Lessons learned from writing, casting, directing, and premiering my first film.
It's two days until the premiere of my short film "Hide/Seek" which I wrote and directed. For the past 7 months I have worked on this film, and seen this through the process of concept to picture lock, and on Tuesday I will get to sit in a movie theatre in NYC and watch it on the big screen. This whole process has blown my mind, and I have learned more than I ever thought possible. It makes me a better coach, better teacher, and a better director.
I think it's important for actors to learn what goes into a process like this, and as part of this production I've documented the process of casting, filming, and post production. So as we start to submit to festivals, these are my final thoughts:
Why do a short film? For me, it was a pet project. I teach my students to go way outside of their comfort zone. I wanted to do that myself. Practice what you preach, right? This was one of the most challenging things I've ever done. I love horror/thrillers, I have coached on the set of feature length horror films, and I wanted to see if I could write something that would take me on a journey, that would raise my heart rate a little bit, and be something that I would want to watch on film. I have spent many years as an actor in TV and film, and many years coaching on the set of Blue Bloods, and many years coaching/directing actors for auditions and tapes at my studio. I simply wanted to take what I have learned and push myself to do something different, something evocative, moving, that would allow me to use my techniques in a new, unfamiliar setting.
Casting... I wanted to be on the other side of casting, and shine a big spotlight on it for my actors. What it's like, what matters and doesn't matter, etc. A big part of my job is preparing actors for big auditions, and I wanted to sit on the other side of the table and gain valuable perspective on this mysterious process. I went all out and hired Kimberly Graham, a friend and casting director of "Homeland," to jump on board. I wanted to put out breakdowns everywhere, on Actors Access, Backstage, and Breakdowns Services. I didn't care if actors were union or non union, I just wanted to hire four of the best actors. We received 3500 submissions total! That's about 900 per role. It's beyond overwhelming. I learned that some actors still have black and white headshots, some have shirtless pics (why?), some don't have footage attached to their profile (crazy), and some agents don't bother submitting for a small project like this. I only really had time to see 60 people for auditions, so I first went to people I knew, former students of mine, current students, and Kim brought in people she knew. We had some agent pitches, and we brought in some unknowns. And guess what? Many names came in for this. Why? Kim told me it's because everyone wants to work. Some people were "offer only," and wouldn't audition, and some came in to pre-read. I was beyond impressed, and that's exactly the kind of person I wanted to work with.
All the actors who came in were great. We brought in 60, brought 20 to callbacks and cast four. It was amazing and eye opening. For most, it came down to the color of their hair. For others, it was just a "vibe." I learned that actors should NEVER overthink these things. It rarely was about anyone being better than anyone else. It was about chemistry, connection, and my preconceived idea about what people needed to look like. And we had to match a family. I hired the most terrific actors. Bryan Manley Davis, Michelle Vezilj, Ned Van Zandt, and Sophie Knapp. Any director would be lucky to work with them. Total professionals, no attitude, and the hardest working actors in the business. We were about to go on a journey together and they were totally up for it.
I learned how to file a SAG ultra low budget agreement, which says I can use union and non-union actors. I have to pay any union actors $125/day. I think all actors should get paid. Always. I had one union actor (Ned van Zandt), and the rest were non-union. I didn't have to pay the other actors anything, but I did Favored Nations and paid everyone the same rate. Why? Because it's the right thing to do, and it gives them an incentive to show up to set and work their asses off.
Budget... we started at $500 and ended up at $17,000. I wanted to try something different and do crowd-funding. I used Indiegogo, and raised the money by offering coaching perks (audition taping, copies of my book, demo reel scenes, etc.). It was amazing and fun, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. It created a sense of community around the project, and really allowed me to open this up to my actors who wanted to be a part of this creative process. I am always talking about the importance of self-producing, and again wanted to push myself and see how far I could go.
Once we reached our Indiegogo goal, and hired our actors, something shifted. Our project got very, very legit, and we found an amazing crew (thanks to the best producer in the business Ellyn Vander Wyden), and my friend and mentor Doug Keeve (who won Sundance for the film "Unzipped" and directed me in "Poster Boy"), came on board to help me lift this to another level. This was my first time directing, so I didn't have a clue. But I surrounded myself with the best in the business, to lift this from what might come across as a student film, to a 20 minute piece of art. That meant getting a good camera, great lenses, doing tech scouts, rehearsals with the actors (which I could do in my studio), a great sound guy, an editor who has two Emmys, a composer who has five Clio Awards, and really driving the level up a notch. It was go time, and I was spending my down time doing shot lists, discussing costumes, props, locations, and prepping for the first day of shooting.
Filming...We filmed for five days in my backyard in Guilford, CT in early April. I used to play "hide and seek" in these woods, so it was amazing to spend 60 hours filming. It snowed, rained, got warm, snowed again, and our continuity was all over the place. It was a mess, and half the time the actors had to hold their breath in a scene or chew ice before, so their breath didn't fog. That's what they don't tell you in acting school! We called in a lot of favors, and had help from the Guilford community in terms of interns, catering, etc. It was an experience for everyone. The actors were terrific. They put in 12 hour days for so little money, stayed in a house together, and we were all pushed to our limits physically and emotionally. It was some sort of crazy bootcamp, but the kind you never forget. We knew we were doing something special. Scenes were changing constantly, lines were being cut, locations being changed, and the actors just went along for the ride. I've been on these kind of sets before as an actor, but never as a director. It was a battle, and we were constantly racing against light, time, and emotions. I never settled for an "okay" take. Sometimes we did ten to fifteen takes of an emotional scene. Why? Because I wanted it to be great, even if it meant losing light.
Post production.. I grew up with a guy named Jeff Reilly, who became our editor. First rate guy with two Emmy awards. He worked for such little money while he was working on three other projects. This is the nature of indie film. He threw us a bone and we were lucky to have him. The hardest part of this whole process was the wait. Jeff was great, and would send scenes, cuts, etc. He had to deal with continuity issues, sound issues, and other stuff you can never plan for, and he created many versions of the script. It's funny how much an idea changes in post. Scenes are shifted around, lines are cut, performances change, etc. It reminds you how important it is to get many different options from the actors when you are filming them. It's funny, the actors spend five days on the film, but directors spend at least 8 months with it. And that's just for a small short film like this. I always knew this, but now I'm seeing it first hand. I thought about this film every day for those 8 months (how to make it better, what to change, what to keep, what can I let go of). You are always planning for it to go a certain way, and there are always a million things that go wrong. But I learned that you have to be a perfectionist, and keep pushing until it's exactly the way you want it. Why? Because it's your script, your baby, your first film as a director, and you should take the extra time to make it perfect.
The hardest part of the post production process is going "Okay, we have all this footage. Is it good? Does it make sense? Do we actually have a movie here?" We started to play with performances and shots and after 3 months came up with something we really liked. We did two test screening at my studio just to make sure that plot points made sense. It's not something short films normally do, but it was easy for me to get a bunch of people together at my studio and have them be honest with me about it. I'm always honest with them, so I figured it was a chance for them to be honest in return. It was so nervewracking! I can tell you that it's nearly impossible to watch a film without sound and music, so I was chomping at the bit to get a picture lock and get it to our composer. During this process, I was thinking "we should get it done in time for THIS festival, and THIS one...." I like to get things done fast. The big lesson I learned here is not to rush, but rather to DO IT RIGHT. Dont' put a half ass product out into the world.
Sound mix and color...
This is where films get very interesting, when you start playing with mood. I had a great colorist named Don Wyle out of Stamford, CT, and an amazing sound guy Sloan Alexander (my best friend growing up), who were hired to take on the last part of the process. They sent cuts back and forth to me, and I went to their studios with my mentor Doug Keeve. It's amazing to watch artists at work. I had NO IDEA what went into this part of the process, and it really made my vision jump off the screen. The mood took shape, the story became more coherent, and I was able to watch it with an objective eye. It's amazing what you can do with a closeup of an actor when you add music and color to it. It shows you how importance subtlety is in film performance, as a bigger reaction would send it over the top and make it less believable. Again, lesson learned. Luckily we had smaller performances. What feels right on set isn't always what feels right in the editing room. My music guy played with a lot of different types of sounds, and is amazing at adding tension to scenes that need that extra push. I got goosebumps watching it, and I wrote it! That's how I know it's working.
Picture lock... always scary. You are basically saying "Okay, I'm officially done tweaking it." I could have easily spent another six months on this, but at some point you have to be okay with it. Plus I am already onto directing my next project!
Now it's time to submit it to festivals. With a short film, the goal is to get some traction, see what happens, and maybe some awards. You don't really do a short film to sell it and make a ton of money. I always approached this as an experiment, so to me, the fact that it has gone this far is more than enough (and I actually mean that). I've enjoyed every second of it, and have already submitted it to 10 high profile festivals. Now we wait... I'm on the programming committee of the Greenwich International Film Festival, so this past season I spent a lot of time watching short films, which gave me a lot of insight into what makes one of these good. There are a lot of film festivals out there, like hundreds. My goal is to submit to a few, see what happens, and maybe get to travel to some cool places. In the meantime, back to coaching at the studio and prepping my next project.
The premiere on Tuesday... I'm excited and nervous. I'm showing it to 72 people (cast, crew, friends, agents) at the Anthology Film Archives in New York City, then doing another screening for my actors at the studio, and then a third premiere in Guilford, CT. It's important to do it right, so I rented a cool theatre, and plan to do a Q&A and wine reception afterwards. I want to tell the story of how this was made, and encourage others to do the same. This is a dream come true!
Bottom line: you want to create your own work? go for it! No excuses. Just surround yourself with the best people possible, who inspire you and challenge you, pick up a camera, write something interesting, and go for it. And don't settle for good. Make it effin' great!
I look forward to sharing this with all of you!!!