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.
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