Tuesday, April 15, 2014

In defense of Crewtopia.

I was recently made aware of an open letter in the local IATSE newsletter that took umbrage with the word "crewtopia" and apparently with the philosophy behind it. Since I have had a big part in popularizing this expression, I figured I owed the author a response.

The letter insinuated that the term paints Seattle as a "backwater with an inferiority complex." The word crewtopia is one that was coined in New York when Lacey Leavitt and I were talking to another filmmaker about our experiences working in Seattle. We were trying to come up with a way to do justice to the massive affection we have for the crews we have been lucky enough to work with on our productions, and the words crew and utopia became one. I've used it regularly ever since in both casual conversation and national press, and without fail I invoke it to convey exactly how talented, hard-working and incredibly special the crews in this city are. I honestly don't understand how it could be interpreted to make Seattle look inferior in any way.

The IATSE letter went on to speculate if any of us who use the word "really know what ‘crew utopia’ is to the working crew." I spent a decade as part of Seattle's working crew--in many roles, from PA, to DP, to 1st AD--and I understand on a core level what it means to feel respected by those above the line, as well as what it feels like when that respect is not there. Animosity between "crew" and "production" is unfortunately not rare in this business, whatever region you work in. And it's understandable, as there are plenty of people on both sides of the line who perpetuate this divide by mistreating or distrusting those on the other side. But that doesn't mean it should remain the norm.

I came up in the scrappy, make-it-work world of low budget film--where rules tend to be flexible and often broken for the sake of getting the film made. As I worked alongside Seattle and Spokane crews on features of mounting budgets, I began to more deeply understand and embrace the regulations that the unions have worked so hard to create and enforce. On THE OFF HOURS, my producers  (all former working crew) and I chose to run our set as much as possible as if we were operating under a union contract--not because we had to, but because we wanted to demonstrate to our crew the respect we had for their time and energy. I've seen many, many other producers of non-union films do the same. I'm not sure that the author of the IATSE letter understands that the elements he lists (living wages, reasonable hours, thorough preparation and mutual respect) are things we all want, and things that those he's criticizing have been prioritizing and striving to provide for years.

I don't write this post to stir up any ill feelings. I have great respect for the author of the letter in question, and for the union in whose newsletter he chose to air his feelings. I cherish my relationships with the members of IATSE Local 488 and would never want to endanger those relationships. I wrote because it seemed that the notion of crewtopia was being unfairly represented in a public space, and I felt the need to defend it in a public space. I'm certainly not above criticism, and am very open to hearing where my colleagues and I might continue to improve and do better by the community here in the Northwest.

Since THE OFF HOURS, I have been fortunate enough to be able to bring a few higher budget films home to Seattle. Lynn Shelton, Lacey Leavitt, Jennifer Roth, Mel Eslyn and others have brought many more. None of us would have been able to do this were it not for crewtopia. Our crews are the foundation upon which our films are built. They provide the passion, the positive energy, and the true dedication to the work that makes the films what they are. I know it's kind of a silly word, but crewtopia represents something special to me and many others. I hope this letter has done something to help illuminate the spirit in which the word was coined.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Going the distance.

I have been neglecting this blog space pretty woefully of late. Neglecting it to such an extreme, in fact, that I just discovered this post I wrote almost a year ago.  At that point I was right in the midst of editing my fourth feature, LUCKY THEM, and the timing was perfect to compose a blog post about post. A year later it's maybe not quite as timely, but hopefully useful enough to excuse the belatedness.

While you're making your film, every little detail feels vitally important.  The cast and crew are devoted to translating the script to the screen and the director stands at the center of a tornado, receiving thousands of questions a day.  Once the storm subsides and production wraps, the chaos abruptly ends.  The director is left holding the resulting footage, often alone or in the company of only one or two others.  Months stretch ahead with many more questions waiting to be answered regarding what will stay in the film and what will go, what can be done to enhance what is great and what can be done to overcome what isn't.  The passion that has been driving the process up to this point can be hard to sustain once you're sitting in a quiet room and the urgency has drained away.  But this phase of the process will determine your film's fate just as much as any other, if not more.  Care about every detail.  Consider every facet of the work.  There are things that can be done to make your movie better all the way up until you deliver it to your first festival or your distributor.  Never stop caring.

When I first started editing my films in film school, I would shut the door and keep the sound low--that's how self-conscious I was about my work.  But shutting yourself away and toiling in solitude does you no favors.  I was soon forced out of my shell my mandatory feedback sessions.  The rules were simple: show your work, encourage critique, and keep your mouth shut.  If someone asks a question, don't answer it, throw it back out to the other viewers.  If no one else can answer it, you know it's an issue that you need to address.  If everyone else seems clear on the question, move on.  Don't get defensive of your work--remember, you asked them to come.  It's not exactly fun to sit in the midst of a discussion about all the things that aren't working in your film, but wouldn't you rather experience this discomfort in a room of your peers instead of reading these criticisms in a published review of your finished work?  It's important to expose your film to actual audience members, welcome their feedback and use it to make your film the best it can be before unleashing it on the rest of the world.

I say this a lot, but that's only because it's true always and forever in every stage of the process.  As a filmmaker you are nothing without your instincts.  Feedback is critical, yes, but it's not an end result.  You need to be able to sort through that feedback and parse it for useful information, then apply your own instincts to determine the solutions to those problems.  Following your gut isn't a natural skill.  If it were there would be a lot more people living their dreams in this world.  You need to practice trusting yourself until it is second nature. Do it every day, not just in your creative projects but in your life.

Once you take your film out to real world test audiences, you may find that there are elements of the story that are unclear or pieces that people just aren't putting together.  There are a lot of ways to solve these problems, and they don't all revolve around going out and reshooting.  Strategic pick-up shots and the use of ADR can go a long way towards clearing things up.  On EDEN, we did one solitary pick-up of a hand holding a ring.  It solved the one story issue we were having in our test screenings.  We inserted new lines in via ADR to answer other questions that arose most frequently.  And as a result, no one has ever brought up these issues since.

Do you want to make money, do you want people to discover the film, or do you want people to discover you?  These are the choices that were given to me by the sales agent of THE OFF HOURS.  My response was probably the same as every other filmmaker who has ever been asked that question: Can't I have all three?  Maybe some people are fortunate enough to get fame, fortune and a wide release for their films, but most people have to settle for one, if any. Ultimately, with TOH, we determined that the most important thing was to get the film seen.  We figured that if the film wasn't going to be a break-out hit, we weren't likely to make a big profit, and that the least we could do for our investors and collaborators was to get their work into the world however we could.  We played as many film festivals as possible, submitted the film for awards, and when we were nominated for our Independent Spirit Award we paid to have four thousand screeners sent out to the voters.  That strategy ended up succeeding in another way--as people were exposed to the film they began to notice the strong work of the cast and crew.  It became a calling card piece not only for me as the director, but for the producers, our DP Ben Kasulke, production designer Ben Blankenship, costume designer Rebecca Luke, and our amazing cast, many of whom are breaking out now in a big way.  There are many ways to measure success, and box office is just one of them.