Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hometown Blues

"They hung a sign up in our town:
If you live it up, you won't live it down."
- Tom Waits

Seeing this rant that David Simon gave, I was reminded of how strongly regional his work is: Treme, for all it flaws (like the fact that 2 out of 3 actors are downright unwatchable) is so embedded in New Orleans that it's hard not to feel a familiarity with the city's streets, people, and music. There was a period in the late 90s when I hung out with a group of friends from New Orleans, and so when I first watched Treme, I was thinking about them - wondering how I lost touch - when lo and behold, one of them popped up on the show.

It was a bizarre coincidence for me, but also a potent reminder of how deep Simon's work goes, how important it is for him to get local, to find the actual people that live somewhere (which can always backfire - hence the horrendous acting moments), to go to real locations, and to write within the slang.

Regionalism is recognized in literature, but in television it doesn't exist. And in film it's generally a bonus, not a defining characteristic. Indie filmmakers have managed to tap into some sub-cultures well (I recently saw George Washington and Shotgun Stories - both great examples). And there are mainstream exceptions - Ben Affleck is practically a cottage industry of Boston films. But for the most part, on any given screen it's still New York and LA. New York and LA. New York and LA.

Or films exist in a nameless American concept-space: a suburb, a city, a western landscape. Sometimes this is intentional - I heard Fincher wanted both Seven and Fight Club to be set within a kind of "every city" - but I think it's usually because films are shot in Canada. Or New Mexico. Or wherever the latest state sponsored tax breaks have been instituted.

Here's the Cliff Notes version of how that works: states give huge tax breaks to film productions in order to bring money to local businesses and provide jobs for local crew workers. What Hollywood invariably does is spend a few years taking advantage of these breaks, then when the local crew gets unionized or talented enough to demand a living wage - they either get exported to Hollywood or Hollywood moves on to the next right-to-work state.

This a pretty sad reason to choose locations for filming. The setting for a film or TV show really shouldn't just be a backdrop, because - as my good friend and mentor (and big David Simon fan) Tod Goldberg is fond of saying - place defines character. I thought about this when I saw Avatar and wondered why Sam Worthington wasn't just left Australian. I mean, his primary identity is "human from the planet Earth" but they still felt the need to neutralize his voice into a flat, generic American-speak. Maybe this will change as we lose our super-power status among nations, but so far, even with a global film like Avatar, directors feel compelled to keep the characters generic. We gotta have an All-American hero. And All-American in movies still means white, and absent of any localizing attributes. In Avatar, even the guy's tattoos are just black and vaguely celtic/tribal - a kind of "every tattoo."

I bring this up because Shiloh and I have recently been asked to screen Irish Twins in Sonoma County - where we grew up, and where we located the film. (I'll post details about the screening as soon as I have them.)

This will be the first time we play Northern California - well, first time north of the very cool Big Sur Film Festival, which is probably the southernmost point of NorCal - and I have to say, its been a disappointing reality check that our home region has been pretty universally uninterested in our work.

We wrote Irish Twins to be set in a kind of mythic version of our home county: there were references to specific local spots and we wanted the look and feel to be as Northern Californian as possible. So we made it our goal to shoot up there. We had no idea the uphill battle we were facing.

Irish Twins primarily takes place in a bar. How hard could it be to find a bar, right? Well, everywhere in Sonoma County turned us down. I spent many a weekend driving around the whole county, walking into bar after bar. If the look and feel of a place was right, I would talk to the manager. The very few that seemed amenable at first would eventually refuse to return our calls or outright turn us down.

In many ways, this is understandable: having a film shoot in your place of business can be a pain in the ass. But we were willing to work around their hours and pay them. My favorite response was when one bar wouldn't let us shoot from 2am (after closing) until noon - because they normally opened at 6am. They didn't want to cut the morning hours because they "couldn't do that" to their "customers." Really? You can't so that to all those people getting a drink at 8:14 on a Tuesday morning? What if we set up a keg in the parking lot? Would they be willing to be extras?

Which is part of what makes our hometown so great: they don't give a shit about Hollywood. They're not impressed just because some guy walks in and says he wants to make his movie there. But it's frustrating when you consider yourself a proponent of localism and you're treated like an intruder. There are times when "not being impressed" morphs into reverse snobbery: a reaction to the presumed superficiality, materialism, and exploitative tendencies of Southern California. Shiloh and I wanted to be champions of local film and we were being told over and over again that we were interlopers.

We wanted to use local crew as much as possible - but the San Francisco folks charged more than their LA counterparts, and we would have to cover their expenses to leave the city and drive a couple hours northward. It wound up cheaper to drive a crew up from LA in a van and pay for hotels.

Then there was the question of permits. We had a hell of a time trying to get the right person at the right department to give us permission to shoot at one of the public exteriors we wanted. When we couldn't get the official nod, we were finally told - pulling out our hair in terror only hours before we planned to shoot - "You know, our people rarely go to that site to check permits." Which, absent of any options, we took as code for "we'll look the other way."

Every step during this process, our producers stuck by our vision - at any point it would've been a lot easier for them to tell us, "Guys, just make it take place in LA" or "Can't this just be set in a generic suburb?" But these were characters we had forged out of a conception of our home. We wanted it to look like we imagined it.

So in the end, we had to shoot the interiors in LA, and we squeezed all of our exteriors into one long day of shooting in NorCal. When we shot outside the one bar we did get permission to work in front of - because we didn't screw with their business at all - we had to contend with the patrons coming out to kick our cones into the street and yell at us drunkenly. (On a lighter note, the local fire department was awesome - they let us shoot in front of their station and use one of their ambulances.)

But OK, at least we were able to capture the look we wanted: scenes in a redwood forest, a swooping jib shot along our favorite-looking bridge at sunset, a nice drop down into a street to see the kind of small town we envisioned. Almost exactly as we had hoped - our film would still take place in NorCal even if we couldn't shoot the whole damn thing there and support the local film community.

After it was done and we began to play festivals, I hoped we could come home and play one of the many film festivals that take place in the area and have our friends and family come out to see it on a big screen.

But we submitted our short to every Northern California film festival we could find...and not one acceptance.

I wrote cover letters explaining where we grew up, that we wouldn't be anywhere as professionals if it weren't for our local community center or the summer acting classes we found as kids. That we loved the fact that there were good festivals in the region.

Nope. We were summarily turned down - we didn't even get a rejection letter from one of the festivals (and yeah, I'm going to say their name here: Napa Sonoma Wine Country Film Festival - they took our submission fee and didn't even send a form letter to say, "Sorry, ya didn't make it" - pretty classless in my opinion).

All of which is totally understandable and entirely their prerogative and only sucks for one reason: I want to live and work in Northern California! I want a thriving independent artistic community up there that includes film! That includes me!

But alas, many people more powerful and noble than me have tried this very thing. Like a guy named Coppola. Or George Lucas. Outside of the Lucas Ranch (which, let's face it, isn't much of a film community, it functions as an utterly self-contained mini-studio-compound), no one's been able to bridge the LA-NorCal entertainment divide.

Maybe once that high speed train is built - then everyone that lives in Malibu will escape to San Francisco. God, that's a terrifying thought.

I spent my entire adolescence hating LA - I was working five days a week down here and yet still flying home every weekend to be with my friends and family. It would have been a lot easier for me to go to high school down south, but my parents strove to keep me rooted up north. Which has made it tough as an adult to stay in LA, but the truth is...there's just not enough work up there.

So until Shiloh and I have the kind of financial backing to pay those bar owners, film permit offices, and crew members what they need - we'll have to shoot elsewhere. Which is probably what Northern California wants in the end; maybe the whole region is saying, "Don't bother us until you're serious." They don't want weekend warrior filmmakers. They don't want to be the latest tax-break haven for LA to burn through. I can understand that.

In the meantime, we'll continue to tell stories that we care about, and undoubtedly some of them will cover those specific places and people we grew up with and that we still cherish. Like Bodega Bay. Downtown Occidental. Armstrong Redwoods. Top of the World.

I guess we'll just have to fake those locations for now.

You know, Oregon has no sales tax...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Shiloh Gets Press

Digital Photo Pro recognizes his skills:

His photos look even better in print if you can get your hands on a copy.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Post-production is the worst.

It's the element of filmmaking I have the least experience with. As an actor, when you wrap on the set, your work is done. So for most of my 20 years in the business (when I say that, don't I just sound like the biggest show-biz hack? I feel like I should have a half-smoked cigar sticking out of my mouth while I regale you with tales of vaudeville), I've been able to walk away and kick back until there's a finished product. Directing - especially working on this low budget level - means investing time and energy into something that, personally, already feels done.

All of which is to say, Dungeon Master post-production is taking a long time. Lots of begging favors from friends, and trying to figure out workflow and technical components that boggle my mind: editing, sound design, color correction, score, mixing...it's endless and exhausting, and we've still barely begun.

So in the midst of all of this, what did we do?

We went ahead and shot another short.

This one Shiloh and I didn't write. Alex and her writing partner, Chad Crone (who also acted in Dungeon Master) whipped up this gem of a script in a few days. It was such a funny little story, we all decided to say, fuck it, let's shoot this in a weekend. And we did.

It's about an actress that takes her job a bit too seriously.
Well, way too seriously. It's called Method.

On the set of Method

In many ways, this new short was in response to the things we've been writing about on this blog: film length, size of production, and camera format.

In my last post, I talked about how it can be good, festival-wise, to have a very short, funny film - and that's exactly the category that this one falls into (well, definitely short, hopefully funny). The script was only 8 pages long.

And the amount of locations, actors, and art elements was limited, meaning we could shoot it for no money with only about six crew members. We actually had to resist the temptation to tell some of our friends about it, because we were afraid that they would want to jump on board and help out. We were determined not to let this one grow into a big production.

And we shot on the Canon 5D, Shiloh's digital still camera that he discussed in his camera posting. Moreover, Shiloh decided to be our Director of Photography, a pretty huge leap for him to take. Because it was a small scale production, we all felt comfortable with that decision. And he knocked it out of the park. Our grip, lighting, and electrical departments were comprised of him and Mallory Morrison. These two worked their asses off, and the footage looks incredible.

[Sidenote about the 5D: this camera is taking over independent filmmaking. I acted in two shorts in June that were shot with it, and our friend begins shooting his feature film this month with a 5D. The days of crappy lenses in video films are over. Everybody's little movie is going to have a pretty cinematic look...and focus issues. Because the depth of field is so shallow on the 5D (which gives that great filmic look) pulling focus becomes incredibly important. Don't be surprised if you start going to festivals and see lots of "out-of-focus-then-in-focus" style films. And just smile and nod when the director says it was a creative choice. That's our line, too.]

Even though it was small and short, Method was a hectic shoot for me. Partly because I've been so busy on other projects (including the post on Dungeon Master) that I felt like I didn't have enough pre-production. And also partly because on set, my two usual co-conspirators, Alex and Shiloh, were both very busy with other roles - Alex with acting, and Shiloh with cinematography.

But we pulled it off, and like our Obama commercial two years ago, it was thrilling to see how much falls together when you fly by the seat of your pants. It's not easy, but rewarding.

There's a lot of filmmaking that is technical: light, lenses, film stock, blocking, sound, etc. Then there's a lot of filmmaking that is social: communicating ideas, motivating others, incorporating good ideas, etc.

And somewhere in between, there's a pure instinctual sense, an ability to make it up as you go and just kind of know when something works or not. This sense is the most important attribute a director can have.

The paradox that interests me about this ineffable "instinct" is that while I think it's incredibly important, I would never, ever suggest that budding filmmakers focus on it - or even think about it.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not diminishing the value of instinct, I'm simply suggesting that its pointless to worry about. It's much more important to focus your energies on what you can control.

For instance, I love Werner Herzog, but man, this is some bullshit.

(I fear that his Warren Commission Report and Rabelais recommended reading is not tongue-in-cheek at all).

Basically, he's saying the most important part of filmmaking is an enigmatic, unteachable, "rogue" sensibility - and he's inviting you to come listen to him wax poetic on this idea for a weekend and pay him a lot of money, and he will...teach you this?

I agree in spirit, but his logic is ridiculous, if not morally questionable (the filmmaker's equivalent of simony?). Yes, there are such things as talent, taste, and sensibility - things an individual brings to a set, or to a blank page, or to an editing room - but these things are formed by the wonderful and unknowable alchemy that is experience plus instinct. And they're utterly useless without craft.

You'll notice that all the best filmmakers have spent years geeking out on film sets, working on little projects, or messing around with cameras. Then their talent, their taste, and their particular sensibility can take form when they step up to make their own film. The worst filmmakers have a good idea, have that "rogue" personality, and they sit back waiting for their awesome movie to appear. Guess what? It doesn't.

I'm not a huge fan of art-to-art metaphors, but here's one: jazz musicians improvise, it's an essential part of the art. But it would be naive to assume that those improvisations are without study or form. It would be equally naive to think that the motivating force behind such moments of brilliance is something teachable.

Anyway, the coolest and simultaneously most terrifying part of making Method was that because we were so strapped for time, locations, and budget - we had to fall back on instinct. We were riffing a lot: making up shots as we went, layering the story on the fly, and finding comedy spontaneously as a team. Every day began with a foreboding sense: "There's no way we're going to get everything we need." And everyday was punctuated by surprise: laughing our asses off at something Alex did, or jumping up and down because we nailed a cool shot.

So the obvious question is, did it work?

And the only answer I can give is, who the hell knows.

I have no clue if we hit "an ecstasy of truth" (to quote Werner again), I only think about this whole instinct thing too late.

Like, you know, when I'm writing on this blog.

But for better or worse, this little film was certainly an exercise in relying on our guts - we didn't have time for anything else.

And personally, I know I need to learn to ride that kind of emotional roller coaster a little better - I tend to get incredibly stressed out and forget that 20 years in the business (there's that half-smoked cigar in my mouth: "Hey kiddo, I ever tell ya about my days as a carny?") have actually informed me in ways that I'm not aware of, and built up some scar tissue that passes for instinct.

There's all sorts of things informing your work that you never have to think about. And whether your instinct (or the accumulation of your particular experience) adds up to great filmmaking or crappy filmmaking is absolutely besides the point. Why belabor whether you have talent, taste, or sensibility? The real question is, do you want to make something?

Then the show must go on.

Natalie Zea and Travis Shuldt play fellow actors playing detectives,
Marcus Harwell is a cop.

Alex, Beverly Hynds and Johanna Jenkins get interrogated, I feel important with the slate.

Shooting in a hotel room can get crowded

Sometimes, what we do feels very close to porn.

Monday, June 14, 2010

How Much Shorter Should a Short Film Be, if a Short Film Should be Shorter?

So we’re very slowly editing The Dungeon Master - meanwhile, we keep getting pulled away for other projects. And creating new ones for ourselves.

While I was working on something in New York last week, I visited a friend and he asked me for details about Dungeon Master. I told him he should check out this blog and he said, “No, I’ve read the blog, I mean the basic stuff - like...how long is it?”

Which made me realize that perhaps we have neglected some of the most fundamental questions about this project. Obviously, we don’t want to give the actual story away (we’re hoping some of you will come out to festivals and see it), but we also don’t want to be too tightlipped. We started this blog because we realized that we would love it if filmmakers whose work we admired talked more openly about the actual craft - sometimes it seems like Hollywood is so damn insecure that it doesn’t want people to know what goes into making movies.

Or maybe this stuff is just incredibly boring.

Whatever...we’ll keep writing about it anyway.

So how long should a short film be? There are all sorts of technical definitions of a short - Cannes only allows under 15 minutes - but usually a short film is anything under an hour. Our first one, Irish Twins, was 20 minutes long.

Which was kind of a mistake.

Once we started going to festivals, we came to a very basic, mathematical conclusion: because they tend to program short films in blocks of two hours, for every 20-minute short that gets accepted into a program, there are four 5-minute shorts accepted. Or two 10-minute shorts. Or ten 2-minute shorts. You get the idea.

On really basic level, you make it harder for more people to see your film the longer it gets.

Simple, I know. But it didn’t occur to us. Like a lot of first time filmmakers, we tried to make something that resembled a feature as much as possible, which meant it kept getting longer and longer.

There are all sorts of tastes out there: some festivals want mind-bending experimental films, others want sweet comedies, some want children’s films, or only documentaries...

But if you’re a long short, then you’re putting a given festival’s taste on the line: they have to love your long film more than they even kind of like a whole group of shorter ones. But if your film is only 2 minutes long, it’s no skin of their back to include it and see if people respond to it.

Which is why comedy shorts under 5 minutes play a gazillion festivals. If you want a lot of people to see your movie, make it 30 seconds long, and really, really funny.

On the flip side, a lot of 40 minute dramas get nominated for Academy Awards.

So it all depends on what you want. Shiloh and I want people to watch our movies as a cinematic experience - not something they could just see on TV. Which means more than a comedy skit, but less than an epic. Something that feels like you should see it in a theater. Preferably with us there. So we can have a drink with you afterwards.

Our goal is to keep Dungeon Master at - or hopefully under - 10 minutes.

How do we do that?

The rule of thumb is that a page of a screenplay is a minute of screen time. And it usually holds true. But you also learn exceptions to this rule.

Shiloh and I tend towards fast dialogue: with quick pacing, and characters cutting off each other’s lines. So Dungeon Master was a 13 page script, and we figured that should end up just around 10 minutes.

Then again, we told our actors to feel free to improvise. And when your cast includes someone like Chris Wylde, that means a lot of improvising. There was one scene - 2 pages long - that he, Adam Busch, and Alexandra Barreto kept riffing on. They didn’t do a single take the same. Which was awesome, but our first cut of the scene was 3 1/2 minutes long.

And then even more complicated is the process of visualization, an area where Shiloh and I work really well as a team to make everything way too long.

This is an oversimplification, but I tend to think in terms of dialogue and character beats while Shiloh tends to think in events and visual dramatizations.

Here’s a good example. A major turning point in Irish Twins is when the character I played, Michael, is getting confronted in a bar. He gets punched in the face - in the process accidentally breaking the urn filled with his dad’s ashes.

So in the script the exchange read like this:


You gonna call him?



SHMACK. Danny HITS him across the face. Michael stays on his feet, barely.


Ok, come on, get out of here!

Danny holds a finger up to him.


Not a word, Murphy. This is justice.

You gonna call him?

Michael holds up his phone. He DROPS it to the GROUND.


(almost smiling)

If that's how you really feel, how

about the other --

SHMACK, he's hit again. This time, the punch sends him into

the bar, knocking over the URN and SMASHING it. Ashes FLY

into the air and SPILL all over the bar.

That’s it. Following the rule of thumb, that’s not even half a page and should be no longer than half a minute in the movie.

I was primarily interested in the line that Michael says before he gets hit. It’s an important callback to an earlier line - he’s repeating something his father used to say. Which I thought was essential before he breaks his father’s urn. For me, the moment was all about that line, and so when we were doing the scene, I actually completed the whole phrase: “how about the other cheek?” before getting punched again.

Shiloh was more interested in the visual action of the urn breaking.

When we were story-boarding and creating our shot list Shiloh took one look at this moment and said, “Rider, this is the moment in our story. This is what turns it all around for Michael. The urn can't just break on the bar. We need ashes flying through the air like snow, we need him on the ground - literally hitting his lowest point.”

And I knew he was right. So we re-staged it, and we shot it that way. We used slow motion and even rented a special spinning-fan camera mount to be able to throw ashes directly onto the lens.

And then, after all was said and done, we showed our rough cut to some folks. They pointed to this moment and said, “Indulgent.”

Which meant, too long.

So we shortened it again in editing.

This whole tug and pull process resulted in something that we’re both happy with.

Which is about a minute long.

Here it is in the finished film.

Irish Twins Clip on Vimeo.

We’ve been going through a lot of the same back and forth with Dungeon Master. You may have noticed that a lot of our entries on this blog have been about our shoot up in Los Padres National Forest. That shoot involved a whole bunch of make-up effects, costumes, weapons, set construction, prosthetics, and steadi-cam work. It was one long day. It consumed most of our energy, was a full 2/3 of our budget, and took up all our pre-production time.

Guess how much of the script it is?

1 page.

Right now, that sequence is only a minute and a half in the edit.

We’ll keep editing. It will probably end up only being a minute of the film.

But hopefully...a really cool minute.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Camera Thoughts - RED vs. 5D Mark II Techie Geekery

So the independent filmmaking world has been totally changed by the DSLR video revolution and I think for the better, but we went with the RED anyway - here's a little blogg-age about what happened.

A little disclaimer: I'm not an expert on these techie things - I think I know enough to get by, and please feel free to tell me if I'm wrong on anything - I know you techie types like doing that. ;)

For those of you who haven't heard this whole deal: Canon came out with a camera last year, I think last year, called the 5D, it's DSLR or "Digital Single Lens Reflective" and it had a little feature in there where you had the option to shoot high definition video.

Side note: I own this camera for my still photography, so it seemed like the cheapest way to go, use my camera to shoot the short...

So, Canon admits that they put the video capability on there mostly for photo journalists at first as an afterthought (not sure how true that is), so some journalist could shoot off some video on the fly in a gun battle or something. At first the controls were all automatic and you had very little options, but it looked REALLY GOOD and people starting using their cameras to shoot films - sometimes shooting with the lens halfway in the mount of the camera body so they could manually adjust the aperture. Pretty crazy.

Here's the video that made shockwaves, so I've been told.


I think this is a pretty lame short - pretty people running around and looking pouty? He's late to pick her up, even with the helicopter? It was all a dream, but he still has to run out the door at the end? And who buys a girl like that sunflowers...come on man! - But it LOOKS amazing, and this video got a lot of people super jazzed and out shooting. Maybe cause we all said, "I can do better than that." This Youtube link isn't in HD though, but you get the idea. If you really care you can search the web for his website. But you won't. Ha.

Eventually, Canon was kind enough to release a firmware update so that the camera is now a full functioning HD video camera that can rival the RED. Onto that now...

So those of you who haven't heard of the RED before: It's the camera that rocked the filmmaking world about 3 or 4 years ago. It's a SUPER high definition video camera that was made from the ground up to be friendly to film crews. It is adaptable to lots of different lenses it's been used to shoot lots of feature films and the major thing is it is Higher Def than High Def. What!? Higher than High Def?!

So high def can be broken down in to Pixels right? If any of you have bought a T.V. in the past couple years you've probably come across the Scruffy Dude whining at you in Best Buy, "Oh, man, you just got to get 1080p, you just got to. Only way bro."

And as a new owner of a BlueRay / H.D.T.V. combo - yeah, listen to Scruffy Dude. If you are a visual junkie like me, at least. Oh, man - watching "Contact" will change your life: "They should have sent a poet..." Damn straight.

Sorry - the reason I bring all this up, is 'cause high def is 1920 x 1080 - that's pixels vertical by pixels horizontal, or visa versa - whatever! That's the size of High Def video, right? But the RED captures images at over 4000 pixels across by 2000-something vertical, so there isn't even anyway to display the amount of information you capture with the RED - the technology hasn't caught up to display something like that yet! There is so much information there. They are HUGE files!

So, Rider and Alex and I had many discussions about whether or not to shoot with the 5D DSLR or shoot with the RED.

We ended up having a camera test at Movieola with our Director of Photography, Yoram Astrakhan and Producer Mong Chan to play with a DSLR - here's a little clip:

It's mostly making Alex dance around in front of the camera. Which was fun. The guys at Movieola were super cool and patient with us.

During our test we discovered that there was no easy way to have a monitor off the camera, a "video village" for us to watch the filming. Also there isn't a viewfinder, which Yoram wasn't too happy about. You have to look at the back of the camera to check focus - not super reliable...hmm, couple strikes for the DSLR...

The topper was that the cost wasn't that much of a difference - we still had to rent lenses' and a rig for my 5D so it was only a couple hundred bucks more to go with the RED.

So that's what we did and now we are dealing with these HUGE files, but I think it was worth it. Our two 1st Assistant Camera men, Gunnar and Steve knew the RED well and made it all work smoothly - thanks guys.

I think a major part of it too was we realized as this project started to come together that we had a lot of great stuff going for us, the makeup and special effects and wardrobe were looking amazing, the casting and quality of the actors we had - the kick ass crew jumping on board and great locations - it just seemed that we should go with a system that had some history behind it of quality and reliability. And that was with the RED.

Sorry, little camera of mine.

Our next adventure in film making will be with the 5D, I'm sure.

(Whisper) My camera's in the room with me right now so I have to say that...

Sunday, April 18, 2010


So filming is all done, we are in the process now of dealing with the huge files from the RED camera and working on editing our little film but I thought it's be a good time to talk about our last night of filming.

We shot in my studio / living space downtown - it's a good amount of space, plenty for me and whenever I have a photo shoot I can push everything to one side and take me pictures no problem. And we don't need no permits in here.

Once we got 25 people in here with grip and lights and camera - it felt like Honey I Blew Up The Kids...or Honey I Shrunk The Loft...and the crew, we were the kids - it felt small alright.

We shot everything one way and then had to clear everyone out of the other side of the loft, it was a dance of people, actors and equipment, and I hope we don't see a couple C-Stands in the background of some shots.

We hauled in at 5pm on, I think it was a Saturday, yeah - we had to load everything from the front door - as the security guard at the front desk told us. We had A LOT of stuff and soon after we started shooting that security guard, Anthony - real scary looking guy :

Ohh, I have a picture:

That's Anthony. He so tough.

So he comes o the door about 9pm and tells us that I can't have people over to shoot after 11pm..."Do you think you'll be done by 11?" "Uhhh, I think we're gonna be a little bit later than 11..." We were planning on shooting till 5am...

But he ended up being cool and said just as long as no one complains - I don't think I have any neighbors next to me - and we didn't shoot in the hallways (we'd already shot those, hah!) that we should be okay.

There's a happy friendly Anthony. He's really a teddy bear.

(I ended up using him for a photo shoot last week - thanks Rob!)

Still, I was on edge, felt like we could get called out and shut down any time after 11pm...

One highlight was when we were getting ready for a shot a little bit before lunch and Alex Polinsky, one of our actors, said: "I smell something burning.." We had put the pizzas from the rocking "Pitfire Pizza Co" in the oven to keep them warm - but I guess the cardboard was still on there and there was good amount of smoke coming out of the oven.

The thing you should know about my building - if the fire alarm goes off, every door in the building's hallways shut - this high pitch alarm sounds and the fire department comes no matter what. I had this happen once when a friend of mine pulled the alarm by accident, he's French - I guess they do that over there...

Fire loves me for some reason...

So coupled with the fact that we were already past the 11pm cut off, and I was still scared of Anthony at this point - not the best buds we are now - I figured if the fire department showed up - we'd get shut down real quick.

It was hectic for a couple minutes, but I guess they were just smoking and no real fire - little window venting and everything was fine.

But really that was the only hiccup - we were able to get everything and we had a great time.

Rider and I were talking about it a few days ago and there was a moment where he knew we were gonna get it - there is a scene with all the guys, Chris, Chad, Travis, Alex and Adam - they are in a wide shot and you could tell we were with some pros cause the timing was spot on.

The killer for a lot of short films would be not having access to great actors, I feel like watching some shorts at festivals can be painful cause everything else is working, just not the talent.

Rider stoked on Alex Polinsky's performance.

Adam Busch just wants you to eat a chicken wing.

Chris Wylde, Chad Crone and Travis Shuldt listen to a goblin.

I'm so glad we had such kick ass actors. They brought it and we were able to fly though scenes. Thanks you guys.

You have to point a lot if you direct. Yoram Astrakhan - our awesome Director of Photography and real trooper.

Happy Strong Brothers.

Thanks again to everyone who helped out on the project - I can't stress enough how thankful we both are to have such a talented group of friends willing to spend 13 hours cooped up in a loft, or on a mountainside, or playing running charades for the last shot at 3am. 

- Shiloh

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Why a Magic Show?

My beautiful and talented girlfriend, Alexandra Barreto (who is producing this short, and without whom Shiloh and I would be utterly lost) has raised a good point about nature vs nurture. When she was a kid, she was always told she was "such a good little actress!" or "such a good performer!" or "such a good singer!"

Now, she has no clue what came first: the instinct, or buying the hype. Is there some kind of performance gene, or did she just get so much encouragement that it became the reality?

Shiloh and I were the same way. Because we started super young, we just sort of assumed there was some natural talent.

But unfortunately, we have videos.

My God.

I can say, unequivocally, there was an absolute absence of talent.

This is a frame from our first magic show.

So lost. So scared.

We performed for our entire school. We brought the principal up on stage, the whole deal. I guess we thought that homemade gold capes, a too-big plastic tophat (is Shiloh wearing a bedazzled headband?!), and some store-bought tricks would make us magicians.

And it did, sort of. We did shows at birthday parties - I mean, we actually got paid. And so all these years, I've carried around this self aggrandizing narrative that we were young, go get' em, born performers. Until Shiloh and I got ahold of the VHS footage.

At which point, reality set in. We were awful.

You can't even understand half our tricks. At one show - in front of a classroom of older kids - I completely blow a trick. My oh-so-quick response? I freeze, turn to the camera, and very urgently whisper, "I messed up Mommy!"

It gives me a stomach ache just to think about it.

I think our only real asset - besides an incredibly patient and encouraging set of parents - was our drive to do it. We enjoyed this crap.

We acted in plays. We did skits. We always put on the haunted house at our school. We made our parents and our friends star in countless alien/werewolf/detective/time travel movies.

Basically, a day without a costume rarely passed through our childhood.

Which is a different thing than "natural talent." More like, natural geekery.

Ok, ok, I'll put it more positively: it was an insistence on the power of imagination. We weren't going to let something like lack of talent get in our way.

Even when it was bad (which, trust me, was all of the time) we wanted to be on the other side of the curtain. And that hasn't changed.

We've put away the magic wands and never looked back, but I think way down at the heart of our filmmaking...it's pretty much still the two of us standing nervously side by side with a bag of tricks.

So when it came time to say "A Strong Brothers Film" in the credits of Irish Twins, we decided it made more sense to call it A Strong Brothers Magic Show.

And hey, if you can't find a clown for that next bar mitzvah - look no further.

This is just awkward on so many levels.

Shiloh gives his hackiest "just getting water out of this newspaper" look.

Shiloh tosses a "magic ring" in the air.

Drops it.

The hat wasn't enough, I had to go with a jumbo bow-tie, too.
(And thank God I had that embroidered "R" on there, who knows what would have happened if Shiloh and I got our capes confused).

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Getting Bigger and Bigger

We shot at our house in Silverlake. Well, actually, we shot at the house in front of us, occupied by our incredibly patient friend and wardrobe artist, Jana Bonderman.

A few days before we shot, someone knocked on Jana's door and notified her that in a week or so, a crew would be shooting some commercial down the street.

Ah, so that's the correct way to get a permit.

Maybe we should've looked into that.

We just took our chances and started shooting. It didn't really hit me until we were flooding the sidewalk with lights, props, gear, and people that all it would take is one neighbor to complain and we'd be shut down.

In all honesty, we never expected our short to become this big of a production. I think when we first started talking about it, we imagined having a Director of Photography, a sound guy, Shiloh and I, and our actors. As it turned out, when we stripped our crew down to only the absolutely essential people for these two night shoots, we couldn't keep it below 20 people. It's like the reverse of delusions of grandeur...delusions of simplicity.

I know there are a lot of people who actually can keep their shoots to a minimal crew. But what you arrive at on the day of filming is the result of a long series of choices that hinge on a central tension - namely, production value versus ease of shooting. Or, put another way, style versus ease of shooting.

A big inspiration for this short (originally) was the Duplass Brothers work. In particular, this short. Which is clearly improvised and very loose - but incredibly well acted and awkward. We loved the moment when a nice evening with friends turns ugly and confrontational. It's delivered in such a real, raw way. Shiloh and I wanted our short to have a similar feel. But we also like our work to look as beautiful as possible (Shiloh is, after all, a photographer). Our style tends towards deliberate camera moves, planned framing, and dramatic lighting. As much as I love them, we would never make a movie that looks like Humpday or The Overbrook Brothers. It's just not our style.

There are some people that will argue that in order to get a real and gritty film, you have to shoot it guerilla style and let your audience see and feel your low budget - kind of like wearing your shirt inside out. I agree to a certain extent, but I also think that 90% percent of "real" and "gritty" will come from your acting and writing. You can shoot something handheld on the street and let your actors make up whatever they want, but the second there's a false moment - the second a character does or says something we don't believe - all the gritty filmmaking techniques in the world won't save it.

With any film, but especially with a short film, what wins an audience over will always be the story and the performances. But if you want to convince people in Hollywood with money to let you direct a film, they need to know that you can make it look as good as the stuff in theaters...which is invariably made with millions of dollars and a crew of 80 plus people.

So we've always set the bar high for ourselves. We shot Irish Twins on 35mm film with a full crew. And this one kept getting bigger and bigger.

But you know what? Our sets looked amazing (thanks to Jem Elsner and his crew), our lighting was awesome (thanks to our DP Yoram Astrahkan and our gaffer Glen Bondock), and in the end, our little movie will hopefully look like something you'd pay 10 bucks to see at the multiplex. Only...shorter.

And the best part of all: we made it through the night without getting shut down.

Thanks to Mallory Morrison for her help and her great photos.
She wanted to get me and Shiloh being "directorial" at the monitor: