Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Now Just Make It Look Good

One of the things cast and financiers will ask a first time feature director they want to work with is: Who's shooting it?  I learned quickly that if it's the director's first go at a feature, make sure it isn't your director of photography's. That's when you're really making it hard for yourself.  These financiers and actors want to know that if the director has any shortcoming experience-wise, the technical aspect of the project better be covered.  Whether this is fair or not, I can understand it: I'm taking a risk on you, don't ask me to take a risk on the entire technical and visual look of the film.  It's just a lot to ask of anyone.  And I admit it, many people who jump on board ask about this.  Find a DP who's done this before... several times.  It provides security for everyone who has already put all their faith in you.  I've shot multiple short films, and directing is the most fun and stressful thing in the world.  The last thing anyone needs is any hesitation on the technical side.  It can kill your whole shoot.  Of course, this isn't necessarily what will happen, but when people hear first time director mixed with first time DP, they'll probably get nervous and back away slowly.

With all this said, finding a director of photography is the first thing you should do when looking for your crew.  They are in charge of the overall look of the film you've always envisioned, and are such a key part of the set.  But I've got good news: in my experience, it's much easier to grab the interest of a DP than a cast.  In my case, it seems science fiction and time travel is exciting to most crew, especially DPs.  They don't have the same worries as cast and their agents.  They usually want two things: that your screenplay is something they want to shoot and they are available to do so.  They usually don't care who's in it, what the returns will be, or whether it's even financed yet.  They want to like the script, the director, and the project.  Simple enough, right?  Well, at least it's more straightforward than figuring out if "yes" means "yes."

Luckily, both of my producers had extensive experience on sets and already had very talented people in mind they knew personally and had worked with.  This helps make the process so much easier.

Be prepared when you interview a potential director of photography.  I for one know I'm usually so focused on my script and its story, that I really need to flesh out and think about the look of my film.  So many different scripts call for different things.  What's the overall mood and emotion you're trying to accomplish for the film?  This will help you discuss and decide on colors, lighting, camera movement, etc.  It also may be a good idea to watch other movies that deal with the subject matter of your project.  In my case, time travel, science fiction, and films taking place at colleges was a great place to start.  Time travel and sci-fi movies often have a certain feel.  I'm not saying you have to or even should emulate these films, but it's always good to research what's been done so you can either put your own take on it or even do the complete opposite.  That best part is it's all up to you and what you are out to accomplish in your vision.

The other key member of your crew will be the production designer.  He/she is responsible for a different aspect of the look of the film: sets and props.  In my case, one of the big projects for my production designer is the time machine.  That's not a usual task for an independent movie.  Also, all the scientific props and projects must look just as authentic in order to keep the credibility of the film for the audience.  As far as hiring, I found production designers fall in the same category as DPs.  If they like the script, they're in.  Hopefully they will come with ideas already for the interview.  This can consist of projects they worked on that were similar to yours or even new ideas sketched out specifically to your film.  This part is really fun, as you start to see your script come to life in the form of concept art.

So if all is going well you have a talented cast and crew signed on to your project.  Now with this ammunition, it's time to start firing and make a real push for financing.  This is where I'm at right now; you're all caught up on my end.  Oh well, I guess that's it...  just kidding, I couldn't shut up if I tried!  In some of my next blogs I'll go into some more detail in other subjects and try to keep you posted on where I am personally with Trust Us.  Somehow it never gets dull, so never fear... there's plenty to talk about...

Thursday, November 17, 2011

When Does "Yes" Mean "Yes?"

Yes!  We've gotten the phone call we've been waiting for:  "So-and-so"loved your script!  But how many times does an actor have to say "yes" before they've said "yes?"  This question may not make any sense to you now, but it will.  I think I'll break it up like we break up filmmaking: pre-production, production, and post-production.  Bare with me... it'll all make sense.  This is how it works, and all questions must be answered with "yes," starting with Casting Pre-Production:

1) Is this actor available right now?  Yes.
2) Are they willing to be in a small budget indie film?  Yes.
3) Is this actor willing to work with a first time director?  Yes.
4) Is the script something that would interest them?  Yes.

If the answer to all of these are "yes," that means the agent is willing to read the script.  Casting Pre-production continues:

3) Does the agent like the script?  Yes.
4) Does the actor like the script?  Yes.

We're doing great!  The next step in all this is for the director to meet the actor.  We're out of the Casting Pre-production phase and heading right into Casting Production.  See where I'm going with this?

Welcome to Casting Production!  This is the best part, and I'll tell you why.  You're about to meet an actor that likes your script.  As long as we're prepared for this, this part is just really cool.  We get to not only meet an actor we respect, which is pretty fun in unto itself, but we also get to talk to another creative mind who wants to talk about the script you wrote (or discovered).  Even better, we know they loved it enough to meet with a first time feature director.  That's love!  Now all you have to do is hang out and talk about the film.  You'd think this would be a stressful meeting because maybe you think so much is on the line for both of you, but don't look at it that way.  Remember, they want the part.... usually pretty badly.  Sometimes that's hard to believe just because it's so not what we're used to, but it's true.  These meetings feel like wacky first dates, without the obvious.  Both of you are interested in each other; you want to like each other.  Maybe I'm lucky, but I have found this situation fun for both parties.  You both want the same thing... to experience the road to wrap with this project.  Why else would we be psycho enough to do all this?  Because we love the road we follow to get there.  Come on, now how fun does all this sound?  I honestly haven't had a bad experience yet meeting an actor in this situation (I'm sure I will one day), and I've met with a good handful of actors at this point.  Okay, as I said, I've probably been lucky so far, but I like to think it's more my doing than theirs: respect the actors, understand their approach to the script, listen, and stay positive.  I know my script inside and out, better than anyone... that's the way it should be.  Isn't it that way for you?

So now you've met with the talent, and I'm going to assume it went well.  If it didn't, there probably will be no Casting Post-production phase for you until you start over again.  Otherwise, here we are.  Now this is the part I was shocked to learn is way tougher than I expected.  Can you believe it?  Getting the actor to meet and have a great meeting isn't enough?  Really?!  This phase has proven to be the most frustrating.  An actor or agent rejecting your script isn't so bad.  It's part of the business.  Someone will bite.  But keeping an actor on even when you know they love the script, especially when you haven't reached full financing... this may just be even harder to achieve than anything!

Okay, so we need several things from an actor here.  The first step is to send out an offer with the salary information.  I've had someone back out on that alone.  Small budget films can only pay actors so much.  That's where faith in the script must reach a new level.  These actors can't like it just a lot; they have to love it.  And the truth is, we have to respect that.  No hard feelings... really.  Second, we need a letter of intent.  Hey Catch-22, I remember you...  you stink!  Yes, the only way to go back to investors with some kind of new cast clout, you need these little buggers called "Letters of Intent."  This form basically grants permission for the producers to use your actor's name with investors.  Before they sign you that big check you've been waiting for, they'll want to see this document.  Actors who sign this are basically giving official intent to be in your movie.  Just keep in mind one thing before you get too excited, if something else comes up, they are more than legally allowed to bail.  Listen, it's better than nothing, and it does work.  The good news is the actors take it pretty seriously.  Suddenly you have found more questions that need a yes:

5) Will the actor accept the offer (amount of money) for this role?  Yes.
6) Will the actor sign a letter of intent so his/her name can be used to attract investors? Yes.
7) When the money is in place and we're heading into production, is the actor still interested and not busy?  Yes.

Woah!  If the answer to everything is "yes," that's a great position to be in.  Now do it again... and again... and again... until your whole cast is in place.

This is seriously the most challenging part in my experience.  Even if you've met an actor and had the best night of your life, don't make the mistake of convincing yourself you've got them... it's very possible you don't.  Actors may beg their agents to call and find out how it went after a meeting with you, only to have things fall through later.  Sometime you may even in contact with them afterwords, joking about things you spoke about.  Don't be fooled... you don't have them... not necessarily.  Don't blame them so much or take it personally.  If you feel it went well, it probably did.  This is when the agents, producers, and contracts come in.  It's out of your control now.  You did your job by just having a good meeting with them.  There's a load of business to be dealt with, and it's very possible it isn't the actor's fault if things go sour.  This is the harsh reality of casting.

So there you have it... casting is no easy thing.  "Yes" just may not really mean "yes" until you get 7 "yes's" in a row.  But lets switch gears... we need a crew now, don't we...?

Friday, November 4, 2011

What Is Trust Us and Who is Guy Backman?

I know I've been writing mostly about how one can get his or her first feature made, and most importantly, about how possible it really is.  But before I continue that, I feel it's important to let you all in on my own personal road to wrap.

As I've mentioned at in past blogs, Trust Us is a science-fiction drama centered around time travel.  It takes place at one of the best science schools in the country where Guy Backman, a college student, is obsessed with building a time machine.  He's waited his whole life to take a class with Dr. Victor Hughes, one of the well-known authorities on the study of time travel.  But when Guy's regretful older self travels back through time to tell him his professor is about to steal his ideas, Guy suddenly finds himself tampering with the present in order to change his future.  As more of his future selves visit to help him along and improve his life, Guy starts questioning the ethics of what he's doing... or will be doing.  He also must figure out what's really going on: has everything happened before or is he on the path to a parallel universe?

I wrote the screenplay for Trust Us and it'll be the first feature length film I direct.  I have also written and directed two short films that made their way into various film festivals, Get the Hell out of Heaven and Escape from the the Night (a Telluride Indiefest winner).  One of the film's producers is Curtis A. Smith Jr., the founder of Diamond Pictures.  He's worked on over 50 films, including the Oscar winning and nominated films, The Messenger and Man on Wire.  The other producer on board is Nicky Arezu Akmal, co-founder of Ugly Productions.  The films she's produced include HBO's Shot in the Dark and the Gotham award nominated August in the First.

We also have our two lead actors attached to the film.  Guy Backman will be played by two different actors due to the thirty year age difference of the time traveling character.  Older Guy Backman will be played by Billy Baldwin (Backdraft, The Squid and the Whale, Gossip Girl) and Younger Guy Backman will be played by Cody Linley  (Hannah Montana, Hoot, Dancing with the Stars).  In addition, we've also cast Adam Gregory (90210, The Bold and the Beautiful, 17 Again) as Guy's loyal friend and college roommate, Ted.  We expect the other major roles to be filled soon.

In future blogs, we will explain how you can follow our progress and even help us get this movie made.  For now, feel free to continue following "The Road to Wrap."

Now that I've told you a little about my project, let's get back to what to expect during the casting phase of your film.  I'll do my best to answer the question, "When Does Yes Mean Yes?" and explain how hard it really  is to attach an actor to your project.  Stay tuned...

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Talent, Meet Script... Script, Meet Talent

So now you have a casting director who can get the script into talents' hands.  The first thing you'll be asked for is that list of dream names for all your leads.  Make one up and start there.  Now the casting director has an idea of what you are looking for in each role.  He/she will then ask for character descriptions and a synopsis of the film to send to talent (along with the script).   Sometimes you'll find a way to get someone on your initial list, but be aware that it's always harder to find actors who want to work on a low budget feature with lower than usual pay and/or with a first time director.  Can you blame them?  Their career is on the line, too.  Also, they might simply be busy during your shoot dates, or just in general.  If the list you came up with doesn't work, or just to add or tweak your list, the casting director will send you a list of their own they believe will work for each of these roles.  Just remember, you want to find actors willing to take this leap of faith for a strong script and first time director, while also having talent that investors will invest in.  Even more importantly, do the obvious: cast the right person for each role.  After all, the overall integrity of the film always comes first.  Just because you may not think they have a fanbase doesn't mean they don't.  Do your research.

There's strategy involved when casting a movie.  My specific case proved to be a strange one.  Most movies have some kind of trick when it comes to casting.  Here was my problem: my two lead parts proved to be a casting nightmare.  As I've mentioned before, Trust Us is a time travel movie, and I need an older and younger version of the lead who are not only 30 years apart in age, but they must share screen time for most of the movie.  Ouch!  Now I don't know how you feel about this, but resorting to split screen for an entire movie with post effects and make-up to make a 19 year old character look 49 in a low budget film is just not realistic.  The entire film's credibility is at stake here.  Think about how complicated this is: I need two actors that look alike to both agree to these roles.  It's hard enough to find one actor who's right for the role to stick.  This is without a doubt twice as hard, as each actor depends on the other to fill both roles.  Wow, could they think up any more obstacles for us?  This road to wrap is just getting ridiculous.  We're sick in the head you know; we just can't bring ourselves to quit!  The answer to all this is we have to match one actor to the other, one at a time.  This also means once one actor and version of the character is cast, the other one becomes much harder to find; there are physical limitations now.  Things can be done to make them look more alike with make-up, but unless we want to go through hours of prosthetics and make one of your "name" actors not even look like himself and run the risk of the audience not buying it, we're stuck.  But now you're just here listening to my specific problems, and this blog is for you too.

So you meet with your casting director and discuss strategy.  You may want to target your lead first and build the cast around him or her.  You may want to go for anyone who'll show interest and see what happens, then work from there.  All of these strategies can work.  Probably the first thing the casting director will do is send the script to the major talent agencies.  This is when you get this strange sensation: people are now reading my script.  Take a step back, folks: this is big stuff!  People up to this point have read your screenplay, sure, but now the big talent agencies are in on it too?  In a way, through a small circle in the business at least, your script's gone public.  Important people have been told or are even reading your script right now.  You've laid it all out there.  Cool, right?  I hope you have the script at the best it can be.  Everyone is judging you now on that 90-120 pages (or so) you forged from your brain.  So congratulations, your foot just got through the door and it's time to take a moment to celebrate.  Done?  Good, now you can worry all over again.  We still need actors to actually like it.

Another strange thing about casting is the different methods of approaching actors.  For many actors, you just send them an offer and hope they accept.  Others will agree to meet with the director.  This is the category I find most actors fall into, and it's my favorite too.  Now you can decide if you can work with them and hear what they have to say about the script.  It's important for them to meet you, too.  Others will send their reel first, then you get to decide whether to call them back to set up a meeting.  And finally, some actors will agree to do a read for you, whether it's a taped audition or a live one.  Also, let me make it clear, this is not a measure of their worth, fame, or even their character.  Every agency, actor, agent, etc. has their way of doing things.  This kind of stuff usually has more to do with the agent than the talent.  Don't take anything personally in this business or you'll go crazy, and most of the time this kind of thing isn't personal.  Some agents will respond with a "no" without even letting their clients read your script.

So great... we're prepared to see how actors and their agents react to our masterpiece screenplay.  If all this makes you nervous, don't let it.  Guess how many movies have been made where no one reads the script but you?  None, so get very used to this type of rejection if you aren't already.  For God's sake, be proud of your script.  You've already got a handful of people putting their careers on the line because they believe in it.  Why wouldn't anyone else with half a brain, right?

Now, this is when it really gets surreal.  Just wait until someone you've heard of and respect tells you they like your script.  That's when you're in dreamland.  So-and-so likes my script?  Niiiiice.  Yeah it's okay, enjoy that.  Even if it doesn't work out, that's pretty darn cool.

So remember, all we need is for an actor to say "yes" to the project and things slowly fall into place.  But how does one get this "yes?"  This to me is the biggest learning curve of all: when does "yes" mean "yes?"  Get ready for wild one...but first, in a few days get ready for some important details on my own project, Trust Us.  Learn who's joined my team on the Road to Wrap.  Don't miss this one...