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.

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