, the less room for creativity.

My crew shall be lean and mean. Departments will have delegated responsibilities, but not to the point of redundancy. I'll have all the necessary equipment to do the job, but nothing that might slow us down. Although it is a necessary reality, I don't want to rely on money to solve creative problems. If my recent TV commercial proves anything, it's that no matter how many people or toys you have on-set, the only thing that'll make the product great is the content and the skill with which it's captured and presented. If the creativity can't make it onto film, then it's all for naught.

The filmmaking standard of large budget productions does not help the lone filmmaker. I'd like to discover/develop a new standard of filmmaking for independents. There's got to be a recipe of the essentials that utilize all the necessary departments of a crew, but without clogging the pipes. As I move forward with pre-production, I'll try and look at how my choices made along the way might be more universally applied to other filmmaker's endeavors.

 

Nuts and Bolt$

The first step in assessing the feasibility of shooting an independent film is to do a breakdown and schedule the script. To do a breakdown requires that one thoroughly review a screenplay and make an accurate assessment of all its elements in order to begin to organize the necessary production details. Normally, this task is performed by either a producer or line-producer, but for me to get a preliminary idea of what I need (including whether or not I'll need a line-producer), I did the initial pass. The goal here is to streamline enough to end up with a smooth and cost-effective schedule. I began simply by going through the screenplay scene by scene and keeping track of how many times a location is used, when an actor (or dog) is used, and whether or not it is day or night. In addition to organizing scenes by their ingredients, I made note of how many pages each scene has. With this information, I then organized the scenes into days with the following considerations: actors, location, time of day, and number of pages. The number of pages one can film per day varies greatly from production to production. How fast things move is ultimately up to the director. For my own taste, I average about six pages a day with a small, light crew. That means that some days I may accomplish less, and other days much more depending on the type of scene and the way I want to cover it.

I demo'd a piece of production software called Showbiz Scheduling to help me organize these elements and cobble together a rough schedule. The software works well, as it imports your actual screenplay file and analyzes it thoroughly to give you a head start in the process.

After organizing everything, I found myself with an 18 day shooting schedule. That sounds about right. Having an idea of how many shooting days one requires is the first step in projecting a budget for the production. Furthermore, it is a terrific way to review your script's requirements. Sometimes after a thorough breakdown, schedule and budget, a filmmaker might find that some rewrites are in order. For instance, if a particular scene appears to be unnecessarily costly or time-consuming, the writer and/or director may rethink how essential that particular scene or scene element is to the story and ultimate product.

This process is much easier when you've already written a script with ingredients that you have access to. Don't just write what you know, write what you have. Our boy Robert Rodriguez had a turtle, a guitar case, and a Mexican town and he turned that into El Mariachi. Kevin Smith had a convenience store at his disposal and wrote Clerks around it. All that said, I still managed to write a few imaginative scenarios that have left me wondering how the hell I'll secure some of the locations. We'll see whether those bits stay in the picture!

With a schedule and a breakdown in hand, I can draw up a few different versions of a budget and then know exactly how much I have to raise and spend. The breakdown also forms the backbone of logistics to support the filmmaker through rewrites, pre-production, and post. Things will inevitably change along the way and the breakdown and schedule will be refined further. But this is where the nuts and bolts begin.

The Secrets to My Success

It's somewhat strange to shift so suddenly from the writing process to the fundraising/budgeting process. Writing for me is  a cozy, creative process (mostly). Now, I have to move from that solitary world to the reality of getting a film made and all that that entails. For the time being, I am my own producer and working on my own. Consequently, I have begun to think of my film simply as a product and go through all the standard practices of manufacturing that product. I'll try to devote separate posts to all the specific tasks ahead of me, but for now these are the things heaped on the writer/director/PRODUCER's plate. Some of these tasks are behind me, but they are part of an ongoing process.

1. Developing a Business Plan/Pitch- Sell the investment.

2. Forming an Entity - The movie is not the filmmaker.

3. Budget - There may be a few versions of this.

4. Preliminary Casting - Form ideas for talent that will attract others.

There are a wealth of other minutia in there as well. But that's the general idea of what a rude awakening the business part of getting a film made can be. I'm sure this sounds like fun to some more business-inclined people. Personally, I can't wait till I have an opportunity to return to the creative part!

Pretty Cheapy - Part One

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gKDAjgSM7c&fs=1&hl=en_US] Things are progressing nicely on all fronts. I took a break from writing/meetings/blogging for a few days to spend time with family and enjoy some copious amounts of snow.  As always, I'm happy to be back at it.

As I mentioned in an early post, a large part of this feature was spawned from my short film, Pretty Happy.  That film serves as a springboard to my upcoming feature, both in  a literary sense as well as a production model. Over the next couple posts, I'll walk through that process to give a feel for exactly how "independent" a film can be. At the end, I'll try to go through what worked and what didn't work and why.

Pretty Happy began as a short scene between two characters and quickly developed into a simple, small story arc.  I had already done a few short films before this and at larger budgets. The cost of those films ranged from $3,000 to $9,000. As many of you know, short films rarely earn any meaningful distribution or revenue, so this just ends up being an investment in production value. Some of my shorts were really good and some of them were really bad, but the audience never cared how much I spent on them. In fact, the most expensive one was a real dud. My own private Waterworld (or The Watchmen). For these reasons, I decided I would use Pretty Happy as a bit of a test for myself to see how cheaply I could make a short film. If it turned out to be a good movie, great. If it turned out to be crap, then I wasn't in the hole for much money, and hopefully I learned something.

I decided on a budget of $1500. Most of that money went to renting a Red One camera but it also got me a sound recordist, catering, props,  and a few high watt light bulbs. The only real "paid" person on set was the sound guy, otherwise I called in favors from friends.  My producer/friend, Ryan Young, and I wore multiple hats. I was the Cinematographer and Ryan made sure I was on schedule and people were fed.

We planned very thoroughly and storyboarded everything. Ultimately, we shot over 12 pages in less than two days. We got every shot we wanted, and even added a few along the way once we discovered a furniture dolly in the hallway that we could use for tracking shots.

We got it in the can for a about $1450. The next step was to learn how to edit.

To be continued...

Help Me Make a Movie?

Money makes the world go round. It also makes movies.

As I mentioned in the previous post, there are a couple different versions of how much my movie might cost. But no matter what the determined scale of this project ends up being, I'm definitely going to need financial backing.

From what I've observed of other filmmakers and from my own past experiences, securing finances for a film tends to be the first major hurdle (and possibly the most daunting). A writer/director spends months falling in love with a story, turning the words around, and dreaming what the film will ultimately look like. The sad part is that most independent films aren't able to secure their budget and never make it to production. They just end where they began,  as a script on some guy's hard drive who thought he had a good idea for a movie. I'm sure there are some pretty amazing movies out there that just need an opportunity to be made.  Although that seems to be the pervading fate here, it is not an option for me as it would make for a very defeatist blog. I promise you will not read a post in two months announcing "In light of my inability to raise a budget for this project, you can no longer watch me make a movie." I suppose I'd have to change the blog title, too.

After tightening the script to my liking, the next step will be to seek out an executive producer. An executive producer is a title most often given to a individual or party responsible for contributing or securing the necessary funds to the project. Naturally, there is always some stake in the movie that goes along with it.

So where do I find an executive producer? How do I sell them this project? I can't really answer this with any certainty because I've never done this before! What I can do is give a candid look at my game plan.

Over the past three years I have written and directed a few projects that have garnered some level of attention at varying degrees and I have been able to make some worthwhile industry contacts.  Whether as an actor, writer, or director, these people and/or companies have expressed interest in some of my work (or maybe even just me). These contacts will be the first people I approach. While never easy, at least these people/companies are relevant professionals who would expect me to approach them and, I hope, be interested to read my feature-length screenplay.

The next round of people to approach are also individuals who have previously expressed interest in my work, but have no real experience investing or producing movies. This type of executive producer is a harder sell simply because I am selling more. With production companies and regular film financiers, the only real sell is the appeal of my story and my directorial abilities. They know how the independent film business works and are mainly looking for content. With non-undustry investors, I'll have to sell the entire investment and endeavor of making a movie even before I try to convince them that mine is one worth making. Then I'll still have to convince them that I'm the guy to make it.

Alas, if everyone I approach over the next couple months turns me down, I will simply reserve the Executive Producer title for myself. That would also mean that I would have to foot the bill myself and seriously modify script and production to accommodate such a low-budget operation. This is where the small-scale version of this movie would come into play. It's not ideal, but I'd make it work. That scenario will be my contingency plan. It wouldn't be pretty, but it would definitely make this blog far more interesting to read.