Archive for the ‘Movie Production’ Category

Lose the Battle, Win the War: What that Really Means When it Comes to Directing

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

ShawnTalksWithNicholleTom-sm

Some of you have heard me talk about an amazing experience I was blessed to be a part of early my career.  I was a field producer for a BBC documentary on success and failure in Hollywood.  As part of an interview team of four people I participated in over 70 interviews with some of the most successful people in Hollywood.  From Kathleen Kennedy to Doug Wick after he’d won the Oscar for Gladiator to Akiva Goldsman who’d just won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind to Pierce Brosnan at his house.  It was like the best grad program in movie-making ever created.

We interviewed many, many producers and, as you’d guess, they all had lots to say about directors.  I heard more than one producer talk about directors who approach filmmaking like it’s an “act of war.”  As a young director who’d spent most of my career in the theatre at that point, I found this analogy really intriguing.  It’s not like the theatre was always touchy/feely, but I would never have called directing theatre an act of war. 

So, it was ironic to find myself using war metaphors when it came to directing Saturn Returns.  The emotional, physical and ment al challenges of directing a low budget feature in a small town 350 miles away from Los Angeles are immense.  The analogy of being a general in war in which there were many battles felt spot on.

keep-calm-and-win-the-war

So what do I have to say about this “war?”  Lots, it turns out.  One of the things that might be most surprising is that as a director, I found that I generally lost most of the battles.  It turns out that losing battles was par for the course.  I don’t mean that I didn’t make decisions and see my choices and vision reflected in countless aspects of the film.  On the contrary.  My choices are everywhere, my fingerprints on 99.99% of what you’ll see on screen.

What I mean is that I had to get okay with losing battles in order to win the war.  I had to let go of my ego over and over again.  My experience of directing was the opposite of what the popular myth holds about directors and directing—that we are all egomaniacs and dictators.  Sure it takes a high level of confidence (and probably ego) to lead a group of 30+ people through a grueling process, making decisions every second of every day for 13 to sometimes 18 hours a day.  No doubt.

But for me, anyway, that process wasn’t about asserting my ego.  It was about the vision I was holding in my mind and the decisions that lined up with that vision.

So, here’s what I do mean by letting go of my ego.  When there actually was a battle (and there were several) I found that if I fought it to win it, then I generally lost.  By that I mean that I won the battle but stood to lose the war.  And by lose the war I mean risk not making my day and not completing the film.  Completing the best film I can make that is as close to the vision in my head is winning the war, in my book.

I’ll give you an example.  There was a crew member who was visibly unsupportive, at times rude and even verbally abusive.  I know, surprising right?  Actually not so much.  Film shoots bring out the best and worst in people.

On our last day of shooting the verbal abuse started again.  I’d taken this person outside a few times to talk over the course of the shoot and we’d reached a détente of sorts.  But on this last day the comments began again.  We were almost done shooting with one last shot that was important to get when the light was just right.  I remember sitting inside by myself, waiting for the light, while everyone had started wrapping equipment.  And I thought, I can go outside right now and scream at this person in front of everyone and subject them to same abuse they’ve subjected me to.  Or, I can do a quieter version of that, but let them get a taste of how it’s been for me the past few weeks.

And I sat there and despite my very, very deep anger, I realized that if I were to do that I’d win the battle and risk losing the war.  Even on this last day, 18 days in with only one shot to go, I might not get the shot I needed and risk not completing the film.  And, who knows what I would need from this person in the future?  Better to let this latest crappy behavior roll off my back.

And, most importantly, I realized I needed my energy for more important things.  At that point I was only a third of the way through my “war” and I needed every bit of energy to lead the team through the rest of the process.

Let me be clear.  I’m not suggesting you be a doormat.  You can’t be a doormat and lead a group of dozens of people through anything, let alone a film shoot.  You have to have confidence and boundaries and assertiveness at every turn.  And you have to know when and where to let the bad behavior, the lack of professionalism, the terrible decisions, the rudeness, roll off your back.  It’s about picking your battles, or even avoiding them altogether because you’re up to much bigger stuff.

My ego wanted to go scream at that person.  My commitment to making the best film I could stopped me and allowed me to “get over it” in less than 10 minutes.

So, what did I do?  I relaxed on the couch for the first time in weeks.  The sun went down and we got the shot.  While I can’t say I have love in my heart for this person, I don’t lose sleep over them either.  Part of getting good at letting it roll of my back is actually letting it go and getting on with the more important stuff.  It’s about actually embracing losing the battle in order to win the war.

I haven’t won the war, yet.  (We are still in post.)  But I’m well on my way.

Pushing the Boulder Up the Hill: Getting That Dang Film Into Production

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Girls can do anything!

If you didn’t already know this, I’m back from directing my first feature film.  We wrapped July 1st, a little less than a month ago.  I’ve recovered enough to start blogging about the experience.

I had a spontaneous Q and A today and there were lots of questions. But, this was the biggie that overshadowed them all…  How did you get that dang film into production?

This is a particularly poignant question because it took so long for me to get a film into production.  I worked on Saturn Returns for 5 years before we rolled camera.  I worked on a feature project before this one for 5 years.  I worked on another one before that for three years.  So, it’s taken a lot to get here.

As you can guess, there are several answers to this question, but let’s just start with commitment.  A year ago I came to a new place of commitment.  Let me tell you what it looked like:  I was going to shoot Saturn Returns in June 2014 or I was going to walk away from the project and from being a filmmaker.  No joke.  I didn’t come to this from a place of being mad or fed-up or desperate.  This decision was passionate but very calm.  I simply realized that the amount of work I’d done, the capacity I had to keep doing that amount of work, the patience of my husband and my supporters, all of this had a shelf-life and I was near the end of it.

So, I decided to pull out all of the stops.  Now, many of you know me and know that I’m a very committed, hard-working person.  So, this was a whole new level of energy, time and work.  I worked pretty much every night and weekend for an entire year.  This is in addition to my coaching business and to being the mother of three year old twins.  (No, I don’t have live-in help and I have very little family support besides my husband.)  It meant that every trip to Mammoth I had as many meetings as I could and sacrificed R and R.  It meant I worked every day of Christmas break.

I don’t tell you this to impress you.  I’m just telling you what it took.

But there’s more to it than just the hard work.  Because I’m not suggesting you live your life this way, far from it.

Simply put, I got willing to leave my dream behind if we didn’t go into production.  And I got clear that if I were to do that, I didn’t want to feel like I’d left anything on the sidelines.  I wanted to leave it all on the court.  No regrets for what I hadn’t done.

I didn’t make this decision because I thought it would be powerful, but it turned out to be extraordinarily empowering.  Every time someone came up with an objection, a concern, an obstacle, I weighed it against my commitment to go into production in June and my willingness to totally walk away from the project forever.   Push another year?  Sorry, no can do.  Push to September?  Same answer.  Wait for an actor?  Nothing doing.

Besides demanding that I work nearly every night and weekend for a year, this commitment had me doing things that were so far outside my comfort zone it surprised even me.  It had me asking things of people—investors, team members, actors and more—that I had previously been afraid to ask for.  And it had me doing it fast, with zero of the usual hand-wringing.  It had me doing things at a new level of ballsy, and I am no shrinking violet.

Really facing the prospect of walking away from my dream of directing a feature film had me look at my fears in a much more profound way then I ever have before.  I had to ask myself what I was willing to do for my dream.  No, the answer isn’t “anything.”  There are things I won’t do.  I won’t lie or cheat or steal or behave without integrity.  I won’t leave my husband or children for it.

But, I got willing to fail publicly.  That was a very, very big one for me.  And, I think it’s harder to risk failing publicly then it is to behave without integrity, frankly.

The other big answer to the question of how I got this dang film into and out of production is that I had one die-hard who was with me no matter what.  He happens to be my husband, Gregory.  And without him making this film wouldn’t have been possible.

It’s important to talk about this because big projects like this one don’t get done alone.  They take a team, as you know.  But it’s more nuanced then that.  Before the “team” there’s the one true believer that you absolutely must have.  You need one true believer who will stick by you no matter what.  And let me tell you, there was a time a few weeks out from our start date when everyone else dropped like flies.  We suddenly weren’t cool any more, and everyone else who’d been on for years fell like dominoes.  Though Gregory had doubts and concerns, he never stopped believing in the project and in me.  You gotta have someone like him.  Period.

So, this is the big answer to the big question of how I pushed this boulder up the hill and finally, after more then a decade, got my first feature into the can.  There’s a lot more to talk about and I promise I will do so.  Keep your eyes peeled for a blog on casting, one I’m going to call Riding the Bucking Bronco, aka Production, Coming Back to Earth (aka Transitioning Back to Your Real Life,) and more.

Hit me with questions, comments and thoughts.  It’s good to share it with you.  And, again, thank you so much for your support.

 

 

 

Production Diary #4: It’s Been a Whirlwind

Monday, August 25th, 2014

It’s been a whirlwind few weeks of finishing production.  I’m excited to touch base and share an update!

We wrapped up in Mammoth in early July with a night shoot.  There we are burning the midnight oil!  Gregory and I are looking at the monitor in the bottom left corner of the frame.

We had a swell wrap party with the cast, the crew and several Mammoth supporters join us doing karaoke, dancing and letting off steam.  Here we are!

Before we left town we got a few “beauty shots” in and around Mammoth and Mono County.  There’s lots of beauty, so it wasn’t too hard to find stuff to shoot!  (I’m in red in the middle of the frame with the hat!)

More soon as we put it all together!!

Production Diary #3: In the home stretch

Friday, August 15th, 2014
Here are some shots from the last two weeks of production …

Director of Photography Michael Alden Lloyd and I set up a shot in the house!

I’m working on a scene with Jordan Belfi and Andrew Dits, Doug and Nathan, respectively!

Michael Lloyd and I watch the monitor while Alison Haislip sleeps on Miles Gaston Villaneuva’s shoulder!

More shots and updates soon!

Production Diary #2: Gotta love being at 11,000 feet!

Friday, August 8th, 2014
So, we promised you behind the scenes peeks at the making of the film, and here we go again!
I did a lot of  prepping with Michael Lloyd, our Director of Photography.  We scouted the gorgeous Lake George to see if we could shoot the sequence where our characters Katie and James fall in love.  Here’s Michael and Gregory talking shop under Crystal Crag in the distance!
We also went to the top of Mammoth Mountain (that’s 11,000 feet!)  As someone who skis there all the time it was pretty trippy to be at the top with so little snow!  Although, you can’t tell from this photo…
Also, here’s a look at Bodie, an awesome ghost town we’ll be using for the movie.  If you’ve not seen my Bodie video, check it out here: https://vimeo.com/96675460.  It’s totally fun!
Finally, the final cast! We’ve got Jordan Belfi as Doug.  Erin Chambers as Sienna. Andrew Dits as Nathan. Michael Cory Davis as James. Alison Haislip as Johanna. Miles Gaston Villanueva as Robbie.  And, of course, Nicholle Tom as Katie! It’s a great cast!
We’ll have more production diary updates soon.  Keep your eyes peeled!  Can’t wait to share some more with you!

Production Diary #1: Gotta love actors

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

So, we promised you a behind the scenes peak at the making of the film, and here we go!

At 3 weeks out, we moved into high speed. Casting, locking locations, production meetings with the department heads— DP, production design, costumes and more.

One of the things that took up a lot of our time was casting. Because, if we don’t have actors to play the roles, then it kind of doesn’t matter where we shoot or who shoots the movie. So, casting becomes this 800 pound gorilla that must be fed and fed now. And more to the point, if we don’t get really great actors playing the roles, we won’t care about the characters– and who wants to see a movie where you don’t care about the characters? Not me.

We had an amazing casting session known as callbacks. Callbacks are when you bring in a group of actors culled from all the auditions and pair them up with other actors to see how they play off each other. This is sometimes known as “chemistry reads” because you want to see chemistry between the characters! Needless to say it was so awesome to hear the script I’ve worked on for so long come out of the mouths of some truly amazing actors! It was quite magical, to tell the truth. It came to life before my very eyes.

Here we are above with Michael Donovan, our casting director on the left, Gregory at the camera and me looking at the monitor. Hard at work having so much fun!

And, I’m excited to announce that we cast Nicholle Tom in the role of Katie! You might remember Nicholle from The Nanny many years ago. She’s been working steadily ever since and was just on the Showtime series Masters of Sex. (Don’t worry, she grew up a long time ago. 🙂

We’ll have more production diary updates coming soon. Keep your eyes peeled! Can’t wait to share some more with you!

It Takes a Village Pt 2: Lessons from an Olympic Gold Medalist

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

I am writing, as promised, to share about the Saturn Returns process.  As we gear up for our shoot in June I’ve been learning so much!

A few weeks ago I wrote about the concept of “It Takes a Village” to make a movie like this one.  Well, today I want to share one of the places that concept led me to and the wonderful lesson I learned.

In the spirit of “It Takes a Village” I’ve literally met hundreds of people who I’ve shared the film with. And by meet I mean actually sit down and have a meeting.  It would be tempting sometimes, as I talked about in the last blog, to get frustrated and feel like “if only I can do my art!”

But, once I embraced the concept that building the village is as much a part of the creative process as the director’s prep, some wonderful things really opened up for me.  Here’s one of them…

I was introduced to the amazing Kelly Clark.  If you’re a Mammoth-lover or Mammoth-local, you know that she is the most successful snowboarder, man or woman, of all time.  She won her first Olympic medal, the gold, in Salt Lake in 2002.  Now, 12 years later, she is still the one to beat.  She’s the only woman who can throw a 1080 (3 turns in the air) in competition.  She came in 4th in Torino, bronze medaled in Vancouver, and then competed in Sochi.  I’ve been fortunate enough to become friends with her and we had a terrific conversation a few weeks after she came back from Sochi.

If you didn’t watch the half-pipe competition, here’s what you have to know; the conditions in the pipe were terrible.  The weather was really warm and the organizers couldn’t keep the pipe frozen.  It kept melting and then refreezing when they put chemicals on it.  The result was a combination of slush, ice and lots of bumps.

I’m not a snowboarder, but as Kelly told me, when you ride down and then up the pipe, you have to “carry a lot of speed” to be able to do the tricks.  If you don’t go fast enough, you can’t throw tricks.  If the conditions are bumpy and irregular it slows you down.  Also, if you land on a bumpy wall, you are a lot more likely to fall then if you land on a smooth wall.

So, with all this knowledge, here’s what Kelly shared with me.  She fell five times before her last finals run. She fell every single training run.  She fell in a qualifying run.  She fell in her first of two finals runs.

She also told me that she almost never falls.  By way of comparison, the week after the Olympics she competed in another event and didn’t fall the entire week.  She barely put her hand down once in 15 runs. This gives you an idea how bad the situation at Sochi was.

And here’s what I heard her share.  She kept getting back up. Even after her first finals run, she fell and she got back up.  On the world’s biggest stage, in primetime, with more then 3 billion people watching, she fell… and she got back up.  And then she won a bronze medal.

I saw her a few weeks ago and got to talk to her some more and hold her medal.   She said that this medal was the most special of all the medals that she’s ever won because of how hard it was to win it.

I was incredibly inspired by Kelly’s story for a couple of reasons.  First, we hear all about how getting to the Olympics and competing on the world stage with the best of the best involves sacrifice and hard work.  But, when I heard the details of what Kelly went through I really heard something I’d never heard before.  The sacrifice and hard work involve not just runs in the pipe, workouts and travel away from your family.  The sacrifice I saw was the sacrifice of ego.  The sacrifice of the easy way out.  The sacrifice of feeling good.

She kept getting back up on the board and riding down the pipe, fully aware that she might totally bite the dust, look stupid and fail in front of 3 billion people.

And here’s what Kelly’s story has in common with making a film.  I can’t say that I’ve fallen 5 times at the Olympics, but I can say that I’ve been rejected by hundreds if not thousands of people in the five years I’ve been working on Saturn Returns.  I’ve gone to meeting after meeting and been told no.  I’ve been told yes and then no.  I’ve had people tell me yes for three years or even five years and then tell me no.  I’ve had people question my sanity, my creativity, my judgement, and more.  In short, I’ve bitten the dust, looked stupid and failed.

Turns out the keys to getting a movie made and winning an Olympic medal aren’t so different.  You can’t win if you don’t get back up and ride again.

By embracing the it-takes-a-village concept, I got to hear Kelly’s story and get inspired to get back up and keep going another day.  And now I get to share it with you.

I hope it inspires you, too, to keep going even when you fall repeatedly.

Please consider supporting our indiegogo campaign and going on the journey with us as we make the film.  Lots of cool ways to participate!  Only 6 days left!

It Takes A Village

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

I am writing, as I promised, to share about the Saturn Returns process.  As we gear up for our shoot in June I’ve been learning so much!

One of the things I most want to share has to do with the idea of team.  Now, you probably know that I spend a lot of time talking about team building and leadership in my various classes and coaching.  Today I want to talk about something a little different.  To borrow from Hilary Clinton and the Nigerian Igbo culture, I want to talk about the idea that a project (or your career) “takes a village.”

You might have heard me talk about the idea that nothing of any scope or magnitude in life happens alone.  We can’t even procreate by ourselves, right?  Yet, this business can be extraordinarily isolating if we’re not careful.  We write alone.  We go to auditions alone.  We sit at our desks making calls or sending emails alone.  When we get to be a part of a group making something, it’s often short and fleeting, preceded and followed by a lot of work all by ourselves.

When it comes to Saturn Returns I’ve found myself using the phrase “it takes a village to make a film like this” over and over again.  And while that, in and of itself, has not been a big surprise, what that actually looks like and really means, practically speaking, has been surprising to me.  Here’s what I mean…

It takes a village, and you have to love the village. A lot of actors I meet tell me “I just want to act.”  A lot of writers I meet tell me, “I just want to write.”  Ditto with directors, sound mixers, wardrobe stylists, you name it.

We feel we have a calling. There’s something that we love doing and we’re good at it.  If only all this other junk would just go away, we’d be so much happier and fulfilled.  We come to resent all this other stuff we have to do.  All the people we have to meet, the calls we have to make, the events we have to go to, the hustling we have to do.  Ugh.  When does it all end?

This is the village I’m talking about.  This is the village we have to love.  It would be so easy for me to resent how long it’s taken to raise the money for Saturn Returns, the number of meetings I’ve had that have gone nowhere, the number of people who’ve told me they’ll invest and then backed out, and on and on.  But one of the things that I’ve come to learn is that the village is every bit as much a part of making Saturn Returns as the actual filmmaking.  They go hand in hand.  There’s an idea that you can be a filmmaker without all of this other stuff, but, frankly, I think it’s a myth.  At least in this day and age.  And the sooner we kiss the myth of the pure filmmaker or pure artist, actor or writer good-bye, the better.  It’s like kissing the myth of Prince Charming good-bye.  Hard but so freeing once we do it.

So, my lesson is love your village the way you love your art.  You can’t have one without the other.  It can be hard to love your village, I know.  But, truth be told, some days it can be hard to love your art, right?  Your village and your art demand a lot out of you.  But it’s in the service of something important, something extraordinary, something you’ve dedicated your life to doing.

Gotta love the Village.

Stacy Peralta’s film “Bones Brigade” an inspiration

Friday, November 30th, 2012

I was reading the LA Times a week or so ago (I’m old school, I still get it delivered and I love it) and found this great article on the skater legend and documentary filmmaker Stacy Peralta.  You might remember him from the seminal skater documentary (and one of my all-time favorite films) “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” or the big wave maverick surfer documentary “Riding Giants.”

His latest film is a doc about the Bones Brigade, a skate team he founded when he’d moved on to his entrepreneurial days in the ’80s.  This might surprise you that I’m a skateboard fan, but hear’s a little known fact about me…  I grew up a skate rat, and when I finally put away my board I still hung out with my brother on the massive half-pipe ramp we had in our backyard.  The half-pipe was taller than our house– maybe wider.  (We had a small house and a huge backyard.)

At any rate, Dogtown was my stomping ground in the early ’80s and skaters like the Z-boys my buds.

The reason that this film makes it onto my blog, however, has more to do with my current obsession, filmmaking.  “Bones Brigade: An Autobiography” has fully embraced the indie, DIY distribution tools and made a success of it.  What’s successful?  The film is reaching its audience with a high degree of penetration, it’s doing it in a way that it outside the box and allows for high audience engagement, and it’s monetizing this to a high degree.  In short, the audience is seeing the film and the investors and filmmakers are rewarded for their time and money.  Everyone wins.

The LA Times article talks about Stacy’s approach to doing this.  It captures their cheekiness, too, which is a key to their success.  Take a read if you’ve got time. It’s some great inspiration and food for thought!

–Shawn

On the Creative Process, Part I

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

On the Creative Process, Part I

The mountain that is love defies solo ascent.

This is an example of what my directing teacher Gerald Freedman would call theme. Or, what Lajos Egri would call a dramatic premise.

I articulated this dramatic premise for Saturn Returns after reading about Andrew Stanton of Pixar in the New Yorker Magazine. I was inspired to break out my journal and chip away at my director homework.

I am asked every so often what a director does. This question is usually over dinner, a drink, or at a meeting with someone who is not in the film business. It is an impossible question to answer, certainly impossible to answer over one meal.

That said, it is an important question, and one worth pondering over, writing about, and discussing. For me, the question is an inspiring one. When I ponder it, I want to get down to work.

This series is my occasional attempt to answer the question, “what does a director do?” Each time, I will come at it from the point of view that is where I am in the process. So, tonight, here goes…

Right now, I’ve written the script and rewritten the script many, many times. I’ve also got my producer hat on currently. I’m raising money with the business plan I’ve written, with the help of my producing team, making lots and lots of phone calls.

What that means is that there’s not a lot of directing work going on. But what little I’m doing is critical to the process.

Lake-Mary-Saturn-Returns

Lake Mary, Mammoth Lakes, CA

Basically, I’m looking for inspiration. I’m watching lots of different movies and television, always with Saturn Returns in the back of my mind. In Mammoth, I’m searching for the main house location, driving around town, looking at houses and trying to envision my characters in them.  I’m also looking for other seeds of ideas and images—the sign I pass on the way into town, the way a certain mountain rises above a lake, the shadows of the trees as the sun sets.

And then there is “director homework.” This is where the premise I talked about above comes in. One important part of director homework is asking the questions: What is the movie we’re making? What holds it together? What is the engine that drives it? How can I boil down all my ideas into one or two lines that I can use to convey my ideas to the cast and crew?

I’ve come at this question as a writer. Now, I’ve got to basically clear my head and reapproach it as a director. The answer to these questions will be my guiding principle, my North Star when I make decisions and choices. The more specific I am, the more this homework will serve me when I’m overwhelmed.

So, how did I come up with The mountain that is love defies solo ascent?

Well, first off, I started by asking, at the most basic level, what is the move about? Answer: love. Specifically, in this case, romantic love. More to the point, true love and what is necessary to experience true love.

In this film, our characters think they are in love, want to be in love, and deny their feelings of love. Some of them try to go it alone, immune to the power of love, or so they think. What they learn is that love is bigger than anything they want or plan or design. Indeed, love is bigger than any one individual. They learn that love demands sacrifice. They learn that love can’t be experienced alone.

One of the reasons that I set the movie in Mammoth Lakes and Mono County has to do with the salt-of-the-earth authenticity of the place. In my experience, it really is what it looks to be. People are who they say they are. It’s a place that strips one of the layers of façade. In my film, my characters are forced to confront their real selves.

So, in trying to convey the power of love in my premise, “mountain” captures it well.

Then we come to the verb. The verb is the litmus test. The conflict of the movie is often powerfully captured in the verb of the premise.

In this case, “defy” is a very human verb. So, I’m ascribing human qualities to the mountain of love. And, the verb “defy” juxtaposes solo ascent, a mountaineering phrase, with the concept of love. Basically, you can’t conquer the mountain of love alone.

I find that the best premises paint a picture. The verb conveys energy and conflict. There is a sense of irony in that expectations are confounded.

That’s all for now. For more on “premise” read Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing, or William Ball’s A Sense of Direction. For the article on Andrew Stanton and his work at Pixar, go to NewYorker.com and look for the Oct. 17th issue. It’s a great read.