Archive for the ‘Production Team’ 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.

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!

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.

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.

On Visiting Mammoth and Mono County…

Thursday, August 4th, 2011

Mono-Lake-Tufa-PictureOne of the most rewarding parts of the this process has been getting to know the people of Mammoth and Mono County, and getting to see the place through the eyes of the people who live there.

I recently visited for six days and met all kinds of folks. I hiked the Horseshoe Lake Loop for the first time, biked up to the Woods Lodge on Lake George. I’d never been to Lake George– didn’t even know about it.

I went out to Bodie and got a tour from the ranger. Then, I met a renowned landscape photographer on the road out. We were both taking pictures. A new friendship made in a chance meeting on a gravel road at 8000 feet.

You know how you fall in love with someone and then, if it’s right, keep learning more about them, surprising yourself by how deeply you fall, how much there is to love about them? That’s the experience I’m having with Mammoth and Mono County.

It’s magical.

The 6 Stages of Sharing Your Dream

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

Okay, so it can be confronting to share one’s dream. Seriously. I started sharing about this film this week and found myself confronted on all kinds of levels. And I’m in the business of supporting people in accomplishing their dreams. I live in the dream capitol of the world!

So, as I looked at what I was experiencing, I came up with a list of the stages of sharing a dream. Kind of like the 5 stages of grief, only it’s our dreams. They are:

1) Confronted. (e.g. How dare I have such a bold dream?)
2) Uncomfortable. (Okay, this is getting a little easier, but I’m still way out of my comfort zone.)
3) Finding my groove. (This sharing is not so bad. I’m starting to find some kindred spirits.)
4) Exhilarated. (I am not only sharing my dream, I’m going to accomplish my dream!)
5) Fun loves company! (Come on down and play! Let’s all have a big dream!)
6) Expansive world view. (Have a big life, have big dreams!)

This is what I’ve experienced. It’s been exhilarating, uncomfortable, slow and steady, lighting fast. At times the air has felt different against my skin, I’ve been so far out of my comfort zone.

It’s made me wonder why we don’t all share our dreams more often? Yeah, I get it, we’re all too cool for that… but, why? Why are we too cool? Are we all so disappointed, ridden-hard-and-put-away-wet, recession-kicked, that we have stopped dreaming?

I don’t believe it. I think we all dream, we just need a little help sharing our dreams.

So, this is that help. Share your dream with me right now. Declare it loud and proud. Or softly at first. I don’t care, just declare your dream. Don’t worry about how it will come true. That will get figured out later. Besides, it’s tough for it to come true if you don’t share it!

Here’s to our dreams coming true…
~Shawn.